Conceptions of NHA dignity may be appealing due to the thought that it is wrong, for instance, to dress a bear in a tutu and have her ride a unicycle beyond the fact that it is unpleasant for the bear. Indeed, we may feel that there is something wrong even if the bear does not mind and lives a fulfilled, happy life. A dignity- based argument against companion veganism would claim that companions are treated in an undignified way if fed vegan diets. Precisely why depends on the particular conception of NHA dignity, of which there are numerous conflicting accounts. For example, Elizabeth Anderson claims that “[t]he dignity of an animal, whether human or nonhuman, is what is required to make it [sic] decent for human society, for the particular, species-specific ways in which humans relate to them” (2005, 283). Lori Gruen’s account, on the other hand, is almost the polar opposite. She says that “[m]aking other animals ‘decent for human society’ is precisely what it means to deny them their dignity”; instead, “we dignify the wildness [of NHAs] when we respect their behaviors as meaningful to them and recognize that their lives are theirs to live” (2011, 154-55).
It is not clear how either of these accounts could oppose veganism for companions; in making companions vegan, we precisely make them “decent” for NHA-respecting society, while, as they are not “wild,” the extent to which companions could have “wild dignity” is unclear. Tying carnivorous diets to dignity is thus a problem with these “relational” approaches to NHA dignity, but it is even more so with “individualist” accounts of NHA dignity, which tie dignity to some kind of trans-specific capacity.3 Take Michael Meyer’s account (2001), according to which all sentient beings possess “simple dignity.” Simple dignity, though, is more about moral standing than about particular kinds of treatment, so it seems that simple dignity and vegan diets have no clear relationship, diminishing its usefulness to the opponent of companion veganism.
Martha Nussbaum’s (2006) account is a paradigm example of the “species- based” approach to dignity. She says that a NHA’s dignified existence
would seem at least to include the following: adequate 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 and opportunities for rewarding interactions with other creatures of the same species, and of different species; a chance to enjoy the light and air in tranquility. (326)
This account is placed within Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, according to which justice is about endorsing various key capabilities. Capabilities are inherently species-dependent (resting upon a controversial Aristotelian notion of “species”), and so whether a companion has an important capability tied to flesh-eating, meaning it would be disrespectful to endorse veganism for that companion, depends on how we understand that companion’s species. If a dog is understood as a member of the species Canis lupus, along with wolves, then perhaps she has an important flesh-eating capability. If dogs are members of the species C. familiaris, then this possibility is less plausible: the species has arisen in tandem with humans, and so human norms would define that species’ norms. The same is true of cats, whom we may understand as members of Felis silvestris, along with wildcats, or as members of F. catus. However, even if we consider dogs and cats to be members of Canis lupus and Felis silvestris respectively, veganism need not be undignified. Nussbaum argues that
[s]ome capabilities are actually bad, and should be inhibited by law... .
No constitution protects capabilities qua capabilities. There must be prior evaluation, deciding which are good, and, among the good, which are most central, most clearly involved in defining the minimum conditions for a life with ... dignity. (2006, 166)4
The mere fact some NHA has the capacity to л; does not mean that she could not have a dignified life without л. As I have argued, we do have good reason to believe that companions’ eating of flesh is “actually bad,” and so it is not the kind of capability we should promote. Nussbaum openly endorses this kind of picture; she argues that the natural is not always good (400), and indicates that NHAs’ “harm-causing capabilities” are probably “not among those that should be protected by political and social principles” (369). By way of example, she points to a zoo that, rather than providing her with prey, provides a tiger with a ball on a rope (370-71). “Wherever predatory animals are living under direct human support and control,” she suggests, “these solutions seem to be the most ethically sound” (371). Though vegan companions are not mentioned, it seems to be the same kind of problem, and so warrants the same kind of solution. Ultimately, Nussbaum’s account offers no support for the suggestion that we feed flesh to our companions, while her own words seemingly oppose the practice.
I have suggested that key accounts of NHA dignity do not support the claim that we should feed companions flesh, but, in so doing, have taken for granted that accounts of NHA dignity can be useful at all. This idea is controversial (Cochrane 2010; Zuolo 2016). It is possible, first, that dignity does not add anything to existing discussions (Macklin 2003) and that accounts of dignity are reducible to other concepts. If so, accounts of NHA dignity fail the requirement that they are non-redundant (Zuolo 2016, 3). Furthermore, accounts like Meyer’s, although serving to confer moral worth or standing on individual NHAs, do not offer guidance for action (Zuolo 2016, 3), and so offer little to the present question. Issues of space mean that exploration of problems with dignity is impossible, but it is worth noting a final worry often raised: that appeals to “dignity” are pure rhetoric, and that the term is used merely to justify whatever it is that is being defended. This idea is put eloquently by Singer, who notes that “[p]hilosophers frequently introduce ideas of dignity ... at the point at which other reasons appear to be lacking, but this is hardly good enough. Fine phrases are the last resource of those who have run out of arguments” (1974, 113; cf. Macklin 2003). So, not only is it unclear how a dignity argument could ground opposition to vegan diets for companions, but there is an open question about the value of dignity arguments (especially in animal ethics) in the first place.