The Ethics of Captivity

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.


  1. End of year 2009 statistics from the Bureau of Justice
  2. Alasdair Cochrane 2009. “Do Animals Have an Interest in Liberty?” Political Studies. Vol. 57 No. 3: 660-679: 669.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

20 comments to The Ethics of Captivity

  • Lori Gruen’s discussion of the ethics of captivity makes some powerful arguments and raises some intriguing as well as emotive issues. As might be expected, I wholly concur with the core argument that there is a compelling ethical case for minimising the extent to which both humans and animals are subjected to captivity and confinement, as well as for doing whatever is possible to minimise the harms involved in such captivity. I fear however that the existence of a compelling ethical case for a given course of action is rarely if ever a significant determinant of actual social outcomes, nor for that matter of political policies. As a sociologist I am sadly inclined to think that such things are determined mainly by the dynamics of power and profit, with notions of ethical rightness or wrongness invoked only where convenient as legitimations. Of course this does not make ethical arguments any less necessary or worthwhile, but it does perhaps underline the need to reckon them into the socio-political and historical context in which they operate. With this in mind, I am particularly interested in the conceptual structure invoked here to define captivity vis-à-vis freedom or liberty, which seems to me to be rooted in a particular sort of political philosophy.

    Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ conceptions of liberty, or ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. Both are present here, but the negative conception is ultimately privileged. Thus freedom and captivity are defined antithetically: captivity is the absence of freedom; freedom in turn is defined as the absence of constraint, hence as autonomy, as control over one’s own life, or the absence of control by others. So at the heart of this captivity/liberty distinction is this concept of control. But control is by no means a self-evident concept; it is highly ambiguous. What might constitute control or the absence of control is extremely slippery. The sociologist Steven Lukes (1974) influentially argued that control, or in his terms power, is a multi-dimensional phenomenon with covert as well as overt modalities, and which can be present even where there is no apparent conflict of interests, because by the time ‘interests’ are crystallised power and control have already been exerted. Similarly, Michel Foucault’s (1975) work on discipline and governmentality warns against any analytical contrast between freedom and control, suggesting that control is omnipresent, often invisible, routinely internalised, and far from being a restraint on the authentic self, constitutes the very technologies of the self. On this view, the important distinction here between autonomy, as self-rule, and control, as rule that is ‘imposed from the outside’, is deeply troubling, since the internal/external and self/other dichotomy it sets up would seem to be confounded by the recongition that there is no ‘autonomous’ self either prior to or outside of control. Hence the idea that any particular ‘wants and desires, interests and dreams’ might be traceable to either an internal, hence genuinely autonomous origin, or to an external, hence inauthentic and imposed origin, becomes highly fraught, because it presupposes the notion of the abstract individual. Whereas if the individual is from the beginning shaped and constituted by the confluence of social relations and influences, then the opposition between internal versus external is much less sustainable.

    Another concept which does some important work in defining freedom is ‘choice’. But again choice is a highly problematic concept. The notion that freedom is essentially freedom to choose is of course a pillar of liberal political philosophy, and visibly linked to the historical assemblage of market economies, the capitalistic mode of production, consumer societies and representative democracies. Again drawing on Lukes, the notion of choice presupposes the pre-existence of discrete options to choose between, whilst concealing what forces or powers shape and delimit those options. One thinks for example of our much-vaunted freedom to periodically choose between political parties with barely distinguishable neo-liberal policies, or to choose between equivalent commodities in the marketplace, or to choose where to sell our labour as a commodity: meaningless choices all. Conceiving freedom in terms of choice also overlooks the many invisible ways in which even apparently free choices are invariably constrained, shaped and indeed enabled by various contextual factors, including for example our previous choices. Taking this a step further, choice is arguably not only an insufficient condition for freedom, but actually has nothing necessarily to do with freedom at all, and in the present historical conjuncture choice is perhaps better seen as the paradigmatic expression of our specific form of un-freedom: we are increasingly forced to choose, and forced to be free, as the ultimate expression of our supposed autonomy as citizen-consumers, but both our status as choosers and the conditions of our ‘free’ choices are utterly non-negotiable.

    With these considerations in mind it is perhaps problematic to think about captivity in terms of control versus autonomy, for as Lori Gruen acknowledges, ‘none of us is ever completely free of constraints’. It might therefore be better to think in terms of modes of control or coercion, linked to modes of exploitation, which may certainly be relatively better or worse, and more or less harmful, for all sorts of reasons, but which cannot be counterposed to a mythical ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’. Human slavery in its transatlantic form, for example, was not so much abolished thereby creating ‘freedom’, as outmoded by relatively more efficient forms of control and exploitation serving the same purpose – the commodification and subordination of human labour. On this view, the contemporary political practice of mass incarceration, in its highly classed, gendered and racialised forms, might be seen not as the inverse of the freedom enjoyed by the citizen-consumers outside the prison walls, but in a more Foucaultian manner, as merely a particular expression of the disciplinary coercion central to the organisation of our society and its ostensible freedoms.

    How to follow these reflections through in grounding a critique of captivity – of humans and animals – in such a way as to avoid reaffirming a liberal political philosophy which is arguably intrinsic to the very forms of un-freedom we want to critique, is obviously a very difficult question, and not one I could attempt to do justice to here. It should also be said that it is always uncomfortable to critique aspects of the philosophical or sociological basis of ethical arguments which are marshalled in support of practical positions with which one broadly agrees. What matters most, after all, is surely the outcome and not the rhetorical means deployed in order to advocate it. Yet there is a nagging suspicion that means and ends cannot really be separated, as both are instances of ways of thinking intrinsic to our practices. By way of some tentative suggestions then, I suspect that focusing in particular upon the difficult, ambiguous and borderline cases rather than upon the more obvious instances of captivity in generating and working through our categories might help. Dwelling more upon cognitively-impaired humans rather than explaining them ‘away’ as an anomalous case, for example, and especially problematising the deeply troubling notion of a ‘normally functioning individual’, would seem to be important. As would reflecting in a fine-grained way upon the differences between the captivity of ‘wild’ animals and the putative captivity of domestic ‘pets’, where I suspect that notions of species difference, individuated relationships, and the complex interaction history and biology, will all be crucial. In grappling with these kinds of questions I feel that the liberal political framework tends to hinder rather than help, since it is often based on highly normative cases. The concepts of ‘control’ and ‘autonomy’ in particular are of limited usefulness, since their polarising logic tends to blunt recognition of the omnipresence – and indeed co-presence and co-constitution – of both of these within the bio-political and socio-material relations which make-up our multi-species lifeworlds.


    Steven Lukes (1974) Power: A Radical View, Macmillan.
    Isaiah Berlin (1969) Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press.
    Michele Foucault (1975) Discipline and Punish, Random House.

  • Thanks to Prof. Gruen for a thought provoking essay! Reading it got me thinking about two things. First, I’m interesting in exploring something Gruen says in the introduction to this essay on the “On the Human” home page. Here she is quoted as saying “Though my work is normally consequentialist my work on captivity has me thinking much more about ‘autonomy’ and ‘dignity’ than I have in the past.” Does acknowledging the value of liberty, dignity and autonomy really require a move away from a consequentialist framework?

    On the one hand, if consequentialists must embrace a monistic theory of the good that identifies the good to be promoted with well-being or happiness conceived subjectively, then there isn’t much room for the value of liberty, dignity and autonomy in a consequentialist framework. This is because, as Gruen points out, it seems perfectly possible to feel happy, satisfied or pleased, even though you are not controlling your own life or even if you have lost your dignity. You may adapt to humiliating or oppressive circumstances or you may just be the kind of creature who doesn’t care much about your dignity in the first place.

    But on the other hand, consequentialism doesn’t have to embrace this kind of view. It could, for instance, embrace a pluralistic theory of the good according to which subjective happiness and dignity are valuable. Or, it could embrace a theory of well-being that does not identify well-being with subjective feelings of well-being. L. W. Sumner (1996), for instance, argues that the subjective feeling of life-satisfaction only counts as well-being when it is informed and autonomous. A theory such as this would allow the consequentialist to take account of autonomy. Does autonomy, on this view, end up being merely a means to well-being? I don’t think so. Autonomy isn’t something that “makes you happy” on this view; it is the condition under which an experience counts as constituting your welfare. Would this sort of view be enough to accommodate the values Gruen discusses without abandoning consequentialism?

    The second topic I want to raise is dogs who are companion animals. Toward the end of her essay, in the discussion of dignity, Gruen says that “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.” It seems quite right that there is something wrong with preventing dogs from engaging in the harmless behaviors they enjoy (even behaviors we find gross). But dogs also like to please people; this too seems to be part of their nature. There are many dogs who really seem to enjoy learning silly tricks, tricks that might not seem dignified like begging or dancing around on their hind legs. I would imagine that training to learn these tricks is like a game to them – a game in which they get a lot of attention, praise and treats.

    The case of dogs raises a lot of questions. What is relevant to thinking about dogs’ dignity: Their preferences? Their pleasure? Their natural functions and capacities? Our intentions? Each answer seems to have its problems, but let me say something in favor of the last answer, which is the one Gruen doesn’t mention here. Kant argued that we shouldn’t be cruel to animals because of what cruelty would do to our characters: cruelty to animals would warp our moral capacities. Similarly, it does seem that there’s something wrong with regarding animals as things who are there for our amusement that can be explained by reference to the fact that having this attitude seems to encourage other, harmful behavior toward animals. This is an explanation of what’s wrong with dressing up the dancing bears that does not require defending the view that bears have dignity. For that reason, Gruen might find it inadequate, but at least it is a clear reason not to engage in some of the behaviors she is concerned about that fits well with consequentialism.

    Sumner, L. 1996. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, Clarendon. Oxford.

  • Rather embarrassingly, I find myself in complete agreement with just about everything Gruen says here. The appeal to violations of autonomy and dignity (even within a consequentialist framework – I think Tiberius is correct that there needn’t be any tension here) in explaining the wrongness of captivity seems to me exactly right. But I do have a couple of open-ended questions that raise issues about which I’d be interested to hear Gruen say more.

    The first concerns who or what exactly is harmed when nonhuman animals are held captive. To motivate this question, let’s consider a different example. Any complete explanation of the wrongness of group discrimination, I think, must account not only for the ways that individual group members are mistreated, but also for the harms suffered by the group itself. Racist behavior and policies, for instance, are wrong not just because of the actual mistreatment of the individuals targeted, but because of the invidious rationale underlying this mistreatment – a rationale that makes appeal to “people like you,” “your kind,” and the like. In this way, the group itself is a subject of harm. Of course, accounts of the ethics of discrimination and the ethics of captivity will diverge at points. But I wonder whether Gruen thinks that something similar applies in the case of nonhuman animals in captivity. In addition to the individuals affected, is, say, the dignity of the group adversely affected by its captivity? (The idea of group dignity was raised by Jeremy Waldron in a recent paper in Acta Juridica.) If so, what would this mean? Is the whole species maligned or just the particular population? And if not in terms of autonomy or dignity, is there some other way of accounting for the harm suffered by the group?

    More open-ended still, my second question has to do with the notion of captivity per se – as opposed to the ethics of captivity (whether and when and for whom it’s wrong and why). Specifically, I found myself wondering whether captivity is a concept that is common to both the human and the nonhuman contexts; and even if it is, whether it manifests in the same way in both contexts.

    Gruen doesn’t say much here about how she understands captivity in general. We’re given a definition at the outset, but this is all we’re told: “… captivity [is] 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.” This can’t be complete, though, since by this definition, virtually all of us – human and nonhuman animals alike – are captives of a globe whose limited size confines our movements and proximity to one another, whose increasingly depleted natural resources limit the satisfaction of our basic needs, etc. If this is a silly suggestion – as it probably is – it’s not because the earth is only a metaphorical prison (recall that Gruen wants to focus on cases of literal imprisonment): even in this case, the confinement and control involved is all too real. But what makes this not a genuine case of captivity – I think Gruen would say, and I’d agree – has something to do with purposive agency. While it might impose these restrictions on us, the earth doesn’t mean to do it. The agential requirement is reflected, I think, in something Gruen says immediately before her definition of captivity, where she tells us what it is to hold someone in captivity, viz. “to deny her a variety of goods and to frustrate her interests in a variety of ways.” The idea, then, is that captivity is an enacted circumstance. Captivity, in other words, requires not only a captive but a captor. The earth is not an agent, so it can’t be a captor; and if it’s not a captor, we terrestrials can’t be its captives.

    So what about the state? The state monitors and restricts our movements, and it allocates the services that satisfy our basic needs. And there certainly is agency involved in this confinement and control – group agency, perhaps, but agency nonetheless. Moreover, I needn’t rehearse the myriad examples in which the exercise of state power has undermined the autonomy and dignity of its citizens. Are we captives of the state then? While we might resent and resist certain state-imposed restrictions, we don’t ordinarily *think* of ourselves as the state’s prisoners. I suppose the reason we don’t think of ourselves as state prisoners has something to do with the fact that everyone is subject to state power. As a result, there is no distinction between those who are and those who aren’t subject to this power. And consequently, the reason that the idea that being subject to the state is a form of imprisonment doesn’t fly is that in this case there is no alternative corresponding to freedom from such captivity. Genuine instances of captivity, in other words, require contexts in which freedom is possible. Even if there were some sort of cosmic barbed-wire fence at the perimeter of our expanding universe, we wouldn’t count as captives because there is nothing it would mean to be free in such a case.

    If all this is right, then we’ve drawn out at least two additional features of the concept of captivity: the “captor as agent” and the “freedom must be possible” requirements. I wonder whether Gruen accepts these requirements; how she might qualify them; whether she has in mind other necessary conditions; and most generally, whether she thinks the concept of human captivity diverges in any way from the concept of nonhuman captivity.

    • Thanks to Stephen Blatti for raising such hard questions. I’ll have to think more about how and whether general groups are harmed when individual members are held captive. My sense is that there are a variety of ways that captivity can be harmful (just as there are a variety of ways that many practices and institutions can cause harm) and whether a group can be harmed by a practice will depend on the nature of the practice and more precisely on the nature of the harm.

      I have thought a lot about what it is about captivity that I am interested in exploring, and while providing necessary and sufficient conditions for captivity is not something I think I need to do in order to make the argument I am trying to make about being confined and under another’s control, I do think Stephen’s comments here are helpful. I think the existence of a “captor” or perhaps, more broadly, the existence of institutions designed to confine and control are certainly necessary features of the kind of captivity that I’m focused on.

      I really appreciate the astute observation that Stephen makes about captivity being meaningful only when freedom is possible. While I tend to avoid these types of oppositional defninitions (one can’t suffer unless one has experienced what its like not to, a common retort to objections to the suffering of animals on factory farms, for example — they don’t know anything different — I think in the case of captivity this requirement makes a lot of sense. I thank Stephen for helping me refine my thoughts about the ethics of captivity in these ways.

  • Lori Marino

    I wish to thank Lori Gruen for her thoughts on the ethics of captivity. I concur with her argument that concepts of dignity are important to any discussion of the ethics of captivity. Likewise, many of the philosophical issues that her piece engenders are interesting to discuss.

    However, I would like to comment on an assumption that Dr. Gruen seems to possess about incarcerated human criminals and other animals held captive. In her first paragraph Dr. Gruen analogizes the over 7 million people “caught in the ‘correctional’ system” with the “billions of animals… held captive (and then killed) in the food industry every year, (the) hundreds of thousands of animals… kept in labs (and the) thousands… in zoos and aquaria…” In her last paragraph she admonishes: “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. “ So, it is clear that Dr. Gruen sees the issue of imprisonment of human criminals and confinement of nonhuman animals as, if not entirely equivalent, then parallel. Moreover, the tone of her remarks suggests that she views these two domains as similarly ethically problematic.

    It is here that I could not disagree more. If we want to discuss the effects of captivity on the captives (e.g., loss of autonomy, loss of dignity, limitations on natural choices, etc.) then I agree that human prisoners and nonhuman animals held captive by humans are similar. However, the discussion at hand is not about the effects of captivity. The discussion is about the ethics of captivity. And here is where the two domains are not equivalent at all. Humans in prison are, for the most part, in captivity because they’ve violated the social contract. Imprisonment is the way most societies respond to humans that break the social contract, i.e., commit crimes. Humans have the choice to go along with the system and avoid getting locked up. Now, excepting those humans who are unjustly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and slaves, there is absolutely no connection with factory farms, research labs and zoos where the imprisoned are there simply by virtue of being a member of another species.

    The ethics — not the effects — of captivity have to do with the rightness and wrongness of confining an individual and preventing that individual from enjoying the freedoms they would normally enjoy had they not been confined. Here the case of jails and factory farms, etc. diverge because the basic moral correctness of the act of keeping someone captive is intimately tied to the reasons for their confinement. In short, human criminals are not imprisoned for our food or entertainment. Other animals are. Human criminals — with some exceptions — are a risk to society and are well aware of the social contract they are breaking with their actions. Other animals are not.

    To me this is the key difference between human prisons and all the other mentioned forms of captivity for nonhuman animals. To suggest that human prisons and factory farms, etc. are equivalent ethically is to do a tremendous disservice to those animals that are confined and abused in captivity every day simply for being who they are.

    • Thanks to Lori Marino for her comments. Her perspective as a psychologist who works with captive animals is illuminating.

      “Ethics” from a philosophical perspective, which is the perspective that I am coming from, includes an analysis of effects. From a consequentialist perspective, the consequences of actions, practices, policies, etc., whether they be immediate and more distant, intended or unintended, are the primary focus of assessing right or wrong, good or bad. Part of what initially drew me to consequentialism was that this type of ethical assessment includes all those affected by an action or policy, so other animals are already part of the ethical landscape. I would argue, although won’t attempt to here, that other ethical traditions also take account of effects, but perhaps not in such a primary way.

      It strikes me that the heart of your comment is your worry that in talking about human captives in an analysis of the ethics of captivity I have maligned non-human captives. I want to note first that I was clearly not making claims of their equivalence — I say:

      “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.”

      I also suggest at multiple places that conditions of captivity vary widely and, of course, reasons for captivity also vary. If I were to be making it seem that all cases of captivity are equally problematic for the same sorts of reasons, then I would agree with you that there is an objection. But when philosophers analyze practices we want to look for the things that are similar, the things that would make practice X an instance of captivity, and here there are indeed similarities that are important in an ethical analysis of captivity whether the captives are human or non-human, whether they “deserve” their captivity or not. In noticing similarities we can also hold on to differences, and that is what I am trying to do here.

      Having spent time teaching in prisons, I can say that your attitude about incarceration of those who “broke the social contract” and your assumption that those in prisons “are a risk to society”, while shared by a large part of the US population, is a faulty over-generalization and oversimplifies a complex set of social, historical, economic, and political forces at work in the prison-industrial system. One of the most important things I take away from working with incarcerated men is that it makes no sense to generalize or make assumptions about who they are and what they did. From an ethical perspective, however, it makes sense to ask whether we are justified in denying an individual who committed a horrible crime their dignity in addition to their liberty.

      I hope this discussion might lead you and others to take a closer look at the prison system. My experience is that it is both sad and humbling but can also a sight of remarkable transformation. (I don’t work with programs that bring other animals into prisons, but am interested in learning more about that).

      • Lori Marino

        I want to thank Lori for qualifying some of her remarks about captivity – for both humans and nonhumans alike. I am not a philosopher and so I do not come to this issue from the lens of theoretical discourse. However I appreciate the complexity of the issue and how there are points of contact and similarity as well as profound differences. I may not have conveyed that in my earlier comment.

        I do want to clarify one important point. I did work with captive nonhuman animals (dolphins, rats, chimpanzees, chickens, etc.)earlier in my career as a psychobiologist but gave that up several years ago.Instead, during this time I have worked to educate the public and my colleagues about the abuses of captivity for other animals in zoos, aquaria, circuses, factory farms, and research labs. After seeing and learning more about these abuses I could not, in good conscience, continue to support captivity for other animals. A lot of my recent work has been on bringing to light the abundant scientific evidence for harm from captivity to dolphins and whales. Dolphins and whales are captured and taken from their families at infancy, thrown into a concrete tank from which they will never escape, are made to socialize with strangers and provided dead fish – all because they happen to be dolphins. These captive individuals suffer tremendous stress, self-mutilation, exhibit behavioral steroetypies, injury from other traumatized dolphins who become hyperaggressive, and a shortened lifespan and death. And although there are enormous social and political forces at work in the prison system and many prisoners also exhibit these problems there is no human prisoner who is made to suffer what captive dolphins (and other animals) suffer simply because they are a member of a particular species. And that, at least to me, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the ethics. Given that so many nonhuman animals suffer torture and death at the hands of our own species it is difficult for me to concern myself with human individuals who have at least some responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. Other animals never get the chance for “transformation” in biomedical labs, circuses, and zoos. That’s the difference.

      • Lori makes an excellent point that I completely agree with, “no human prisoner who is made to suffer what captive dolphins (and other animals) suffer simply because they are a member of a particular species.” Though race may still be playing a role not unlike species in the prison system, I think this is a crucially important insight. It also ties in with the hard question of the harm to groups that Stephen Blatti raised.

        Lori has indeed done great work educating about the harms of captivity, work I myself have benefited from. Thanks for the clarifications.

      • Lori Marino

        Lori brings to light an important point of contact between human and nonhuman prisoners, that is, when humans are imprisoned simply because of their racial, cultural or political identities, or when their treatment differs on these bases alone. I think there is much to learn about the psychological forces that shape these prejudices by examining these comparisons. I hope we can continue to learn from each other.

  • I appreciate Richie Nimmo’s perspective informed by sociological theory. I am often struck by an interesting theoretical conceit by those trying to analyze complex social problems and that is the way in which claims that don’t always invoke multi-dimensional social complexity are assumed to ignore it and then are rebuked. A dialectic is set up making it appear that there are only two options, in this case, to understand control in Foucaultian terms or be left with abstract individualism. I think there are a range of other possibilities and there is nothing about my analysis of captivity that posits an abstract individual. Like many feminist philosophers who work on autonomy, I see that concept (as well as many others) as relational. (And here too there are a range of ways of understanding it. I don’t make that explicit here, given space constraints, but do in Chapter 5 of my Ethics and Animals. Catirona Mackenzie and Natialie Stoljar’s edited collection Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency and the Social Self (2000) is especially instructive here). Similarly, recognizing a “self” doesn’t commit one to any particular (questionable) metaphysics, liberal political philosophy, or oversimplified self/other binary, which often are problematically gendered and always anthropocentric. One of the important and exciting questions in animal studies, I think, is trying to figure out whether particular, embodied, non-linguistic social individuals are selves and what that means in terms of understanding them and our relations to them.

    What I am trying to do in this short piece on the ethics of captivity is to determine whether or not there is some wrong that we commit against captives beyond the suffering it causes. I think there are other ways of analyzing the wrongs of captivity that illuminate and interrogate the systematic discriminatory social attitudes that allow and perpetuate systems of mass incarceration. That was not my project here.

    A small point about liberal political philosophy — though there is clearly an identifiable body of work that we call “liberal political philosophy” there is tremendous variation within it and really valuable concepts such as “autonomy” are central to that discourse. I’m not sure in rejecting some of the basic assumptions of liberalism we should leave “autonomy” with the liberals.

    Thanks to Valerie Tiberius for suggesting (and Stephen Blatti for concurring) that a pluralist theory of value can allow me to continue to identify as a consequentialist (even if there are some who would revoke my card). I’m trying to work out a view I call “holistic consequentialism” that indeed does have a pluralistic value theory and a different focus for moral assessment, but that is a topic for another time.

    Dog and other captive domestic animals (horses, for example) raise really tricky issues as Valerie recognizes. They have lived with us for so long and some even suggest that we co-evolved. I think it would be a mistake to think that we don’t control domestic animals or that we aren’t in a relation of power over them or that they aren’t really our captives. But that they are needn’t immediately suggest that we should reject sharing our lives with them. I think what is warranted here is an examination of the nature of our relationships with them. All relationships, between humans, and between humans and non-humans, can be characterized as imbued with power dynamics and understanding and empathetically maneuvering within those dynamics is, in my view, what being in a responsible relationship means. That is the background I am assuming when I’m thinking about both autonomy and dignity.

    Kant wasn’t interested in the relationships we have with animals (I’m not sure he would even characterize them as relationships) and I think focusing on only what we get out of the relationship is a mistake. Nonetheless, there is a lot we do get out of the relationships we have with other animals. I’ve argued elsewhere that it is often in these relationships that one learns important lessons about developing ethical and emotional skills to address complexity across a variety of dimensions of difference. When you have to figure out what a very different kind of being, who cannot speak, wants or needs, you develop the capacity for empathy that can be very useful in other contexts, with humans and other animals. Part of the value of living with other animals is that it provides us an opportunity to widen our perception of our own animality and of our place in the natural world, to attend to things in different ways, and to develop empathy and compassion for beings that are different from ourselves. It seems to me that thinking about the animals we share our lives with as having dignity can also help us in ensuring that their lives are meaningful and go well for them. It also provides us with an argument against things like this ( or this (

  • Lori Gruen gives us a very clear account of the harm done to chimps used for research in laboratories or to bears made to dress up and dance in the entertainment world. Her argument centers around two issues, in particular, the value of freedom and the concept of dignity, both of which are denied in captivity where behavior is controlled by another and where captive animals are forced to behave in ways that are contrary to what they ordinarily do. I thank Professor Gruen for inspiring us to think about these issues. I am not a philosopher as my response, or question, will undoubtedly show and I do not argue with the situation of the chimp or the bear. But is it captivity that is the essential point here or the kind of captivity? I wonder especially because of the suggestion that pets are also “captive” in our homes—a comment I find troublesome even though Gruen acknowledges that conditions of captivity vary greatly in these situations. I do not deny that our pets are captives in many senses of the terms: where, when and what they eat, when and where they wander or relieve themselves, even their smell and appearance are under the control of their owner who may often spend much time changing their behavior through training and so, restricting their freedoms. But is this robbing them of their dignity? Is it changing their ordinary behavior? What is “ordinary behavior” for a cat or a dog or a horse? To a certain extent all domestic animals (and I include humans here) must have their freedoms curtailed, especially if they are involved in domestic partnerships, with the difference, of course, that, at least some humans have the freedom to leave those partnerships if they choose. Hence, our captivity is metaphorical. Nevertheless, we often choose such captivity over a life of complete autonomy. Our pets do not have that choice, clearly, but does that mean they are stripped of dignity? How do we decide which freedoms are necessary to dignity? How do we decide when captivity, and even love is harmful, and when it may provide the material and emotional well-being that allows a creature—human or not—to flourish in ways that were not previously known, indeed that could not have been known prior to the captive relation? Must we abandon our pets for the sake of ethics? Whose ethics?

    • As I noted in response to Valerie Tiberius, the case of our companion animals is tricky in large part, as Kari Weil points out, it isn’t at all obvious what “ordinary behavior” is for them. I think when we look at the pictures linked above of dogs being groomed to look like dragons, peacocks, zombies, Ninja turtles, etc. we get one obvious case of what we might think of as indignity. But as Keri Chez notes below, what about rhinestone leashes or other fanciful doggie accessories?

      The difficulty of trying to determine what constitutes indignity in other animals should not be any easier than it is in humans and I think the same sorts of difficulties arise there. Elizabeth Anderson raises an interesting case that I discuss in another chapter of Ethics and Animals. She describes someone who is unable to recognize herself or others, to reason, or to care for herself yet argues that this individual’s dignity would be violated if she was:

      “…not properly toileted and decently dressed in clean clothes, her hair combed, her face and nose wiped, and so forth. These demands have only partially to do with matters of health and hygiene. They are, more fundamentally, matters of making the body fit for human society for presentation to others. Human beings need to live with other humans, but cannot do so if those others cannot relate to them as human. And this specifically human relationship requires that the human body be dignified, protected from the realm of disgust, and placed in a cultural space of decency.

      If the relatives of an Alzheimer’s patient were to visit her in a nursing home and find her naked, eating from a dinner bowl like a dog, they might well describe what shocks them by saying, “They are treating her like an animal!” The shock is a response to her degraded condition, conceived in terms of a symbolic demotion to subhuman animal status. This
      shows that the…dignity of humans is essentially tied to their human species membership, conceived hierarchically in relation to nonhuman animals and independently of the capacities of the individual whose dignity is at stake.”

      My goal in this short piece and in my longer reflections are to have us think differently about dignity and to start exploring when and how we deny other animals of theirs. I don’t think dignity just applies to humans. I think in determining whether a being is one who can have her dignity violated depends a lot on the particular kind of animal in question. I argue, for example, that we should seek to promote chimpanzees’ “wild dignity” but I would not suggest that Mathilde or Maggie who are dogs have “wild dignity” but I do think dogs can have their dignity violated and I would argue that to do so is wrong.

      A word about how I (and most philosophers) understand an ethical judgment that something is “wrong.” It doesn’t follow from some practice being wrong, that it should necessarily be prohibited. If holding chimpanzees captive is wrong, because they are innocent (don’t deserve to be imprisoned), because their autonomy is violated, because their dignity is denied, the ethical conclusion is not to set them free. That would be, at least, equally wrong, as they would in most likelihood die immediately. The hard ethical/conceptual work now arises, how do well-meaning but imperfect beings like us, living in an non-ideal world, do the least wrong? In order to figure out answers to that question, we need to know what is at stake. Recognizing that keeping other animals captive is ethically problematic is essential to compassionately trying to attend to them and the wrongs we inflict on them (as I said above, we also need to pay attention to the valuable things that come out of these relationships too). It would be a mistake to think that because there is no clear or obvious solution to the ethical problem, that it doesn’t remain a problem.

      Anderson, Elizabeth. 2004. “Animal Rights and the Values of Nonhuman Life.” In Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Sunstein, Cass R. and Martha Nussbaum (eds.). Oxford:Oxford University Press:277-298.

  • Richie Nimmo

    Thanks to Lori Gruen for her interesting response to the comments on her piece and for the clarifications. It is one of the pitfalls of interdisciplinary debates that they often unintentionally fall into rival accusations of over-simplification! In this case I am intrigued to learn that the notion of autonomy in question is in fact a relational one, which I certainly think would be helpful in thinking about the differences between various forms of ‘captivity’ (cf. Kari Weil’s point). I wonder whether Gruen could say a little more about how a relational conception of autonomy would impact upon our thinking on the ethics of captivity, and particularly how it might relate to the distinction between being ‘in control of oneself’ as opposed to ‘under the control of others’, which (I think it’s fair to say) is certainly posited in the analysis.

    As for my own comment I should probably clarify that I am well aware that there are more possibilities for thinking through these issues than some imagined binary of Foucaultian versus abstract individualist approaches, and it is not at all my intention to impose a limited set of options. Actually the dialectic (or dualism really) that I pointed to was one that I believed was strongly implied by the particular analysis of captivity in the piece (admittedly without wider reference to Gruen’s other work, with which I confess I am not yet familiar).

    I do persist in thinking that ‘autonomy’ is a very problematic concept, but I agree that rejecting it per se would probably be ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’; there are interesting mobilisations of ‘autonomy’ in autonomist Marxism, for example, which have little if anything to do with individualism. I think if autonomy is understood as something actively enabled in-and-through certain kinds of relations – hence as a collective phenomena – then it can be more productive, although again I’m not sure how to begin to think through this in relation to captivity.

    • I agree with Richie that interdisciplinary discussions, particularly online, can lead to misunderstandings. As someone who is known for my work in feminist philosophy I made certain assumptions that I thought would be clear from the commitments that follow from that work. Feminist philosophers have long been critics of abstract individualism and its masculinist bias, so it was indeed a shock to accused of invoking such a position. I also share Richie’s unease with the concept of “autonomy” but now think, if properly employed, it is central in understanding all sorts of hams.

      As I say in Ethics and Animals — to act autonomously does not require being completely free from constraints. Feminist philosophers, in their criticisms of the individualistic and overly rationalistic focus of some accounts of autonomy, have highlighted the ways that external forces or constraints are always present and how being socially and relationally emersed influences how one comes to shape one’s desires and interests and ultimately how one can seek to satisfy them. Some of those constraints are valuable as well, so they can’t and shouldn’t be completely ruled out. In the case of humans, the autonomous individual does not slavishly follow the dictates of family, religion, and the larger social institutions,
      nor does she always buck those norms. She can determine how to act in light of her reflection on social pressures and expectations, and, in that determination, she expresses her “relational autonomy.” Individuals will be better or worse
      at exercising their autonomy. Some of that variation will depend on personality, temperament, and upbringing; some of that variation will depend on the types of interests one has; and some of the variation will depend on what is possible for that individual given her social/historical location. As Diana Meyers has argued, autonomy should be thought of as a competency that is developed in “an ongoing and improvisational process of exercising self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction
      skills.” Recognizing the ways that independence and authenticity emerge in particular social contexts expands the domain of those who are autonomous, particularly those who have been significantly constrained by oppressive social practices.

      I appreciate being reminded again of both the excitement and the perils of cross-disciplinary discussion.

  • Unembarrassingly, I find myself in complete agreement with just about everything Lori Gruen says here. Gruen provides quite an original and persuasive account of why those cases of captivity involving (nonhuman animal) captives who are free from suffering and whose physical and psychological needs are met remain ethically problematic since such cases (a) frustrate the intrinsic value of the captive’s liberty, and (b) violate the captive’s species-specific dignity.

    One of the many things that interests me is the implicit but important role that nonhuman animal cognition plays in Gruen’s account of the ethical wrongness of captivity, specifically with regard to liberty. And in thinking about this a bit, I am wondering whether (and if so, to what extent) the case she describes, namely, the case where both a captive’s psychological needs are met and the intrinsic value of the captive’s liberty are frustrated can actually occur.

    It seems to me that, to a certain non-trivial degree, frustrating the intrinsic value of a captive’s liberty requires that her psychological needs not be met. That is, I wonder if what is ultimately ethically problematic is not so much the fact that the intrinsic value of the captive’s liberty is frustrated, but rather that her psychological needs are not being met since the intrinsic value of the captive’s liberty supervenes on the captive’s autonomy which ultimately depends on her psychology. Let me try and explain what I’m getting at here.

    As is clear, Gruen agrees with Cochrane on at least two points:

    (a) that, generally speaking, there exist differentials in harm that captivity causes human versus nonhuman animals in restricting captives’ liberty

    (b) that the possession of intrinsically valuable liberty requires autonomy.

    What Gruen and Cochrane seem to disagree on is the concept of autonomy.

    Gruen provides a really useful taxonomy of three quite different yet related and viable conceptions of autonomy:

    Autonomy C(ochrane): requires the ability to have a conception of the good life and to act on that conception

    Autonomy K(ant): requires having a capacity to reflect on one’s motives for action and determine whether such motives can be willed to be universal

    Autonomy G(ruen): requires the capacity to pursue one’s own desires and interests

    As Gruen points out, Autonomies C and K require such advanced cognitive capacities that it is highly probable that only humans (and no other animals) are autonomous in either of these senses of ‘autonomy’. Autonomy G—which includes things like self-directedness, control, choice, and adaptation as evidenced by behaviors such as tool-making, deception, the creation (and destruction) of complex social relations and alliances—is (among its many other virtues) a far-more sensible, non-chauvinistic, non-anthropocentric conception of autonomy. However, Autonomy G (as well as the two other Autonomies) supervenes on facts about the cognitive properties and capacities—and thus the psychological needs—of the captives themselves.

    That is,

    (a) if it’s the case that ethical problems are raised by the frustrating of the intrinsic value of the liberty of captives (which, itself, is a function of the possession of Autonomy G), and,

    (b) if it’s also the case that facts about the possession of Autonomy G are really facts about the cognitive properties and capacities and thus the psychological needs of the captives themselves, then

    (c) it follows that the frustrating of the intrinsic value of the liberty of captives requires that her psychological needs not be met.

    Here’s the argument I’m trying to make in a nutshell:

    1. Some animals in captivity can have their psychological needs met.

    2. But even captivity under these circumstances is ethically problematic because the intrinsic value of the captive’s liberty is frustrated.

    3. The intrinsic value of the captive’s liberty is frustrated because the captive’s Autonomy G is frustrated.

    4. But the captive’s Autonomy G is frustrated when the captive’s species-typical psychological needs are not met.

    5. So, it looks like only if the captive’s species-typical psychological needs are not met is her liberty frustrated.

    If this makes any sense and is not reductive in some trivial or insignificant way, then we have added—however incrementally—even more teeth to Gruen’s argument against captivity.

    Lastly, notice the importance that the captive’s cognitive properties (in the form of desires, (subjective) interests, choice, etc.) play in the cases that Gruen provides in support of the view that nonhuman animals exhibit behaviors that evidence Autonomy G. For example, Gruen states that “[m]any animals make plans, by making and saving tools for future use or by caching food to collect at a later time.” Our behaviorist-leaning friends will question whether and in what sense “making and saving tools for future use or by caching food to collect at a later time” counts as “making plans” in any intentionally robust sense. And so, we might ask, do the behaviors in support of Autonomy G reflect things like a conception of a self? A conception of a future or of a future self? Individual conspecific recognition? A belief about a conspecific? A belief about a conspecific’s beliefs? The relationship of these kinds of questions—questions about the cognitive properties of nonhuman animals, best answered by cognitive ethologists, animal behavioral researchers, biologists, and neurophysiologists—to the issue of Autonomy G and, thus, to the frustration of liberty, seems to play a potentially huge role in questions regarding the ethical wrongness of captivity.

    • Robert Jones has raised some very important issues about the ways that captivity can negatively affect the psychological states of other animals and when it does it is obviously objectionable. I agree that causing captives to suffer is objectionable and the fact that captivity causes so much suffering (to those in captivity and to those whose loved one’s are suffering in captivity) is one of the central reasons for focusing our ethical attention on it. I thank Robert for making that point so clearly and forcefully.

      Some have asked — “if captivity doesn’t cause suffering, that is, it doesn’t violate a captive’s physical and psychological or cognitive needs, then is there anything wrong with captivity.” Imagine something like The Truman Show, where Jim Carey happily lives his life happily ignorant of the fact that all the while he is in captivity. Is there anything wrong with this scenario?

      I’m trying to explore whether we can answer that question affirmatively. I want to suggest that even though an individual may be happy to have all her needs met by her captive (maybe her life is easier and in some sense richer than it would otherwise be) there is still a sense in which living a life in which she plays a major role in the satisfaction of her own psychological needs is a better one, all things considered. That is what I take to be the value that is captured in the intrinsic account of liberty.

  • Keridiana Chez

    I, too, share Professor Gruen and M. Nussbaum’s sense that exercising control over captive beings are problematic, and that this conclusion should not hinge on whether the animal can “understand” its loss of dignity (an example, as someone mentioned during yesterday’s conference, is the question of whether or not a dog knows it’s being laughed at). But one possible response (ensuring that the individual animal lives a species-befitting life) fills me with questions. Does this response apply only in the context of animals in human captivity, and is the captivity what requires this response? Would we be required to ensure species-befitting lives for companion species (in Donna Haraway’s sense) not in direct human captivity? Is this a vision of uncompanionating all species (from humans? from any other species?)?

    I also ask some of the same questions Professor Weil discussed: I wonder how much dignity can be violated before things become unethical. If any instance of an animal being forced to behave contrary to how they may act (…as their species… in the “wild”?), but one refuses the abolitionist position, then there must be some amount of dignity violations in captivity that are acceptable, right? How are those lines drawn?

    In my current work in literary cultural studies of Victorian human-dog relationships, I’ve become interested in changing attitudes regarding whether or not there is a protectable (like grievable) animal behind/beyond/distinct from human intervention that ought to be protected from human intervention—an uncompanionated species. I wonder about the multiple, muddy motivations and unpredictable effects of progressive discourses, and whether there aren’t any “humanizations” of animals that we should be okay with (to the extent that being treated “like a human” is usually better than being treated “like an animal”).

    I have been thinking a lot about a friend’s remark. She mused about needing to address the dental issues of her dog (a Labrador-pit bull mix, so, not a “lapdog”), and said: “I know that I should brush his teeth, but I’m also like, *he’s a DOG*.” True, dogs don’t have humans brushing their teeth “in the wild,” and it’s an indignity (either the wrangling open of the dog’s mouth to smear the “poultry flavor” paste, or the training of the dog to submit to the treatment). But it seems to me that other ideas motivated my friend’s refusal to treat her dog “like a human.” I have also often heard related contemporary attacks on dogs for failing to be “real”—the concept has become a marker of that dog’s worth, and a way to value some dogs over others. Usually, this is also marked by sexism: e.g., as a virulent attack on a woman’s “lapdog,” like a Chihuahua, for not being a “real” dog. On a chilly day, plain human t-shirt on dog okay, but dog-specific clothing that might have feminine frills on them, clownish? Webbed nylon leash okay, rhinestone leash silly?

    I clearly have not thought about this in an organized way, but I am looking forward to it now, with the ideas raised in this stimulating exchange. Thank you, Lori, for an engaging piece.

  • I want to begin by thanking Professor Gruen for devoting attention to the ethics of captivity. As someone interested in the ethics of using (nonhuman) animals in research, I appreciate that the experimental manipulations performed on animals, which are usually the focus of the ethics discussion, occupy a small portion of the animals’ lives compared to the time they spend in their cages. And while there is a large literature on the effects that various housing systems have on health and subjective well-being, there is little discussion of whether captivity raises ethical issues beyond those effects. I suspect this is due to the prevalence of relatively narrow conceptions of the good life for animals that focus exclusively on health or subjective well-being. If Gruen is correct about animal liberty and animal dignity, this opens important new dimensions for the ethical evaluation of animal research and of animal agriculture as well.

    I think it will pay to distinguish between several conclusions for which Gruen might be arguing. The conclusions differ along three dimensions.

    The first dimension is the range of animals to which her conclusions are intended to apply. Gruen explicitly restricts her conclusion about liberty to autonomous animals, but she makes no similar restriction in her discussion of dignity. Does her notion of dignity apply, not just to bears, but to sponges, perhaps with a concomitant reduction in dignity’s moral importance? Gruen leaves this vague, and so will I, but it is an important lacuna in her discussion.

    The second and third dimensions are the moral force and the specificity of her conclusions. In terms of moral force, is Gruen arguing for the pro tanto or all-things-considered wrongness of captivity? In terms of specificity, is she saying that keeping an animal in captivity is itself the wrong-making property, or is she merely saying that keeping an animal in captivity is wrong because it correlates with another wrong-making property? At the strongest end of both of these dimensions lies the conclusion that keeping an animal in captivity is itself an all-things-considered wrong-making property. I think this conclusion is stronger than Gruen intends to establish, or could hope to establish on the basis of the considerations she adduces. First, restrictions of liberty and violations of dignity are not always wrong, all-things-considered, even in the case of normally functioning adult humans. Second, because Gruen appeals to (a) restrictions of liberty and (b) violations of dignity to explain the wrongness of captivity, and because (a) and (b) are distinct properties from captivity (even if they are conceptually related to it), (a) and (b) appear to be the wrong-making properties on Gruen’s view.

    I will take Gruen to be arguing for the following conclusions, which are more moderate along the second and third dimensions: (1) for many animals, keeping them in captivity is pro tanto wrong because captivity necessarily involves restricting their liberty, and (2) keeping animals in captivity is often pro tanto wrong because captivity often involves violating their dignity.

    The argument for (1) can be summarized as follows. Liberty is a constituent of the good life for autonomous individuals. Hence, it is pro tanto wrong to restrict the liberty of autonomous individuals. Captivity necessarily involves restricting liberty. Hence, it is pro tanto wrong to keep autonomous individuals in captivity. Many animals are autonomous. Hence, for many animals, it is pro tanto wrong to keep them in captivity.

    Gruen anticipates that some will object to the idea that many animals are autonomous, but she advocates a minimalist conception of autonomy: “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.” To support her claim that many animals are autonomous in this minimalist sense, Gruen notes that many animals make plans for the future and engage in complex social relations. Gruen may be right that “all sorts of animals” satisfy this conception, but it is more robust than she realizes, and many who object to the idea that many animals are autonomous will also maintain that animals are controlled by their desires analogously to how addicts are controlled by theirs. Frankfurt, for example, claims (without citing any empirical evidence) that animals are “wantons,” individuals that have desires that motivate their actions but who have no second-order desires to be moved or to not be moved by their first-order desires (1971, p. 11). Wantons can deliberate about how to best satisfy their desires, but they cannot critically reflect on whether their desires are as they should be. If animals are wantons, in Frankfurt’s sense, they could engage in the various activities Gruen cites–making plans for the future and constructing complex social relations–and yet, because their desires would be outside of their control, they would not satisfy Gruen’s minimalist conception of autonomy. Even though Gruen says she rejects the idea that autonomy requires second-order desires, her own conception of autonomy may commit her to that idea unless she can give an alternative account of why the desires of animals with only first-order desires do not count as being “internal but outside of control.”

    More discussion would also be helpful on the intrinsic value of liberty to an individual who satisfies only Gruen’s minimalist conception of autonomy. In many cases, I share Gruen’s intuition that a person’s life goes better, other things equal, to the extent that it is under her autonomous control, but that is often because the choices in such cases are of particular significance (Scanlon 1986). Presumably, some of the choices that animals make have similar significance (e.g., the selection of a life-long partner). But more mundane liberties may not be intrinsically valuable at all. My blinking my eyes autonomously rather than automatically does not seem to make any intrinsic difference to how well my life goes. What marks a choice as significance remains unclear, as does the extent to which the significance of an animal’s choices is limited by the animal’s more limited cognitive capacities.

    Relatedly, it should be noted that the statement “Liberty is a constituent of the good life for any autonomous individual” is imprecise, and it is not clear that it implies that every restriction of the liberty of that individual is pro tanto wrong. Perhaps only a certain amount of liberty is necessary for having a good life, or, more plausibly, perhaps only certain liberties are necessary for having a good life. I think we need a more fine-grained account of the kinds of liberties that matter to animals and the ways their captivity interferes with those liberties before we can evaluate whether keeping a particular animal captive is pro tanto wrong.

    The argument for (2) regarding animal dignity is more difficult to reconstruct, as it seems to be a statement of the conditions under which an animal’s dignity is violated without an argument that such violations are pro tanto wrong. Perhaps Gruen would say that dignity is also a constituent of the good life for animals, so that the dignity argument parallels the liberty argument. At any rate, while I agree with Gruen that it is possible to violate an animal’s dignity and that such violations are pro tanto wrong, I think that some of the claims that Gruen makes regarding the sufficient conditions for violating an animal’s dignity are too broad. Gruen says, for example, that an animal’s dignity is violated when they are “forced to behave in ways that are contrary to what they ordinarily do” and when we “attempt to alter or change what they do.” Taking an injured animal to a veterinarian might satisfy either of those conditions, but is not an ethically problematic violation of the animal’s dignity. Better examples of dignity violations, I think, are the examples of Gruen’s of actions that expose animals to ridicule or that express an attitude of contempt. My main concern with such actions, though, is the instrumental concern that they will encourage harmful treatment of the animals. Whether such actions are also pro tanto wrong merely because they violate the animal’s dignity remains unclear to me, despite Gruen’s discussion.

    Gruen takes her liberty and dignity arguments to have several practical implications, among them the following: we should end captive breeding programs of animals who would die if released into the wild and we have a responsibility to minimize the dignity violations that captive animals regularly experience. The second implication seems undeniable, but it is also a very weak claim in that it does not specify what counts as a violation of dignity and it leaves open the weightiness of the responsibility and, consequently, the strength of the considerations that would override it. The first implication, though, does not follow from Gruen’s conclusions regarding liberty and dignity. In her post, Gruen makes no claims about the reasons there might be for captive breeding programs, and so cannot claim to have established that the reasons for such programs are not weighty enough to override the pro tanto wrongness of even life-long captivity. Moreover, it is fallacious to infer from the fact that it is wrong (even wrong all-things-considered) to treat an individual in a certain way that it is wrong to bring into existence an individual who will, with certainty, be treated in that way. It is wrong all-things-considered for my son’s schoolmates to bully him, and I knew with certainty that some wrongful bullying would take place, but that does not entail that it was wrong for me to bring my son into existence. To establish that a captive breeding program should end, what is needed is an argument that the lives of the animals who will be bred into existence fall below a certain baseline of acceptability (some argue that the baseline is that their lives would have to be so bad that it would have been better for them to have never been born at all, others argue that the baseline is merely that their lives are not good enough) and that the reasons in favor of the captive breeding program fail to justify bringing into existence animals with such poor lives. Gruen may think that the lives of most animals in laboratories fall below the appropriate baseline, but the mere fact that captivity denies autonomous individuals a constituent of the good life or that it will result in violations of their dignity only entails that their lives are not as good as they could possibly be. It does not entail that their lives are not worth living or even that they are unacceptable, and it is silent on the comparative weight of the reasons in favor of the captive breeding program.

    Frankfurt, H. G. (1971). “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” The Journal of Philosophy 68 (1): 5-20.
    Scanlon, T. M. (1986). “The Significance of Choice.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 8: 149-216.

  • Thanks to all for stimulating, thoughtful responses. I will post a response to some of Rob’s comments soon.

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