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Bears, Dolphins and the Animal Stories We Tell

By Christopher R. Beha
New York Times

Rudy_loving coverEver since Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” laid the groundwork for modern animal advocacy more than 35 years ago, it has been a central tenet of the movement that we go ethically astray when we let emotional proximity to humans and a handful of nonhuman species trump the obvious interests of other animals. Although animal rights proponents haven’t always embraced Singer’s brand of utilitarianism, they have generally followed his rejection of emotionalism, reserving particular scorn for the sentimentality that allows people to lavish money and attention on pets while happily eating cows and pigs — mammals every bit as intelligent and capable of suffering as dogs and cats — which lead tortured existences before arriving on our plates.

In LOVING ANIMALS: Toward a New Animal Advocacy (University of Minnesota, $24.95), Kathy Rudy argues that such quarantining of emotion is a mistake. Instead, she writes, we ought to use our reciprocal emotional relationships with particular animals as the basis for a new advocacy, one that recognizes that humans are capable of loving animals and that some animals, at least, are capable of loving us back. A professor of ethics and women’s studies at Duke University, Rudy counts herself among the “border crossers” — humans who have especially “intense emotional bonds with specific animals.” And she believes these people have an important role to play in changing hearts and minds when it comes to the fair treatment of animals. Her book runs through the broad range of animal issues, from puppy mills to ethical eating to scientific research, showing how the introduction of emotion and affect might shift the debate on each topic.

The obvious complication is that emotion is subjective: people love their dogs more than they love pigs because they just do, and if you count this love as a legitimate criterion for distributing ethical concern, dogs will win every time. Singer’s utilitarian arguments proceed with brutal efficiency, but as Rudy admits, “affect can only be displayed through narrative.” In other words, an animal advocacy based in emotion would have to be an animal advocacy based in stories. This seems to suggest that writers — not just theorists, but storytellers — would play a central role in such advocacy, if Rudy’s change were ever to come about.

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