Marti Kheel

nature ethics: book excerpt

from Chapter 1: Finding a Niche for All Animals


This project was inspired by my frustration with the inadequate consideration of animals within the larger field of nature ethics. My interest arose out of the pain and empathy I experienced upon learning of the harrowing treatment of other–than–human animals throughout modern society. To understand how people could condone so much suffering and how to eliminate it, I turned to the philosophical literature on "animal liberation" or "animal rights." In the work I read, I discovered a plethora of arguments founded upon rational principles and abstract rules. Two of the most influential philosophers of animal advocacy, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, present distinct theories, yet both devalue personal and affective ties.

Peter Singer develops a preference–based, utilitarian moral theory, founded upon the idea of the shared capacity of humans and other–than–humans for sentience.49 According to Singer, if moral consideration derives from the ability to suffer, and if animals share this capacity with human beings, it is only logical that animals should be included within the scope of moral concern. Tom Regan, on the other hand, argues that moral considerability derives from the idea that animals (or, more specifically, mammals of one year or more) are "subjects of a life." If beings are "subjects of a life," according to Regan, they may be said to have "inherent value," and if they have "inherent value," they must therefore be accorded "rights."50

Although I am sympathetic to Singer's and Regan's quest to find a socially acceptable basis for ending the exploitation and suffering of the majority of other–than–human animals, the criteria that they use to advance their cause do not accord with my personal experience. Singer claims that nowhere in his book did he "appeal to his readers' emotions where they cannot be supported by reason,"51 and yet it was emotional outrage that had kindled my interest in the animal advocacy movement. Although he does not ostensibly "ground" his argument in appeals to emotion, his detailed and poignant description of the plight of other–than–human animals in laboratories and factory farms exerted a powerful emotional influence upon me. Furthermore, the logic of Singer's and Regan's arguments leads them to disconcerting conclusions. Singer's emphasis on the singular notion of sentience leads him to conclude that killing an animal may be acceptable if it is performed without the infliction of pain. He argues that a being that cannot see itself as an entity with a future cannot have a preference about its future existence.52 Nonconscious beings, who are unaware of themselves as "distinct entities," are, therefore, "replaceable" within a preference–based utilitarian framework.53 Thus, the enjoyment that a human derives from eating meat justifies the killing of a chicken, as long as that chicken led a good life, is killed without the infliction of pain, and is replaced with another chicken who enjoys life equally. By contrast, the human ability for self–conscious thought (shared only by such creatures as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, and whales) "makes their suffering worse."54 Thus, persons, unlike animals, should never be killed since the thwarting of their future plans would subject them to undue suffering.

Like Singer, Regan's ethic allows for the killing of some other–than–human animals as opposed to humans. He, too, argues for the human capacity for self–consciousness and, in particular, the ability to project one's plans into the future. Regan argues that in a lifeboat scenario, it would be acceptable to throw over "one million dogs" to save four human beings.55 Each of the one million dogs may be sacrificed for failing to meet Regan's criteria for human subjectivity.

Regan, like Singer, discounts feelings of empathy and care as morally significant factors in ethical thought.56 In The Thee Generation, he critiques thefeminist idea of an ethic of care for its inability to extend beyond one's immediate circle of friends.57 According to Regan, only the universalizing power of rights logic can lead to the realization that one should extend care. "Whether I care or not [emotionally for the neighbors' children], I ought to and it is logic that leads me to the realization of this 'ought.'"58

The moral criteria used by Singer and Regan run counter not only to my own experience and intuition, but also to my feminist views. Both emphasize in distinct ways the moral importance of the capacity for autonomy, deliberation, and the ability to engage in future projects.59 Yet these are the very qualities that many feminists have identified as common masculinist ideals within the Western tradition. The competitive paradigm, exemplified by the lifeboat scenario, also demonstrates the dualistic and atomistic worldview that feminists have associated with masculinism, in which the well–being of one group occurs at the expense of others. The lifeboat dilemma depicts a tragic drama, leading ineluctably toward the "sacrifice" of some for the well–being of others.60 Life, however, rarely presents itself as a simple dualism. I have come to believe that it is lifeboat scenarios that should be thrown overboard!

Equally disturbing for me was Singer and Regan's reduction of nature to a backdrop for humans and other–than–human animals. Regan's "rights" and Singer's "equal consideration" for preferences exclude such entities as mountains, rivers, and forests. Although the moral borderline is reconfigured so as to allow some other–than–humans entry into the realm of moral considerability, the rest of the natural world is left behind.61

Dissatisfied with the moral philosophies of the animal advocacy movement, I turned to the holist theories in the field of nature ethics in the hope of encountering more inclusive ideas. Once again, I encountered a tendency to neglect the role of empathy and care for individual beings. Individual animals appear to be swallowed up or "sacrificed" for the larger "whole." Holist theories particularly neglect domestic animals, who are typically considered irrelevant or detrimental to the ecological arena and hence of no direct moral concern for nature philosophers. Expressing a common view, the philosopher J. Baird Callicott argued in a controversial article that "environmental ethics sets a very low priority on domestic animals as they very frequently contribute to the erosion of the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic communities into which they have been insinuated."62

Still hoping to find a more inclusive nature philosophy, I turned to the literature in ecophilosophy. Ecophilosophers held forth a promise of incorporating feelings of care through their emphasis on the importance of experience and personal consciousness. Once again, however, I was disappointed to learn that reverence and respect among ecophilosophers often did not extend to individual other–than–human animals, but rather to "species" or the "land." Both environmental ethicists and ecophilosophers invoked Leopold's dictum to "think like a mountain," but virtually none spoke of thinking like an animal in a laboratory or factory farm.

I first encountered Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac in a class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the school where he had taught. The teacher was eager to impress upon his students Leopold's love of nature and the significance of his attempt to bring the larger community or the "land" into the orbit of moral concern. Despite the teacher's best efforts, what impressed me most deeply was my shock and horror at Leopold's vivid accounts of the delight that he experienced while hunting. Where, I pondered, was Leopold's love and respect for birds, deers, and other animals when he was shooting them? Was there, in fact, a place for individual animals within Leopold's notion of the "land community"? And for what reasons did he wish to preserve the "land"?

Feeling discouraged with the nature philosophies I had encountered, I turned to ecofeminism in hopes of finding a more hospitable niche for otherthan– human animals. I was disappointed, however, to discover that ecofeminists too often displayed a similar absence of concern for other–than–humans. With noticeable exceptions, such as Carol Adams, Greta Gaard, and Lori Gruen, ecofeminists rarely discussed other animals; nor did they write about vegetarianism.63 Although ecofeminists embraced a holist philosophy, often little was said about what this meant in everyday practice.

I was beginning to suspect that the neglect of other–than–humans was not an incidental aspect of the Western nature philosophies, but rather central to it.

49. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: Avon Books, 1975).

50. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

51. Singer, Animal Liberation, x.

52. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 80.

53. Singer, Practical Ethics, 104, 102. This argument appears in Singer's Practical Ethics and is overlooked by those who are only familiar with Singer's more popular Animal Liberation. Singer attempts to soften the pernicious implications of his thesis by pointing to its limited applications: "It cannot justify factory farming, where animals do not have pleasant lives. Nor does it normally justify the killing of wild animals . . . the shooting of a duck does not lead to its replacement by another . . . though there are situations in which it is not wrong to kill animals, these situations are special ones, and do not cover very many of the billions of premature deaths humans inflict, year after year, on nonhumans." Practical Ethics, 105.

54. Singer, Practical Ethics, 51.

55. Regan, Animal Rights, 325.

56. Regan, Animal Rights, 199.

57. Tom Regan, The Thee Generation: Reflections on the Coming Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

58. Regan, Thee Generation, 140. For a critique of Regan's emphasis on logic over feelings of care in moral theory, see Josephine Donovan, "Attention to Suffering: Sympathy as a Basis for Ethical Treatment of Animals," in Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, ed. Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams (New York: Continuum Publishing, 2000). Donovan asks, "Isn't it unlikely that one would stop to figure out principles of logic and consistency to determine an appropriate moral action, if say [the neighbor's children] were crying in pain?" (157). For additional feminist critiques of mainstream animal rights theories, see Cuomo, Feminism and Ecological Communities, 91–98; Marti Kheel, "The Liberation of Nature: A Circular Affair," Environmental Ethics 7, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 135–149; and Brian Luke, "Taming Ourselves or Going Feral? Toward a Nonpatriarchal Metaethic of Animal Liberation," in Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, ed. Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), 290–319.

59. Although both Singer and Regan emphasize the moral importance of the ability to project oneself into the future, the theoretical bases to their arguments are distinct. Regan draws on the Kantian tradition's emphasis on the moral importance of self–conscious reflection. For Singer, by contrast, self–consciousness is morally significant because of its implication for the increased capacity to suffer. Despite their distinct grounds of argumentation, both philosophies share a focus on the masculinist ideal of autonomy.

60. Joseph Mellon critiques mainstream philosophy's emphasis on crisis situations, and in particular the spurious logic of developing a hierarchy of value based upon decision–making in dramatic, lifeboat scenarios, where rational decision–making is hardly the norm. Joseph Mellon, "Nature Ethics without Theory" (PhD diss., University of Oregon, 1989).

61. Regan seems to show some concern over the limitation of his own ethic. In his words, "But limiting the class of beings that have inherent value to the class of living beings seems to be an arbitrary decision and one that does not serve well as the basis for an environmental ethic. . . . If I am right, the development of what can properly be called an environmental ethic requires that we postulate inherent value in nature." Tom Regan, All That Dwell Therein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 202–203.

62. J. Baird Callicott, "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," in In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, ed. J. Baird Callicott (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 37. In a subsequent article, Callicott attempted to make amends for his former stridency, arguing for moral obligations to animals based upon the "social instincts." However, the "social instincts" still sanction the use of domestic animals for work and allow their slaughter for food, due to an "evolved and unspoken social contract between man and beast [sic]." J. Baird Callicott, "Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Back Together Again," in Callicott, In Defense of the Land Ethic, 56.

63. For ecofeminists who focus on concern for other–than–human animals, see the anthologies of Greta Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Adams and Donovan, Animals and Women; and Donovan and Adams, Beyond Animal Rights. Also see Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist–Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1990).

Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, by Marti Kheel, published by Rowman & Littlefield, Copyright © 2008. Excerpted by permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Dissatisfied with the moral philosophies of the animal advocacy movement, I turned to the holist theories in the field of nature ethics in the hope of encountering more inclusive ideas. Once again, I encountered a tendency to neglect the role of empathy and care for individual beings. Individual animals appear to be swallowed up or "sacrificed" for the larger "whole." Holist theories particularly neglect domestic animals, who are typically considered irrelevant or detrimental to the ecological arena and hence of no direct moral concern for nature philosophers.

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