08 April 2017


This week, our topic is the ethics of captivity. Our plan is to discuss both human captivity and animal captivity. Now you may ask what is to be gained by lumping humans and animals together in this way. They are, after all, significant differences between them and us. But there are also similarities. For example, putting a person in a prison deprives him of freedom and autonomy. Putting an animal in a cage does the same thing. That’s a similarity. On the other hand, we typically put people in prison to punish them. We aren’t punishing animals when we put them in zoos or keep them as pets. That’s a difference -- at least a prima facie difference. Of course, for all I know, a tiger might have a positive desire not to be locked up in a cage and gawked at all day. Probably it would much prefer to be roaming free on the savannah. So for all I know, I tiger just might experience its captivity as a sort of punishment or at least as a curse and a burden.

Unfortunately for the tiger,  thanks to us humans, the savannah just isn’t what it once was.   So you could make a pretty powerful case for it and many other animals there  really no alternative to a life in captivity.  Chimps, I am told, couldn't possibly survive in the wild -- because there is simply no wild left to confine them.   So given the way the world is, keeping certain animals  in captivity might actually be the best thing for them – especially if we make the conditions of their captivity as benign as possible.

That’s not a thought  that makes me at all happy.  First we destroy animal habitats and then we lock them up and throw away the key!   And then we pretend it’s all for their own good?  But, unfortunately,  I don’t really have a better idea.   Let all the animals out of the zoos and see how long they survive!   Better a life in a comfortable confinement than death in the vanishing wild, perhaps.

Perhaps, indeed!  But if we were to try similar reasoning on a human -- “We’re going to invade your land, take you captive, and make you like it”  -- I don’t think it would be received too well.  

Of course, humans and animals are different.  And maybe the differences make a difference to how we should treat them.  But you know, if you think of it that way,  you can think that animal captivity is, in some instances, at least, morally than human captivity.  That’s because you can believe that  at least some humans actually deserve to be held captive.   On the other hand, most, if not all, animal captives are innocent victims of human greed and rapaciousness.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that all those young black men rotting in prison for simple drug possession are getting what they deserve or that minimum mandatory sentences, three strikes and you’re out laws and all the other crap are simple matters of justice.   Our prison system is a moral nightmare.   But our treatment of animals can seem even worse.  We lock them up,  not just in zoos, but also in laboratories. We typically don’t do that to humans.  We keep them as pets. Something else we don’t do to humans.  And, perhaps, worse of all, we herd them for slaughter.   And we do all this without a single nod toward justice or fairness  -- except those coming from animal activists, who are regarded by many as going way overboard in their love animals.

But perhaps we simply owe different things to animals than we do to humans.   Many believe, for example, that humans have a level of dignity, freedom, and autonomy that no animal can match.  This isn’t to say that animals are mere things.  Clearly animals –at least many of them cause who knows about worms – feel pain.  They are capable of a certain level of freedom and autonomy – though nothing like full Kantian self-governance seems possible for them  - though lets assume that we humans are capable of such.   It seems right that such differences make some differences to the rightness or wrongness of holding humans vs. animals captive.  But exactly how much difference is not to clear to me.

Try the following thought experiment to test intuitions.    Imagine a really pleasant confinement – with adequate food, shelter and water, and with plentiful opportunities for mental and physical stimulation.   That’s about the best our pets can hope for.  But keeping a human in that kind of confinement would be a really bad thing.   It doesn’t matter how pleasant.   But it’s not a bad thing for my dog, Taffy.  Perhaps that is what I owe Taffy – not the kind of freedom or autonomy we owe to human beings.   Our pets aren’t prepared for that.

Of course, that’s also our fault in the main. Taffy’s ancestors were proud and free wolves.  They roamed the wild at their will. They were the top predators in their domain. And what did we do to them?  We domesticated them!   We diminished them! Made them fit for nothing but captivity!  That seems to me like a true affront to nature!

What does this all add up to except that we've made a pretty good mess of things.   I don't really know if animals have rights, if they morally deserve freedom and autonomy, for example.  But I do know that way that we have managed this vast and glorious, breathtakingly complex ecosystem has been an utter disaster.   Surely we can do better – both for our sake and for the sake of our animal cousins.    

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 10, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Confinement, at least to

Confinement, at least to humans, does vary per perspective.  Prison is eventually a social and natural habitat after a while, and that's based on the fact that people return deliberately.  I'd like to say that because drug charges are so common, we can pretty much agree beyond a doubt that we value and wish to have drug use and trade in our society, which pretty much makes drugs laws obsolete.  However, that idea makes me wonder: Who might the captor be?  Who is so confined to ignore an unwritten peoples vote of the value to ourselves and each other of a demand for drugs, and it's use by persons who are considered competent?  "420" because Hitler was that bad. 
So the ethics are mind/body/spirit; reasons for captivating; intended outcomes and unintended outcomes, possibly ignored aspects, or aspects seen as worth the disregard; types of captivity and how the morals (imposing in it's degrees and varieties) do affect by each detail every identifiable detail.  If you take any captive, this will be pretty solid.  So, we take the most lovely; the romantic captive.  For simplicity, we might say passive and dominant.  The passive person does not take the specific courses of action to impede the restrictions of their captivity; the eyes don't look away, and the memory of moments following will encourage further attention.  The interaction will very likely include both persons to be dominant or passive according to moments.  This is likely in the interest of both parties.  Therefore, based on that alone, we can say that the specifics would have to be pairs of instances of dominance and passivity.  However, to shoot a tiger with a tranq gun, the motivations to shoot are completely separate from the tigers agreement or disagreement, and it's the fact of the tiger's ability to fall from the chemical that makes this possible.  The tiger will have some ability to consider it's environment upon waking, and that will have been a consideration of the shooter; it can be said to be mostly immoral for imposing upon the tigers ability to freely live as it would, while the entire future is determined beforehand, if only in the few options for what to do with it (as long as it remains with the shooter). 
We may be unique as a species to systematically impose our beliefs on each other.  The systems are already identified; social, per group think, constitution, emotional beliefs, ideas of importance by wealth or achievement or reputation, with the use of language... These overlap.  Some collections of beliefs are volatile, and I've seen a woman jailed for stealing food, so there may be excessive neglect in these areas (because an alternative to sentencing with jail time to stop the same crime in her future would have been mandatory food stamps or a requirement to show proof of adequate food donations which should have been discussed under oath to tell the whole truth of the crime).  It's possible our beliefs that overlap are like many interacting species "in nature", someone could describe the sameness of interactions. 
The really pleasant confinement you describe might very well be our society, with opportunities to ignore areas that require problem solving as there are also ways to critically explore problems that are simply there, and then the problems in math that we create by interest or curiosity, not to mention that of all the things we enjoy as humans we also have ways to judge it and have mastered many things that could be loved by an individual; we've even got empty space to be not in society, but with ourselves.  So, what of suicide, or depression?  What of captives of a sort?  Is there a problem of belief system or excessive imposition, or is it biology and chemicals?  The question is a problem for areas of language in that the four options in two groups have loaded meanings and relative meanings; it's a problem, in general, that those who are suicidal or depressed are confined without the answers to it, etc. etc.  And if there is a confinement, as it could be seen, what is it and where's it from... Might that question be an experience of confusion to a captive animal of a human, like it's an attention of specifics that have programmed or possible "outcomes" based on "intellectual capacity". 
Lab rats (some) glow in the dark, get cancer, live well and are fed to glowing cats... Does the human involvement of those who can manipulate rats affect any other areas of ethical ownership of a living thing (or it's future at all).  Would they not be the authority on a matter of empathy, or objective course of action of our most simple concerns? What implying factors to ownership or course are there to a thing?  Mushrooms were the size of trees, gas byproducts gave us soil, and could we say anything about their captivity to (what, even) for they're clearly smaller than trees, no longer a dominant influence over the outcome of the Earth... And, our human lives and our species future is determined by *identifiable things* like diet and genetics, which is based on the past, and could very well be determined as failed for a lack of attention.  Say we have no bees for cell phones, the popular example; to talk about it says nothing about having no bees and no food... So can we actually infer, with the pretended scenario, that our immediate quality of life is pretty much paramount as a motivator, and for it's quality obscures......? But... No, of course not.  The dinosaurs had the most random end; but we know that we say "dinosaurs are extinct", and that we never say "but so was everything, and we have spines also."  Dinosaurs being large is possibly the motivation for us to attend to the variable attentions separately.  They are big; what of deadly gases, what of eradication of life on Earth, what of another meteor hitting some other 1 in a million red button of destruction.  Use them, manipulate by their existance, movies... And I should've stopped at mushrooms.

mwsimon's picture


Saturday, October 18, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think there are some more

I think there are some more parallels to be drawn between how we put animals in captivity and how we put people there.  We enslave animals because its profitable.  There are huge industries around meat and animal products, with tons of market demand, that want animals to be bred in captivity and killed.  It is known that animals feel pain, but the lure of profit outweighs this.
Why do we put nonviolent criminals in prison.  Well, all sorts of reasons - racist social structures, misguided ideas of "protecting" people from themselves.  But also, for profit. The private prison industry is huge.  Of course, it knows it causes people pain.  Yet it still lobbies to keep things like drug possession illegal.  If this changed, they would lose a lot of money.  They overlook the harm they cause to make money, just like in the meat industry.

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