Bad Excuses: Pathologizing Empathy

I want to follow up on a recent post I made, on separating ethics from emotion and why that’s a fraught endeavor. It’s seductive — people believe that a code of ethics devoid of emotion must be Objectively True in some way.

As a consequence, pointing out that someone’s ethics derive from an emotional starting-point is tantamount to knocking them off their high horse. The reality is that all ethics involve emotion — how could we be unemotional about unethical behavior? That’s the realm of psychopathy.

This brings us to a point I meant to get to in the last post, but ended up addressing only indirectly: Just because vegans are emotional about animal abuse doesn’t mean we’re wrong to condemn and boycott it.

It’s obvious, isn’t it? But many non-vegans, in their attempts to dismiss animal rights activism, portray us as overly emotional utopists whose neural pathways are chock full of crossed wires. We get all emotional about animals but don’t care about humans. We concern ourselves with cows, pigs, chickens and fish but don’t shed a tear for the small mammals torn apart in the course of harvesting the crops we do it.

They perceive misguided emotions as in the foreground of our beliefs and tendencies, with higher-level philosophical justifications — half-baked, in their view — on the back-burner, serving only to buttress the emotions that came first. They believe this to be in sharp contrast to their more reasonable positions, where they come to ethical conclusions based purely on reason, with emotion following later, if at all.

The reality is that the primacy of emotion is common. In general, we feel emotional about a thing, and the justifications for these emotions are crafted after the fact. I also believe the opposite pathway to be possible: we learn reasons to feel a certain way about things and develop the emotional responses later. I don’t know how else to account for people who grow up eating meat and animal products, who learn about animal agriculture while continuing to consume such products, and who eventually turn vegan. I also don’t know how else to account for certain aspects of our political climate in the United States, such as the wearing of facial masks, which have adopted a certain politico-emotional tinge where previously there was none.

In any case, emotion and ethics are tightly linked, regardless of which comes first. Chances are you have always felt that murder isn’t cool, even before you had the ability to formulate reasons why. And if you somehow did not grow up with this ethical position instilled in you, you might have been educated on the reasons why murder is wrong and have now developed an emotional reaction to depictions of murder.

So when non-vegans characterize us as overly-emotional, I cannot help but think it’s the opposite: they are under-emotional. Perhaps the emotional reaction to watching pig slaughter should be comparable to that when it’s a human being snuffed out.

I don’t think non-vegans do it intentionally, but when they dismiss us because of emotions it comes across like a psychopath brushing aside being called out for abusive behavior simply because they lack the capacity to understand their behavior was wrong. They’re pathologizing the inclusion of non-human animals in our moral circle, taking it for granted that the default of selectively including or excluding animal interests depending on their species just so happens to be unquestionably correct.

I am reminded here of a rather persuasive Richard Dawkins quote:

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

Might we paraphrase this a bit and say: We are all animal rights activists about most species that have ever existed. Some of us just go a few species further.

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