Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

More Than Life: Human Dignity and the Problem of Rights

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

More Than Life: Human Dignity and the Problem of Rights

Article excerpt

This essay interrogates the concept of "dignity" underlying rights discourse in order to show that the extension of human rights to animals is both oxymoronic and counter-productive. Because dignity signifies the sovereign power to transcend life, human rights theory would be better served by what Jacques Derrida calls a "power" of "not-being-able."

Early on in The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida draws attention to what he describes as "a subjection of the animal" of "unprecedented proportions" (25, emph. Derrida's). It entails a level of violence and cruelty, he says, that "some would compare to the worst cases of genocide." And, he adds in parentheses, "there are also animal genocides: the number of species endangered because of man takes one's breath away" (26). I cite these lines to indicate right away my sympathy with them, but also because, as Derrida goes on to argue, these facts open up immense questions of compassion, ethics, and responsibility. No one can deny, he says, that animals can suffer. They can experience terror, or panic, or fright (28). But what is the significance of this reality, if it is acknowledged, if it is understood, with respect to our understanding of and response to the treatment of animals by human beings? Does it mean, for example, that we ought therefore to extend universal rights to other (non-human) animals, just as we have tried to do in response to human suffering?

To be sure, the response to situations in which human beings are cruelly abused or oppressed by other human beings--the response to human terror or panic or fright in the face of genocides and massive cruelty and a state's egregious abuse of power--has repeatedly been the instantiation of various declarations of rights. Such rights have been established, specifically, in the name and on the grounds of "human dignity," at least since 1948. And so it would not seem far-fetched to propose a declaration of animal rights, such as was proclaimed in Paris at the UNESCO headquarters in 1978, according to Derrida, and later revised and published by the International League of Animal Rights in 1989 (Animal 87). This latest declaration does not use the term "dignity," but it does explicitly state in its Preamble that "the respect of animals by humans is inseparable from the respect of men for each other" (qtd. in Animal 169n37). The problem, here, is this: if "the inherent dignity [...] of all members of the human family" is, as the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Rights avers, the basis of that respect and of those rights, then the extension of human rights to nonhuman beings (i.e., to animals, or even to sentient or feeling machines) could result only in what Derrida calls a "disastrous contradiction" (Derrida and Roudinesco 65). For the "dignity" at the foundation of human rights connotes a life that is worth more than life. The phrase itself thus serves to distinguish the human being by definition from the animal that is merely alive, and so not "alive enough," to borrow Shelly Turkle's phrase, to merit rights (28-29). Thus, the contradiction at issue in extending human rights to animals is precisely, as Derrida puts it, that "it would reproduce the philosophical and juridical machine thanks to which the exploitation of animal material for food, work, experimentation, etc., has been practiced (and tyrannically so, that is, through an abuse of power)" (Derrida and Roudinesco 65).

In what follows, therefore, I elaborate on the problematic notion of "human dignity" with respect to its underlying (philosophical and juridical) assumptions. I do so in order to underscore in the first place that it would indeed be disastrous to extend that basis of respect, the foundation of human rights, to animals. But I do so also to underscore, in the second place, that given the precise and particular meaning of the ostensible "dignity" of human "life," human beings may be no more meritorious than animals. …

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