“Animal Lover”: Emotionalism vs. Objectivity in Animal Rights

A day after writing about the importance of seeking animal rights through the emotional love we have for animals (previous post), I came across this passage by the Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey, a pre-eminent supporter of moral rights for animals:

Rights talk moves the discussion away from feelings and sympathy to what is objectively owed to animals as a matter of justice. This represents an improvement on previous appeals to care based purely on emotion, which is typified in the expression “animal lover.”  (Why Animal Suffering Matters, 161)

I love Linzey’s work. But I think the theologian errs in this commentary: first, he unjustifiably separates thought and emotion; second, he forgets that there are multiple paths to social change.  Humans do not connect with ideas in a vacuum. We’re drawn to “objective” criteria through the vagaries of our emotional lives. Linzey’s fear here is legitimate, to be sure. He’s worried about the cat lover who just adores her cat–and thus all cats–but cannot seem to extend this emotional fetish to all animals in general. As Linzey sees the matter, emotionalism obscures the transcendent principle of animal rights. This is a fair concern, but–given that, on some level, we all negotiate the world of ideas through our emotions–I think it would be more productive to spin our innate love for animals in a more optimistic direction.

Specifically, I see nothing standing in the way of abstracting from an emotional attachment. In other words, loving a particular animal or species strikes me as a useful, and readily accessible, starting point towards an appreciation of objective animal rights. I love the dogs I live with (well, most of the time) and, although I’ve never spent significant time with pigs, I can certainly imagine loving pigs much as I do dogs. That’s a leap–but a pretty realistic one. Once that leap is made, the groundwork is laid for an objective, rights based approach to conceptualizing animals. To think this journey can be emotionless is to defuse the passion that drives our connection to the non-human animal world. I have no problem admitting that my “objective” right-based stance on animals has its roots in a sentiment for dogs dripping with the sap of emotion.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

5 Responses to “Animal Lover”: Emotionalism vs. Objectivity in Animal Rights

  1. timgier says:

    If not for love, there would be no need for justice.

  2. Pingback: Just love for others | tim gier

  3. Provoked says:

    I believe that it’s true – The more we interact with other beings – The more our preconceived notions about them are challenged.

    It was once a luxury to engage on a daily basis with nonhuman “pet” companions beyond what their utility was. Dogs helped with herding or guarding… Cats were there for rodent control… But all that has changed and it’s given people an opportunity to make the leap to love them just for who they are and not how they “serve”. It’s allowed for the thrill of “letting animals amaze us” – Just because they are incredible on their own!

    I think we have a great advantage that our culture does feel a great emotional attachment to their fur and feathered friends – Pot-bellied pigs to parrots… Dogs to chickens. I’m sure it’s a gateway to end our speciesist stupor.

  4. BlessUsAll says:

    I like what JM, TG, and PV say.

    But I also agree with AL.

    How can that be?

    Because in our exhortations on behalf of animals, we do well to appeal to the most prominent trait in each individual. I quoted this William Lloyd Garrison line in another EATING PLANTS post recently, and it bears repeating here: “With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; ….” Meaning, to me: With people who respond to arguments of justice and fairness, I will invoke justice; and with tenderhearted people, I will call upon their compassion.

    I think as our concept of love extends beyond emotional bonds with a few individuals to spiritual affection for all — in which we don’t even need an object of our love in order to be loving in our thoughts, words and actions — proportionately our concept of just treatment of each and every sentient being deepens and broadens.

    And vice versa. As we understand that it is morally and legally right to apply equal justice to those of other races, ranks, religions, regions AND SPECIES, we are evidencing love for our neighbor — not personal attachment, but impersonal, impartial, unselfish care for everyone. This agape love (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agape) is color-blind, class-blind, creed-blind, country-blind AND SPECIES-BLIND.

    The bottom line, for me, is that all sentient, sapient beings are really spiritual members of one universal family. In truth, we are all guided and governed by a higher-than-human standard of justice: divine Principle. And we all emanate from and express a higher-than-human source of love: divine Love.

  5. Debbie says:

    I so agree with BlessUsAll’s comments that our appeals must be framed to meet the view from the standpoint of the audience. However where we differ is the concept of a spiritual family. I’m not sure what, if any belief I have in a higher power or divine connections. Yet I don’t believe that I need a spiritual belief to have emotional bonds with all beings or to fight for moral justice for non-human animals. Sentient beings deserve a life free of pain and slavery simple because they are sentient beings. The very real pain I felt when my dog Toni died a few weeks ago would not have been any less or more overwhelming if I believed she had a spiritual life beyond this brief time with me.

    I’m at a crossroads I guess. I’m not absolutely sure what I believe about spirituality but I am absolutely sure that my reasons for being vegan and the pain I feel when I hear about suffering of animals is no less than what it would be if I believed in a spiritual, universal family.

    Right is right and justice is not dependent on the belief in a spiritual connection.

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