Love toward nonhuman animals is a dividing notion. Some declare their love of animals eagerly, even if it’s reserved only for furry and cutesy creatures, not fishes or broilers. Some view such declarations as signs of sentimentalism gone bad, whereby softness disables one from accepting the raw truths of reality. “Do wolves love elks?”, they ask and dig into a steak.
In both cases, moral detachment from other animals is the norm rather than the exception. Even many of those, who claim to love animals, tend to eat them. Indeed, particularly in the West, this is the era, which both loves animals more fervently, and kills them more eagerly, than perhaps any other in history. Demands for animal welfare have become widespread almost globally at the same time as industrial animal farming, hunting, fishing and other forms of animal use have exploded in quantity.
One explanation for the contradiction of simultaneously loving and killing is the consumeristic society, which has become both obsessively greedy for more things to buy and eat, and alienated from where the products used to feed the greed come from.
“The consumers” of contemporary societies are notorious for their incapacity to notice that natural environments (forests, mountains, waterways, plains, climates, other species) are struggling as a consequence of materialism, and they devour more when they should devour less. It is uncomfortable, even intolerable to face the dismaying prospects of environmental catastrophes, and thereby many escape into states of denial, where no harm will take place. It is not that contemporary folks do not care about the environment – rather, it is that they do not want to know of its bleak state. Therefore, it is denial, which enables alienation from the consequences of consumerism. As noted by Stanley Cohen in his States of Denial (2002), we tend to turn our focus away from that, which appears intolerable, and use denial in order to hold on to those worldviews, which serve our immediate self-interests the most. Scholars such as Riley Dunlap have manifested in their work, how the same applies to climate denial, as many enter into moral or political apathy at the face of both global warming and the sixth mass extinction.
This logic of denial can lead individuals of the consumeristic age to also care for and even love pigs and cows, whilst eating evermore of them. Killing while loving is based on denial, as the “animal lover” may simply ignore where her food comes from, and what its prize to animals is. The burger is separated from the cow, as a collective obliviousness over the origins of ”food” takes a hold. Uncomfortable information can be blocked out and turned off, until all appears to be well again. This is human: we do not want to suffer from knowing the miseries of the world, as it is easier to forget that our actions cause harm to the planet and its other residents.
Love and denial can therefore form odd entwinements. We can proclaim to care and love deeply whilst remaining oblivious to the perspectives and wellbeing of the subjects of our attachment. It is often easier to project onto others what we wish, while staying unaware of their needs and views, and denial feeds such projection. Such denial is worsened by social and cultural views, which downplay the importance and even existence of animal subjectivity. Surrounded by cultural beliefs on the superiority of human beings, and bombarded with a constant flux of meat and dairy marketing, it is easy to adopt the habit of consuming those, one also weeps for. This is not moral monstrosity, but rather a socially produced moral apathy, which is spurred on by both denial and a society that undervalues other animals.
As a result, “loving animals” can remain words without other than hollow and even destructive consequences. It is little wonder if, in this puzzling state, some argue that we need more emphasis on justice rather than love. At the very least, we need less denial. As Susan Sontag, in her poignant book Regarding the Pain of Others (2004) pointed out, we have no right to turn away from acknowledging the despairs of others. Sontag didn’t speak of nonhuman animals, but the same argument applies to recognizing their despairs and pains. We might not want to know, but we must. The only route to alleviating sufferings is to notice their presence, and the only path to supporting “the good lives” of gorillas, cows, pigeons and pikes is to take responsibility for how human societies impact them.
Love as Attention
Yet, there are also other explanations for both loving and killing. The most obvious one is the failure to notice what “love” entails. Is love a fleeting feeling of warmth, or is it something else? Is hugging a dog a sign of loving a dog? Is love really that easy, or may it be so that the emotion which we speak of the most is also the hardest thing to learn?
The philosopher Iris Murdoch argued in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) that loving can be incredibly difficult, for it demands that we completely alter our perspective. Instead of holding on to a self-directed take on reality, within which we approach and interpret other beings via how we may benefit from them, the aim is to let go of using our own benefit as the reference point. What follows, is the capacity to notice others more realistically, as they are, stripped barer of our egoistic needs, presumptions and stereotypes. Sounds easy, yet it is utterly difficult – perhaps the most challenging thing in human existence.
According to Murdoch, we are to notice the other “as real”, and this again means that we accept she is just as valid, valuable and distinct as a subject as we are. She is not the side-character in our lives, meant to serve our needs – she is not a resource, nor a product of consumption. Rather, she is herself, an equal, a being with a perspective onto the world no less worthy than ours. If we manage to set aside egoism and gain a sense of realism, the result is, well… love.
Applied to animal ethics, Murdoch’s philosophy tells us that one simply cannot both love and devour the same being. If we do the latter, we approach the other as a mere source of self-benefit, a tool for our own comfort. When killing starts, loving stops, and if one gets the idea to eat another, one probably never quite saw the other as “real” (an equal worthy of love). Warm, fuzzy feelings do not constitute love of animals. Paying attention to the realities of another, independent of use-value, and truly noting the weight of her perspective and existence, is where love begins.
Loving animals, then, requires that we stop seeing them as nothing more than edible body parts, or as disneyfied and empty caricatures onto which to project human wishes whilst denying the distinctness of animal lives. Foxes, raccoons, bees, elks, hens and salmons are not sidekicks in a human theater, but their own beings, whose viewpoints, experiences and minds deserve full focus. Their animal particularities, the sounds and colours of pighood, elkhood or crowhood, are to emerge as the point of attention.
In fact, for Murdoch, love is “attention” – the capacity to be present to and truly notice another in all her similarity and difference. This is an important reminder for those, who wish to love other animals. It is in directing attention onto living, sensing, feeling, thinking pigs (rather than approaching pigs as bacon) that love dwells. Loving animals is about paying heed to their realities – to the fact that they have their own unique standpoints onto existence, their own minds and mental contents, their desires and experiences, their inimitable distinctness. It consists of acknowledging that yes, wolves and rabbits are our equals in this sense, and deserve our moral care.
Ridding oneself of self-directed lenses is arduous, and full neutrality (knowing a pig or a wolf like she knows herself) is impossible. Yet, we can strive to become less self-obsessed, and more capable of attuning to the tones of nonhuman animality, in all its peculiar, blissful, challenging and breathtaking variety. “Try again… Wait”, teaches Murdoch. She does not refer to animal ethics, but her advice is perhaps most pertinent in its context. The era of both “loving” and killing should try again, and again, and again, until it learns to pay attention to other animals, and to thereby love rather than kill our fellow beings on this brittle planet.
(Article image: Roland Straller, Paula 5-)