No where else is the human-animal divide more enthusiastically defended than when someone talks about human dignity. According to advocates of this widespread idea, our “human dignity” captures the exceptional value and status that humans uniquely possess. Not only is it thought to elevate us above other animals, but it acts as the basis for distinctly human rights, as enshrined in several international covenants, and constitutions. In other words, dignity seems to do a lot of work in explaining why we have value above and beyond that which other animals possess.

Animal Dignity - Swan Spreading its wings.
Do animals have dignity? Photo by Matt Perry.

The trouble is that a distinctly human dignity cannot be plausibly justified. I will explain why shortly, before going on to suggest that there is one saving grace: dignity can be made into a far more robust idea – and without giving up too much of what is valuable about it. But the catch is that this is only possible if it includes rather than excludes other animals, such as dogs, pigs, or birds.

A central idea behind concepts of human dignity is that they include all humans, so justifying dignity tends to mean basing it upon some meaningfully valuable characteristic or capacity that all humans possess, but which other animals do not. Human dignity cannot be plausibly justified because no characteristic or capacity achieves this aim though. In other words, on reflection we find that almost all candidate bases for dignity either lack meaningful value or aren’t exclusively possessed by all humans. For example, while most adult humans possess rational abilities (evidenced by you reading this post!), some humans lack them, including infants and those with profound cognitive disabilities. What’s more, some animals possess considerable rational abilities. For instance, squirrels have detailed memories of the locations that they bury hundreds of nuts every year, and rats can solve mazes containing puzzles when incentivised (through reward). Similarly, the basis for dignity cannot simply be an arbitrary feature of most humans, such as our genome, or the mere fact of being human. The basis for dignity must have some meaningful value because otherwise it would seem to fail to do any relevant work in explaining why we have dignity – which is exactly what the justification for dignity is supposed to do.

Of course, you might think that this sets us off on the wrong foot. Perhaps, rather than determining who possesses dignity based on some characteristic or capacity, we should rely on the notion that all humans have dignity because all humans having dignity is a valuable social convention. As I referred to above, many international institutions use a distinctly human dignity as the basis for important social norms of respect, equality, and rights. Cohering with these conventions might help us to justify dignity, even if it is not based upon a meaningfully valuable characteristic or capacity that all humans possess.

However, this will not work either. It means that dignity becomes far too reliant on current social conventions about what scope and meaning dignity should have, and what obligations we should have to one another. If who possesses dignity is determined by social conventions about who possesses dignity, who is to say that those conventions won’t change? To be sure, social conventions only change gradually over time, and sometimes change for the better. But nothing rules out social conventions dictating that dignity should be more rather than less exclusionary. This is particularly concerning for an idea that is supposed to be the basis for universal rights that are possessed by all humans, regardless of difference.

If a uniquely human dignity fails, then we have two options. First, we might reject dignity. I want to rule this out: it means giving up on the social and moral conventions surrounding dignity, which are a testament to how valuable and important this idea has become in our political and moral lives. Dignity-based norms allow us to explain why beings who have it are owed certain treatments as a matter of right. They are also valuable ways to hold individuals, governments, and organisations to account. So, rather than rejecting dignity, we might more optimistically reinvent dignity in much more inclusive terms. This last route is appealing because it is not vulnerable to the objections above, but it also doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.

A more inclusive view of dignity would be based on a capacity which better explains why all humans have rights, such as sentience (the ability to experience things as mattering to us). To be sure, humans are not the only animals that have this capacity. To name just a few others: dogs, pigs, and birds all have it as well. However, this shouldn’t be reason for alarm. Dignity can still be a source of unique and elevated value. Except this time, that value would be possessed by humans and other sentient animals. In fact, given the vast amounts we have in common with other animals, this might be a more coherent basis for dignity than a dubious notion of human uniqueness, and it still sets sentient beings apart from the rest of nature. Sentience is valuable, because it is the very ability that allows experiences to matter to us in the first place. Basing dignity on this capacity would therefore explain why we (and not other entities lacking sentience) ought to be awarded particular treatments, and it allows us to do this while simply reapplying the norms surrounding human dignity to animal dignity. In other words, if the problem is with the “human” in human dignity, then perhaps we should take the idea that animals possess dignity far more seriously than has historically been the case.

It would follow that we would have to protect animal rights in the same way that we protect human rights. Animals would have greater priority in making a far wider number of policy decisions, not limited to what we eat, but how we organise our societies and where we direct public funds. In other words, plausibly justifying “human” dignity might mean endorsing a far more inclusive and demanding view of social justice beyond the human.

Matthew Wray Perry

Matt Perry is a teaching assistant at The University of Manchester and University College London. He will be starting a postdoctoral fellowship at The University of British Colombia, Vancouver, in January 2024. His research focuses on animal rights, dignity, moral status & interspecies social relations. Find out more at www.matthewwrayperry.com