Saturday, April 8, 2017 -- 5:00 PM
Ken Taylor


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 (1)

Rob Allen's picture

Rob Allen

Thursday, April 13, 2017 -- 10:07 PM

I am pretty sure that I didn

I am pretty sure that I didn't hear anything about the captivity of disabled people. Many kinds of people are warehoused in convalescent facilities or group homes where they are deprived of a right to a sex life. They may not have privacy or erotic materials. They may not even be allowed age appropriate companionship. That sounds like captivity to me. I have met people being kept in their family homes who with just as little freedom to a private life.