Dignity is always about a certain special kind of moral attention and respect status. Dignity is also commonly used to explain denigration as the withdrawal of this respect. We see this when people are treated as things, as worthless. When we acknowledge that crucial connection with disrespect, humiliation, and denigration, we can begin to see how that relates to the language, imagery, and legislation that objectifies animals as resources or pests.
MARC BEKOFF: People often say something like, “We need to treat animals with dignity…” but don’t tell us exactly what that means. I, too, am often confused because I know what I mean but can’t precisely articulate it. When pressed, I often say that having dignity means that animals—human and nonhuman alike—are worthy of respect because of who they are, for their inherent value.1
Because I’m deeply interested in the general topic of animal dignity, I was thrilled to see a single book edited by Melanie Challenger (with a foreword by Jane Goodall) titled Animal Dignity: Philosophical Reflections on Non-Human Existence that is devoted to this topic. In this landmark, deeply thoughtful book, experts from different disciplines and cultures weigh in on this important topic. Here’s what Melanie had to say about these wide-ranging accounts of animal dignity…
MB: Why did you compile the essays for Animal Dignity?
MC: I have thought about exploring the idea of animal dignity since around 2016 or 2017. This came out of a critical examination of the concept of human dignity, which I undertook for my book How to Be Animal. I could see that dignity captures something very real about how we relate to one another.
But dignity, more than personhood, can’t and shouldn’t be based on exceptional human attributes. As such, it struck me that dignity is a more suitable concept to relate to other animals, both in capturing the importance of fundamental respect and in recognizing how power dynamics can leave individuals vulnerable to denigration. Not only can dignity help establish a positive way of attending to another, but the concept can also be embedded in ethics and law to prevent certain kinds of harmful acts. Originally, I thought I would author a book on this by myself, but I quickly realised that it would be much more significant to gather together scholarship across different regions, cultures, and domains of study. I think and hope that the result is more than the sum of its parts…
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book, and what are some of your major messages?
MC: The book has four main sections. First, we define the concept of animal dignity. One common claim is that dignity is unique to humans. Much of the first part of the book counters this idea. The second section considers what lies at the heart of animal dignity. There’s consensus here that dignity is always about a certain special kind of moral attention and respect status. Dignity is also commonly used to explain denigration as the withdrawal of this respect. We see this when people are treated as things, as worthless. When we acknowledge that crucial connection with disrespect, humiliation, and denigration, we can begin to see how that relates to the language, imagery, and legislation that objectifies animals as resources or pests. In the third section, we look at dignity in different cultures, from the African idea of “ubuntu” to the Indian root for dignity in “prana.”
The final part of the book discusses the positive work that dignity can do for other species. How might animal dignity appear in law or in our constitutions? How might it alter the research we undertake as scientists? Something exciting and unexpected that has emerged from this book is the drafting of a major Declaration on Animal Dignity, which is currently gathering endorsements and will launch in 2024. SOURCE…