Author: Benjamin Segovia
SRC Editor(s): Deniz Oğuzhan, Paul N. Möller, Eyrin Kyriakidi
ADV Editor(s): Jia Kim
This article is part of the “Topics on Political Theory” series by the Political Theory Research Committee of IAPSS.
The animal question simply raises in a particularly vivid way some of the most fundamental and unresolved questions in democratic theory about membership and boundaries, interests and capacities, public and private, embodied communication and rational deliberation.– Donaldson (2020, p. 714)
Children enjoy the spectacle of animals that talk and act like people far more than they enjoy any text burdened with good thoughts.– Benjamin (2007, p. 408)
The notion of dignity is the basis of human rights. This notion rests on an unsettled issue concerning the status of animals in relation to humans. Most people who love animals would admit that it is important to take animals into consideration morally. However, there is no clear understanding of what this entails exactly. How should it be put into practice? The notion of dignity we inherited from Immanuel Kant is the unconditional human worth, used to justify the necessity of human rights so as to avoid states’ barbarous acts and promote social justice. Here, moral considerations for and among humans arise from the notion of human dignity, excluding animals from such considerations. But is there a notion of dignity in the case of animals?
This article proposes rethinking the notion of human dignity by renegotiating the boundary between humans and animals. It proposes that animals might possess a moral dignity that allows for moral consideration beyond the Kantian notion of human dignity. The argument rests on the proposal that observing animals’ behaviour may make us recognise a certain sense of dignity.
The article proceeds as follows: the first section introduces the conception of human rights and how it has been related to animals by some scholars. The second section searches for an idea of where we could find this notion of dignity for animals. Finally, the conclusion calls for a new comprehension of dignity for animals and for legal and political changes concerning our coexistence.
- Human dignity and the animal case
It remains unclear why animals should be taken into consideration morally as, for example, compassion or good treatment towards animals. In the case of humans, the philosopher Squella reminds us of a Kantian idea:
Es la idea de dignidad de la persona humana la que se encuentra a la base de los derechos humanos, puesto que estos derechos tendrían por objetivo primario concreter ciertas exigencies que derivan incondicionalmente de esa idea [The idea of human dignity, in any case, is found at the base of human rights since these rights would have as their primary objective to specifying certain requirements that derive unconditionally from that idea] (Squella, 1999, p. 162).
This refers to Kant’s idea of a person as a being “whose existence has in itself an absolute worth” (Kant, 1991, p. 46). Kant has restrained the absolute worth – the dignity – only to human beings owing to their status as rational agents, capable of finding moral principles by making use of reflection. In the case of animals, Kant denies that animals have any dignity because they lack reason and therefore are incapable of navigating their lives using universal moral principles.
Some thinkers work on promoting the well-being or human rights of animals. For instance, the philosopher Singer (2009) calls to avoid animal suffering because they are sentient beings and, therefore, avoid pain like us. For the philosopher Regan, animals are passive bearers of rights as they are “experiencing subjects of a life, with the inherent value of their own” (Regan, 1986, p. 186). They experience in the same way as human beings: with perception and memory, enjoyment and frustration, beliefs and desires.
The contributions mentioned are important; these authors were advocating for animal inclusion in the moral community, but they were extending rights to animals without thinking about whether the notion of dignity could also be applied to animals. The concept of dignity is a shared value among human beings that should be preserved for every human being. Conversely, animals have rights without dignity. Without this absolute worth, some humans can make arbitrary decisions concerning animals because the life of a human being could still have priority over the life of any animal. According to Diamond (1978), Singer, for example, makes exceptions in the moral treatment of animals: it is not allowed to make animals suffer and kill them for our meals, but if an animal is accidentally killed after being hit by a car, it is permitted to eat it because there is no intentional suffering. In Regan’s lifeboat example, where there are five beings in danger, four humans and one dog, it is justified to throw the dog overboard if that helps to save the humans (Regan, 1986).
The reason why human lives take precedence over animal life for these authors is that they do not attribute any notion of dignity to the latter. For many, the notion of human dignity excludes everything considered savage, wild, or animal. For the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer (2002), European history and the Enlightenment project are tainted with the idea of human being as distinct from animals. “The latter’s lack of reason is the proof of human dignity” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. 203), affirm the philosophers. Similarly, the political theorist Rossello (2016) argues that human dignity responds to the de-animalisation of humans, that is, the elevation of humans over other species, because the concept of dignity is construed to exclude both human animality and animals. Finally, the thinker Adams (2010) argues that the violence against women also leads us to think about the violence suffered by animals since, historically, the consumption of meat has been a male-dominated domain. The concept of dignity still maintains a dose of human supremacism, regardless of the application of rights to animals.
- Bobby, a Kantian dog
What if we question the frontier which separates humans from animals to find a new concept of dignity shared with animals? According to the philosopher Derrida (2008), humans have always been chasing animals by hunting and killing them; they have justified the exclusion of their own animality outside the sphere of language, reason, and the political realm (Derrida, 2009). In this sense, humans have concealed their own animality by de-animalising themselves ––so as to humanise themselves–– in this process of exercising violence against animals. The gesture of deconstruction in Derrida’s approach consists of problematising the human-animal boundary; this does not mean affirming or denying the differences between human beings and animals but rather dwelling in the margin of both concepts. One result is that the differences between the two in terms of capacities, perceptions, or feelings are ontologically undecidable, which means they are unstable and multiple. We are not simply humans and animals, or humans along with animals, but instead a living multiplicity of mortals. Similarly, the philosopher Lemm (2010) proposes an affirmative politics in which humans and animals are considered together; as equal in the continuum of life. By criticizing the idea of species as ideological, Lemm holds that we should rediscover this continuity between human beings and non-human animals. The philosophers Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011) envisage a Zoopolis where animals can be considered not only as subjects of rights but also as fellow citizens of our political community. For instance, these authors argue that domestic animals can participate in democratic decision-making processes. Although political participation has historically been limited to the cognitive level as a requirement for the exercise of deliberation, the authors argue that domestic animals can “have and communicate a subjective good” (Kymlicka and Donaldson, 2011, p. 108) that can be transmitted in political deliberation by human advocates or trustees.
While both Derrida and Lemm try to destabilise the animal-human binary by levelling the field or dwelling inside the frontier which separates humans from animals, Kymlicka and Donaldson affirm that domestic animals have the competencies “for agency, cooperation, and participation in mixed human-animal settings” (Kymlicka and Donaldson, 2011, p. 102), which leads to including them in our political realm. The political gesture of the authors leads us to think that if we destabilise the notions of both humans and animals, (1) the idea of human dignity is not necessarily restricted to humans, but also shared with animals, and (2) the idea of metaphysics, the reality outside or beyond human perception, can also be reflected beyond animals’ perceptions. That being said, absolute worth does not seem to be exclusively a property of humans, but also of animals. Finally, (3) animals’ dignity can be defended politically in deliberation if humans extend citizenship to animals and recognise animals’ competencies for politics. The recognition of dignity in animals could be captured in a little story.
When the philosopher Lévinas was a prisoner in a Nazi camp, and he and his people were treated as animals by the Nazis, he met a street dog; a little puppy called Bobby, whose friendly behaviour brought him a kind of human dignity (Lévinas, 1997). Bobby was “jumping up and down and barking in delight”, and for him, “there was no doubt that we were men” (Lévinas, 1997, p. 153), Lévinas writes. All the Jewish people were feeling a little sense of human freedom through the dog’s silly and comical glance. He writes: “This dog was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany, without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives” (Lévinas, 1997, p. 153).
From this story, it is possible recognise that this street dog has an absolute worth. Notwithstanding Bobby cannot universalise any maxim or drive, a notion of dignity for animals can be found by humans. If humans paid attention to animals’ behaviour, we could maybe rethink our coexistence in horizontal manners. Otherwise, animals will remain voiceless and at the mercy of immoral treatment by humans.
By rethinking the concept of human dignity, I tried to find a more horizontal ‘absolute worth’ between humans and animals. Bobby’s performance could serve as a clear example of animals having an inherent dignity that should be heard by humans. Many animals ask us for assistance; it is a matter of paying attention. Once achieved, it could be possible to reformulate our comprehension of dignity and also attain adequate legal protection of animals. Moreover, expanding liberal democracy’s horizon to all singular lives, for both humans and animals, implies not only a genuine political equality among species, but also the reformulation of our public institutions, social conventions, and even the relation between humans and the natural habitat where many animals live.
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 In fact, Kant even understands having compassion or gratitude towards animals as moral obligations to them. However, he does so without seeing them as beings with worth in themselves (Kant, 1991, p. 238).
 For Derrida, ontology is the terrain of undecidability between both concepts and the deconstruction is the exercising of touching and dwelling in this terrain, the frontier that separates two different concepts or identities.