Category Archives: emotion

‘Man is by nature a political animal’


(Image from Tim Flach’s amazing More Than Human collection.) I haven’t written a new post here in almost nine months, mostly because my recent pursuits have been decidedly non-animal studies related. Time to remedy that. Lots of animal politics-related news has come and gone, particularly trade (seals and foie gras) and cognition (octopus personhood) issues.

For my part, I’ve been deep in quantitative political science land as a first-year PhD student at UCSD, where I’ve been exposed to a view of the world as filtered through rationalist lenses of human behavior. Man is by nature a political animalAll the while, I’ve been asking myself about the role nonhuman animals play in political science, as distinct from political theory. I don’t have answers to this question right now, although I have been working on international research about norm diffusion and animal welfare norms. And I still tend to look at the world through consequentialist but anti-speciesist goggles–where ‘what matters’ is the interests of sentient beings–but my present foray into continental philosophy and animal studies is tempering and may eventually change this outlook. For now, though, I’d like to think out loud for a moment about the effects of looking at the world through rationalist lenses.

Briefly, some context: the rationalist project in political science presents a view of actors rooted in assumptions about agency that preference interest maximization at the expense of systems-level cultural or social influences. A ‘thin’ conception of rationality assumes that preferences are rank-ordered and transitive, while a ‘thick’ conception assumes increasingly egoist preference content, whether power, material gain, or, mostly simply, money. I could go on about this at great length, but for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in the effects of looking at the world through these speciesist and methodological individualist lenses.

The stated purpose of the rationalist project in political science is to be an accurate predictor of empirical reality, and, when discussed on those grounds, it should be evaluated on those grounds. But there’s always a risk that prescription will creep into description, ‘ontologizing’ or ‘reifying’ what are meant to be mere analytical tools. What immediately strikes me in the context of animal studies is how strongly this project reinforces human-nonhuman dualisms; indeed, political science has been doing this since Aristotle’s Politics, to mixed effect.

This is also particularly interesting to me in light of Cary Wolfe’s research on posthumanism and animal studies (for which see Zoontologiesmy current Goodreads…), as distinct from the traditional literature on animal rights. (And as if to reinforce the rights-studies split, the two literatures are shelved on different sides of the UCSD library.) Just as Cora Diamond argues (in the recent Philosophy and Animal Life) that “the language of rights is…meant to be useful in contexts in which we cannot count on the kind of understanding of evil that depends on loving attention to the victim,” the language of interests that predominates in the rationalist literature is antithetical to the kind of reckoning with animality that animal studies in the vein of Derrida and Levinas call for. (In part, this is just a restatement of the analytical-continental divide, but the animal lens brings it to the fore.)

These are some of the thoughts I’ve been having while grappling with regression models and the canon of modern political science and international relations this quarter. Mostly I’ve been keeping it to myself, because pulling the speciesist-humanist rug from under the discussant’s feet would be destabilizing, to put it mildly. But it’s something I’ll keep at, and, in the meantime, I’ve got a few weeks to read, read, read. (The image below is from Ed Wray’s Monkey Town, which is meant to be more of a meditation on the poverty trap than on animal welfare, but which also serves as a potent illustration of Diamond’s attempt to reframe the discourse from rights and interests to one in which we attend to our ‘fellow creaturehood’, our “fellows in mortality, in life on this earth.”)


The moral brain conference

I went to this conference at NYU a few weeks ago, and was thoroughly fascinated all the way through. It was a merger of two conferences – the first on ‘The Significance of Neuroscience for Morality’ and the second on ‘moral enhancement’ – and part one, in particular, was mostly new terrain for me. It was also the first time I used my new iPad/bluetooth keyboard/Evernote combo, which worked really well – and all of my notes are here. Hughes and Dvorsky (from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which I follow on Reader) were also posting updates here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I just sat and listened, absorbing the approximately 25 hours of talks. My general impression is that neuroscientists sure do like fMRI’s; I actually learned a good deal about the different parts of the brain and the different chemicals that affect our moral (and other) behavior. It was also interesting to see Knobe, Greene, and Haidt in person.

Topically, discussions were all over the place – see the links above – but focused on: experimental studies of the effects of seratonin, etc. on empathy and related behaviors, whether it makes sense to talk about a ‘morality pill’ (probably not), and what we’re talking about when we’re talking about moral enhancement.

My only real gripe is that the conference was so strictly anthropocentric. As usual, I saw lots of room for fascinating engagement with the nonhuman animal mind – we could, for example, use fMRI studies of neurotypical humans to assess emotional and maybe even moral states in other primates. Instead, the only discussion of other animals was as ‘animal models’, with a few very minor exceptions. It’s my own fault for not asking a question, though…but hopefully animal studies folks can bone up on this literature and have an overlapping conference of their own!



Paths to caring, ctd.

Peter Singer and Agata Sagan’s recent Opinionator piece Are We Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’? raises important issues, but is insufficiently nuanced (they have another piece on robot rights, which follows logically from Singer’s version of consequentialist utilitarianism). If and when–probably just when, really–we become able to tinker with our brain chemistry to alter our ability for compassion and empathy, these kinds of questions will be unavoidable. In the meantime, though, it seems odd that we don’t focus instead on those tools which can demonstrably improve both how we care for others and who counts as an other; the short film No Robot provides a good example.

Epic Meal Time: the personal and the political

 I’m reluctant to post this, for a number of reasons: first, I don’t want to give them money or traffic; second, I don’t want to be “unpardonably lacking in humor“; third, the gendering going on here is so in your face that it’s farcical; and fourth, bacon fetishism really bothers me. But I can’t help it: one of my students posted this last class, and I’ve been mulling on it.

One of my first thoughts was that this would be a good exercise for implementing Walzer’s communitarian complex egalitarianism: just as money shouldn’t be able to buy unlimited political power, nor should one have license to waste so much for so little reason (whatever your friendly industry shills over at CCF might tell you). Another thought: this is among the strongest arguments I’ve seen that we need an ethic of care, and that our gender stereotypes are killing us (and, literally, killing others) with structural violence.

But many of my students didn’t see it this way–it was “just fun”, in a way that issues concerning, say, universal suffrage or child labor wouldn’t be (pace Gingrich). Or maybe food is different? Or maybe the norms I’m discussing are in cascade, and haven’t yet been internalized.

I don’t know, but I did almost hurl when watching this in class.

The strength of symbols

Richard Adams’ Watership Down was one of the first books I remember reading–it’s also one of the few books where the film rivals the original for artistic merit. The film also probably traumatized its fair share of kids…it’s got lots of violence and adult themes, and I think I saw it when I was around 10.

But some of the core messages–about agency, coping with death, political identity, and the scope of the moral community–have stuck with me. This book doesn’t engage with animal ethics nearly as directly as The Plague Dogs, but its oblique approach is all the more powerful for its subtlety, especially when compared to the banality of Disney’s anthropomorphic sidekicks.

“Animal lovers” and the limits of (speciesist) empathy

[Picture, from boingboing, mostly unrelated…but for some reason it reminded me of this post.] I was talking to someone recently about what kinds of students my animal studies class draws, and I noticed that they had framed “animal lovers” as a distinct (and clearly preferable) category against “animal rights activists”. In light of David Brooks’ new column on the limits of empathy, this got me to thinking about ‘who counts’ and the impact of structural violence on nonhuman animals.

Broadly, the animal lovers/activists split could be said to correspond to the welfarist/abolitionist divide, but I think the comparison can only take us so far. I feel that ‘animal lovers’ implies supererogation, while ‘animal rights activists’ take the ethical debate into the uncomfortable terrain of basic rather than optional obligations. (This minefield is probably why many people I know call themselves ‘animal advocates’ instead…) And I think Brooks’ op-ed misses the point when it comes to nonhuman animals: empathy can help us move beyond a frame where animal interests are merely supererogatory goods.

Regarding empathy, we seem to be at a curious historical moment. On the one hand, academics are aflutter with empathy-related efforts (although Pinker’s vision, unlike Rifkin’s, has a heavy dollop of Hobbesian contractarianism). On the other hand, Tea Party America verges on the embrace of cruelty, not empathy (but hopefully debate outcries–regarding capital punishment, health care, and DADT–are the exception, not the norm).

The core of Brooks’ argument here is that focusing on empathy gets us “feeling good without doing good”. As far as this argument goes, it’s a reasonable one. But the argument for extending protections beyond the domain of the anomalous and universally egregious (which, arguably, is all the dominant anti-cruelty ethic protects against) is predicated upon our ability to empathize with other living, sentient beings.

But the argument that “empathy is a sideshow”–and that we should focus instead on moral codes–runs too great a risk of defining nonhumans out of the policy cycle at the definition stage. Yes, animal advocates are often particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, over-reliance on empathy could muddle the rigor of animal ethicists’ arguments a la Dennett. But we need to guard against the dangers of an exclusivist and speciesist empathy that lock the doors behind the species wall, as some supererogatory ‘animal lovers’ arguably do.

An empathic and nonzero civilization. . .but for whom?

This video by Cambridge’s Simon Baron-Cohen does a good job introducing the relation between empathy, pathology, and social trust (and see here for a good RSA Animate on Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). Baron-Cohen’s done a lot of interesting work on empathy and the male/female brain and empathy and autism/asberger’s, and on measuring empathy. I was immediately struck, however, by the way he chose to define empathy: “the drive to identify (cognitive) and appropriately respond to (affective) another person’s feelings.” Further into the talk, some of the research he draws on implies that “persons” and “objects” are the only relevant categories under discussion. I guess this is what makes me an ‘animal rights activist’ (as Wikipedia’s definition of empathy puts it), because I think the natural extention of Baron-Cohen’s argument–that answers to questions about empathy have right and wrong answers, and one of the jobs of psychology is to figure out how to get more people to answer ‘correctly’–is far more radical than even he may acknowledge.

What distinguishes empathy from sympathy, compassion, and pity? This is a difficult question to answer concretely, but links like this have me thinking that the reason empathy might be so commonly perceived as ‘person-oriented’ rather than ‘sentient-or-semi-sentient-being-oriented’ is because of the distinction that empathy, unlike the other words, involves literally feeling the other’s mental state (this is where the much-hyped ‘mirror neurons’ come in). It could follow, I suppose, that this requires a certain level of similarity with the other’s mental state, such that this would work best with other members of our species. Keeping in mind that this might be a semantic quibble, I don’t buy this argument. I could as much “feel” my dog’s pain when he slipped a vertebra last year as I could my wife’s when she tore her ACL.

To return to the radical implications of a high-empathy society: I strongly believe that such a society would treat nonhuman animals in a fundamentally different way than we do today, and that such a shift would entail a range of social, political, and economic reforms with far-research consequences. While it’s easy to speak of expanding the domain of the nonzero (as against zero-sum)–and I’m all for this kind of policy…indeed, only a fool or an IR realist would be against it!–but introducing nonhuman animals into the moral calculus with anything less than a high discount rate will change the game in a basic way. And it should, because the level of structural violence that exists against nonhumans animals in the world today is only ignored because of a conditioned moral blindness that would wither in the face of an empathic civilization.

So how to go about this? There are many possible routes, but I think one of the strongest when it comes to empathizing with nonhuman animals is the priming of our moral sensibilities through art (sometimes called the sympathetic or aesthetic education) is marvelously fecund, as Nussbaum and others have argued. Others argue that fostering nonzero relationships tends to result in increased empathy, and this makes sense too, as long as the in-group/out-group distinction doesn’t stop at the species line. A range of other options exist, of course, all the way from the work in studying pathology by psychologists like Baron-Cohen to essentially sociobiological proposals that we engineer aggression out of our gene pool. The bioethics of the latter are troubling, obviously, but they do reflect a trend towards revived sociobiology in the guise of neuroscience. This takes many forms, though, and each needs to be addressed on its own merits.

If nothing else, Baron-Cohen’s research goes a long way in explaining why I was the only male in my Animals and Public Policy class. This needs to change, but it seems the change can only go so far if he is right about the ‘male brain’.



“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” (Frans de Waal)

Views on anthropomorphism run the gamut, and three recent pieces do a good job of highlighting the terrain of this discourse: 1) Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of recent human-animal studies books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2) Michael Sims’ piece on anthropomorphism and E.B. White in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and 3) Marlene Zuk’s analysis of ‘animal cams’ in the LA Times. (And see here for an orthogonal post on animal symbols, Pieter Hugo, and Beyonce.)

Sims’ article on E.B. White captures the tension at the core of the debate over anthropomorphism: “Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White’s anthropomorphism. “White’s is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals,” he wrote; “rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children’s books, but (also in the tradition of children’s books) for being against nature.” White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as “against nature”…It’s true that “this boy,” as White wrote of himself in childhood, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.”

Zuk’s piece on animal cams raises a similar point to Theroux’s: that the eagles, etc. on live cams are “just like us” leads us to biased and thus erroneous views of animal behavior. Ehrenreich’s review is more broad-ranging, but her concluding paragraph is of particular value here: “Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.”

Ehrenreich is right to caution us against both the Cartesian ‘animal machine’ model and the Liberationist-left ‘exploited and innocent victim’ model, but we should also keep in mind that these are both caricatures. In light of a quarter century-plus of work in neuroscience and ethology, the view that all forms of emotion are necessarily anthropomorphic (i.e., human) is absurd–some of our characteristics are indeed uniquely human, but many others are primate, mammalian, and so forth. To say that an otter plays or a chimp mourns isn’t anthropomorphic, it’s merely descriptive.

On the other side of this coin, we should be wary of painting the nonhuman animal world a Marxian red with the brush of hegemony, hierarchy, and oppression–in other words, of adopting the left-social scientific vocabulary in which all relationships are hierarchical and exploitative. To ascribe revolutionary consciousness to other animals clouds our vision of their realities.

To return for a bit to Sims’ and Zuk’s pieces, I think a middle ground can be found between Theroux/Zuk’s view of anthromorphism as subjective and thus problematic and Sims’ embrace of the power of empathy–using the vehicle of anthropomorphism–to reveal moral truths. To say that this is a difficult circle to square, though, is putting it mildly.


What animals want: animal emotion and animal happiness

I’ve been reading a lot about popular neuroscience and related fields recently, and I keep coming back to the question of ‘what animals want’. This question has many variations, each with their own ramifications. Two broad umbrella categories come to mind: 1) the neuro-hyphenators and 2) the animal advocates. These are, of course, overlapping caricatures, but the two approaches have important differences, and I think they both perform an essential role.

The proliferating neuro-hyphenated disciplines preface the question by focusing on what nonhuman animals can want. Studies of animal happiness focusing solely on stress hormones fit this mold. But there’s a problem with this approach, as this SciAm guest blogger identifies: neuro-reductionism in assessing nonhuman animals’ mental states is bound to paint a picture that incomplete at best, and, more likely, reactionary at worst. (An example here would be livestock industry-funded “welfare” studies that justify existing practices…how coincidental!) Whether applied to humans or nonhumans, the idea that our motivations and mental states are reducible to nothing more than the interaction of Oxytocin, dopamine (and so on) strikes me as unlikely to get to the root of the more-than-human condition as it is to get to the root of the human condition.

If nothing else, the above picture tells us that something more is going on. One of the reasons I chose my StumbleUpon handle, surlyotter, is that animal happiness may be as elusive as human happiness, but it’s no less real. This approach to revealing animals preferences–whether through Jonathan Balcombe’s recent Exultant Ark, Marc Bekoff’s Wild Justice, or Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals–is of a different type than the neuro-schools. But as long as neuroscience can only paint a reductive picture of nonhuman animal life–that is, until we can, as last week’s New Scientist put it, learn to speak dolphin–such works play a crucial role in helping us understand the more-than-human world.