Loving Animals

TRADITIONAL WESTERN ETHICS have largely failed to explain convincingly why we have moral obligations toward animals. Are we bound by duties of justice to respect the rights of animals? Are we bound to count animal suffering in utilitarian calculations of benefit and loss? To judge from the systematic violence we do to animals, the answer, apparently, is none of the above.

Even as philosophers struggle to find room for animals in the corners of moral codes written by and for human beings, the wholesale destruction of habitats accelerates, causing the extinction of countless animals — species after glorious species. Corporate meat producers churn out hamburgers and chicken thighs in systems both fetid and cruel. Animal shelters kill discarded pets in makeshift gas chambers. And philosophers are not even able to agree on why we should be ashamed.

Into this fray comes Duke University professor Kathy Rudy’s new book, Loving Animals: Toward a New Animal Advocacy. Abstract rational principles seldom move us to moral action, she argues. What move us to action are our feelings, the “moral sentiments” of empathy, regret, grief, and love — significantly including, Rudy argues, love for pets.

“The intense power of love for other animals . . . can be used to expand our ethical thinking about animals,” she writes. The centuries of stories we have told ourselves about our superiority to and separation from animals have created a world in which there are few taboos against turning animals to our own uses, treating them cruelly, and letting their songs and joys and glories slip away forever. But different stories can create a different world, Rudy argues. “If we can effectively convey the moments when we get our relationships with animals right, . . . we may be able to build a stronger, more viable, more wide-reaching social movement.”

Loving Animals offers new stories of animal-human connection that create a world of conscience — stories of both grief and grace. Readers are confronted with dead dogs stacked like cordwood outside animal shelters, tigers pacing in suburban living rooms, cattle mired in their own sour muck. But with the author, we also scratch lucky pigs, follow dogs to good homes, and eat from farmers’ markets. By far the strongest stories are about Rudy’s own intimate love for her pets; the book lacks only a scratch-and-sniff sticker for a total immersion into Rudy’s family of six (then, dramatically, five) dogs and three cats.

The open question, of course, is whether the relation between a pet “owner” and the tamed animal is a morally ideal relationship, as Rudy assumes, or just another way we turn animals to our own uses. Those who do not share their beds with dogs might wonder if allowing an animal a certain distance is a sign of respect. And, certainly, those who love wild animals because they are wild, will be horrified at Rudy’s claim that because now “this planet belongs to humanity,” the large animals that survive will be those that offer themselves to be tamed and adopted as pets, so that humans can “make them happy.”

That said, Rudy’s central point remains: loving a pet can open one’s heart to the fuller meaning of responsible love. Why should we be ashamed of how brazenly we hurt animals and wipe whole kinds off the face of the earth? Because we know what it means to love an animal. We know that love calls us to caretaking and reciprocal respect. Cruelty to animals is thus a betrayal of love and a hypocrisy not worthy of us as moral beings.