Sunday, April 9, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 10, 2014

What Is It

Whether it's people incarcerated in prisons, or animals confined in zoos, aquariums, laboratories, farms, and in our own homes, millions of upon millions of sentient creatures live in captivity. To be held captive, some might say, is to be denied basic rights of autonomy. But physical captivity, others might say, can have significant social benefits. So under what conditions could it be morally justified to hold a creature in captivity? Should we think of humans and animals differently? And in a civil society, is captivity a necessary harm, or should we work towards eradicating it? John and Ken have a captivating conversation with Lori Gruen from Wesleyan University, editor of The Ethics of Captivity.

Listening Notes

The show begins with John wondering whether human and animal captivity should be lumped together as being the same.  Ken doesn’t see why not, so John brings up that human captivity and animal captivity are different, particularly morally different. Ken does not recognize this difference, explaining that a person is deprived of autonomy and freedom when in prison, just as is an animal in a cage. But, John says, people in prison are being punished, whereas animals are not. Animals, he argues, are better in captivity in today’s world, that in fact the conditions of captivity are as benign as possible. Ken strongly disagrees – destroying an animal’s habitat and then locking the creature up cannot possibly be the better alternative. Animals are innocent victims that do not deserve to be held captive. John adds that those in prison for minor crimes often do not actually deserve to be in prison, and that people have a level of dignity, freedom, and autonomy that animals do not possess. Ken says that were animals released, they could have that freedom and autonomy.

John and Ken introduce guest Lori Gruen, Professor of Philosophy, Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University and Editor of The Ethics of Captivity. John first asks Lori what got her thinking about the moral differences and similarities between human and animal captivity. Lori explains that her work with captive chimpanzees in a cognition research center in Ohio led her to animal rights activism. At the same time, she was asked to teach Political Philosophy in prison and began thinking about the similarities and differences between human and animal captivity. John then asks Lori what the point of combining human and non-human captivity is, and Lori explains that there are degrees of captivity; some animals fare better than others in captivity. By studying the two in a combined manner, we can learn about animal and human well-being. Ken wonders whether the two systems of captivity might not be too different to compare, but Lori insists that in prisons, dehumanization is legitimized, that prisoners are often compared to animals as a means of devaluation.

Ken then asks Lori whether the differences between animals and humans matter morally, and Lori explains that there are various ways in which people can be harmed by captivity, including being denied the possibility to do what they would normally do, eat what they would normally eat, and other everyday actions. Ken brings up the example of keeping a worm in captivity – would this be the same as keeping a human being in captivity or is there a dividing line? Lori factors in suffering and speaks about the importance of philosophical and ethical reflection in this case, but also brings up that she is interested in the situations where the concerns are clearer. The conversation then turns to chimpanzees, whose habitat is being destroyed, meaning that if they are released into the wild they will die, and Lori considers the moral dilemma that habitat destruction has led to.

John and Ken welcome audience participation and discuss concerns such as caring for animals in captivity and growing attached to them before realizing the animals had been stripped from their parents. The status of zoos and sanctuaries and whether they are harmful or beneficial is discussed, as is whether captivity can offer protection for individuals who have low cognition levels.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:57): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Natalie Jones speaks with Randy Gravatt, Facilities Manager at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in Yellowstone, about the condition of bears in captivity.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 47:18): Ian Shoales captivates with his one minute philosophy. 



Ken Taylor  
Welcome to Philosophy Talk the program that questions everything...

John Perry  
...except your intelligence. I'm John Perry.

Ken Taylor  
And I'm Ken Taylor. We're here at the studios of KALW San Francisco.