Other Vegan Views articles
Sense & Sentimentality by Anne Philbrow, Vegan Views 34 (Winter 1985)

Anyone involved in the 'animal liberation' movement will be familiar with the charge of being sentimental. A newspaper headline even described the perpetrators of the recent Mars Bar incident as "pet lovers". The accusation of anthropomorphism is often levelled by meat-eaters who will then themselves conclude an argument with "Of course I wouldn't dream of eating my pet dog"!

Sentimentality is a common human weakness, to which meat-eaters and vegans alike are occasionally prone. Today I found myself buying an avocado with an odd shaped bump in it in preference to the others, because I felt sorry for it. To behave sentimentally on occasion probably does no harm in moderation, like sometimes watching a soap opera. However, it is something that can cloud one's thinking if not kept in check, and has even already done a lot of damage to the cause of 'animal rights'.

A recent example of this was when I attempted a rational conversation with the director of a commercial research laboratory. He claimed "Of course my little daughter - bless her - feels the same way about bunnies as you do...". I hadn't referred to animals in a sentimental way, but his remark clearly expressed a general attitude towards anti-vivisectionists which puts us beyond the pale of rational argument.

Although there are certain areas of the media and 'enlightened' people to whom it has filtered through that in a certain context it can be insulting to label someone as an "animal lover", I still meet people who genuinely regard us as being stereotypically soppy, crying more over a baby seal than an Ethiopian famine victim because the latter isn't fluffy. This image of the "animal lover" is something we must continue to try to break if we are to hold any credibility. Such a view suggests that we have a distorted outlook in humanising non-human beings and having an unbalanced set of priorities.

Some people may agree with Shakespeare that
"The poor beetle which we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
As when a giant dies."

In trying to imagine what an animal's experiences are like, we are limited by our own human point of view. Thus when I think I am imagining (in an extremely limited way) what it is like to be a beetle, what I am really thinking about is what it is like to be a human encased in a beetle's body. I cannot possibly imagine what it is like for a beetle to be a beetle - if it is like anything at all - but I don't think it has the same sort of consciousness as I do. I hope for the beetle's sake it doesn't, or we would live in a very Kafka-esque world! Hence I think it is not only inappropriate, but detrimental to our case, to argue "How would you like it if someone stepped on you?". The analogy in this example is too weak to support a case, and could be easily refuted.


On the other hand, there is an important place in debate for extension of human emotions to some animals. We may not know what it is like to be a cow or a pig, but as they resemble us in some ways (both physiologically and behaviourally) it is quite reasonable to assume they can experience some similar feelings to our own. Thus such feelings - for example the ability to suffer - are not only relevant, but probably crucial when we are trying to persuade an agnostic (re: the moral status of animals) of the rationality of our argument. Animals should not be lumped into a single category, and we should be aware that some may have the capacities both to enjoy life and to suffer, whereas others probably don't. Obviously it is best to give them all the benefit of the doubt, and I wouldn't wantonly crush beetles any more than uproot plants. Yet I don't intend to have sleepless nights worrying over beetles.

In 'The Animal Welfare Movement and the Foundations of Ethics' (1) TLS Sprigge argues that it is irrational to ignore the presence of emotions in creatures other than oneself. This is because "one is always acting in a kind of ignorance when one treats one's own interests as having an importance which the interests of others do not have, since one is refusing to recognise that the feelings of others are realities in just the way that one's own are".

Sprigge holds that those who claim knowledge of animal suffering yet still act in such a way as to cause suffering, do not really know of the harm they do. Their 'knowledge' is merely verbal, and Sprigge suggests that real knowledge would involve actively participating in the appropriate emotions. Thus it is legitimate - and rational! - to use emotive films and so forth to drum this consciousness into people's minds. He maintains that once someone truly grasps what they are doing, it will not be possible for them to knowingly cause suffering. Hence he is expressing the idea that one cannot knowingly act against what one believes to be right or good.

Although this argument sounds attractive, I have reservations about accepting it. Firstly, he ignores the problem of the weakness of the will. Secondly, if we were able to be truly conscious in all our acts, I suspect we would either become aware of their universal insignificance (2) - and therefore realise our actions are futile, or become neurotic and therefore unable to act at all. The mind-shutting syndrome (or principle of partiality) may be unfair, and possibly morally reprehensible, but it does at least enable us to act. Hence it is necessary for biologists to shut out all thoughts of germs when washing-up or eating, otherwise these activities would become too horrific to indulge in! On the other hand ... but I'll leave you to ponder.

(1) From 'Animals Rights - a Symposium' ed Paterson/Ryder.
(2) Unless you happen to be Zaphod Beeblebrox.