A common argument against veganism is that it’s an emotional, knee-jerk reaction that bleeding-heart liberals have in response to viewing footage of farm animal abuse.
This argument is wrong for many reasons. My strongest objection to such a line of thinking is that it presumes that all things good and rational are devoid of emotion. I suspect that proponents of this don’t realize they are staking the claim that a world of psychopaths is preferable to the one we have now.
On the other hand, it is right to be skeptical of emotions. Some emotions, like disgust, don’t serve much of a function in today’s world, and can motivate people to do horrible things to others. This is why it is important to reflect upon issues, and upon one’s emotional reaction to them, to determine if the emotion is appropriate.
Often, the emotional reaction does not fit the crime, so to speak. “Moral dumbfounding” is a phenomenon in which our affective reflexes persist even when no harm is involved. To take just one of many examples:
A brother and sister like to kiss each other on the mouth. When nobody is around, they find a secret hiding place and kiss each other on the mouth.
Most of us condemn such an act, casting some harsh moral judgment. We rush to find reasons: their baby could have genetic defects; it might corrupt their otherwise amicable relationship. But even if the anecdote includes the stipulation that they both use protection, and that it only happened once and they came to a mutual decision to not do it again, the moral condemnation persists. We find it disgusting, and try our best to rationalize that emotional reaction.
But not all emotional reactions are equal, and not all are irrational. At least one moral emotion — harm/care — can override others, such as disgust. Take the all-but-eviscerated controversy over gay marriage. It has been decided that the history of harm against the LGBT community — and our just desire to correct that harm — takes priority over any disgust people may still feel over homosexuality, as it should.
When we see an innocent person — or animal — suffering, everyone except literal psychopaths is appalled. Those who wish to paint vegans as irrationally emotional would have to claim that this reaction to animal suffering dissipates upon reflection, but they are mistaken; they confuse the desire to justify their own behavior with moral justification.
Seeing animals suffer should cause significant discomfort — and it does. When we take our pets to the vet, we feel empathy for the pain they endure, but knowing that it is in their best interest makes it worth it. There is no such consolation with animal agriculture. We should react with horror to the suffering and killing of animals — and we do. We should react with horror still upon learning that such pain and death is wholly unnecessary, and harmful for our planet as well.
Thus, harm/care can be both a reflexive and a reflective moral emotion, as is the case with Reasoned Veganism.
So remember this the next time someone tries to dismiss vegans as operating on pure emotion: a world full of empaths is far more preferable to a world of psychopaths, and compassion is nothing if not rational in a society where cooperation drives progress.
In short: just because we have emotions doesn’t make us wrong, it makes us purposeful.