Round-table “Animal Rights & the Concept of Dignity” with R. Ebert, P. Gilabert & W. Kymlicka
Jul 6 @ 12:00 – 14:00

Round-table on “Animal Rights & the Concept of Dignity”

Speakers : Rainer Ebert (CRÉ, GRÉEA), Pablo Gilabert (Concordia University) & Will Kymlicka (Queen’s University)

Abstracts (alphabetical order)

  • Rainer Ebert (CRÉ, GRÉEA)

The idea that all humans equally have a special kind of worth, “human dignity,” which is the basis for certain basic rights, such as the right not to be killed, is remarkably popular and has found frequent expression in the law. Some recent philosophical defenses of that idea, by theorists including Patrick Lee, Robert P. George, and George Kateb, tie human dignity to features that purportedly set humans apart from other animals. This risks to sideline or altogether exclude humans on the margins, who are the most vulnerable to human rights violations, as it seems doubtful at best that there really is any morally relevant respect in which we are equal, and discontinuous with other animals, in terms of empirical nature. “New dignitarianism” has been counterposed to the naturalism/moral individualism of philosophers such as Jeff McMahan, who abandon human dignity and equality in favor of a more plausible grounding of moral status in more readily observable empirical properties. I will suggest that this is a false opposition, and argue that there is an account of dignity that combines the virtues of dignitarianism and naturalism, avoiding species snobbery and saving human equality, and can be a powerful political tool to protect the most vulnerable – both human and nonhuman. It bases our dignity on the fact that we are equally and essentially experiencing subjects and thereby focuses our attention on what really matters: us in our own right.

  • Pablo Gilabert (Concordia University)

It has been argued that dignitarian conceptions of human rights are problematically exclusionary. The argument, in a nutshell, is this: (1) If a conception of human rights is based on the idea of dignity, then it presupposes human supremacism; (2) such supremacism has unacceptable implications for the treatment of non-human animals, and also for the treatment of human individuals; (3) alternative accounts of human rights, such as those based on considerations about basic needs, vulnerability, and capabilities do not have these unacceptable implications; (4) therefore, we should avoid dignitarian accounts of human rights and favor the alternative accounts instead. In response, I challenge the first premise. My own dignitarian account of human rights (which I presented in Human Dignity and Human Rights (OUP, 2018)) does not presuppose human supremacism. The relevant contrast human rights discourse should be seen to rely on is not the one between humans and other animals, but another one between the claims of people as individuals with various valuable capacities giving rise to their status-dignity and their putative claims as members of some nation, class, or other conventional or less morally significant group. I show, furthermore, that the alternative accounts have serious deficiencies of their own. The problem of making sense of moral standing or status must be addressed to build a philosophically satisfactory account of rights. The dignitarian approach does handle this problem, but it must be recognized that it also faces difficult questions about gradations of status. I conclude by exploring these difficult questions. (It should be noted, however, that under philosophical pressure the alternative accounts would have to face these questions too.)

  • Will Kymlicka (Queen’s University)

It is increasingly common to argue that respect for human dignity is the fundamental basis for human rights. There are many different versions of this “dignitarian” account of human rights, but I will focus on one account in particular, which defines human dignity in terms of our discontinuity with and superiority to animals. On this view, the measure of whether humans are treated with dignity is whether they are treated better than animals. Against these “new dignitarians”, I argue that defending human rights on the backs of animals is philosophically suspect and politically self-defeating. Even when dignitarian theorists do not explicitly invoke human supremacism, I will suggest that the discourse of “dignity” is in fact more likely to reinforce speciesism than alternative accounts of rights, such as basic needs, vulnerability, and capabilities. Compared to other concepts in our moral toolbox, “dignity” is more likely to fall under the gravitational pull of human exceptionalism.