Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?   by Henry Phipps

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Henry Phipps,  is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?    

The argument from marginal cases notes that certain severely disabled humans have cognitive capabilities comparable to certain animals. These humans are not thought to have the status of rational persons, yet we believe that they possess significant moral status and rights. But simultaneously most people believe that animals with comparable cognitive capabilities are not possessed of the same moral status; for instance we regularly kill them for food and in medical experiments. The argument from marginal cases claims that these humans do not differ in any morally relevant respect from certain animals and that therefore we ought to treat these like cases alike. We are then faced with a choice of two options, either extend the moral status and rights that severely mentally disabled humans have to like cases of animals or deny that such humans have significant moral status and rights. Since the latter option seems repugnant, proponents of the argument then claim we have no choice but to adopt the former position that many animals have moral status and rights comparable to those attributed to severely mentally disabled humans.

One popular means of attempting to refute this argument is to argue that membership of the species Homo sapiens is morally relevant and entitles an individual to moral status that those not members of the species do not possess. In this paper I will reject one such argument found in Anderson’s “Animal Rights and the Value of Non-human Life”. This argument claims that animals have species specific animal dignity which justifies preferential treatment of humans and thereby refutes the argument from marginal cases. I will argue that her position is vulnerable to reductio ad absurdum arguments but note that her position has some intuitive appeal. However I will show that the intuitive appeal of the position is weaker than might first be thought as it fails to capture strong intuitions we have about the care of the severely mentally disabled.

Anderson borrows the notion of “Animal Dignity” from Nussbaum who contrasts this with “Rational Dignity” which comes from possessing certain cognitive capabilities and which grants the possessor certain rights.[1] In addition to rational dignity Nussbaum argues that individuals possess animal dignity which grants the individual certain rights and moral status regardless of their cognitive capabilities. Anderson builds on this notion to make a case for justifying differential treatment of severely mentally disabled humans and animals. Both humans and animals have animal dignity which creates a moral obligation to be treated in a certain way. How we treat an individual with dignity is determined by our own “system of meaning” which derives from our cultural conceptions.[2] In Anderson’s own words;
“An animal’s interest in its dignity exists only in relation to human beings. The dignity of an animal, whether human or non-human, is what is required to make it decent for human society, for the particular, species-specific ways in which humans relate to them.” [3]

Anderson believes treating humans appropriately to their animal dignity means granting them significant rights and placing them in a hierarchical position above animals.[4] What Anderson believes is required to treat animals with dignity is not specified exactly but given that she believes this concept undermines the argument from marginal cases, it is clear she believes these requirements to be less demanding.

The first thing to note about Anderson’s position is that it appears vulnerable to reductio arguments. Anderson’s argument moves from describing how the majority of people conceptualise the dignified treatment of human and animals in contemporary culture to the normative conclusion that this conception ought to govern how we treat humans and animals. It appears Anderson can be pushed towards absurd conclusions. It is possible that the conceptions of a particular culture could support the appalling treatment of the severely mentally disabled whilst conceiving that such treatment is compatible with honouring their animal dignity. In the past it was common for the severely mentally disabled to be sent away from their families and isolated from the public regardless of the effect on their well being. It might be the case that the cultural conceptions prevalent in the nineteenth century would have held this compatible with their dignified treatment. Indeed cultural conceptions might have dictated that dignified treatment of these individuals necessitated keeping them separate from a society which would find them disturbing. To pick another example, the ancient greeks practised infanticide against disabled newborns by exposing them on hill tops. It doesn’t seem that the cultural conceptions prevalent in ancient Greece would have held this to be incompatible with the animal dignity of humanity. Disturbingly, allowing these children to live might have been conceived as an affront to their dignity.

It is unclear how Anderson can claim that cultural conceptions determine what constitutes the dignified treatment of certain humans and animals without being vulnerable to arguments like the above. Anderson might supplement her account of duties derived from animal dignity with universal duties that do not vary with cultural context. Perhaps there is a universal duty against certain kinds of harming that renders the above practices unjustified regardless of cultural context. The problem with this approach is that the argument from marginal cases will rise again in the account of universal duties. If there are duties to protect the severely mentally disabled from harm that do not vary with cultural context then Anderson would need to argue that there are good reasons for denying that comparable animals are also owed these duties and could not do so by appealing to cultural conceptions. In this instance her account of animal dignity would do no work against the argument from marginal cases.

 

We might be tempted to assume that with more work this account of animal dignity might be able to justify differential treatment of the severely mentally disabled and animals without being vulnerable to reductio arguments. We might be so tempted because a duty to respect species specific animal dignity appears to justify our intuitions about a variety of other considered cases. As Diamond notes we tend to believe that we have duties to respect human remains. [5] It isn’t difficult as a vegetarian to consistently argue that it is morally acceptable to eat animals killed in motor collisions, but the same reasoning applied to humans seems grotesque. Another example is that it seems appropriate to have a funeral for a human, even a very young infant but not for an animal. I will now argue that even the intuitive appeal of Anderson’s position is much weakened when we notice that it fails to account for a strong intuition we have about the moral standing of the severely mentally disabled. This is the intuition that we have direct duties towards the severely mentally disabled rather than merely indirect duties, and these these duties are derived ultimately from their interests rather than from some other source.

To help distinguish direct and indirect duty lets examine two cases where I have a duty to refrain from an action. In the first case I have a duty not to run over a stranger with a bulldozer. In the second case I have a duty not to run over a statue with a bulldozer. In the first case the duty derives from his claim against being harmed. This claim might derive from his interest in continuing to live, or his status as an autonomous agent whose autonomy ought not to be infringed. My duty to the stranger is direct. In the second case the source of the duty is more complex. It is certainly not derived from any claim or interest of the statue! If I have a duty not to run over the statue it might be because running it over would violate the property rights of another. It might be because people enjoy the statue and to run it over would be contrary to their interests. Perhaps the sheer beauty of the statue means that I ought not to run it over even if I own it and nobody cares about it. In the second case I have an indirect duty not to run over the statue with a bulldozer.

To formalise:

Direct Duty: Y has a duty to do/refrain from doing A to X due to a claim X possesses. 

Indirect Duty: Y has a duty to do/refrain from doing A to X for reasons other than a claim X possesses. (Y has a duty to Z for example).

We intuitively believe our duties to the severely mentally disabled are direct rather than indirect. When we care for someone who is severely mentally disabled it seems to us like we are being motivated to do so ultimately by a claim they have on us derived from their interests, just as when we care for anyone else.  Our direct concern as we honour our duty in both cases is meeting the interests of the patient at hand, we barely consider what duties we might be discharging to others. These cases of care are not like cases where we provide care due to an indirect duty, such as when we water a friend’s plant because of a promise we made them.  When presented with justifications for caring for the disabled that utilise indirect duties we find this troubling. For instance when people cite the interests of families as a reason why we have a duty to care for the severely mentally disabled this feels inadequate; we believe we have duties to all such individuals, not only those fortunate enough to have families who care about them.

Anderson appears to define duties to the severely mentally disabled in virtue of their “animal dignity” as being indirect and not ultimately derivative from their interests. In this respect her position fails to capture a strong intuition we have about these cases.  For instance she often doesn’t appear to be concerned with the roll of interests and welfare at all. She claims that the need to ensure that the severely mentally disabled are cleaned and clothed is not derivative of an interest they have themselves in being presentable but is derivative from the need to “place the human body in a space of decency”.[6] When Anderson gives justifications that reference recognisable interests these tend to be the interests of other humans, or society as a whole. When talking about animal dignity in reference to forbidding cannibalism she discusses how it would be difficult to interact with others if we thought they were salivating over eating us. And when when talking about the care of the severely mentally disabled she references the interests that other humans have in interacting with humanity in a dignified fashion.

Could Anderson claim that the duties derived from animal dignity are direct duties which derive from an individual’s claims and interests but which are honoured appropriate to cultural context? Anderson’s discussion of animal dignity stretches the plausibility that her position ultimately derives rights from the claims and interests of the individual. For example Anderson holds that pets have different and stronger rights than other animals, presumably including against being killed and eaten.[7] But it seems that duties are almost completely disconnected from the animals’ interests. A domesticated guinea pig in the UK is conceived as a pet, a domesticated guinea pig in the Andes might be conceived of as a tasty meal. Both guinea pigs have the same interest in not being killed but whether this is relevant depends entirely on the cultural context. Duties don’t ultimately appear derivative from the animal’s interests but rather from dominant cultural conceptions. It is therefore difficult to claim that the duties derived from animal dignity are direct and based in the individuals interest in the required sense.

I contend that even the intuitive appeal of Anderson’s position is limited once we realise that it makes the duties we owe the severely mentally disabled indirect and not ultimately derivative from their interests. Therefore Anderson’s account of animal dignity should not be thought to refute the argument from marginal cases.

Bibliography

 

Anderson, Elizabeth, “Animal Rights and the Values of Nonhuman Life,” in Animal Right: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2005)

Diamond, Cora, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in Animal Right: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2005)

Nussbaum, Martha C, “The Future of Feminist Liberalism,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 74 (2015), 47–79

 

 

[1]     Martha C Nussbaum, “The Future of Feminist Liberalism,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association , 74 (2015), 47–79 (pp. 51–52).⁠

[2]     Elizabeth Anderson, “Animal Rights and the Values of Nonhuman Life,” in Animal Right: Current Debates and New Directions, 2005, pp. 6–7.⁠

[3]     “ “ p. 7.⁠

[4]     “ “ pp. 6–7.⁠

[5]     Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in Animal Right: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online, 2005), p. 4.⁠

[6]          Anderson, p. 7.⁠

[7]     “ “ pp. 12–13⁠

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

One Response to Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?   by Henry Phipps

  • Cody Fenwick says:

    Interesting piece. I agree with the general conclusion.

    However, there seems to me a bit of question-begging in your definition of indirect/direct duties. The distinction relies on whether or not the obligations derives from the interests of the subject of the duty, or the interests of others. But your description of Anderson’s position implies that she is defending on an account of obligation that is not based on interests, or at least not solely based on interests.

    Anderson’s best response is to say that duties to those with severe mental disabilities are direct duties (as you correctly assert), because they respond directly to the dignity of the subject of the duty. Duties derived from the dignity of individuals are only indirect if you assume an interest-based theory of obligation, which defenders of dignity explicitly reject.

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations