Emotions and making sense of animals

Many think that in order to persuade others to become vegan, all that is needed is more information of animal minds and moral value. Its no wonder: Western cultures have tended to define human beings as primarily rational creatures. What we do is based on information and thereby reason – right?

Well, not exactly. Recent years have witnessed an “affective turn” across sciences, which points out how human decision-making and morality is often guided by cultural presumptions and emotions rather than reason and information. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is one of the most prominent scholars, who has emphasized how most of what we think, do and say is governed by what he terms “social intuitions” and emotions, and the same claim has been reiterated by many. Applied to animal ethics, this means that if someone thinks that killing and eating a pig is morally justified, she is likely to base this on assumptions she inherited from her social surroundings, and her emotions (say, superiority) toward pigs. In sum, we are most of all social, emotive creatures, who form also our everyday animal ethics on grounds of what we feel toward animals, and how others around us relate to pigs, cows or hens.

Therefore, in order to alter attitudes to animals toward a more positive direction (the type that acknowledges their minds, needs and inherent value), attention needs to be placed on social presumptions and emotions. How do our societies and cultures push (often false) presumptions concerning nonhuman creatures on us? How do they teach us to feel toward, say, pigs?


Emotions as Concepts

One way to combine these two – the social realm and emotions – is to pay focus on concepts. Recent research by scholars such as the neuropsychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has pointed out that emotions are ways of making reality meaningful; they help us to make sense of the world. Indeed, emotions are nothing less than conceptualisations, or concepts. Like words, they signify reality for us: they define it and make it matter. Crucially, like other concepts, we learn them from our social environments – from our families, friends, marketing, media, and so forth.

Since we are born, we are taught what different emotions are and when we are to feel them, and with these learnt emotions we go on to make sense of ourselves and others, including nonhuman animals. Classic philosophers from centuries ago, including David Hume and Baruch Spinoza, argued that morality stems from emotions. Those things, which cause us pain, sorrow or discomfort, are “bad”, those that cause us pleasure or joy, are “good”, and from thereon we begin to form our moral beliefs (reason gets into the picture too, but what matters is that at the core of morality, emotions rule). The contemporary scholars’ new approach to emotions helps to illuminate this process.

The implications for animal ethics are obvious. We learn emotions from social contexts, and those emotions again go on to govern how we define, value and treat other animals. This explains why offering reasoned information does not suffice; important as it is to speak of the minds, moral value, and maltreatment of animals, something much weightier is needed in order to effect a larger-scale change. Information is urgently required, but by itself is not enough. This task is simple: altering how we are taught to feel about animals.

In order to recognize why this is vital, its good to explore “emotions as concepts” a little further. For a long time, it was presumed that emotions are innate and universal. Already Charles Darwin argued, in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), that emotions are the product of evolution and as such inbuilt into all humans (and indeed animals). According to this view, emotions just “happen”, and they do this despite of our cultural background. The “constructivist take on emotions”, supported by scholars such as Barrett, on the other hand, points out that emotions are actively made and culturally constructed. They do not just “happen”, but we make them happen on the basis of our personal histories and cultural or social influences.

How this creation takes place is simple. As described by the cognitive scientist Lawrence Barsalou, our brains (and bodies) are constantly seeking the best concept with which to interpret incoming stimuli. They are working with incredible speed in order to make sense of all the sights, sounds, sensations, and other affects or events that are constantly flooding over and within us, and they do this by resorting partly to past experience. The aim is to favour that concept, which best predicts what will happen next, and in order to do this, the past is used as a navigator. If in the past anger got us out of sticky situations, we might also in the future conceptualise similar situations with anger. And crucially, if we were told by our caretakers that anger is the perfect response to, say, competition or injury, we are more likely to resort back to anger in our old age. Thereby, our minds create categories (concepts), with which to predict what will happen, and emotions are one such tool of sense-making. We create our emotions, and they, again, create our understanding of the world. And since those emotions are partly learned from social environments, also our “world” is socially constituted.

When rummaging through all the incoming stimuli concerning pigeons, raccoons, bees or horses, our minds thereby choose the concept, which it has learned to be the best way of making sense of these animals. If we have been taught to feel superiority, disgust or culinary greed in regard to pigs, or fear and hate in regards to wolves, we are more likely to use these emotions as the concepts, with which to “explain” pigs and wolves. Thereby, our understanding of pigs may be almost wholly based on emotions, which we have partly learned from our cultures. “The pig” becomes a creation of emotions, whether we notice this or not.

The dark side of this process is that negative emotions are prone to spark the idea that animals do not have minds, or that they only have instrumental value. “The pig” – what we understand pigs to be like – emerges as a purely instinctual being whose sole function is to turn into bacon. This notion can have a self-evident feel about it, precisely because it is grounded on emotions, and when the background emotions remain hidden, it can be extremely difficult to challenge the notion with reasoned arguments alone.

The risk is that animals become distant, object-like and insignificant. This destructive pattern is made all the more potent by a culture, which is filled with imagery that labels animals as cognitively inferior products toward whom one does not need to feel empathy, wonder or love. When many meet animals primarily via supermarket meat sections, and when kids learn early on that a chicken is a bit of flesh on a plate undeserving of compassion (or when even at best we are offered “disneyfied”, cute, cartoon-like animals that have no resemblance to actual, living and breathing cows or fishes), our emotions toward animals become hollow, and lack the type of fiber that would make us feel connected to them.


Hopeful Goals

Yet, there is also hope. The fact that us humans so easily follow social example (“the social intuitions” mentioned above) means that also more positive ways of relating to nonhuman creatures can become common. The more people talk of animals in ways that spark morally empowering and helpful emotions, such as empathy, care, awe, or joy, the more these emotions will begin to root and spread in cultural attitudes, and the more they will thereby be present also in individual human minds. We need positive emotion concepts, with which to make sense of animals, and these concepts need to be socially circulated.

Therefore, in order to make our species more capable of nurturing also animal flourishing, beneficial emotions need to be sparked among both social institutions (education, law, marketing, and so forth) and individuals. The task is to persuade ourselves and others to form “emotion concepts” that acknowledge animal minds, vulnerability and agency. If kids were to learn early on that empathy is a perfectly good emotion concept in regards to cows, and sorrow “the correct” way of making sense of their death, the cultural definitions of and attitudes toward cows could be radically more considerate and inclusive. Moreover, if we as adults were exposed more frequently to individuals, who relate to cows and hens with empathy and wonder, popular conceptions of “the cow” or “the hen” would be all the more progressive. What is needed is repetition – more and more of us speaking of animals in ways capable of inviting positive emotions. Altering everyday animal ethics becomes a matter of persuasion, whereby morally fruitful emotions are made central.

Next to repetition, another foundation for persuasion is found from shared goals. The scholars, who advocate the constructivist view of emotions, also point out how concepts are formed around goals. This is why they can alter from one context to another so rapidly; our concepts are constantly reshaped in order to fit different goals. To give a simple example, if one’s goal is to love or be loved, concepts concerning others will be exceedingly distinct from a situation, where one’s goal is to gain power. Our goals, then, impact our emotions. In highly anthropocentric, competitive and hierarchical cultures, goals fixed to other animals all too easily revolve around how to make use of them in the most efficient way. In a different cultural landscape that recognizes the way in which we are but one species on a finite planet, surrounded by other vulnerable, worthy creatures, the goals could be quite different. Here, the aim would be the flourishing and survival of all – humans and other animals.

It is reflection on these goals – highlighting how we are embedded in beautiful yet fragile connections with our natural environments and nonhuman kin – which is perhaps the most powerful tool of persuading people to take other animals more seriously into account. If our goal is to enable both human and nonhuman flourishing, our emotion concepts will be radically more productive and our sense-making more attuned to animal needs. Here, reflection entwines with emotions, and reasoned thinking with our affective realms.

Focusing attention on what we want, what our goal is, is thereby one key to changing the varieties of emotions with which humans make sense of animals. According to the constructivist take on emotions, our most central goal is to enable our own survival, and we create the type of emotions, which we presume to best serve this goal. But what if our goal was not only our own survival, but also the survival of other animals? In the era of the sixth mass extinction and animal industries, could it be the time to shift the aim from “me” to “us”, and from human animals to all animals? Changing the goal from self-centred to all-inclusive could provide a drastic revision of how people feel and think about, and make sense of animals. If we were to aim to ensure also animal survival, our emotions would be bound to notice also their distinct yet spectacular agencies, from which us humans have much to learn.

In order to create cultures that support also animal thriving, we thereby need consistent persuasion toward positive emotions. A pig is a very different being when perceived via empathy, wonder and joy rather than superiority. And such persuasion, again, is good to build on reconfiguring our goals, and explicitly asking our societies and fellow-humans, what they are aiming for. The simple question, then, is this: Do we wish to exist in hierarchical, greedy, power-orientated and pained societies, or do wish to live in a world that supports the flourishing of all, regardless of their species?




Barrett, Lisa. 2017. How Emotions are Made. New York: Mariner Books.

Barrett LF, Gross J, Christensen TC, Benvenuto M. 2001. “Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation”. Cognition & Emotion 15, 713–724.

Barsalou, L.W. 2009. “Simulation, situated conceptualization, and prediction”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, 364, 1281-1289.

Darwin, Charles. 1872. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment”. Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

Hume, David. 1969. A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Penguin Books.

Wilson-Mendenhall, C.D., & Barsalou, L.W. 2016. “A fundamental role for conceptual processing in emotion”. In L.F. Barrett, M. Lewis, & J.M. Haviland-Jones (eds.), Handbook of Emotions. New York: Guilford Press.



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