I find the lack of ethical attention to captivity surprising given how many captives there are — in the US, over 7 million people are, in some form or other, caught in the “correctional” system and have their liberty significantly restricted, over 2 million of those are incarcerated1; billions of animals are held captive (and then killed) in the food industry every year; hundreds of thousands of animals are kept in labs; thousands are in zoos and aquaria; millions of “pets” are captive in our homes.
Though conditions of captivity vary considerably for humans and for other animals, two of the central philosophical issues that emerge in discussions of human imprisonment prove instructive in thinking through the ethical issues raised by captivity for non-humans — autonomy and dignity.
To hold someone captive is to deny her a variety of goods and to frustrate her interests in a variety of ways. I will understand captivity as a condition in which a normally functioning adult being is confined and controlled and is reliant on those in control to satisfy her basic needs. (I say “normally functioning adult beings” because dependent children and those human adults with severe cognitive disabilities are not generally thought of as captives, as they are unable to care for themselves, so necessarily reliant on others to satisfy their basic needs. Even though they might be denied the same freedoms as those who we consider captives, in the case of children and severely cognitively impaired individuals, it is ostensibly for their own good. Some assume that keeping normally functioning adult animals in captivity is for their own good, but this is a contentious claim and will largely depend on the specific animal and the context in question. For example, marine mammals and elephants cannot thrive in captivity.)
There has been a good deal of philosophical attention lately on whether or not we (human persons) are actually in control of ourselves (see OTH posts by Churchland and Doris, for example) but not so much attention on the ethical implications of intentionally being put under the control of others. A commonly held view suggests that to hold someone captive is, prima facie, to cause them harm. When we imprison humans we harm them in ways that are both obvious (they are in conditions that can cause physical suffering and frustration) and not so obvious (long term psychological impacts of boredom, anxiety, and lack of control). Some argue that these harms may not be wrong, in part, because that is the alleged point of punishment. One of the corollaries of the commonly held view is that while denying liberty is harmful, denying liberty to one who is innocent, who does nothing to deserve the deprivation, is particularly wrong. But why?
When denying liberty involves physical and/or psychological suffering, for example, when chimpanzees used in biomedical research on hepatitis are regularly shot with tranquilizer darts from close range and then fall from their perches onto the hard floor as they start to lose consciousness; when they are subjected to multiple surgeries; when they have untreated serious injuries (even when self-inflicted); when they are denied company or singly housed for long periods of time; when they are not provided with intellectual stimulation or comfort, then they are being harmed. While these harms may be the result of the fact that they are kept in captivity and experimented on, it is not a necessary feature of captivity itself. The harm consists in our causing them to suffer and many have argued that this suffering is unnecessary and therefore wrong, but this sort of wrong is not due to the fact that we are controlling them or denying them freedom.
When captives have their physical and immediate psychological needs met and are free from suffering, so they are not being harmed in those ways, we can we still ask if there something wrong with holding them captive.
The Value of Freedom
Freedom or liberty is sometimes thought to entail acting autonomously and making our own choices and being in a condition in which there is an absence of arbitrary interference. Depriving someone of her freedom is also thought to be one of the things that can make a life go badly for that individual. There are two ways that denying individuals their liberty may negatively impact the quality of their lives. If we understand liberty to be an instrumental value then respecting an individual’s liberty is important because it is conducive to other things that are valuable, like pleasure and well-being. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, following the desires one wants to satisfy, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are all freedoms that are important, because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better by allowing that individual to satisfy her desires. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated cannot act freely upon their desires and live their lives as they want. But liberty can also be thought of as an intrinsic value, a value that in itself, regardless of anything else, is constitutive of living a good life.
Allowing individuals to choose what they want and not interfering as they pursue that choice leads to the satisfaction of an individual’s own desires, and that is, generally, thought to be good for them. Individuals are in the best position to know what they want, and allowing individuals the freedom to try to satisfy their desires is valuable. Of course, having the liberty to follow one’s desires may not always, in fact, be conducive to flourishing. Sometimes an individual might have desires that, if satisfied, do not actually enhance well-being at all. Conversely, well-being might be experienced even while I am under the control of another. I may think that my well-being is being promoted because I have altered my desires to fit my unfree conditions. For example, someone may have distorted preferences (a.k.a. false consciousness or adaptive preferences) that are shaped in response to her oppressive or confined situation. Similarly, living a free life may contain all sorts of hardships, and being kept safe, well fed, and protected from danger may promote well-being, even while freedom is denied. So liberty may not always lead to flourishing.
If liberty is just a useful tool for promoting interests, then it seems that if there is some other way to promote those interests, then liberty isn’t particularly valuable. This strikes some people as wrong headed. The value of liberty, they argue, goes beyond its role in allowing us to satisfy our desires and fulfilling our interests. Leading a genuinely good life involves the actual satisfaction of interests we both want satisfied and that turn out to promote our flourishing. The process of satisfying our own interests is valuable in itself. If this is right, then we must be free to make the right choices about what is good for us, by our own lights, and actually pursue those choices free from interference and, with luck, satisfy them. We must be the ones who control the process that leads to our well-being. Liberty can be conducive to well-being (but isn’t always) but liberty is always constitutive of a genuinely good life, one in which an individual’s actions are under her control (or at least not under someone else’s control).
Some argue that in order to have an interest in liberty as such, to recognize liberty as intrinsically valuable, that individual would have to be the sort of being who not only values freedom from physical and psychological pain and the satisfaction of her desires, but also is capable of a type of second-order valuing. This sort of individual recognizes herself as an agent who is free to make choices and to act on those choices or not, and values that capacity as an expression of herself. Alasdair Cochrane, for example, has argued that most captive animals do not value freedom and thus have no intrinsic interest in liberty. So pain-free captivity is not objectionable. He writes:
Most animals cannot frame, revise and pursue their own conceptions of the good. This is not to say that sentient animals do not have different characters, nor is it to deny that they can make choices. It is simply to make the point that most animals cannot forge their own life plans and goals. Given this, restricting the freedom of these animals does not seem to cause harm in the same way that it does for humans…. As autonomous agents, most human beings have a fundamental interest in being free to pursue their own life plans, forge their own conception of a good life and not to have a particular way of life forced upon them.2
I wouldn’t deny that there are differences in the harms that captivity causes humans and other animals. Indeed, I think that there are differential harms caused by restricted freedom to different kinds of animals, and each individual, human and non-human, responds to captivity differently. But I don’t think these differences rest on the fact that other animals lack an intrinsic interest in liberty because they aren’t autonomous. If we understand autonomy to require the ability to have a conception of the good life and to act on that conception, then perhaps no other animals are autonomous. Even if we come to accept that other animals may possess concepts, it is not clear that any other animal possesses as complicated a set of concepts as those that constitute a conception of the good life and can, therefore, be thought to be autonomous in this sense.
But there is another way of understanding autonomy — as a capacity to rule oneself, to be self-legislating, and there are at least two different ways to understand what this means. One, coming from the Kantian ethical tradition, entails having a capacity to reflect on one’s motives for action and determine whether they can be willed to be universal. This is a conception that requires advanced cognitive capacities to be sure and it isn’t clear that any non-human animals have these capacities. Yet all sorts of animals make choices about what to do, when to do it, and who to do it with. Many animals make plans, by making and saving tools for future use or by caching food to collect at a later time. Social animals often engage in manipulation or deception to try to get what they want and to prevent others from getting it, they make and break alliances, and otherwise construct complex social relations. So it certainly seems like these sorts of behaviors could be considered autonomous in the sense that animals are controlling what they do and some even try to control what others do. So we might understand autonomy as the capacity to follow one’s own wants and desires, interests and dreams, and not simply those that are imposed from the outside, or those which are internal but outside of control, like addictions.
Most other animals are self-directed, can adapt to changing circumstances, make choices and resist changes, and improve their environments, often through collective action. Other animals learn from conspecifics and modify what they learn to suit themselves and their needs. Not all animals in a social group do exactly the same things, eat exactly the same things, or spend time with the same individuals. They are making independent choices. There are species-typical behavioral repertoires that constrain an individual’s absolute expression of this sort of autonomy, but none of us is ever completely free of constraints.
Given this, it makes sense to say that other animals’ liberty to act in the ways that they choose within their species-typical behavioral repertoires is valuable as such. Denying them the freedom to exercise their autonomy by keeping them under captive control is thus ethically problematic.
There is another, perhaps more ethically perplexing, aspect of captivity that deserves more sustained attention (certainly more than I can give it here) and that is the impact that being controlled and confined has on one’s dignity. Understanding the ways dignity can be negatively affected by incarceration is essential to the possibility of preserving and promoting whatever dignity captives can retain.
Just as is the case with autonomy, most philosophers reserve the concept of dignity for humans (indeed some use the notion of dignity as the unique defining feature of humanity). Of course, if we think of dignity as being tied to rationality or personhood or the ability to construct and respect universal political rights then it doesn’t make sense to think of other animals having dignity. Yet when considering certain examples of animals in captivity, sometimes what appears wrong is best captured by noting indignity. Consider Suzanne Cataldi’s description of her experience at the Moscow Circus. She writes:
…the bears in the lobby are made to look ridiculously foolish. Instead of chains or leashes, they sport brightly-colored clown collars…. In their paws they clutch balloons, on a string. Bears with balloons may be comical, in fact I think they are, but there is something sad, something bordering on the obscene, about the effect of the collar. It makes me feel sorry, embarrassed for the bear. For the bear stripped of its natural nakedness, and dressed up like a clown. To be looked at and laughed at and photographed for tourists…. The animals become objects of fun, even of ridicule…. These bears are just the prelude…the act I remember most vividly is that of the ‘momma bear’: a bear with a frilly pastel apron…standing on its hind legs and pushing a toy baby carriage around the singular ring. The bear totters round and round the ring, lurching forward with the carriage. It seems to be on tippytoe, wobbling on imaginary high heels, trying not to fall. In striving to maintain its balance, the burly bear appears clumsy…a tipsy, overweight ballerina.3
When animals are forced to behave in ways that are contrary to what they ordinarily do; are presented as something other than what they are; are made to appear ridiculous, clownish, pathetic, then we might say that their dignity is being violated.
Martha Nussbaum has attempted to make an argument about the ways that other animals are denied dignity. Following analyses of dignity in the human case, she argues that dignity is based on a set of species-specific properties that are part of what it means to be an animal of that kind. 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, she argues, should be respected. When an individual is denied the opportunity to behave in ways that befit their species, their dignity is being undermined. Nussbaum writes, “…there is waste and tragedy when a living creature has the innate, or ’basic,’ capability for some functions that are evaluated as important and good, but never gets the opportunity to perform those functions… it is not a life in keeping with the dignity of such creatures.”4 Similarly, when an individual is forced to perform functions involuntarily that aren’t part of their behavioral repertoire, like holding balloons, walking on two legs and pushing a baby carriage, their dignity is being violated.
Though I have qualms about the suggestion that there are “innate capacities” or “natural functions” on which dignity supervenes, I share Nussbaum’s intuition that there is something wrong and regrettable about actively distorting individuals over whom we exercise control. When we project our needs and tastes onto others, attempt to alter or change what they do, and when we prevent them from controlling their own lives, we deny them their dignity. In contrast, we dignify others when we respect their behaviors as meaningful to them and recognize that their lives are theirs to live. We may not like it that wild animals are aggressive, smell badly, throw or eat excrement, destroy plants, or masturbate. Often, in captivity, animals are forced to stop doing the things that we find distasteful and made to do things that they don’t ordinarily do because of our own preferences. This is an exercise of domination and a violation of dignity, even if it doesn’t cause any obvious suffering.
As I said at the outset, captivity involves the confinement and control of others who are otherwise perfectly capable of living freely and satisfying their own interests. While some are prone to use “prison” as metaphor, I’m thinking of literal captivity (actual jails, prisons, zoos, factory farms, etc.) that denies autonomy and, to varying degrees, infringes on the dignity of captives. In many cases, incarcerated individuals cannot be freed; this is most certainly true for captive bred wild animals who would die if released. The wrong that denying autonomy poses should force us to be cautious about creating more captives, by rethinking draconian imprisonment policies in the case of humans and by ending captive breeding, in the case of other animals. But as long as there will be captives, the dignity violations that they regularly experience can be minimized, and I believe we have a responsibility to devise and implement ways to do that.
- End of year 2009 statistics from the Bureau of Justice
- Alasdair Cochrane 2009. “Do Animals Have an Interest in Liberty?” Political Studies. Vol. 57 No. 3: 660-679: 669.
- Susan Cataldi 2002. “Animals and the Concept of Dignity: Critical Reflections on a Circus Performance.” Ethics & the Environment. Vol. 7 No.2: 104-26: 106.
- Martha Nussbaum. 2004. “Beyond Compassion and Humanity: Justice for Nonhuman Animals.” In Nussbaum and Sunstein. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 305. See also Frontiers of Justice.