Care Ethics

"Attention of Suffering: Sympathy as a Basis for Ethical Treatment of Animals"

Josephine Donovan proposes an animal ethic based upon emotion and sympathy. Donovan’s sympathy ethic breaks away from the Kantian ideal of rationality. She argues that sympathy is the road to morality and justice because only by empathizing and understanding another life does the being become more than an object

Donovan’s theory is rooted in the work of David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Edmund Husserl and Edith Stein (175). She starts by highlighting the history of sympathy ethics, detailing different takes on the same idea. Though subtly different, all of the ideas are based upon trying to place yourself in the shoes of another. The concept is articulated by John A. Fisher, in his claim that “a sympathetic imaginative construction of another’s reality is what is required for an appropriate moral response” (179). Only by trying to imagine the thoughts of another and placing yourself in his/her shoes can that person or animal become more than an object. By realizing their struggles and feelings, you become tied to the other person/animal and can see them as more than a reflection of yourself or for more than the benefit they can provide you.

This theory attempts to break down the traditional divide between humans and animals. By trying to relate to beings personally and empathetically, the “other-ness” of animals will be removed. This mode of thinking means that “the organism comes to mean something to one as a unique, irreplaceable individual" (191).

However, Mercer’s idea seems to do the very opposite. He claims that “‘sympathy’ has regard for ‘the other’ solely in respect for his [or her] capacity to feel and to suffer… the sympathetic agent must be a ‘thinking and feeling being’ and the object of sympathy must be ‘at least a feeling being’” (183). Mercer's seeming bifurcation of humans and animals, humans as both “thinking and feeling” while the animals they are observing and trying to understand are merely “feeling beings,” seems to differentiate animals and humans based upon rational abilities and to enforce the gap between animals and humans. This statement seems to undermine the entire purpose of the sympathy ethic. However, glossing over the differences between human and animal experience would seem simplistic. An ethic of sympathy seeks to remove the barriers to humans' ethical treatment of animals generated through species solipsism, our inability to know for certain the nature and limits of a nonhuman animal's conscious experience. By focusing on the nonhuman animal's ability to be "at least a feeling being," Donovan presents a baseline for a human's ethical relation to the nonhuman animal.

Additionally, at one point Donavan uses the example of a man with a dying wife who cannot afford medications to illustrate the difference between Kantian-ethics and care-ethics. According to Kant, the man should not steal the drugs because his every action should be able to be used as an example for everyone while based upon care-ethics the man’s duty to his wife outweighs any other and he should therefore steal the drugs. She also uses the example to introduce the idea of political care-ethics; “a political ethic-of-care response would include the larger dimension of looking to the political and economic context within which people must make moral decisions”(188). This is an interesting concept. In the context of animal ethics it means that our current ability to think of animals morally is defined by current political and economic practices. This could be part of the reason that it is so much easier for us to relate to utilitarian arguments for protecting animals. Perhaps, to truly bridge the gap between human and animal our entire political and economic structure will have to change. Do you think this is valid?

Philosophy of Mind and Psychology : Class Discussion, February 19th

Feb. 19th: Professor Terjesen's classes "Philosophy of Mind and Psychology" and "Environmental Ethics" combine to discuss animal's capacity to be included in the moral sphere.

Class discussion centered around the question: "Can we as human beings imagine being a bat?" We first attempted to imagine a bat's existence by pretending we were forced to gather food in order to survive - something none of us has experienced. It was difficult for the group to visualize being a bat as we do not fully understand the purpose of a bat or its common activities.

In our attempts to answer the entire question we determined what our thoughts were on imagination. In essence, we imagined what imagination is. Then the discussion moved to whether or not we believed animals had imaginations, and if so what would they imagine? Human beings have our own form or definition of imagination, and if animals were to have a similar imagination, could we differ from animals in ways apart from our ability to think rationally? It could be argued that if we ever were to obtain the ability to prove whether or not animals have imaginations, this may be concluded. Is the ability to dream proof of that animals are rational? It was argued in class that because dogs could dream, they therefore have the ability to think out future situations, and are therefore rational. This was one of the things argued by members of the class.

An interesting point brought up at the beginning of the discussion concerned goldfish. Goldfish possess a three second memory; because of this three second memory, a goldfish will eat as much food as it is given until, in some cases, it dies. This being said, as a group we came to the conclusion that goldfish do not contain the capacity to imagine. On the other hand, we did agree that it would be possible for other animals to have some type of imagination. One thought, assuming that animals do have imaginations, was whether or not animals act off of instinct or imagination. For example, when a wolf is chasing a deer, is the deer instinctively fleeing from the wolf, or is it imagining what may happen if it does not? Also, the discussion on imagination changed our thoughts on animals' ability to think rationally. If an animal were to imagine what could happen to it if it did not act in a certain manner and choose an option in its own best interests, would this not be an act of rational thought? At this point they moved back to their discussion on whether or not an individual can imagine being another individual. Little attention was given throughout the discussion to the question of whether or not we could imagine being a bat, while much of the focus was on whether animals have the ability to imagine future events.

Donavan, Josephine. “Attention to Suffering: Sympathy as a Basis for Ethical Treatment of Animals.” Beyond Animal Rights. New York: Coninuum, 1996.
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