Dignity Beyond the Human: A Deontic Account of the Moral Status of Animals

Student thesis: Phd


Dignity is traditionally thought to apply to almost all and almost only humans. However, I argue that an account of a distinctly human dignity cannot achieve a coherent and non-arbitrary justification; either it must exclude some humans or include some nonhumans. This conclusion is not as worrying as might be first thought. Rather than attempting to vindicate human dignity, dignity should extend beyond the human, to include a range of nonhuman animals. Not only can we develop a widely inclusive account of dignity by pursuing this route, but we can still defend the three core principles that lie at the heart of contemporary thinking about dignity: that bearers of dignity possess dignity to an equal degree, in virtue of possessing the same intrinsic worth, and that this generates direct and claimable rights. I thus develop an account of dignity that includes nonhuman animals. I argue that the capacity to value most plausibly grounds dignity. This capacity arises from valenced sentience: a being values insofar as they have experiences that matter to them. I then characterise what follows from this. First, I contend that it is only the capacity to value grounds dignity because this produces the most plausible, simplest, and most explanatorily powerful account of dignity. We ought to reject pluralist accounts which assert a sharp distinction between bearers and non-bearers of rational agency, and biocentric accounts which include non-sentient organic entities. Second, I argue this property grounds an account of dignity that is non-hierarchical. There are no degrees of dignity. Instead, all possessors of the capacity to value have the same kind of intrinsic value, and the same equal fundamental right: to consideration of their interest in leading a life of value. Finally, I argue that since the fundamental right is to consideration, moral agents have claimable duties to engage in a deliberative procedure with actionable requirements. Specific rights are instantiations of this general procedure. Certain revisionist conclusions follow on my view, for instance, that nonhumans should be given greater weight and inclusion in a far wider range of cases, but my account is sensitive to the range of different things different beings value, so it does not generate counterintuitive implications. I conclude that dignity extends beyond the human.
Date of Award31 Dec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRichard Child (Supervisor) & Liam Shields (Supervisor)


  • Intrinsic Value
  • Obligation
  • Deontic
  • Moral Equality
  • Sentience
  • Moral Status
  • Animal Rights
  • Human Rights
  • Dignity
  • Animal Ethics

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