Sociologically, because human beings are social animals, we may be regarded as being free and unfree at the same time. Through influential processes of socialisation, our groups make and shape us. However, it may be noted that, in part, "the dialectics of freedom and dependence" means that -at some stages- there can be opportunities to "choose groups." For there should be no impression given that socialisation processes can successfully manufacture an utterly homogenous population.
Rather, individuals are socialised into particular and varied social groups and worldviews whose values may oppose - and be opposed by – other groups. After early childhood, there are greater chances to change - or even form – these all-important groups. In this "multi-group situation," according to social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, individuals often judge other members of humanity by reference to an imaginary line, a continuum, which is based on the notion of social distance.
Social distance grows, Bauman argues, "as social intercourse shrinks in its volume and intensity." Variations in social distance involves a decrease or increase in empathy or "fellow feeling" based on feelings of mental and moral proximity regulated or influenced by physical and/or psychic distance. This, then, is the social construction of morally important "in" and "out" groups populated by "us" as opposed to "them." Bauman argues that "we" and "they"
- do not stand just for two separate groups of people, but for the distinction between two totally different attitudes - between emotional attachment and antipathy, trust and suspicion, security and fear, cooperativeness and pugnacity.
Bauman also says that "the ‘We’ group stands for the group to which I belong":
- What happens inside this group, I understand well - and since I understand, I know how to go on, I feel secure and at home. The group is, so to speak, my natural habitat, the place where I like to be and to which I return with a feeling of relief.
However, the "They" group:
- stands for a group to which I either cannot or do not wish to belong. My vision of what is going on in that group is thereby vague and fragmentary, I poorly comprehend its conduct, and hence what that group is doing is to me by and large unpredictable and by the same token frightening.
Bauman maintains that part of being "trained to live" in a world constructed by human beings involves making boundaries that are "as exact as possible."
This exactness is important because it is necessary that boundaries are both easily noticed and unambiguously understood.
Bauman argues that this is a matter of supreme importance. He notes that, "well-marked boundaries send us an unmistakable signal" in terms of expectations and in relation to which learned patterns of conduct to employ. Following Georg Simmel, Bauman describes how others perceived as strangers can be seen as less morally valuable than non-strangers. Others seen as strangers - by definition, cases in which moral proximity can be regarded as reduced - means that moral responsibility toward them can be correspondingly lessened.
The lack of moral proximity results in the increased possibility of overcoming the "animal pity" which Bauman - citing Hannah Arendt - argues is the basis of morality and is generated by humans beings being with each other. 
In other words, a moral "proximity lack" means that social actors have no special need to abide by the usual ethical character of human relationships. However, this is not to say that, necessarily, strangers are automatically treated like "enemies." But, importantly, they may be and, if they are, this can mean that strangers are liable to end up being "deprived of that protection which only moral proximity may offer."
There are different "levels" in ideas of moral proximity - but "civil inattention" may be only a "short step away" from the more serious notion of "moral indifference." Both may lead to "heartlessness" and a "disregard for the needs of others." According to Bauman, the construction of stranger creates the outsider classification: "They" are conceptualised as different; an important building block to forge a feeling of unity – a unity between insiders. Such feelings of unity may be genuine or may be merely desired.
Such elements are part and parcel of "the community type of belonging." At its most basic and obvious, a "community" does not exist if the factors that unite people are weaker than the factors that divide them. What is essential, and Bauman suggests that this is an "overwhelming consideration," is a certain similarity between community members. As a "community" is idealised, its perception is all the stronger during times when it does not need to be talked about. In these circumstances, the "hold of community" can be significant: normative strength is gained through its very invisibility.
The very idea of "community" is so sociologically important that it may simply exist as a postulate (an assumption without proof). It is therefore assumed that community exists even though it may be "an expression of desire, a clarion call to close the ranks, rather than a reality." Constructions of community are so vital, argues Bauman, that:
- we attempt...to bring to life, or keep alive, or resuscitate a community of meanings and beliefs which has never existed ‘naturally,' or is already about to fall apart, or is to rise again from the ashes.
In effect, then, a social community is largely an ideological construct, no doubt effectively serving many useful and necessary ends for the social beings inside it (some more than others to be sure), not least in the drawing of the apparently essential boundaries between "us" and "them."
Once constructed, boundaries need - naturally enough - to be jealously, or at least studiously, guarded.
Important attention must, therefore, be given to gate-keeping activities. After all, insiders and outsiders cannot merely choose themselves in an unregulated manner. Ways of deciding who’s who are crucial material and on-going requirements. Bauman has argued that the "universe of moral obligations" is, in fact, "non-universal." In this, the sense of "social closure" is clearly seen and felt. However, there also exists the additional sense of moral closure. Again, for this, means of differentiation are extremely important.
While it is a sociological convention to focus on notions of social class, "race," and gender to explore social differences which may result in levels of inequality, in relation to issues of morality, Bauman appears to acknowledge and accept that perhaps the deepest divide is based on species membership.
For example, he argues that humans are most likely to remain categorised as moral subjects if they can remain categorised as human beings. Humans have evolved notions that "being human," on its own, entitles the subject to special treatment: treatment reserved for human beings only, and regarded (at least in theory) as the proper treatment of every human being.
As some building block or consequence of human rights thinking, this construction of "proper treatment" is so strong, Bauman claims, that "one may even say that the concepts of a ‘moral object’ and ‘human being’ have the same referent - their respective scopes overlap." In terms of moral proximity and physical treatment, there is, of course, a flip-side to this:
- Whenever certain persons or categories of people are denied the right to our moral responsibility, they are treated as ‘lesser humans’, ‘flawed humans’, ‘not fully human’, or downright ‘non-human’.
If simply being ‘less-than-human’ can be a serious threat to one’s moral standing, the apparently thoroughly unforgiving status of nonhuman puts one far away from the likelihood of being treated as morally valuable.
Thus, historically, some early human communities deliberately described themselves with names that literally meant "human," thus automatically casting all "outsiders" and "others" into nonhuman categories and therefore beyond the boundary of ethical concern. By the same token, human slaves have been traditionally regarded as nonhuman beings - or as distant "beast-like" barbarians.
Bauman, however, – in the light of his analysis of the rational, bureaucratic and ultimately "modern" Nazi Holocaust - comments that, "Our century has been notorious for the appearance of highly influential worldviews that called for the exclusion of whole categories of the population - classes, nations, races, religions - from the universe of moral obligations."
The Exercise of Exclusion: Moral Closure.
Philosopher Tom Regan  also examines the notion of the non-universal nature of the universe of moral obligations. In a chapter entitled, "Patterns of Resistance," Regan outlines how religious and scientific ideas have been used throughout history to attempt to block access to the "moral universe." He argues that, regardless (and because) of the use of the phrase "all men" in the North American Declaration of Independence, not every person was deemed to be possessors of the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Clearly exploring notions of processes of moral closure, Regan asserts that, "the plain fact is that not all humans, not even all men, were included under the rubric ‘all men.’" Regan focuses his attention on four excluded groups: African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and animals other than human.
He details the patterns of resistance that were (and are) utilised to preserve their exclusion from the moral "in-group." This historical exercise of exclusion is the history of boundary building, boundary guarding and boundary maintenance for the benefit of moral insiders, initially of course "white male property owners." According to Regan, exclusion results in the construction of what he regards as a "less than ideal" moral community. He asks, "How do the beneficiaries of membership in a less than ideal moral community act to retain their privileged status?"
Brute force is one frequently employed option, he says, but there are other powerful social institutions that can also assist in the process of exclusion, such as religious and scientific ones. Although these are the forces he chooses to concentrate analysis on, Regan immediately acknowledges that other social institutions are involved as well, not least those of economics and politics, and "the sheer power of custom, including popular culture - the media, the songs that are sung, [and] the art of the times."
It has been argued that humour plays an important sociocultural and ideological role in society, featuring as it does in popular culture, songs and, indeed, the ‘art of the times’. Humour can play a substantial role in terms of social control and resistance to such control.
Thus, through a "jokelore," social and political values can be transmitted within and between societies and, as theorists Chris Powell & George Paton point out, sociologists of all people should appreciate that extracting any human activity from its social context is problematic and unwise.
Christie Davies’ chapter in Powell & Paton’s collection on "stupidity and rationality" is supportive of Bauman’s contention about the moral benefits of "insider status" - as well as having something significant to say about human-nonhuman relations.
For instance, Davies writes that people of various nationalities often use humour to poke fun at and, more seriously, denigrate both the social and moral standing of selected others. Thus, the British have traditionally told jokes about the Irish, North Americans have told jokes about the Polish, the French aim their humour at Belgians and so on.
Davies claims such jokes enjoy an "enormous and universal popularity." Moreover, part of their ideological function is to present or construct a group of people who are characterised as "stupid outsiders." This is not a small or inconsequential matter, he argues, because people have a "deep-seated" need to manufacture these outsiders.
Davies’ position thus underlines Bauman’s perspective on the social significance of moral distance and the corresponding link to notions of moral respect. For example, he writes, by telling jokes about the stupidity of a group on the periphery of their society, people can place this despised and feared quality at a distance and gain reassurance that they and the members of their own group are not stupid or irrational.
Davies reproduces a selection of the jokes to reveal the "stupidity" of the victim population: the butts of the joke. In one example, the way of suggesting that a targeted human being is a stupid person is to indicate the possession of less intelligence than a nonhuman animal.
This joke concerns a rocket being launched with a crew of one human [a representative of the victim population] and one chimpanzee. Every so often the chimpanzee is instructed by "mission control" to complete complicated and important flight and safety tasks inside the rocket. Unemployed throughout, eventually the human gets extremely irritated and restful; but then his orders finally arrive. They read: "feed the chimpanzee."
On one level, the human is simply denigrated by being shown to be intellectually and hierarchically inferior to the chimpanzee pilot. However, whenever chimpanzees have been blasted into space they have been sent there as experimental animals and "scientific" models. Thus - in this joke - this human and the other animal share the same designation of an "experimental tool" or "model," even though the chimp is given superior status.
Keeping the focus on the position of the human, and recalling Bauman’s "holocaust thesis," which discusses depersonalised humans ~ that is, humans-conceptualised-as-nonhuman-animals ~ being subjected to experimental procedures, it seems to be suggested in the joke that once human beings can be said to share the same referent as "animal," then they may be used in potentially stressful, painful or lethal experiments.
However, as in many jokes, the status of the nonhuman as an exploitable and legitimately "harmable" being, while essential for the internal logic of the joke, is silently assumed as a given reality.
In another example, Davies reproduces a north American joke about a Polish couple who buy chickens and proceed to plant them in the ground like vegetables. Their stupidity is predicated on their surprise that the birds died.
However, the deaths - and the property status of the chickens - are not important, or problematic, within the internal logic of the joke.
After all, it is this very lack of importance which leads Bauman, citing Stanley Milgram’s infamous social psychological experiments about authority, to warn that any successful "moving away" of people from the status of human being is likely to lead to negative consequences for the individuals involved. The process of dehumanisation can only "work" (function) if the successful transformation of humans to the status of nonhuman is widely understood as an act that is imbued with sociopolitical and hierarchical meanings.
In other words, intentionally placing humans into a category of "animal" in order to subsequently exploit or oppress them would seem to serve little purpose if many other animals were not already constructed as potentially exploitable or, for various reasons, "killable" (ideologically "cullable") beings; or "human resources" and so on.
 Bauman, Z. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Oxford: Polity. Such sentiments can be traced at least as far back as Rousseau who claimed that human beings were made weak and "more brutish" by society: they were "naturally" gentle and noble (cited in Adrian Franklin’s Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animal Relations in Modernity. London: Sage, 1999).
 Midgley, M. (1983) Animals and Why They Matter. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
 Stephen Clark, writing about the philosophy of Aristotle in, Clark, S. R. L. (1985) "Good Dogs and Other Animals," in P. Singer (ed.) In Defence of Animals. Oxord: Blackwell.
 Regan, T. (2001) Defending Animal Rights. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
 Regan points out, however, that he is not denying that scientific and religious ideas have played a "positive role" and challenged the exclusion of the groups under discussion.
 Powell, C. & Paton, G.E.C. (1988) Humour in Society: Resistance and Control. Aldershot: Arena.
 Of course, the fact that human beings are animals is largely irrelevant. Human beings tend to call each other animals when they want to insult each other – or when they make comments about sexual prowess – they do not generally do it as a simply status description.