Being Careful about Caring: Feminism and Animal Ethics
Feminist care ethics can be appraised positively and otherwise.
Abstract. The book under review is found to be peerless in its quality as an offering in its niche. This collection also surpasses its predecessor-volume, Beyond Animal Rights, in being open to rights discourse. Yet the new version still carries unsustainable stereotypes about rights. The call for an ethic that embodies what Marti Keel calls a "unity of reason and emotion" rings as true today as ever. At the same time, talking about empathizing with rocks is bizarre. Also, simply depending on empathy or sympathy is an insufficient guide for ethics. For example, some sympathy may conduce towards going along with aggression. Or empathy can present the possibility of exploiting a deep understanding of others. Moreover, if one has insufficient compassion, one cannot be asked simply to adopt another's particular compassion. As well, ethic of care theorists are moral particularists who do not act on abstract principles such as compassion, so that is no way of enlarging one's caring either in this feminist tradition. Caring about seeking the good and avoiding the bad is suggested as a partial route for the development of this problematic ethic of care family of theories in animal ethics.
Donovan, Josephine and Carol J. Adams (eds.). The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 392 pp.
This book is dubbed a reader, and is without peer in that capacity. Serious students in (feminist) animal ethics should read it closely. It is a successor publication to a collection by the same editors, Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals (1996). The newer book contains all but one of the old readings. The former title would not do, for although many criticisms of rights are repeated, some of the contributors affirm animal rights as well as "caring."
Highlights include the seminal "Liberation of Nature" by Marti Kheel, Josephine Donavan's history of sympathy in animal ethics (the best paper of its kind I think), and Kenneth Shapiro's findings that animal activists are more "caring" than intellectual or philosophical. This collection newly offers Part II: Responses. Thomas Kelch has an article reconciling caring with rights; Grace Clement thoughtfully comments on care, justice and wildlife; Catherine MacKinnon has a "fragment" on animal rights; and Donovan features her piece at the end on listening to what animals are "telling" us. Part II increases the attraction of the project. I miss Rita C. Manning's essay, "Caring for Animals" from Beyond though, as it applies caring to particular animals - a favored piece with several students I have taught.
This review is long, recognizing the importance of the collection. I will discuss thematically to encourage a coherent approach. First I will give well-deserved praises, then explore caring in relation to animal rights, and next apply criticism - together with a suggestion of a possible "way out" of the objections.
One noteworthy and not unexpected contribution of the book is its fostering of an understanding and analysis of the ethic of care as it pertains to animals. This ethic derives from Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (1982). Donovan succinctly summarizes the ethic: "…sympathy, compassion, and caring are the ground upon which theory about human treatment of animals should be constructed." (Donovan in Donovan and Adams, 2007, p. 174  ; see also Kelch, p. 240) Donovan also refers to Simone Weil's notion of "attentive love." (p. 76) That Donovan's characterization leaves out empathy here is controversial. She objects that one can "lose oneself" in empathy, (p. 176) whereas Gruen conversely maintains that sympathy is "too distant" and so prefers empathy. (p. 338) The animal rights ethic in my doctoral dissertation, based in "deep empathy" (with sympathy hovering in the backdrop) was called ethical empathism, a variety of the ethic of care (although since I included rights, I was not sure at the time). (Sztybel, 2000)
The editors' Introduction explains that they reject abstract, rule-based principles in favor of situation-based, contextual ethics. (p. 2) Attending to particulars and narratives (pp. 2-3) and listening to what animals "tell" us is valued. (p. 4) The approach rejects patriarchy's hierarchy and domination (p. 2; see also Gruen, p. 87) and is also politically engaged. (p. 3) The editors endorse "cultural feminism," I suppose defying biological determinists who sometimes "excuse" male aggression as, say, caused by testosterone.
Another great service of the book is its highlighting of the importance of affect (which technically includes emotions and desires, although these authors seem only to dwell on emotions). Kheel writes: "What seems to be lacking in much of the literature in environmental ethics (and in ethics in general) is the open admission that we cannot even begin to talk about the issue of ethics unless we admit that we care (or feel something)." (p. 48) She is right. Indeed, I can illustrate this claim. In psychiatry, anhedonia is a condition associated with severe depression. The victims cannot feel pleasure. If such a person were also catatonic, he/she could not take any interest in good, duty, virtue, etc.
Kheel famously calls for a "unity of reason and emotion." (p. 48; see also Morgan cited in Slicer, p. 114) The stress on emotions is particularly relevant to animal ethics, Donovan cites Mary Midgley as holding, because we have more emotional than intellectual fellowship with other animals. (p. 59) Adams stresses that emotions and theories are compatible, (p. 200) and Cathryn Bailey finds promising any account that emphasizes the continuity of reason and emotion. (p. 356) Donovan cites René Descartes as denying emotional knowledge, (p. 69) and both Peter Singer (1990) and Tom Regan (1983) are legitimately observed to suppress the significance of emotions in their classic animal ethics books, Animal Liberation and The Case for Animal Rights, respectively. (p. 59; see also Adams, p. 200; Kelch, p. 241) Adams objects that emotions are socially constructed as "feminine" and so unreliable. (p. 200) However, there are problems with simply relying on emotions as we will consider below.
The collection also helpfully stresses attention to unique individuals. Singer and Regan, Deborah Slicer observes, give moral status to those who are like humans but they do not celebrate differences. (p. 109) Kheel states that science emphasizes the general over the particular (p. 50) (although I would point out that scientific studies of particular mountains, say, do occur) and Donovan complains that science makes individuals repeatable, replaceable and capable of being captured by concepts. (p. 66) This may be a bit hard on scientific thinkers, who can indeed consider individuals, but the importance of attending to unique beings is still worth making.
Finally, the book compellingly emphasizes the import of "listening" to animals. The editors see animals as "communicative others" who tell us they do not want to be eaten. (p. 13; see also Donovan, pp. 76, 360-369 and MacKinnon, p. 325) However, do animals sometimes communicate that aggression is acceptable? We need to be careful here. Jurgen Habermas expounds his "discourse ethics" but people can talk endlessly without coming to agreement, among other problems. (Sztybel, 2009, pp. 108-110)
Deane Curtin questions whether rights are the best conceptual tools for exploring feminist insights about ecological ethics. (p. 87) His ecofeminism well parallels the ethic of care. Still, I do not find this volume's objections to rights convincing:
Clement praises her colleagues' objections to rights as "valuable." (p. 303) It is a pity though that the editors did not adjust their prejudicial stereotypes about rights advocates over the years between Beyond and the current book. At least they include new authors who respect rights as well as caring.
Donovan states that she is not saying that rights should be abolished, (p. 187) and James Garbarino emphasizes both "a general ethic of caring" (p. 252) and rights because they help curb abuses. Like Garbarino, in the "Responses" part Kelch advocates an ethic of care but praises the protective powers of rights and their ability to help combat oppression. (p. 262) Kelch complains that Regan's "subject-of-a-life" criterion for rights involves complex cognition, (p. 240) but Kelch himself stresses that reciprocal communication is one of the factors upon which he bases rights. (p. 230) Ironically, that might be more cognitively demanding than Regan's requirements.
Some of the points in the book have pros and cons associated with them. Samantha Power points out that Rwandans were killed for their being rather than doing, and Adams extends this to animals as killed for being. (p. 26) Sometimes. Yet most animals are killed for their use-value(s), and even pests are killed not typically out of sheer hatred for animals but because these creatures' doings conflict with human interests. Marxism is called by the editors a promising approach to animal ethics, (p. 7) but while there is economic exploitation to consider, and I myself have shown how the communist slogan logically leads to animal rights or some other equally high bar of treatment, (Sztybel, 1997) Karl Marx is a Cartesian who denies consciousness to animals (Sztybel, 2009, p. 116) and there are numerous other problems with Marxism. (Ibid., pp. 98-104) Donovan states that "Regan builds his case [for animal rights] primarily by refuting Kant," (p. 60) yet Regan (1983) devotes scant attention to Immanuel Kant (although it matters), and in fact adopts a neo-Kantian rights view, as he himself indicates. (Regan, 2001, p. 17)
Brian Luke disputes the rationalists' (Singer and Regan) emphasis on similarities such as pain and death, pointing out that to Kant, only losses to rational beings matter. (p. 126) Thus Luke shows that consistency alone does not rule in favor of animal rights. True, but rights depend on more than just consistency in most theories. Luke also attacks the argument from marginal cases which states that since we give rights to mentally disadvantaged humans (a term I use to name this argument instead, which does not "marginalize" these people) we should consistently award rights to animals who also have limited intellect. He rightly points out that, e.g., R. G. Frey protects neither marginal humans nor animals. He also finds that the so-called "argument from marginal cases" does not mean that we must vivisect these humans, but only that we may. (pp. 128-129) Luke's logic does not spare these humans though. There is an imperative to do medical research in general, so if there is no problem in using these humans, then it would be requisite to use them (which both Luke and I would abhor).
There are not many outright errors that I can detect in the text. Donovan refers to Regan's "absolutist stance that no animal's suffering is justifiable under any circumstances." (p. 63) However, Regan discourses extensively about cases in which it is justifiable to harm or attack. Kelch mistakenly ascribes telos talk to Regan (p. 243), an Aristotelian notion used by Bernard Rollin (1992) whom Kelch does not cite, although he mentions Robert Galvin. (p. 245) Respecting a being's telos means natural/instinctive ends, e.g., fish swimming.
Any problems I mention do not detract from what is positive about the book. This volume is indispensable to animal ethics in general and feminist scholarship in particular. Still, I have issues with the editors' casual references to "…the patriarchal roots of environmental exploitation,…" (p. 12; see also Adams, p. 198) Are animal exploiters mostly male? Most probably. Does stereotypical male aggression, emotional distance, etc. feed into animal exploitation? Most certainly. However, women also are to a considerable extent autonomous from males and some females need to take responsibility for their own lack of compassion and oppression of animals. Kheel writes that in their dealings with nature, "men" have much to learn from "women," citing Lyall Watson's musing: "the only hope may be to turn the world over to women." (p. 51) This includes sexist stereotypes against men, who also have things to teach, and overly valorizes women, who are not invariably virtuous. I recall Batya Bauman (to whom Beyond Animal Rights was dedicated), in an internet forum discussion dating back to the 1990s, telling everyone that men cannot even be feminists, an absurdity about agents that I will not dispute here. I think that Donovan is embarrassed by some of the anti-male overgeneralizations, and so very sensibly writes:
…one cannot simply turn uncritically to women as a group or to a female value system as a source for a humane relationship ethic with animals. While women have undoubtedly been less guilty of active abuse and destruction of animals than men…they nevertheless have been complicit in that abuse,… (p. 60)
Donovan's great good sense helps to balance out this problem, ironically, of sexist stereotypes. The latter arise, perhaps, from overcompensating for rampant sexism by males.
Sometimes feminist ethics is condemned as anti-rational. Donovan writes:
…the dominant strain in contemporary ethics reflects a male bias toward rationality, defined as the construction of abstract universals that elide not just the personal, the contextual, and the emotional, but also the political components of an ethical issue. (pp. 174-175)
Is reason associated with males and passion with females in our stereotypes? Yes. Must we perpetuate this? By no means. Women can be equally rational and reasoning is needed if anyone may ascend to truth through the complexities of ethical inquiry. Shapiro finds that moments of sympathy and caring are more prominent in the development of animal rights activists than philosophical positions or intellectual justifications. (p. 158) That is important, but he raises the spectre of an old joke - the idiot who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time - when he writes: "One cannot simultaneously infer and empathize, keep outside and go inside." (p. 160) However, we do reason about what constitutes faithful empathy.
Kheel, as noted above, speaks of a unity of reason and emotion, but she proclaims more than she reasons. Indeed, she concludes her essay by saying that we can never rationally prove why anyone should have rights, so: "Again, we fall back on the need to recognize and affirm the significance of feeling in our moral choices." (p. 47) Clement likewise expresses skepticism about "purely rational grounds" for "human entitlement to moral considerability," thinking that it "more likely depend[s] on a basic feeling or conviction we share about the importance of human beings…" (p. 303) My own rights framework actively uses both reason and emotional cognition, and maintains that we cannot simply rely on feelings. What if someone "does not feel like" awarding rights to animals or anyone else? To her credit, Clement balances out her account by noting that: "Our feelings may not provide infallible moral guidance, but sometimes they are all we have to appeal to." (pp. 303-304)
Kheel critiques Rollin for saying that the physical environment has no interests and is therefore "not a direct object of moral concern." (p. 42) Similarly, she faults Regan for giving moral status to "beings that can have a life that is better or worse for them…" since this "excludes from direct moral consideration such parts of nature as streams, mountains, and air." (p. 43) She objects that Regan has not argued for "the inherent value of all of nature." (p. 44) This erroneous interpretation is based on ignorance of Regan. In The Case for Animal Rights, he suggests explicitly that inherent value can be ascribed to rocks, rivers or trees, not just subjects of a life. (Regan, 1983, pp. 245-246) But I challenge both Regan and Kheel: why assign dignity to something that evidently does not care?
Slicer sympathetically cites Karen Warren on the domination of both sentient and nonsentient nature. (p. 112) What would a dominance display over a rock look like? My point is that rocks do not obviously care about how we act towards them. They seem to lack any mental capacity (barring outright animism). Yet Slicer continues that relationships with rocks and trees as well as dogs and cats "can and should enhance one's capacity to empathize, …feel with,' and act on behalf of others." (p. 120) How can one "empathize" with the point of view of a rock if it has no point of view? How can we "feel with" the rock if it has no feelings? How can we act on behalf of a rock if nothing and no one matters to it?
Not only is there a problem with dignifying things, but a bizarre sort of equality of things and people seems to be seriously advocated. Kheel, who again gives dignity to mountains in themselves, asserts:
…we cannot postulate that one species or one individual is of greater or lesser value than another. The attempt to formulate universal, rational rules of conduct ignores the constantly changing nature of reality. It also neglects the emotional-instinctive or spontaneous component in each particular situation. (p. 45)
So we cannot prefer to save a human or a squirrel over a rock? She continues to say that "…we are, indeed, all part of a whole of which no part may rationally be said to be more important than another." (p. 53) So it is not more important to attend to the concerns of starving children than the "concerns" of rocks?
Indeed, dilemma theory is often commented upon disdainfully by the ethic of care theorists. Donovan rejects either/or thinking in dilemmas, thinking that in most cases, it can be turned into both/and thinking. (p. 76) Perhaps. But what about unavoidable dilemmas? Doctors doing triage in emergency clinics face such quandaries every day, as do other crisis workers. Slicer also objects to hierarchies of choosing humans over animals in "dire cases" because a human "has more valuable potential experiences…" (p. 110) Can she justify this opinion?
Slicer warns that there is no pat formula for determining the relevance or weight of affective responses, and that it depends on particular narratives. (p. 113) Fair enough, but does that reduce to total arbitrariness? Kelch asserts that the emotive plays a role in rights, as do I, but he makes rather vague allusions, e.g., to David Hume rooting ethics in feelings, (p. 279) and Arthur Schopenhauer perceiving compassion as the basis for morality. (Ibid .) Kelch also offers his own arguments:
The vagueness of simple emotional appeals is also found when ethic of care advocates say we should situate ourselves and then see how we feel. True, spontaneous reactions to situations can be relevant. Adams recounts that losing her pony gave her trouble eating a hamburger that same night. (p. 199) Kheel in general urges us to ground ethics in practical experience (p. 50) and challenges that if one agrees with meat-eating, then one should visit a slaughterhouse. (p. 49) She admits that some will respond to situations with the urge to rape, enslave, etc. (p. 50) Slicer likewise praises the role of direct experience of factory farms and touts research lab tours, although she concedes that moral disagreement will not disappear. (p. 114) So what decisive use are such experiences for animal ethics if they are so ambiguous and indeterminate? They are germane to humane education though.
The editors proclaim that "…those who care about animals obviously do not destroy and consume them." (p. 13) Donovan states that it is clear that the care ethic means abolishing "carnivorism; the killing of live animals for clothing; hunting; the trapping of wildlife for fur…; rodeos; circuses; and factory farming," and also questions zoos and rejects certain kinds of vivisection (e.g., cosmetics and weapons testing). (p. 76) Gruen bases feminist vegetarian arguments on "the experiences of sympathy, empathy, and compassion." (p. 334) Yet plenty of people experience empathy and sympathy towards animals and still exploit them. It is therefore not so obvious what "caring" (quite ambiguous as a phenomenon or - what they would avoid - a principle) entails for animal ethics.
Indeed, Slicer hesitates over vivisection. She writes that "…for many people the question of whether animals should be used in research is more pertinently one of when they should be used and how they will be treated,…" (p. 116) She stresses that "nonroutine" animal research may be justifiable in "extreme situations." (p. 117) She defies "the rights community to justify their abolitionist stance" because of possible loss of "significant future benefits." (p. 117) After all, bonds to species, community, friends, family, or lovers should not count for nothing. (p. 118) So humans who are not in my community, or not my friends, family or lovers may be vivisected too - so long as there are promised "benefits" (though not to the victims)? She notes that: "Surely we will not and probably cannot have the same affection or degrees of affection for the cat or dog in the laboratory that we have for the animals in our households…" (p. 119) So now I am free to vivisect humans I am less affectionate towards? The speciesism here becomes apparent once we substitute human for nonhuman animals. When reading these passages, so reminiscent of utilitarian rationalizations of medical vivisection, abolitionist rights start to sound very good indeed. The practical vagueness of just appealing to "caring" may well prove damning.
Donovan tries to address head-on the objection that individual people are fickle in their feelings, and indeed sympathy is not evenly distributed across groups, so caring may not be universalizable. (p. 175) Donovan (p. 184) and Luke (p. 133) note Regan claims on these grounds that logic is what extends our concern to those we might not happen to care about. Donovan counters that if one's neighbour's children were in trouble, it is "unlikely that one would stop to figure out principles of logic and consistency to determine an appropriate moral action, if, say, those children were crying in pain…" (p. 184) Of course that is true, but irrelevant. Rationalists can have ingrained characters too. We also would not stop to figure out an ethic of care before helping these kids.
Aside from her ineffectual broadside against the appeal to reason, Donovan and others present arguments as to why sympathy is or may be universal:
I myself used to over-rely on empathy/sympathy ethics. I now think that I was wrong because of the above objections which care theorists have not successfully answered. There are also other problems with trying to universalize "caring" as a basis for ethics:
These concerns among others I raise elsewhere. (Sztybel, 2006, p. 12) How to find a way beyond these objections in further research?
I gratefully acknowledge: This evolving collection - stemming primarily from the thinking of tradition-building women such as Gilligan - has been an enduring source of inspiration for all of its years. My present views are partially an extension of "the feminist care tradition in animal ethics" mentioned in the subtitle - among other influences. "Best caring" as I call it is not a simple extension but a modified one since my theory includes many other elements.
I still believe that sympathy and empathy are morally relevant, but I would gently suggest that care theorists should argue that it is better to extend sympathy - or results in more good and less bad. This will meet resistance: Kheel again takes issue with Regan giving moral status to "beings that can have a life that is better or worse for them…" (p. 43) At the same time, seeds of this idea are already found in Adams saying she values caring "because it is good" (p. 201); Adams also attends to things we call bad, e.g., harm, pain, suffering, and oppression (p. 201; see also Scheler on suffering at Donovan, p. 184; Luke (pp. 129-130) cares about suffering and harm); Donovan refers to caring about "well-being" (p. 192) and hence the good; and Kelch bases rights in interests, since he notes that lives can go well or badly. (p. 243) The implication: caring seems better. So what forms of sympathy and empathy are morally relevant - and why?
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