Anyone who has ever done animal advocacy has had the experience of explaining rationally why animal exploitation can’t be morally justified, only to have the person with whom they are talking say something like, “Yes, that’s interesting but I just don’t think that it’s wrong to eat animal products,” or “I think you’re being perfectly logical but I just love ice cream and cheese and am going to continue eating them.”
How can this be? How can people reject logical and rational arguments?
The answer is simple: logic and rationality are crucial to moral analysis. But they can’t tell us the whole story about moral reasoning. It’s more complicated than logical syllogisms. Moral reasoning—about animals or anything else—requires something more than logic. That something else involves two closely related but conceptually distinct notions: moral concern and moral impulse, which precede our engagement on a rational or logical level.
To put this in the context of animal ethics: in order to accept an argument that leads to the conclusion that all sentient beings are full members of the moral community and that we should abolish, and not regulate, animal exploitation, you must care morally about animals. You do not necessarily have to “like” or “love” animals. You do not have to have a house full of rescued animals or even have one rescued animal. But you have to accept that at least some animals are members of the moral community; that they are nonhuman moral persons to whom we have direct moral obligations.
And you have to want to act morally with respect to animals; you have to have a moral impulse concerning animals. You have to feel your moral beliefs in the sense that you want to do the right thing by animals. If you do, logic and rationality can be used to make compelling arguments that all sentient beings have that moral status and no animal exploitation can be morally justified.
But if you don’t care about animals morally and you don’t want to do right by them, then all of the arguments in the world won’t make much difference. If you do not think we owe animals anything, you won’t be very interested in arguments that concern which animals we have direct moral obligations to, or what those obligations require us to do. Continue reading