:: Article

philosophy of captivity

Lori Gruen interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Lori Gruen is a leading feminist philosopher who asks deep questions about the ethics of captivity, ethics, animals and what we’re doing to nature. She thinks that human exceptionalism is a prejudice, that considering marginal cases helpful in seeing why, is skeptical about intuitions about far fetched cases digging up important ethical insights, that two big issues concerning ethics and animals are captivity and industrial animal agriculture, thinks ecotourism is complicated, has problems with holisic approaches to environmental ethics, thinks women have it tough, that the ethics of captivity are both complex and have had little philosophical treatment, that self-direction matters when considering how we treat animals, that ideas of a wild free of human management is unrealistic, and that some captivity is necessary. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Lori Gruen: I went to college when I was quite young and I was pretty idealistic. Philosophy sounded cool, but my first philosophy class kicked my butt. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Because I have a stubborn streak, I decided to take another philosophy course and this time I got it. With a couple of courses in the history of philosophy behind me, I was very excited by my social and political philosophy courses. I found the work I was reading liberating and still see philosophy as having the potential to change the world, although there were periods when I was less sure.

I went to graduate school right out of college, so I was still young. And while I was studying political philosophy I was increasingly interested in practical ethical and political problems. And to that point I had not yet taken any philosophy class, as an undergraduate or a graduate student, taught by a woman. So I decided to leave graduate school to do activist work.

After several years working for various social justice causes, I began to miss doing philosophy. And I thought I might have more success trying to combat social woes by teaching students how to think more clearly and argue more rigorously. At the moment, I feel strongly that philosophy has the promise I thought it did in my youth. Teaching political philosophy in a maximum security men’s prison has reinvigorated my excitement about the liberatory potential of philosophy. For example, philosophy not only gives the students tools for analyzing their incarceration but provides opportunities for them to imagine other possibilities.

3:AM: A recent book of yours looks at ethics and animals. You begin by looking at the position of human exceptionalism, something that goes back to at least Aristotle. What is the position, and is it a kind of default position for those who just don’t think we should think about animals ethically?

LG: Human exceptionalism is a prejudice that not only sees humans as different from other animals but that also sees humans as better than other animals. Of course humans are unique in a variety of ways, although those differences are often articulated based on naïve views about other animals. In Ethics and Animals, I explore some of the claims that have been made to differentiate humans from other animals (that we are the only beings that use tools or that use language or that have a theory of mind) and show that they do not establish that humans are unique in the ways postulated. But I also discuss the ways that other animals are indeed different from us and different from each other. These differences are important for understanding them and for promoting, or at least not negatively impacting, their well being.

Human exceptionalism also underlies skepticism about including other animals in the sphere of moral concern. It is related to two other views that are discussed more often in the literature about moral considerability – speciesism and anthropocentrism. Speciesism is the view that I only owe moral consideration to members of my own species. Although this view is usually thought to be focused on humans, it seems consistent with the view that only Vulcans matter to members of that species, or only orangutans matter to that species. Anthopocentrism is the view that humans are at the center of everything and that everything is understood through our human interpretive lenses. Of course we humans experience everything as humans, so in some sense humans are necessarily the center of our own perceptions, but that doesn’t mean we are unable to try to understand or care about non-humans. There is a sense in which we are inevitable anthropocentrists, but we needn’t be human exceptionalists.

Human exceptionalism sees humans as the only beings worthy of moral concern. Normative exceptionalist arguments generally fail in one of two ways—they pick out a supposedly unique characteristic or property upon which moral worth is supposed to supervene but it turns out that either not all humans have that property or that humans aren’t the only ones that have it.

3:AM: Are marginal cases relevant?

LG: And this is why marginal cases are relevant. If there are some humans who do not have the morally valuable traits that the human exceptionalist prize, but they are nonetheless included in the group of those who do have the traits, then this suggests that it isn’t that trait that is morally important, but species membership. But membership in a species isn’t morally interesting and assigning moral significance to membership in a species amounts to a prejudice in favor of those thought to be in one’s group. I myself am uncomfortable with the “marginal” cases terminology, but it is a remnant of the human exceptionalist view that promotes the idea that all humans fit neatly into a category based on morally worthy properties that only humans share, when there are no such properties.

3:AM: Why is the ethical case about animals so important? If you want to stop people being nasty to animals then aren’t there things other than morals you could or should appeal to? Couldn’t taste do the job ie we ought squash bugs because it’s disgusting? Or it’s unfashionable now, so nineteenth century etc?

LG: The magnitude of the harms done to animals is almost incomprehensible — 60 billion suffer before they are slaughtered for food in global industrial agricultural production annually and that contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, which in turn is wreaking havoc on animal habitats on land and in the sea. When we also consider the additional threats that other animals face from human activities, it becomes clearer that the problems are structural and remedies cannot solely rely on individual tastes. But there are some really hard philosophical questions about what, if anything, individuals can do to help curtail these harms.

Consider what sometimes gets called the “impotence problem.” When one goes out to eat and orders bbq chicken rather than a veggie burger, the chicken isn’t slaughtered-to-order, so buying the veggie burger doesn’t save any particular chicken’s life. It seems that whatever one orders, it doesn’t really have an effect either way on whether chickens suffer and die in food production. But surely individual actions must have some impact since if everybody abstained from eating chickens that would make a very large difference to very large number of chickens. This is one sort of problem Derek Parfit discusses in Reasons and Persons and Shelley Kagan and others have taken up by considering the impacts of our choices on other animals. Though I won’t rehearse some of the proposed solutions to the problem here, what I want to mention is that when we are exploring the bad consequences of complex systems, ethical and political analyses are crucial.

In saying that, I don’t want to completely dismiss the role that taste and disgust can play in perhaps making people aware of an ethical problem and motivating and sustaining people to stop harming others. But to my mind, taste and disgust, which are themselves shaped by cultural and social norms as well as idiosyncratic personal histories, are not particularly reliable and in the face of mass harms and injustice, are not always helpful.

3:AM: How important is it for people arguing for animals to be treated ethically to know what is happening to them? Your book is really full of information about this – is there a sense that you feel people who resist the ethical stance are ignorant of current problems?

LG: I’ve always been puzzled by the way that some moral philosophers create extraordinarily far fetched examples and then ask us to see what sorts of intuitions we have about these cases. I am skeptical that any intuitions we might dig up contain important ethical insights. But I’m also puzzled by those who argue from abstract general principles, for example, about the unethical treatment of causing other animals to suffer or fail to flourish, without knowing many details about particular animals and what might constitute their well-being. Having specific details are crucial for making ethical judgments. So, I think we should try to engage in some version of the process Rawls’ called reflective equilibrium in which we consider the details as we understand them (and we should also be reflective about what we see as details to start with), our intuitions, and our more general ethical and political commitments.

Having details about the general treatment of other animals combined with particular cases promotes the reflective process. But there is more needed than just knowing what is happening to them. I think an under theorized part of our ethical lives relationships – what relationships are we in, what is the nature and quality of those relationships, and what obligations those relationships generate? Once we see that we are in relationships with specific animal others and come to understand how our actions impact individuals and their conspecifics, we can view our responsibility or complicity differently. Nobody wants to be in a bad relationship, so part of what I do in my work is include descriptions of these relationships in ways that allow for re-consideration.

One of the central ideas that I have been developing is what I call “entangled empathy” which is a type of moral perception directed at attending to the well-being of others. Very briefly, the “entanglement” part of the idea is based on a recognition that we are in all sorts of inextricable relationships with one another. The “empathy” part is not the standard form of moral emotion often discussed in the literature, but rather it refers to a perceptive skill that involves affect and cognition. Entangled empathy is developed by having a fuller picture of what is happening to others, coming to discern what the interests of others may be, imagining how those interests are experienced, and figuring out how our actions directly and indirectly impact another’s well-being.

3:AM: So what are some of the key contemporary issues that help mobilise ethical arguments towards animals?

LG: There are two current issues – captivity and industrial animal agriculture — that have generated a lot of attention to animals of late and that have lead to questions about our obligations to them, to ourselves, and to the rest of nature. The issue of keeping animals captive in zoos and aquaria has become a pressing topic again. The movie Blackfish that looks behind the scenes at Sea World, the plight of elephants and polar bears suffering in unnatural conditions in zoos, and the practice of publicly killing animals at zoos in Europe have lead to renewed discussion of questions about liberty, conservation, individual well-being vs. species protection, and reproductive freedom. (see my oup blog and Ethics of Captivity).

In addition, as concerns about climate change become more pressing, awareness of the destructive contribution from industrialized food production has lead many people to reevaluate what they eat. The United Nations conservatively estimates that roughly 18% of the total greenhouse gases emitted come from industrialized livestock production, more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportion—planes, trains, and cars—combined. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made an explicit call urging individuals to “Please eat less meat—meat is a very carbon intensive commodity. . . .”
More people are giving up animal products once they recognize that personal taste can’t justify harms to other animals, the environment, and future generations. Of course, as human populations grow and wealth accumulates, more animals then ever before are being threatened and killed. Ethical arguments that convince individuals only go so far and there is a dire need for ethical engagement that can impact policy.

3:AM: You take a nuanced approach to ecotourism? Why not condemn it outright?

LG: Ecotourism is a complicated issue. On the one hand there are places where ecotourism has raised awareness of the complex ethical issues that arise in contexts in which animal well-being, environmental protection, and human flourishing come into direct conflict and ecotourism provides one mechanism for minimizing these conflicts. It also often motivates the “tourists” to work on behalf of protecting wild animals and their habitats. Coming face to face (so to speak) with an animal in her natural environment can deepen one’s sense of responsibility. On the other hand, ecotourism has the potential to further instrumentalize other animals and perpetuate problematic arrogant attitudes about human relationships with the more than human world. I don’t think a sound ethical judgment can be made about ecotourism unless the context is fully explored.

3:AM: You are unhappy with holistic approaches to environmental ethics. First of all, can you say what you mean by ‘holistic’ in this context, and who are the main proponents?

LG: Holism in environmental ethics is the view that value lies in whole systems rather than individual parts of the system or particular members of the community. Aldo Leopold, a holist who developed “the land ethic,” argued that an action is right when it preserves and protects “the integrity, stability, and beauty” of an ecological community because integrity, stability, and beauty are the locus of value. In Ethics and Animals, I explore the complicated issue of anthropogenic extinctions through the lens of holism in the hopes that it might provide an answer to the question of why species are valuable. Holists view extinctions as, what one prominent holist, Holmes Rolston III, calls superkillings. Holists find that the value of species is more than the sum of the welfare of individual members of the species. The holist view allows that the death of individual members of a species would be justified if those deaths led to the betterment of the species as a whole and, by extension, the preservation of the species.

3:AM: So what is the problem?

LG: There are a number of problems with holism of this sort. But my main worry is that they have a limited view of how to value nature. Holists tend to think we either value nature instrumentally, which for them amounts to not valuing nature at all, or intrinsically, where value attaches either to individuals or to collectives. But nature can be valued in a variety of ways; we can value both collectives and individuals; we can value things as means to ends (like money); we can value things as ultimate ends (much as we value our companions, partners, or children); and we can value things as neither ultimate ends nor mere means, but rather as constitutive of other things that we value (perhaps, freedom of choice and privacy are such things.). Some values lie between means values and ends values and, while it makes ethical analysis tricky, that may be the most sensible way to address tricky conflicts.

We could argue that species have value that doesn’t reduce simply to the cumulative well being of each individual member of the species, but that value doesn’t transcend the members either. There is value in the relations that the existence of the collective allows to be realized. For example, the well-being of most animals, particularly social animals, relies centrally on their ability to develop relations with others of their kind, to learn species-typical behaviors, to develop specific cultures, to communicate, to hunt, to play. Individual flourishing, in humans and other animals, crucially depends on a sustaining and sustainable context much larger than the individual, and thus valuing the individual necessitates valuing the whole within which the individual makes her life meaningful. Of course, that meaningful life is of value too.

3:AM: Things are particularly toxic for women across the globe at the moment. What are contemporary feminisms arguing to combat this situation?

LG: I don’t think things are any worse now than they have always been, sadly, I just think with social media and 24/7 news we are hearing more about various manifestations of gender oppression and violence. Women and other marginal groups are being impacted in different ways now — for example, climate change and food scarcity will affect women and children first and harder than it will affect men initially. The arguments that feminists have long been making for equality and respect are rooted in an analysis of the indefensibility of exercises of unearned privilege, e.g. male privilege, white privilege, class privilege. Feminist philosophers and theorists continue to draw attention to the social construction of social categories that have been naturalized. We try to reveal the logic of domination that allows members of one group to create social structures that favor themselves while at the same time creating or perpetuating social structures that disadvantage “others.” One of the strengths of contemporary feminist thinking about privilege and domination comes from increased attention to intersecting oppressions – the complex ways in which gender, gender non-conformity, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and I would suggest species as well, interact to generate very specific forms of injustice. Attention to intersecting oppressions complicates thinking about how we might achieve more just social arrangements and it has the potential to bring together groups that those with power have worked to keep apart and at odds.

3:AM: And in philosophy departments also there are big issues. There have been a few high profile cases recently. As a philosopher what is like from the inside, what do you think the reason is for academic philosophy being so poor in this respect and are there things that should be done?

LG: The high profile cases within philosophy departments are focused on sexual harassment and sexual predation. It is so important that women who are being harassed are speaking out. For too long that wasn’t the case and I think part of the reason women are speaking out now is because there are many philosophers of all genders who are working to make changes in the profession so victims of sexual harassment feel they will be supported. I do worry a bit that the focus on sexual harassment in the profession has obscured the more day in and day out sexism that exists in philosophy.

I think the fact that the situation is so bad for women and minorities in the profession is, in some sense, over-determined. Old stereotypical views about women and scholars of color are still prevalent, if not as overt as they once were, and stereotype threat still operates. I have heard from more than a few students and colleagues that they have to spend energy battling the idea that they are “imposters” or “aren’t smart enough.” There is very little philosophical work by women or minority philosophers taught in most philosophy classes so for women students and students of color to pursue philosophy they have to have a deep passion as well as courage, we usually don’t just “fall into” philosophy. One of the things I love about philosophy but I know drives non-philosophers a bit crazy is how we have a habit of trying to understand and explain things in great detail. Given this habit and that the majority of faculty are men in almost all philosophy departments, the phenomena popularly referred to as “mansplaining” is thus rather common and can subtly shape the climate.

There is a lot going on to try to remedy these problems. Changing what is taught in undergraduate courses; working to avoid conferences or edited volumes that only include men (see the gendered conference campaign); and talking more openly about what positive changes can be made to create more inclusive environments in individual departments and philosophy as a whole all are promising developments. But these changes will take time and require vigilance. As a profession, we have a long way to go.

3:AM: In your new book on captivity – which looks at both human and non-human captivity and the issues that arise – there are some examples that might strike some as strange, such as the inclusion of pets. Some might thinks that including pets in discussions about captivity takes us away from crucial examples, such as prisons and zoos? Do pets raise interesting issues at the margins that help bring into sharper focus what the issues are around captivity?

LG: The ethical issues around captivity are remarkably complex and it is surprising how little philosophical attention has been paid to them. You are right to think that prisons and zoos raise the most obvious issues –the individuals that are held captive in these environments are there against their wills, they endure a wide variety of restrictions on their liberty, and they are under the control of their captors. But when we describe captivity as a condition in which a competent adult is confined and controlled and is reliant on those in control to satisfy her basic needs, it becomes clearer that there are many captive environments beyond prisons and zoos, environments that are not ordinarily thought of in those terms.

When we start thinking about pets or “companion animals” as captives then we may start reflecting in new ways on how we treat them. Clare Palmer and Peter Sandoe wrote a provocative chapter in the book that questions the received wisdom that routinely confining cats indoors promotes their well-being. Cats may be happy with our affections and their lives may be longer if we keep them safe indoors, but there is a loss here, to their freedom to go where they want and interact with and shape their larger environment.

In captive contexts, the trade-offs, between safety and freedom, protection and choice, are often obscured. For example, in the US, over 2 million people are incarcerated and not only are they denied freedom but their families and communities are impoverished in the name of social “safety” which is often illusory. Within prisons too, as two of the chapters in the book vividly illustrate, autonomy and basic respect are sacrificed in the name of safety and security. Comparing various kinds of captive institutions provides an opportunity to analyze the language of “safety” and reveals its strategic use in obscuring the loss of other valuable things.

Seeing pets as captives, I think, does bring some of the complexities of captivity into sharper focus.

3:AM: At first it seems obvious that conditions of captivity are really important – but then again, even a well looked after slave is still a slave – and no one is going to use the conditions as a justification in that kind of case are they? So where do you stand on this – how far should we be interested in conditions of captivity?

LG: One justification for keeping individuals captive has been that captivity is better for them. In the context of companion animals and zoo animals, for example, one often hears that they will live longer lives and they won’t have to worry about injury or predation or hunger. The sense is that they are better off having lost their freedom. The same sorts of justifications were also heard in the case of slaves. Captors wanted to believe that slaves were better off, became more civilized, more human, because of their captivity. Of course, this is odious in the case of human beings, and there are some who argue that this attitude is equally objectionable in the case of other animals.

Comparing captivity to a type of slavery, some animal advocates are opposed to all forms of captivity, even keeping pets. They take the label “abolitionist” as a way of linking their views to earlier abolitionist struggles to end slavery.

But I think our relationships with other animals (of course humans, but also nonhumans) are a central part of what makes lives meaningful. Rather than thinking we must end all captivity and thus all our relationships with other animals, we’d do better working to improve those relationships by being more perceptive of and more responsive to others’ needs and interests and sensibilities. Since we are already, inevitably, in relationships, rather than ending them we might try to figure out how to make them better, more meaningful, and more mutually satisfying. Importantly, by recognizing that we are inevitably in relationships to other animals, replete with vulnerability, dependency, and even some instrumentalization, and working to understand and improve these relationships, I’m not condoning exploitation. Acknowledging that we are in relationships doesn’t mean that all relationships are equally defensible or should stay as they are. Relationships of exploitation or complete instrumentalization are precisely the sorts of relationships that should change.

And this is where an exploration of conditions of captivity and the complexity of the individual captives’ interests comes in. Some animals, like whales and elephants, cannot thrive in captive conditions. As much as we might want to have closer relationships with them, it isn’t good for them. Others, like dogs and chimpanzees, can live meaningful lives in captivity but only if the conditions they are captive in are conducive to their flourishing and they are respected. Part of the problem with captivity is the relationship of domination that it tends to maintain. By re-evaluating captivity (and for many in our non-ideal situation, there is no real alternative) we can start to ask questions about whether and how captive conditions can, while denying certain freedoms, still promote the dignity of the captives.

3:AM: Putting a wasp in a jar seems less bad than putting a chimp in a cage. Does this intuition track anything ethical?

LG: The loss of freedom has different implications for different individuals within the same species and for members of other species. Usually, denying individuals their liberty negatively impacts the quality of their lives, but this can happen in two ways. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are important because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated can’t follow their desires. Putting the wasp in a jar and putting a chimpanzee in a cage denies them both freedom of movement and the freedom to get what they want.
But perhaps what underlies the intuition that it is worse to make a chimpanzee captive than to confine a wasp is the sophisticated cognitive capacities of the chimpanzee who values her freedom, not just instrumentally because of what it gets her, but because it is constitutive of her well-being. This may sound odd, but I think from what is now known about chimpanzee cognition, the boredom and frustration that accompanies captivity and the documented need for environmental, emotional, social, and intellectual enrichment suggests that chimpanzees do value their freedom. The process of satisfying one’s own interests and correcting one’s self when she changes her mind or makes bad choices are part of what makes a life a good life for beings who have these sorts of cognitive capacities. I believe chimpanzees can do these things, so it makes sense to think that they, like us, value their freedom more than just instrumentally.

And its not just chimpanzees. Many other animals are self-directed, adapt to changing circumstances, make choices and resist changes, and improve their environments, often through collective action. Other animals learn from conspecifics and modify what they learn to suit themselves and their needs. Not all animals in a social group do exactly the same things, eat exactly the same things, or spend time with the same individuals. They are making independent choices. There are species-typical behavioral repertoires that constrain an individual’s absolute expression of this their autonomy, but none of us is ever completely free of constraints. So I think there are a lot of other animals for whom captivity is ethically problematic because it violates their autonomy, but probably not wasps.
But, maybe I just don’t know enough about wasps.

3:AM: Some animals wouldn’t exist if they weren’t in captivity. How do we decide whether species death or life is morally justified?

LG: There is a long-standing debate about the conservationist justification for keeping animals captive rather than let them go extinct. Some have argued that we shouldn’t sacrifice the interests of the one for the good of the many. But I confess, I’m vexed by the hard questions of extinction and also worry about whether “we” can make much useful difference.

In Ethics and Animals I recount the story of the dwindling existence of rhinoceros. I wrote about the death of one of the rarest large mammals on the planet, the Javan rhinoceros who was found shot dead in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park. The rhino was shot by poachers so they could to take the horn. At the time, conservation authorities said there are only three to five Javan rhinos left in Vietnam. In 2013, they were declared extinct. Also last year, the Western Black rhino was declared extinct. Elephants, orangutans, tigers, and a host of other less “charismatic” animals will not be around (outside of zoos and preserves) for much longer.

If there were a way to hold some individuals in ideal captive conditions in the hopes of reintroducing them to the wild in order to avoid extinction that might justify captivity. But that is no longer realistic. In fact, the very idea that there is a “wild” free of human management is itself unrealistic. One of the new ways of thinking about what used to be considered a choice between individuals in captivity and wild populations free of human interference, is to recognize that all endangered or threatened animals are in some sense already in captivity – not in zoos, but rather in conditions in which they have their freedom managed and controlled.

3:AM: There are lots of reasons for captivity that aren’t ethical – practical, aesthetic, taste, politics, emotive and so on – so do you think the ethical reason must always override these other possible reasons?

LG: This question bumps up against discussions about the scope and nature of ethical reasoning. I have sympathies with broadly consequentialist answers to this sort of question — the divisions between types of reasons can be helpful for a variety of purposes, but basically whatever divisions one makes, we can evaluate reasons in ethical terms. So if I have a taste for hamburgers, the production of which causes intense suffering, my aesthetic desire for burgers can be evaluated on ethical grounds. It may be politically expedient to disproportionately stop and frisk black youth, but the implications of acting on reasons of expedience can be evaluated ethically.

Captivity is the same way. In fact, in many instances, the only thing to do is keep some individuals captive. My own interest in the ethics of captivity arose in my working with captive chimpanzees almost a decade ago. I felt truly conflicted about the fact that these incredibly smart, sociable, often charming, always complicated, individuals had to spend their lives (some live to be 50-60) in captivity. Many of the chimpanzees I know are 5th or 6th generation captives. Chimpanzee habitats are being decimated and the fastest growing populations of captive chimpanzees are in Africa, in native range countries for chimpanzees, where they are orphaned due to bush meat hunting and forest destruction. So even if it was possible to teach individuals who have only known captivity to survive outside of captivity, there really isn’t a safe place to release them. This raised a genuine moral dilemma – any thing we do, release them or hold them captive, can be considered wrong. So that lead me to thinking about whether and how we could minimize the ethical costs of captivity.

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM are there five books (other than your own) you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

LG: I know many of those you interview have a hard time coming up with only five books and I’m having a hard time too. There are so many important books in practical ethics and social and political philosophy, but here are five books that have been important to my current thinking —Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Resisting Reality by Sally Haslanger, Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat, www.bookdepository.com/Setting-Moral-Compass/9780195154757 edited by Cheshire Calhoun.


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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 12th, 2014.