Many people may not know that “feminist ethics” joined the modern ethical conversation about animals as far back as the late 1970s. Ethics inspired by feminism is in part a reaction against forms of moral thinking that have a character determined largely by men. A “masculine” ethical modus operandi stresses ideals of impartiality, abstractness, distance, and rules.
The feminist “care ethic”, as it has been called, is a move to make philosophical room for moral thinking involving very different notions, such as those of sympathy, empathy, relationships, and particularity.
There are links between feminist ethics and animal ethics. Women have historically been on the receiving end of prejudice and oppression. Consequently, some feminists have perceived in animals an ignored and exploited group that to some degree recalls the historical situation of women.
Another important connection is that animals are not only fitting recipients of some of the ideals of feminist care ethics, they are, unlike non-marginalised groups, especially apt subjects for certain features of the “caring” stance. Being vulnerable and lacking a political voice of their own, they seem to require of us keen attitudes of sympathy and attention.
Josephine Donovan, a feminist animal care theorist, argues further that animals do after all have individual voices of their own, and ones which, if we are to be true to the caring ethic, must be listened to. The farmed pig, the companion dog, the laboratory monkey – these individuals have voices that give rise to ethical requirements. Moral status should be granted, Donovan says, to those “living creatures with whom one can communicate cognitively and emotionally as to their needs and wishes”.
It is in this way, she argues, that we can have a “dialogue” with animals. But can we really have a “dialogical” relationship with them? Ludwig Wittgenstein, as Donovan notes, famously remarked that if a lion could speak we couldn’t understand him. Like many other philosophers, Donovan thinks that Wittgenstein’s remark is simply not true: we could understand the talking lion and, moreover, we can have a kind of dialogue with the lion who cannot speak. We can do this by using mental and emotional capacities to read the lion’s needs and wishes from his behaviour.
This ability to read, and also communicate with, non-human others is essential to Donovan’s animal care ethic. Because animals can sometimes be hard to read, or because it is easy for us to ignore what they “say”, we need to have capacities like openness, sensitivity, empathy, and imagination.
It is important not to misunderstand what they want. Consider how easy it is to fail to help another person even though we were trying to help her, simply because we haven’t listened or looked, or because we imposed our opinions on her, or were more interested in “doing good” than in finding out what that would consist in.
Furthermore, through practice and exposure we can actually cultivate a discipline of attention and care toward animals. However, the “ethic of care” demands more than just understanding and communicating with the other. To illustrate this, Donovan cites the recent work of Susan Sontag. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag investigated how people respond to images of pain, like photographs war atrocities. A person who has no compassionate or empathetic response is a “moral monster”. But many people who respond with this sort of natural emotion do not thereby necessarily act ethically, observed Sontag. In fact, the compassion may be completely shoved aside by various “ideologies”. Also, the sympathy that children feel may be extinguished through education which tells them it is juvenile and inappropriate.
It is not hard to guess the general direction in which this ethic of care points. The relationship we have with each animal must be redirected away from the perpetual “conquest of an alien object”, and towards a conversation with the animal through attention to its revealed and communicated needs and wants. Humans must refrain from “imposing their voice on that of animals” by speaking for them, as opposed to carefully listening and then responding with ethically appropriate action. That, of course, is what one does when one is actively caring for, and listening to, a vulnerable person such as a younger family member or a sick neighbour – even when those individuals, because of their circumstances, cannot speak to us through human language.
One criticism of the animal care ethic is that it does not tell us how to treat animals when there are conflicts, such as clashes between human needs and wants and animal needs and wants. Can we kill them for food? Experiment on them? May we wear them? For Donovan and others, the first important step is to recognise that animals are telling us what they need and want, if only we would listen to them. She cites the Jain proverb: “All beings are fond of life; they like pleasure and hate pain, shun destruction and like to live, they long to live. To all life is dear”.
Another important point to realise, Donovan says, is that often the conflicts are not as troubling as we imagined – so long as we have really committed to the caring ethic of listening to the animals. In other words, if we have understood the importance of the fact that animals too “long to live”, then we surely could not be said to properly care for them when they are treated in many common ways. Not surprisingly, it is an aspect of this feminist-inspired approach that we should also want to change the political structures that cloud the requirements of an ethic of caring and make them harder to live up to.