Many feminist and ecofeminist theorists have criticised the traditional and patriarchal approaches to animal ethics for overvaluing reason as a tool for moral decision making. Erin McKenna concludes in “Feminism and Vegetarianism: A Critique of Peter Singer” a major shift in “legitimizing feelings and desires” needs to happen for people to truly break their habits in regards to non-human animal treatment (McKenna 34). In this paper, I will examine the feature of an ecofeminist ethical framework that advocates for taking emotions and ethics of care seriously.
I will address the objection that one could make that emotion is unreliable because everyone has different relationships to animals, which would in turn could lead to biased decisions about eating and using animals. While it is important to consider individual differences in how strongly one feels emotionally connected to non-human animals, there is an issue with the idea that one can full ascend past their emotional connections when making decisions. Additionally, I will examine how it is important to recognize why emotions are often associated with unreliability as a form of patriarchal oppression.
Ultimately, I will defend the facet of ecofeminist theory that takes emotion and care seriously and explore the ways in which incorporating emotion into ethical decisions, in a Western, industrialized context, could lead to deeper commitments to avoid eating or using animals.
At the most fundamental level, as Karen Warren explains in “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism”, ecofeminist ethics are based on being against ways of thinking that justify a “logic of domination” (Warren 128).
In ecofeminism, a “logic of domination” justifies and maintains subordination (128). The two main ways that logic of domination is justified is through “value-hierarchical thinking” and “value-dualisms” (128). “Value-hierarchical thinking” is defined as giving more value to what is at the top of a hierarchy and giving less value to what is low. (128) “Value-dualisms” are binaries in which one element is in a position of dominance or power, and one is dominated. When reason and emotion are viewed as a “value-dualism,” as they often are, typically emotion is the dominated side and they in conflict rather than in harmony with each other. An ecofeminist framework “makes a central place for values of care, love, friendship, trust, and appropriate reciprocity” (143). It is also noted that there are certainly circumstances when “rights,” “utility,” and “rules” are “useful and appropriate” (140). Another important element to note about the emotion-reason binary, along with most other “value-dualism” pairs, is that there are connections within the pair between the dominant and dominated, along with connections between the things being dominated. An example of one of these intersections between the things being dominated has been pointed out by ecofeminists that within the “value-dualism” of reason vs emotion there is a gendered element. To be able to reason as an impartial, autonomous individual is traditionally thought of as a masculine quality (Kheel 336).
Using the framework of ecofeminism to be critical of this reason-emotion or justice-care binary, it is interesting to look at how these forces play a role in making choices about how to treat non-human animals. Breaking away from the view that devalues emotion and care is a necessary step to welcome them as valid tools for making ethical choices about how we consume, or refuse to consume, animals on an individual level. Once emotion and care are included in these discussions, we can start to consider how these intuitive forces are ignored or embraced and how that affects the choices we make. As mentioned in slightly different ways by ecofeminists, there is a common theme in “vegetarian feminism” in that there is a shift in thinking about non-human animals as “others,” to thinking about them as beings that are exploited and commodified under the same “oppressive conceptual frameworks” as other marginalized groups (Gaard). This does not mean that they are oppressed in the exact same ways and it would be inappropriate to essentialize the individual experience of oppression. However, for some people, acknowledging this allows for the potential to have a deeper emotional connection and relationship with non-human animals. This way of thinking about non-human animals, that can be seen as embracing sympathy and caring, can be empowering for people as they begin to see these connections of oppressive systems. Additionally, in cases where humans do not feel emotionally compelled or in caring relationships with animals, the ecofeminist perspective will make an effort to contextualize this lack of emotion and try to understand what systems are in place that allow that to happen.
It would be possible for one to object to an appeal to emotion in trying to convince people to treat animals with respect, because not everyone is an “animal lover” or has an emotional connection to any or all non-human animals. There could certainly be negative implications of appealing to emotion in this way, because it is true that this could lead to biased decisions and it is true some people don’t feel emotionally attached to all, if any, non-human animals. For example, if we were driven by emotional connection, we would probably avoid eating our family pet, but maybe still eat other animals packaged and marketed as meat from the grocery store. In the case of hunting for sport or pleasure, in a Western, industrialized context, it seems clear that the hunter does not react to killing the prey in any emotional way. What if someone has a friend who was killed by a bear and they are full of rage; should they follow their emotional drive that is telling them to get revenge on the bear by stealing it’s cub to keep it as a pet? These objections and questions bring up the importance of the reliability of emotions and caring.
First, I will respond to the question of why one might be emotionally driven to eat meat from a grocery store, but still avoid eating their pet. The animals killed for consumption in factory farms are processed so heavily into a disconnected product, that it is hard to break from the dominant norm and see it as what once was a living animal. There are so many mechanisms in place to prevent any emotional connection to these animals because it would have negative impacts on factory farming as a money making system. Just a few of these mechanisms are the isolation of slaughterhouses, the renaming of animal body parts, and the commodification of these body parts. In “Justice, Care, and Animal Liberation,” Brian Luke points out that when directly confronted with seeing animals in slaughterhouses most people are repulsed and feel bad for the animals (Luke 103). This similar phenomenon can be seen in the reactions some people have when confronted with watching videos of what happens in factory farms. Of course, the reactions vary across individuals, but there is a pattern of people reporting feeling guilt about their participation in the cruelty that goes on unnoticed by so many.
I will now respond to the question about what happens when there is a lack of emotion presented at the sight of an animal being killed, in the case of a sport or pleasure hunter. In this case, it may be helpful to ask why the hunter has no emotional reaction to being directly confronted with the death of an animal. Marti Kheel points out in “Vegetarianism and Ecofeminism: Toppling Patriarchy with a Fork” that hunting is a traditionally masculine activity that has connection to “rites of passage,” “class,” and “status” (Kheel 330). An ecofeminist approach to understanding the lack of emotion the hunter has will likely result in an analysis that discusses the way in which men are traditionally taught at a young age to reject and repress their emotions. In terms of the question of getting revenge on the bear, an ecofeminist perspective that takes into account this emotion of rage would certainly want to consider the emotions that person is feeling, but also consider a logical view that the bear will probably not learn not to kill a human again from this act. Ecofeminism would also ask the person trying to seek revenge if that rage is deeply rooted in a need for control over nature and non-human animals and question that in context. Overall, the ecofeminist response to these objections is that you always need to look at the context in which the act is happening. Just because there are different emotional reactions to witnessing animals getting killed, does not mean that emotions are unreliable, it just means that they are dependent on what kind of relationships and contexts the person is in.
The implications of the views defended in this paper show that there are many valid ways to go about deciding to abstain from killing and eating animals, some ways may be grounded in reason, while some may be driven by emotional instincts. Seeing both ways as acceptable is a crucial part of the work of ecofeminism because it is an effort to include a wider variety of perspectives and see nuances in the ways that these decisions are made. Shifting the emphasis away from only rational arguments for avoiding killing and eating animals, to a more hybridized approach, is crucial for understanding and contextualizing these arguments. Ecofeminists do not suggest ignoring the external or rational arguments for thinking about the ethics of killing, eating, and using animals. However, emotions and caring are extremely important forces in the way the majority of people in the Western, industrialized context make choices about what animals to eat and when to kill them for food. To ignore the influence, or lack of influence, they play in this process is to ignore a huge part of both the individual and the whole narrative.