Dignity, Difference, and the Representation of Nature

AuthorJoshua Foa Dienstag
Published date01 August 2021
Date01 August 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(4) 613 –636
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720966284
Dignity, Difference, and
the Representation of
Joshua Foa Dienstag1
In the past few decades, political theorists have attempted to articulate a
nontheological basis for a special human place in the moral universe. These
attempts, I argue, generally fall into two groups, one centered around the
concept of “dignity” and the other around ideas of “difference.” Both of these
attempts ultimately fail, I maintain, but their failures are instructive and help
us along a path toward a better kind of relationship with nature and the earth
as well as one another. In the face of increased scientific knowledge about the
environment, animals, and our own species, we have every reason to recalibrate
our stance toward nature as a whole. But in doing so we must acknowledge
that the human relationship with nature is ultimately a representative one that
can therefore never achieve the kind of reciprocity available in human society.
Whatever form our respect for nature takes, it will always be distinct from
the relationships we have with those we consider co-citizens.
human, dignity, difference, representation, nature, language
Our planet’s surface is covered by living beings of great variety. We could
group them by their location, their mating practices, their abilities, their color,
or many other criteria. But whichever mode of sorting we choose, we will
1UCLA/Political Science, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joshua Foa Dienstag, UCLA/Political Science, 4289 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472,
Email: jfdienstag@me.com
966284PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720966284Political TheoryDienstag
614 Political Theory 49(4)
find that all earthly beings routinely interact across the boundaries that any
such intellectual partition would create. No group, kind, or species is ecologi-
cally separated from all the others; all are part of one functional system.
Indeed, it has been widely argued that species boundaries themselves, while
a useful and convenient intellectual fiction in many practical circumstances,
are in fact artifacts of biological inquiry and not at all “natural kinds” (in the
philosophical sense).1 In fact, scientists disagree on what the concept of
“species” means and on exactly how to draw species boundaries.2 Whether
Neanderthals are members of the same species as modern humans, for exam-
ple, depends not only on biological facts but also on the species definition
one employs.3 These disagreements make it difficult, if not impossible, for
political theory to rely on science or scientists to provide us with firm bound-
aries with which to make important moral and political distinctions. If such
distinctions are to hold water they must be made within moral and political
theory itself.
These facts about nature and science (or more precisely, this lack of rele-
vant facts) are neither a moral nor a political crisis by themselves, but they do
call into question any attempt to create or recognize a singular category of
rights-bearing beings—humans—with “the right to have rights” (as Hannah
Arendt put it), who we are especially bound to protect, honor, respect, or treat
in any way in particular. If there is to be any such category we cannot simply
ask a biologist, or any kind of scientist, to mark it out for us. We must find
another way.4
Of course there are many today who doubt the need for such a category or
actively oppose its centrality to moral or political theory, a group we can col-
lectively call posthumanist, even if they arrive at this position from different
directions. Animal rights theorists like Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka,
Tom Regan, and Alasdair Cochrane maintain that moral standing and politi-
cal rights ought to derive from the subjectivity or sentience that many ani-
mals possess. While not denying elements of human distinctiveness, they all
argue for some version of “sentientist democracy” (Cochrane) where rights
and citizenship are broadly conferred across species, and representation of
nonhuman interests is a core duty.5 Many green and indigenous theorists such
as Christopher Stone, Paul Taylor, Val Plumwood, Robyn Eckersley, Glen
Sean Coulthard, and John Dryzek generally commit to a “respect for nature”
(Taylor) that involves a radical diminution of human stature and a restriction
of any special claims on behalf of humans.6 Thirdly, the new materialism of
writers like Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour envisions an even more radical
“parliament of things” (Latour) where the nature to be represented politically
is not limited to the living or biologically organized but encompasses all
“agentic assemblages” (Bennett) that display vitality.7 Few of these theorists,

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