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The Ethics of Captivity$

Lori Gruen

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199977994

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199977994.001.0001

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Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight

Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight

(p.231) 14 Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight
The Ethics of Captivity

Lori Gruen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

“Dignity” is notoriously hard to get a grasp on. Despite the ambiguities that attend to the concept of dignity, this chapter argues that dignity, understood as a relational concept requiring apt moral perception, can be applied to humans and other animals. After laying out what dignity is and what it means to respect dignity, this chapter explores the ways that constantly being subject to surveillance and control threatens dignity. Through an examination of conditions in two captive contexts, zoos and prisons, it is argued that dignity can only be promoted if in addition to being treated with respect, captives are able to escape and/or return the gaze of their captors.

Keywords:   animal dignity, mass incarceration, respect, prisons, zoos, moral perception, surveillance

One of the chimpanzees I know living in sanctuary is now over forty years old. Every time humans come around he makes a ridiculous facial expression—he pops both of his lips out and folds them back so the inside of his lips show, making him look clown-like, with a big pink mouth. This chimpanzee was used in the entertainment business and presumably making himself look absurd garnered laughs and attention. He was undoubtedly taught to do this when he was young either by rewarding him when he did or, more likely, punishing him when he didn’t. The aversive methods used by animal trainers in the entertainment industry have long been criticized for causing pain. The unnecessary suffering that animals endure to get them to perform bizarre behaviors is surely enough to raise strong objections to both the behavior and the suffering the animals experience to produce the behavior. And I think there is even more to object to when we observe the spectacles animals are forced to make of themselves for human purposes.

In Ethics and Animals (Gruen 2011) I recount Suzanne Cataldi’s discussion of her visit to the Moscow Circus observing bears in bright-colored clown collars holding balloons and prancing around on tiptoes pushing baby strollers like clumsy “overweight ballerinas” (Cataldi 2002, 106). What is wrong with making bears appear as ballerinas or chimpanzees appear as clowns is that in getting animals to do these things, the animal’s dignity is being undermined. That is what I will argue in this chapter. Generally the concept of dignity is reserved for humans; indeed, it is often thought to be what makes humans distinct. Yet the literature on human dignity is vague, and everyone writing on (p.232) the topic seems to have her own conceptions about what dignity is. Despite the fact that it is already difficult enough to make sense of human dignity, I will take on the challenge of arguing for animal dignity and further argue that captivity is one of the conditions that poses a threat to dignity. Before I make that case, I will start by examining differing accounts of human dignity and then suggest how we might understand dignity for other animals. I will analyze dignity as a relational property. I will then explore the ways that captive conditions, particularly zoos and prisons, can undermine dignity through both visual and physical control.

What Is Dignity?

In a wide-ranging article, Remy Debes unpacks the vagaries associated with the notion of dignity—historically, etymologically, in religious and philosophical discussions, and in law and policy (Debes 2009). He quite rightly notes that in the literature about dignity,

Almost every author begins by leveraging her historical-etymological notes into the observation that dignity has been conceptualized in a multifaceted way. It is, she will say, dominated by the Kantian and Judeo-Christian traditions that make dignity a function of, respectively, rational autonomy or spiritual identity with God (imago Dei). But, she will hasten to add, despite those traditions, dignity has also been pervasively conceived as honor, rank, station, inherent worth, inalienable worth, equal worth, supreme worth, uniqueness, beauty, poise, gravitas, personality, integrity, bodily integrity, self-respect, self-esteem, a sacred place in the order of things, simply brute and unquestionable “specialness, ” and even, if she is being exhaustive, the apex of astrological influence. In short, pick any work on human dignity and you’re apt to find the claim that “dignity” is beset by ambiguity in use. (Debes 2009, 45–46)

With dignity’s ambiguity duly acknowledged, I want to argue that while the common-sense notion of dignity, one that links it to autonomy, can be helpful rhetorically, dignity is better understood as a relational concept.

The common sense version of dignity is meant to capture the inherent worth of human individuals. Dignity is usually thought to inhere in all humans as “some kind of inner transcendental kernel, ” as Michael Rosen has suggested (2012, 55). It is an intrinsic property that all humans share. This property is tied to our autonomous nature, and protecting or promoting dignity requires ensuring that people have the freedom to live life as they desire. People, as choosers (p.233) of ends they find valuable, should be free to make those choices, and respecting their dignity is a way to recognize the value of their autonomous choosing.

When people are denied their autonomy, their freedom to chose the lives that make the most sense for them to live by their own lights, then it might be said that their dignity is also being violated. If dignity is, as many have suggested, tightly linked to autonomy, then in our current era of mass incarceration, it seems that millions of people are being denied dignity by virtue of being incarcerated. Incarcerated individuals do not have the opportunity to decide what to eat, when to sleep, where to go, who to spend time with (or not spend time with). Vocational, educational, and recreational opportunities are extremely limited, if they exist at all. Relationships with loved ones are curtailed. In some cases prisoners are shipped to federal facilities far from their families, often separating parents from their children for years. Choices are denied and their activities are almost completely controlled (see chapters 7 and 8 in this volume). For many prisoners, in the absence of rehabilitation, they have become so dependent on the carceral system that once paroled they cannot survive on their own. Not only are they prohibited from exercising autonomy as captives, the very capacity to do so can be deformed through incarceration and their dignity thereby undermined.

But denying incarcerated people both autonomy and dignity seems to be a heavy toll. And if all people are thought to have “the kernel” of dignity, an intrinsic property that humans have universally, then how can it be taken away when their freedom is denied? Perhaps what is happening here is that incarcerated people haven’t lost their dignity, but rather their dignity, because of the loss of autonomy, is not being respected. Dignity is not reducible to autonomy.

While denying autonomy does not always equate to undermining dignity, it is also the case that having both the capacity and the opportunity to act autonomously does not guarantee that one’s dignity should be respected. Some autonomous choices are not necessarily dignified or worthy of respect. Rosen describes a case that vividly pits autonomy against dignity in the person of M. Manuel Wackenheim. Wackenheim, who is a dwarf, apparently makes a living being tossed around by burly men in bars. In the commune of Morsang-sur-Orge, the mayor banned a dwarf-tossing competition and Wackenheim challenged the ban in court. After winning his first appeal, the ban was upheld by a higher court that argued “throwing a dwarf by members of the public leads to using a person affected by a physical handicap and presented as such as a projectile. An attraction of this sort was regarded as infringing the dignity of the human person in its very objective” (Rosen 2012, 67). Whatever one believes about the state’s role in allowing or prohibiting Wackenheim from doing something undignified, the dwarf-tossing case illustrates a second sense of dignity, the sense in which what is at stake is not an individual’s autonomous, perhaps even (p.234) authentic, rational choice, but rather how that individual might be perceived in his community and whether his behavior is worthy of respect.

This relational conception of dignity drives social or civic demands for recognition and respect. This sense of dignity harkens back to its historical connotation that saw dignity as connected to one’s station or status in society. As it has been deployed in contemporary global political contexts, dignity of this sort is, as stated in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Conceptualized in this way, dignity is not some inalienable, intrinsic property possessed by all humans, but rather a relational property that, when recognized under the right circumstances, is conducive to social harmony and human fulfillment. Rather than focusing on the worth of individual rational agents making autonomous choices, a relational conception of dignity brings into focus both the being who is dignified and the individual or community who value the dignified in the right ways. This relational conception of dignity explains why concerns about dignity are often expressed in the contexts in which it has been or might be denied. It is rarely the case that we recognize or admire the dignity of people being respectful of one another in the ordinary course of things. But when a police officer singles out a black youth to stop and frisk or when a bus driver doesn’t stop for a Hispanic woman carrying her groceries or when macho guys harangue lesbians walking out of a theater, we are concerned not just with the indignities experience by the youth and women, but we are struck by the lack of respect on the part of the offenders. They have failed to properly value the individuals with whom they are interacting and in that lose some of their own worth as a moral agent. In respecting someone’s dignity, a valuer recognizes the equal worth of that individual, a worth they share, and value it accordingly.

In saying that dignity is a relational concept I’m not saying that it is subject to the whims of the perceiver or that dignity is merely a subjective or social projection about the worth of another. Rather, I’m trying to capture both the contextual nature of the notion and the broader normative implications of the recognition of dignity or the failure to recognize dignity on the valuer, the community of valuers, as well as the individual whose dignity should be respected. The relational concept of dignity is not necessarily incompatible with the view that there may be some essence or kernel of dignity that inheres in an individual (I will not take up these arguments here), but the focus of the relational conception is on apt perception and valuation rather than property identification.

Consider what the relational conception of dignity reveals in the case of Mr. Wackenheim. In choosing to be tossed, Wackenheim is not representing himself as dignified and the tossers are failing to value Wackenheim appropriately. It isn’t tossing per se that is objectionable. It is hard to describe why that activity in itself would be morally objectionable. Rather, it is in the larger context (p.235) in which the individual being tossed is a dwarf, and in most societies there is a social prejudice toward small people (in this case) or other individuals that do not conform to social norms. Willfully, autonomously choosing to engage in behavior that in the context of prejudicial social relations reinforces negative attitudes towards members of marginalized groups is problematic and not worthy of respect. If this is right, then it appears that dignity is not primarily tied to autonomy but rather to equality and the complex social meanings associated with it. If we think that certain people are the appropriate targets of ridicule or spectacle, that some people can be subject to harassment, humiliation, or simply ignored, just because they are different from the norm, even if some member of their group appears to autonomously choose to be targeted in dignity distorting ways, the values implicit in our commitments to equality are being compromised as are our very capacities as valuers.

Animal Dignity

Traditionally it is thought that only humans have dignity, that it wouldn’t make sense to apply the term to other animals. As Simon Blackburn notes, “I might treat your dog with friendly respect, although doggy behaviour can be fearfully undignified. Equally, if I am annoyed at someone littering a wilderness, I might say that they ought to respect it, but I would not know how to work in terms of its dignity. Magnificence, grandeur, sublimity perhaps, but dignity sounds to be a step too far” (Blackburn 2012). Alternatively, Aurel Kolnai suggests that while terms that capture dignity are chiefly applicable to human beings, they aren’t exclusively so:

much dignity...seems to me proper to the Cat, and not a little, which however different connotations, to the Bull or the Elephant. What about the monumentality of some trees and the silent life that animates plants in general?...And though man-made, cannot works of art (especially of the “classic, ” though not exactly “classicist, ” type) have a dignity of their own? (Kolnai 1976, 254)

Even though they disagree, what is interesting about what both Blackburn and Kolnai are highlighting is the complex relation between respect (and similar pro-attitudes) and dignity.

As I noted at the outset, when animals are forced to be something other than what they are, when they are made to be ridiculous, presented as laughable spectacles, this is disrespectful and their “animal dignity” is being denied. Martha Nussbaum has argued that animal dignity is based on the form of life (p.236) that members of species have, those species-specific properties that are part of what it means to be a bear, a chimpanzee, an elephant, or a dog (2006b). She argues that the properties that are typical of proper species functioning, that allow an individual animal to live a characteristic life as a member of its species, should be respected. When an individual is denied the opportunity to behave in ways that befit his species, his dignity is being undermined. Nussbaum writes,

Each form of life is worthy of respect, and it is a problem of justice when a creature does not have the opportunity to unfold its (valuable) power, to flourish in its own way, and to lead a life with dignity. The fact that so many animals never get to move around, enjoy the air, exchange affection with other members of their kind—all that is a waste and a tragedy, and it is not a life in keeping with the dignity of such creatures. (Nussbaum 2006a)

Similarly, when individuals are forced to perform functions involuntarily that aren’t part of their behavioral repertoires, like making clown lips or walking on two legs and pushing a baby carriage, there is something wrong beyond the suffering they might experience. Their dignity is being violated.

One response to the idea that animals have dignity is to point out that beyond their suffering, the animals themselves don’t care that they are being laughed at and ridiculed. Most other animals either don’t have the capacity or the desire to think about what humans think of them.1 People who spray paint their dogs and enter them into contests to see which dog looks the most like a ninja turtle, battleship, dinosaur, or panda, actually claim the dogs like it. And many animals appear to enjoy performing “stupid pet tricks.” Some animals do seem embarrassed or guilty under certain circumstances, although as Alexandra Horowitz has shown, this is most likely a product of their “owner’s” expectations (Horowitz 2009). Seeing other animals as embarrassed, ashamed, or indignant, or alternatively suggesting they enjoy being made to look absurd, always runs the danger of being a matter of human projection. Attributing dignity or noticing events that violate the dignity of other animals, critics may suggest, is simply another expression of our human inability to perceive anything outside of our anthropocentric perspective.

I agree that even if we oppose strong anthropocentrism—the view that maintains that human perspectives are superior perspectives—we cannot avoid the inevitability of our perspective always being a human one. One of the advantages of understanding dignity relationally is that it accommodates this inevitability. We do not have to discover an intrinsic property or species-typical function on which dignity supervenes, rather we recognize our human valuations as a central part of what dignity is. When discussing what I termed “wild dignity” I suggested that individuals with dignity-evoking capacities exist in (p.237) relation to others with what we might call dignity-appreciating capacities and within specific contexts, often when something that matters is in jeopardy, we can opt to promote dignity (Gruen 2011). Dignity is akin to fragility; we don’t worry about the fragility of a delicate glass until someone who tends to be careless starts to drink out of it, and it looks like it will break. Similarly, nonhuman dignity may only come into question when animals are part of a human social world in which questions of dignity arise. Whether or not an animal herself cares about her dignity is not the point.

While recognizing and promoting the dignity of other animals most likely leads to an enhancement of their well-being, the valuer who appreciates the dignity or recognizes and protests an indignity, has something significant at stake in aptly responding in the right contexts as well. When accurately perceiving the dignity evoked (or indignities experienced) the valuer is exercising her moral agency. This is not the context for a careful consideration of mature moral perception more generally,2 nonetheless I would like to illustrate the importance of apt perceptions of dignity, not just to the animal, but to the perceiver, by briefly considering two photography projects.

Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight

Abe, courtesy of Isa Leshko

The first is a project by Isa Leshko entitled “Elderly Animals, ” which began after she spent a year caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She includes photographs of aging companion animals, but most of the photographs are of animals in sanctuaries who have been rescued from factory farms. Part of Leshko’s motivation is to look aging and mortality straight on, to address her own fear of aging, but also to reveal something rather unusual—an aging farm animal. Farm animals are killed long before the end of what would be their natural life spans, so seeing them as elderly individuals challenges conceptions of who they are. As she notes, “By depicting the beauty and dignity of these creatures in their later years, I want to encourage people to question and challenge the way farm animals are currently treated.” Through images of Handsome One, a thirty-three-year-old retired thoroughbred, Ash, an eight-year-old turkey, Bobby, an eleven-year-old duck, Phyllis, a thirteen-year-old sheep, and Abe, a twenty-one-year-old goat (pictured above) it is hard not to imagine them in the context of their full, but now dwindling, lives. Some look frail, all look tired, and it would be an error of perception to look at these individuals as “spent” resources and fail to recognize their dignity.

The other project, by Frank Noelker, became the book Captive Beauty (Noelker 2004). It is the result of almost ten years visiting over three hundred zoos all over the world and photographically capturing the beauty, the dignity, the loneliness, and the absurdity of the animals’ captive lives. Two images of the fifty have haunted me since I first saw them; both were taken in 1997 in Washington, DC. One is an indoor photograph of a single giraffe in a small enclosure in which the walls are painted to give a faint impression of a distant (p.238) savannah. At the front of the display there are mosaic panels of animals that are clearly not meant to look realistic. Nothing about the photograph looks realistic; in fact, in some ways it is comical, but of course the giraffe is real and that small space is where she will spend the rest of her life. To see this image as comical and not notice the giraffe’s diminished dignity would again be a failure of perception.

Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight

Giraffe, Washington, DC, 1997, courtesy of Frank Noelker

The other photograph is of a hippopotamus indoors, walking down a set of cement steps into a very small, very shallow pool area. There are steps ascending opposite those the hippo is descending that are so close that it seems obvious the animal will not actually be able to get her entire body into the water. Behind the pool, on the wall is a painting of a vast body of water, and the cruel irony should not be lost on the viewer, for whom the painting was made. The photograph is framed by metal fencing.

(p.239) The lives of the giraffe and hippopotamus captive in these small enclosures are undoubtedly bleak. Imagining how they are suffering is certainly part of what Noelker’s photographs call us to do. But if one were to imagine the same animals in the same small indoor enclosures without the paintings in the background, there would be a different sense to the images and the scenes they capture. The enclosures’ ornamental paintings, obviously meant for the gaze of the zoo-goer, are reminders of just how distorted this captive context is and reveal the indignities so poignantly displayed in Noelker’s work.

More familiar photographs also elicit judgments about compromised dignity, beyond the suffering that may also be displayed. The shocking photos from Abu Ghraib are one obvious example; so are the images taken of the young women circulated on social media after she had been sexually assaulted; there are any number of culturally insensitive photographs taken by journalists or other outsiders that have appeared in popular magazines that raise questions about the role that representations can have in denying dignity. One of the things that I find interesting about reflecting on certain photographic representations is that the viewer’s response to the indignity is part of what generates the recognition or judgment that dignity was violated, not necessarily the objections of the (p.240) one who is photographed. In the case of other animals, a human recognition that dignity has been violated—that the animal is being made ridiculous, is not being allowed to live as she otherwise might, is being prevented from doing the things she would normally do, is not unlike the recognition of indignities we notice when confronted with certain images of humans we may not know and who will never know that we are looking at these images.

Dignity, understood relationally, can be compromised or undermined even when the individual whose dignity is at stake does not object or complain. And dignity can be promoted or respected even if the individuals whose dignity is being preserved are unaware that efforts are being made to do so. Of course in the case of dignity promotion, the individuals are likely to suffer less, and that is something that directly impacts their well-being. I would hope that by focusing not just on minimizing suffering but also on preventing indignities, the likelihood of inadvertently causing pain or distress will be minimized and well-being may be promoted. That other animals are not necessarily concerned about such things as dignity does not tell against their having it, and recognizing their dignity can actually benefit them. As I suggested, it also exercises our moral agency: being perceptive about dignity-enhancing or dignity-diminishing activities or conditions is a central part of our ethical capacity to treat others as they should be treated.

Captivity, Dignity, and Perception

Perception is an important moral skill, and while apt perception is central in the promotion of dignity, being subject to the unwelcome gaze of others can be a threat to dignity. Seeing well is central to doing right, but looking too hard or too long can become problematic.3 Here I want to explore the ways that the constant surveillance experienced by animals in zoos and incarcerated individuals in prisons negatively impacts the captives’ dignity, over and above the impact it has on their well-being. There are similarities and differences in these cases that are important to be attentive to: in both cases annoyance, the lack of privacy, and inability to escape the gaze. In addition, lack of control can affect both the dignity and the well-being of the captives. In the case of human prisoners, humiliation can further erode dignity, and in the case of nonhumans, being the “objects” of the gaze is a dignity violation indicative of faulty human relationships with other animals.

Let’s first consider zoos. Originally, zoos were designed to amuse, amaze, and entertain visitors. Enclosures were built to make the animals always accessible to the gaze of the zoo visitor, and animals were often presented as anomalous spectacles, sometimes fantastical, sometimes frightening. As public awareness (p.241) of the plight of endangered species and their diminishing habitats grew, zoos developed more natural-looking enclosures and increasingly saw their roles as educational. While the motivation for the changes was primarily to educate the zoo-goers, in many cases there were also benefits for the captives. Living in more enriched and interesting environments can eliminate some of the boredom that captivity causes, and for social animals, living with others is centrally important to their well-being. But even with the advent of more naturalistic enclosures, captive animals are still on display, always under the visual control of humans.

Recently the Dallas Zoo underwent massive renovations and spent $30 million dollars to construct “Giants of the Savanna”—a multiacre enclosure in which giraffes, elephants, ostriches, zebras, and other animals mix in a naturalistic landscape that simulates their native habitat. One might expect that this highly touted innovation would contribute to the stated conservation education mission of the zoo and that the animals would be allowed to engage in more or less natural behaviors off in a distance as zoo visitors observe from afar. This would have provided animals an opportunity to find some place away from onlookers. Instead the zoo encourages visitors to actively engage with the captive animals as entertainment. The animals are trained to perform “naturalistic” behaviors during peak visiting times. “Animal activities will be strategically scheduled throughout the day, keeping the animals active and drawing people through the habitat.” People will be able to buy biscuits to feed, but are cautioned not to pet, the giraffes, for example. Zoo director Gregg Edwards claims, “It’s not a passive, ‘let them out and loaf’ kind of exhibit. It’s a kind of habitat theater” (Fluck 2010).

Dale Jamieson has long been critical of the misguided messages that zoos express about human relations to other animals.

Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order. The means of confinement mark a difference between humans and animals. They are there at our pleasure, to be used for our purposes. Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one species over many. To do this, we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous. (Jamieson 2002, 175)

One of the lessons learned from zoos is that we humans are better than the captives collected there. Ralph Acampora recounts research which shows that

zoo-goers are much less knowledgeable about animals than backpackers, hunters, fishermen, and others who claim an interest in animals, and only slightly more knowledgeable than those who claim no interest in animals (p.242) at all (Kellert, 1979). Nearly 20 years later, [the] verdict still is dismal: “The typical visitor appears only marginally more appreciative, better informed, or engaged in the natural world following the experience...many visitors leave the zoo more convinced than ever of human superiority over the natural world.” (Acampora 2005, 73)

The way animals are presented further distorts our relationships with them. Part of the problem is that zoos are not places in which animals can be seen as dignified. The painted indoor enclosures I mentioned in the last section and the more naturalistic enclosures seen more commonly in larger zoos are designed to create a relationship between the human observer and the object of the observation that obscures the individuality and dignity of the animals. The enclosures are designed to satisfy human interests and desires, even though they largely fail at this. At worst the experience creates a relationship in which the observer, even a child, has a feeling of dominant distance over those being observed. Minimally, as Acampora suggests, “The very structure of the human-animal encounter is disrupted, and the interaction that is sought—encountering the animals—becomes an impossibility as the ‘real’ animals disappear and the conditions for seeing are undermined” (2005, 71).

Thinking of animals as things to be looked at and believing that doing so makes for an enjoyable weekend outing, precludes seeing animals as having dignity. “There is no sense of awe, no veneration of nature, in watching an apathetic caged beast. This becomes debased amusement...teaching disrespect at worst, pity at best. It is little different from watching human prison inmates in the exercise yard” (Preece and Chamberlain 1993, 205). The relationship of watched and watcher under conditions of captivity, whether or not the watcher is the one who confines and controls the watched, is not one of respect.

In addition to undermining the possibility of regarding animals as having dignity, zoos usually do not allow animals to escape the human gaze. Without privacy, humans see animal behaviors that can be interpreted as debased or undignified. Part of the value of privacy is that, outside of the sight and judgment of others, we can experiment in living. I don’t want to suggest that other animals are engaged in the same sort of projects of self-construction that we privately (and sometimes publicly) engage in, but never being able to escape the view of others undermines the “wild dignity” of animal captives. In the relative freedom of their native habitats, other animals can be seen or not and can watch humans, either seen or unseen by us. We may not like what we see when wild animals are aggressive, throw or eat excrement, masturbate, or hump each other. Often, in captivity, animals are forced to stop doing the things that make them indecent according to human norms and made to do things that (p.243) they don’t ordinarily do because humans want them to. This form of control is another feature of captivity that threatens dignity, both for nonhumans and for humans.

In prisons, incarcerated individuals are under constant scrutiny (see chapter 7 in this volume for a discussion). Though prisons are not quite designed the way that Jeremy Bentham envisioned panopticons, with rings of cells around a central observation tower, carceral environments succeed in making prisoners feel they are always being watched. In Bentham’s time, surveillance was limited to what the guard’s eyes could directly witness. Today, with cameras and other monitoring and recording technologies, prisoners can be fairly certain that they are in fact being watched every minute of every day. This denial of privacy has deleterious effects on psychological well-being—feelings of paranoia, anger, and resentment are not uncommon in the context of being under constant scrutiny. Being subject to a persistent gaze also impacts the dignity of those who are incarcerated. Like the animals in zoos, prisoners are watched as they engage in bodily functions, and there is usually no way to escape the invasive gaze. Unlike zoo animals, humans have adopted norms of keeping excretory functions private and thus experience the vulnerability of being on display as they defecate or urinate as an affront to their dignity. For incarcerated women being watched by leering guards while going to the bathroom or showering is particularly humiliating.

For prisoners, the gaze of the guards is often felt as one of contemptuous superiority. At best, prisoners may experience the looks of some correctional officers as pity. Over time, incarcerated individuals can become very attuned to small changes in the ways those in control look at them. In addition to constant surveillance and the lack of privacy that goes with it, being looked at as inferior or pathetic has an obvious impact on their dignity. This contemptuous or arrogant gaze, combined with very real power to control and dominate captives, and the limited conditions of choice and privacy, makes it impossible to preserve one’s dignity as a captive.

Prisons and zoos are paradigm institutions of domination. Philip Pettit defines domination as occurring when an agent (or corporate agent) has dominating power over another “to the extent that 1. they have the capacity to interfere 2. on an arbitrary basis 3. in certain choices that the other is in a position to make” (Pettit 1997, 52). Captives in both prisons and zoos are under almost complete control. Though they are in a position to make very few choices, being so confined, even those choices are subject to interference on an arbitrary basis. In prisons, adult men and women are infantilized and denied basic options that most of us take for granted. Prisoners who are trying to turn their lives around while incarcerated are met with all manner of arbitrarily imposed obstacles. In zoos, even the most basic choices about (p.244) mating and reproduction are controlled. Individuals are often taken away from the social group they have lived with and shipped to another facility to mate with individuals chosen for them.

For both humans and nonhumans captive domination and constant surveillance challenge the maintenance of dignity. And there is a difference between the experiences of those on the outside of the two institutions that also deserves mention. In the case of human captivity, the attitudes of those not incarcerated tend to be contempt or unease. Observing human captives can create a feeling of superiority, as was noted above in the case of observing captive nonhumans, but more often there is a discomfort experienced when humans view captive humans. For the most part prisons are kept out of sight, and there are limited “viewing opportunities” unless one is part of the prison industry. When outsiders do view those on the inside (actually, not as part of a fictional television series or dramatized documentary) the nature of the gaze and the attitude behind it is often quite different than the dominating gaze directed toward captive animals. In that case, other animals are readily available for viewing, and in addition to feelings of superiority, the attitudes behind the gaze are more relaxed, playful, and humorous. I would suggest that part of the difference is that despite attempts to normalize and rationalize human captivity by appeals to safety, security, or justice, there is a recognition of the wrongness of captivity—human beings who are captive are being denied their freedom and having their dignity threatened. It may be “justified”; indeed, that is part of the point of punishment, but the loss of freedom and dignity is nonetheless recognizable. The same wrong is not yet widely recognized in the case of other animals, and this is one more failure of perception.

Captive Dignity

Though there are many captive contexts that should not exist because they cause great harm and their only point is to satisfy human greed and/or amusement, there are some institutions of captivity that are not going away any time soon and that, arguably, serve important purposes for society and for the captives themselves. But as I have been arguing, captivity for humans and nonhumans poses significant challenges to the dignity of the captive. Is there a way to recognize the dignity of individuals while they are captives? There are some captive contexts, such as true sanctuaries, where the goal is not just to promote the well-being of the individuals who live there but to also recognize their dignity and treat the residents with respect (see chapters 5, 6, and 13 in this volume).4 What might it look like to create captive conditions that allow those who exist within them to maintain dignity?

(p.245) This is a large question to which I can only gesture towards an answer in closing. In addition to providing the basic needs for well-being, including a healthy diet, clean air and water, and enough space (and for some species that is not possible—see chapters 2 and 3), if I am right that dignity is relational, then focusing on improvements in what is possible for the three relata (the captive, the captor, and the context/conditions) would promote dignity. The dignity of a captive is enhanced when that individual is provided with opportunities for choice about who to spend time with, including captors and observers, but crucially, captives must be provided with the ability to escape the gaze of others. In the prison context that would mean providing more privacy. In the case of zoos, animals should be provided with places to hide that are recognizable to them as hiding places given their species-specific behaviors. In captivity, we can respect the wild dignity of animals by allowing them to be seen only when they wish to be seen and recognize that their lives are theirs to live without our judgments or interference. Certain features of current captive practices are fundamentally dignity denying. For example, sending prisoners far away from their families or breaking up social groups in zoo settings denies the most basic choices in addition to disrupting social bonds. Such moves can only be justified if they are clearly in the best interests of the captive, not to serve institutional ends. The relationship between captors and captives must also change. One change would be to develop an ethics of sight that works to achieve visual equality. Captives should be able to look at the captors and have their gaze respectfully returned. Being able to walk with one’s head up and to look at others and be seen as an equal is a hallmark of dignity in humans. Seeing animals for who they are, as worthy of respect, and consenting to being what Phoebe Greene Linden calls “mutually viewed” is one way of promoting animal dignity.5 Recognizing the limits of our own ways of seeing the world and being open to learning how others see it not only helps to promote their dignity but also has the potential to expand our perception; and perceiving well is an ethical skill in need of development.


The title of this chapter was inspired by Timothy Pachirat’s discussion of “the politics of sight” in his incredible book Every 12 Seconds. Thanks to Robert Jones, Joel MacClellan, and Matthew Barrett for helpful discussions of some of the ideas discussed. Thanks also to Isa Leshko and Frank Noelker for their photographic projects that address animal dignity and for permission to use their photographs here.

(p.246) Notes


Bibliography references:

Acampora, Ralph 2005. “Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices.” Society and Animals 13(1): 69–88.

Acampora, Ralph, ed. 2010. Metamorphoses of the Zoo: Animal Encounter after Noah. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Audi, Robert 2013. Moral Perception. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Audi, Robert, and Jonathan Dancy. 2010. “Moral Perception and Moral Knowledge.” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, Robert Audi (ed.), 84 (1): 79–97.

Blackburn, Simon 2012. Review of Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Times Higher Education. March 29. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/dignity-its-history-and-meaning/419440.article.

Blum, Lawrence 1994. Moral Perception and Particularity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (p.247)

Bradshaw, G. A., Barbara Smuts, and Debra Durham. 2010. “Open Door Policy: Humanity’s Relinquishment of ‘Right to Sight’ and the Emergence of Feral Culture.” In Metamorphoses of the Zoo: Animal Encounter after Noah, Ralph Acampora (ed.), 151–170. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Cataldi, Susan 2002. “Animals and the Concept of Dignity: Critical Reflections on a Circus Performance.” Ethics & the Environment 7(2): 104–126.

Debes, Remy 2009. “Dignity’s Gauntlet.” Philosophical Perspectives 23(1): 45–78.

Fluck, David 2010. “Giants of Savanna the Latest Evolution at Dallas Zoo.” Dallas Morning News, May 23.

Frye, Marilyn 1983. Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Gruen, Lori 2011. Ethics and Animals: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horowitz, Alexandra 2009. “Disambiguating the ‘Guilty Look’: Salient Prompts to a Familiar Dog Behaviour.” Behavioural Processes 81(3): 447–452.

Jamieson, Dale 2002. “Against Zoos.” In Morality’s Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature, Dale Jamieson (ed.), 166–175. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kellert, S. 1979. “Zoological Parks in American Society.” Address given at the meeting of American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria, St. Louis, MO.

Kellert, S. 1997. Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kolnai, A. 1976. “Dignity.” Philosophy 51(197): 251–271.

Noelker, Frank 2004. Captive Beauty. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Nussbaum, Martha 2006a. “The Moral Status of Animals.” Chronicle of Higher Education 52(22): B6.

Nussbaum, Martha 2006b. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Pettit, Philip 1997. Republicanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Preece, Rod, and Lorna Chamberlain. 1993. Animal Welfare and Human Values. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Rosen, Michael 2012. Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Warren, Karen 1990. “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism.” Environmental Ethics 12(3): 125–146.


(1) . Those animals that live with us undoubtedly pick up on our judgments of them, and I am not denying that our judgments affect their behavior and often their well-being. My point simply is that I am doubtful that they see ridicule as dignity denying.

(2) . There are important debates in moral epistemology about moral perception—what is perceived, whether an account of moral perception is best understood to parallel color perception, whether intuition or principle supports judgments about accuracy and aptness of particular perceptions that I will not explore here. See Audi and Dancy 2010, Audi 2013, and Blum 1994 for discussion of some of these issues.

(3) . Perception does not necessarily require vision and is not exclusively visual. I am mindful of the ableist focus on sight in this chapter but I believe fully that nonseeing people often “see” more than those whose vision is not impaired and hope the language of “sight” is not inappropriate here. As Helen Keller once noted: “Now and then I have tested my seeing friends to discover what they see. Recently, I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. ‘Nothing in particular, ’ she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little” (quoted in Bradshaw et al. 2010, 152). For more discussion of what I’m calling “ethics of sight” see Ralph Acampora (2005), Marilyn Frye (1983), and Karen Warren (1990).

(4) . I say “true” sanctuary because there are some places that call themselves sanctuaries in which the animals are not being well cared for and are being used in a variety of ways to satisfy human ideological, economic, or psychological ends.

(5) . For more about this idea and other ideas about how to reimagine captivity for animals see Acampora 2010.