Skip to main content
Log in

Dignity and Animals. Does it Make Sense to Apply the Concept of Dignity to all Sentient Beings?

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Cite this article


Although the idea of dignity has always been applied to human beings and although its role is far from being uncontroversial, some recent works in animal ethics have tried to apply the idea of dignity to animals. The aim of this paper is to discuss critically whether these attempts are convincing and sensible. In order to assess these proposals, I put forward two formal conditions that any conception of dignity must meet (non-redundancy and normative determinacy) and outline three main approaches which might justify the application of dignity to animals: the species-based approach, moral individualism and the relational approach. Discussing in particular works by Martha Nussbaum and Michael Meyer I argue that no approach can convincingly justify the extension of dignity to animals because all fail to meet the formal conditions and do not provide an appropriate basis for animal dignity. I conclude by arguing that the recognition of the moral importance of animals and their defense should appeal to other normative concepts which are more appropriate than dignity.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Institutional subscriptions


  1. This expression has been queried qua misleading and such other expressions as “species overlap” have been proposed. Although I share some of these worries, for simplicity I stick to the traditional expression.

  2. Perhaps there is only one element shared by all accounts of dignity, which is the idea that dignity entails intrinsic value. But intrinsic value is an ambiguous concept in its turn because it has been predicated on diverse things across different dimensions. To cut a long story very short, in this paper I will be concerned only with a sense of intrinsic, qua opposed to extrinsic. This opposition concerns the source of value. In this sense, an object has intrinsic value if and only if its value depends solely on its intrinsic or inherent properties; while it has extrinsic value if its value depends on the relation it has with other objects (Korsgaard 2005, 82).

  3. To prevent a final concern about the need for these two conditions it must be said that they have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, one may be worried about the seeming stringency of these conditions and remark that, if strictly understood, they would rule out other standard normative concepts which are usually considered reliable and sound. I share these concerns but want to emphasize that I will not use these conditions as excluding criteria which have to be met fully in order for a conception to be admissible. Rather, I will try to employ them as considerations of plausibility among others.

  4. I borrow the standard expression ‘moral individualism’ from Rachels (1990, 173–4) to indicate a term opposing species-based stances.

  5. Nussbaum (2009, 254) calls it the “Aristotelian-Marxian account”.

  6. See Claassen (2014) on the disparate and possibly opposing implications of the application of the capability approach to animals and ecosystems.

  7. “[A]dequate opportunities for nutrition and physical activity; freedom from pain, squalor and cruelty; freedom to act in ways that are characteristic of the species …; freedom from fear …; a chance to enjoy the light and air in tranquility” (Nussbaum 2006, 326).

  8. In a similar way Cochrane (2010, 240) held that much of what Nussbaum wants to protect by appeal to dignity may be covered by reference to “opportunities for wellbeing” of all sentient creatures.

  9. Regan (1983, 240–1) has employed a range property to grant that certain animals have an equal moral standing. In Regan’s account all mammals at the age of 1 year (threshold) have the capacity to be subject-of-a-life (range property), and must be accorded rights.

  10. For an overall critique of such egalitarian perspectives and a defence of the proportionality principle, see Knapp (2009).

  11. In their attempt to make sense of the 1992 Swiss constitutional reform recognizing dignity (Würde) to living beings, Balzer et al. (2000) even more clearly incur similar problems. Indeed, they claim that a concept of dignity suitable to animals consists in the idea that all biological entities having a good of their own have an inherent value. Clearly, there are huge variations in dignity and no determinate prescriptive implications follow because the mere ascription of inherent value grants only a minimal moral considerability whose importance should, though, be weighed against other interests. For similar critiques to this position see Jaber (2002).

  12. I am grateful to an anonymous journal’s reviewer for pressing me also to consider these uses of dignity.

  13. Anderson (2004, 281) takes up the same problem and claims that animals have a dignity that bars us from ridiculing them, for instance by taking a dog and “spray-painting graffiti on its fur”. On this view, dignity is not a standard inherent in animals independent of their relations with humans, because the dignity of an animal “is what is required to make it decent for human society, for the particular, species-specific ways in which humans relate to them” (Anderson 2004, 282). Again, in this account too, it is not clear how the normative content of animal dignity does not stem from an anthropomorphization of animals.


  • Anderson E (2004) Animal rights and the values of nonhuman life. In: Sunstein CR, Nussbaum MC (eds) Animal rights. Current debates and new directions. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 277–298

    Google Scholar 

  • Balzer P, Rippe KP, Schaber P (2000) Two concepts of dignity for humans and non-human organisms in the context of genetic engineering? J Agric Environ Ethics 13:7–27

    Google Scholar 

  • Bird C (2013) Dignity as a moral concept. Soc Philos Policy 30(1–2):150–176

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carter I (2011) Respect and the basis of equality. Ethics 121(3):538–571

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cataldi SL (2002) Animals and the concept of dignity: critical reflections on a circus performance. Ethics Environ 7(2):104–126

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Claassen R (2014) Human dignity in the capability approach. In: Düwell M, Braarvig J, Brownsword R, Mieth D (eds) The Cambridge handbook of human dignity. Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 240–249

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Cochrane A (2010) Undignified bioethics. Bioethics 24(5):234–241

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gavrell Ortiz SE (2004) Beyond welfare. Animal integrity, animal dignity, and genetic engineering. Ethics Environ 9(1):94–120

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jaber D (2002) Human dignity and the dignity of creatures. J Agric Environ Ethics 13:29–42

    Google Scholar 

  • Knapp C (2009) Species inegalitarianism as a matter of principle. J Appl Philos 26(2):174–189

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Korsgaard K (2005) Two distinctions in goodness. In: Rønnow-Rasmussen T, Zimmerman MJ (eds) Recent work on intrinsic value. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 77–96

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Macklin R (2003) Dignity is a useless concept. Br Med J 327(7429):1419–1420

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Meyer M (2001) The simple dignity of sentient life: speciesism and human dignity. J Soc Philos 32(2):115–126

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nussbaum M (2006) Frontiers of justice. Disability, nationality, species membership. The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass

    Google Scholar 

  • Nussbaum M (2009) Human dignity and political entitlements. In: Lanigan BT (ed) Human dignity and bioethics. Nova, New York, pp 245–264

    Google Scholar 

  • Regan T (1983) The case for animal rights. Routledge & Kegan, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Schroeder D (2012) Human rights and human dignity. An appeal to separate the conjoined twins. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 15:323–335

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Taylor PW (1986) Respect for nature: a theory of environmental ethics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

    Google Scholar 

Download references


The research for this paper has been supported by the Italian Ministry of University and Research – FIRB 2010 – ‘Feeding’ Respect. Food Policies and Minority Claims in Multicultural Societies, and by the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Research Fellowship Politics and Animals. Addressing the Disagreement about the Treatment of Animals. I am grateful to Emanuela Ceva, Corrado Del Bò, Suzy Killmister, Josh Milburn and two journal’s anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of this paper.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Federico Zuolo.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zuolo, F. Dignity and Animals. Does it Make Sense to Apply the Concept of Dignity to all Sentient Beings?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 1117–1130 (2016).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: