Hypatia Symposium: Returning the Ethical and Political to Animal Studies by STEPHANIE JENKINS

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title: Returning the Ethical and Political to Animal Studies


Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, School of History, Philosophy and Religion

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

[T]here is an undeclared war being waged everyday against countless millions of nonhuman animals. (Regan 1989, para. 9)

[Humans] do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves; in order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence, which some would compare to the worst cases of genocide. (Derrida 2008, 26)

At the same time that animals have increasingly become objects of philosophical investigation, the commodification and exploitation of those animals for food, entertainment, research, and sport are intensifying to historically “unprecedented proportions” (Derrida 2008, 25). Each year in the United States, 10 billion land animals are killed, which means that, in the time it takes you to read this paper, 250,000 birds, pigs, lambs, and cows will be slaughtered (Humane Society of the United States 2006, para. 1). Yet, in the face of these atrocities, many animal studies scholars remain ambivalent about or even hostile to applying their arguments to practical implications beyond a “free-range ethics” (Oliver 2009, 305). Although these purported posthuman theories reject the ontological dualism between human and animal, hierarchical dichotomies reside within these theories’ normative presuppositions (Twine 2010b). Everyday practices, including what (or who) we eat and wear, mark nonhuman animals as killable, maintaining the last vestiges of humanism. Until we recognize the lives of all animate beings as worth protecting, the hierarchical dualisms of human/animal, mind/body, and nature/culture will remain intact. Unless we “sacrifice the sacrifice” of nonhuman animals, as Derrida would say, feminist philosophy, animal studies, and posthumanist theory will simply continue the entrenchment of the very dichotomies that they seek to undermine.

Extending this critique of ontological dualism into the ethical realm, I call for an affective feminist practice that views animal others as grievable, vulnerable, and valuable. The dissolution of the human/animal binary requires a technique of self or ethical know-how that can be used to combat the “philosophical anthropology” that undergirds moral thought and action (Sandel 1998, 50). I believe that veganism is a necessary component (although not sufficient, as any set of ethics always will be incomplete) of an affective feminist ethics of nonviolence. When built upon feminist ethics, vegan practice is not a universal obligation or a fantasy of purity but rather a “bodily imperative” (Weiss 1999, 129) to respond to another’s suffering and to reject the everyday embodied practices that make certain animate others killable. A vegan, feminist ethics of nonviolence follows from the deconstruction of ontological dualism, a central component of posthuman and feminist philosophies alike.

In responding to a gap between theory and practice in the philosophical investigation of nonhuman animals, I start with the assumption that the division between the human and the animal will always be incomplete, fluid, and indefensible. From this perspective, I identify the domestication, or the “taming” of the radical conclusions of a theory, and anthropological closure, or the limiting of ethical questions to humans, of practical ethical questions in animal studies. Then, I will draw on Judith Butler’s recent ethical work to identify veganism as a responsive, affective ethics of nonviolence.

Many contemporary philosophical discussions of animals remain hypo-critical, insofar as their analyses stop short of or ignore the ethical implications of the deconstruction of ontological dualisms. These theories are hypo-critical in the sense that they are partial and incomplete. As noted above, the boundary between the human and the animal is always unstable, indeterminate, and porous; any capacity that has been deployed to serve as the threshold to humanity (for example, language, rationality, fear of death, culture, and tool use) has proven unable to maintain the human/animal dichotomy. If the human is no longer ontologically distinct from the animal, then nonhuman animals cannot be exempted from prohibitions against killing, and “thou shalt not kill” must apply to all animate life.

The hypo-critical project of animal studies is an ontological or epistemological investigation whose ultimate goal is understanding the being of the human, even if it marks itself as posthumanist (Oliver 2009). Animal studies theorists often seek to bracket, postpone, or eradicate questions of ethics. Philosophers who study animal–human relations often preemptively foreclose explicitly ethical or political questions about animals. For example, conference presentations, conversations, and lectures will be prefaced with statements such as, “I’m not a vegetarian,” “I’m no Peter Singer,” or “I’m not for animal rights.” More specifically, some theorists are downright hostile toward any mention of veganism. This is best seen in the case of Donna Haraway, who calls for responsible killing rather than an ethics of nonviolence (Haraway 2008, 80).

Contrary to her belief in the necessity of killing some animal others, I believe we cannot deconstruct, problematize, or trouble the human/animal binary without addressing ethico-political and practical questions regarding animal exploitation. Ontological and epistemological investigations are inseparable from ethical inquiry; what (or who) beings are determines how we are ethically obligated to respond to them. Work on epistemologies of ignorance shows us that perception frames our understanding of what is morally permissible. For example, Charles Mills describes how the category “savage” distorted early (white) Americans’ perceptions, enabling them to ontologically exclude Native Americans from whites’ moral prohibitions against violence (Mills 2007).

Because it isolates ontological inquiry from ethical practice, hypo-critical animal studies constitute a response to animal suffering that is a nonresponse. These studies do not call upon us to change how we eat, dress, or entertain in the world in regard to our everyday relationships with other animals. Moreover, the positions taken by its practitioners, who distance themselves from veganism and animal advocacy, often serve to reify the status quo “war” against animals. Too many scholars, such as Harold Fromm, claim that human life requires the killing of nonhuman animals, “To be alive is to be a murderer” (Fromm 2010, para. 6). Haraway makes a similar argument, contending that, rather than “[pretending] to live outside of killing” (Haraway 2008, 79), we must learn to kill responsibly. Responding to Derrida’s call for the sacrifice of the making-killable of animals, Haraway argues:

The problem is actually to understand that human beings do not get a pass on the necessity of killing significant others, who are themselves responding, not just reacting. In the idiom of labor, animals are working subjects, not just worked objects. Try as we might to distance ourselves, there is no way of living that is not also a way of someone, not just something else, dying differentially. (Haraway 2008, 80)

This argument does not distinguish between differences in degree, kind, and intent of killing, which are ethically relevant; the killings for which a vegan is responsible differ significantly from those that an omnivore enacts. First, they are different in degree. By abstaining from the knowing consumption of animal products, the vegan contributes to fewer differential killings. For example, the average vegan will save the lives of 2,000 land animals over the course of his or her lifetime as compared to the average omnivore (Marcus 1998). Second, the killings differ in kind; animals slaughtered in factory farms will have different kinds of deaths than will animals who die because they got caught in farm machinery. Although a vegan may not be able to extricate him or herself from the accidental killing of rodents, insects, or others by machinery in some agricultural practices, these are not the same kinds of horrifying deaths that animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses experience. Third, there are significant differences in intent between the vegan and the omnivore. When one eats a hamburger, one wills the death of the cow whose flesh made the burger possible. When an individual opts for a vegetarian burger, he or she recognizes that death is an undesirable means to the end of his or her culinary pleasure. Simply stated, the vegan refuses to perceive the cow as killable.

My criticism of Haraway is harsh precisely because I have the utmost respect for her work. However, she exchanges her usual rigor and critical edge for polemics when discussing veganism. In addition to homogenizing all forms of killing, she also glosses over vast differences in animal advocacy and theory. Haraway and other hypo-critical animal studies scholars dismiss veganism along with a straw-person “animal rights” argument, as if the latter were the only possible justification for the former. To the contrary, many vegans reject PETA’s tactics and renounce Peter Singer’s arguments, which are points that Haraway and others miss. This disavowal of ethics in animal studies is especially dangerous because it disengages the relationship between theory and practice. From the standpoint of vegan ethics, the two are inseparable. Our ethics are not just a theory but also a way of life. We sacrifice the sacrifice of the animal in our own lives, in our own ways, as best we can. Each of us struggles with how to answer the call of the suffering animal others.

Judith Butler’s recent work, which analyzes the war on terrorism, attempts to understand how social norms and political contexts portray others’ lives as grievable (or not) (Butler 2009). Through a process that she terms framing, Butler traces the mechanisms that condition the aptitudes for recognizing moral others. By moving ethics to the question of who counts as a who, Butler makes explicit how moral decisions and theories conceal the boundary between moral subjects and nonsubjects. All lives are precarious, but not all lives are perceived as such, and precariousness is differentially allocated. Animal others such as those trapped within the “animal industrial complex” (Noske 1997, 22), although technically alive, are not recognized as grievable or valuable in their own right. Applying Butler’s insight to animal ethics, we see that what is at stake is not merely the question of how to prevent or minimize violence but rather the question of what counts as violence in the first place. An affective ethics of nonviolence not only witnesses violence committed against animal others but also commits its adherents to its eradication.

After recognizing that moral communities are “imagined” (Anderson 2006) and products of historically and culturally specific power relations, we become aware of the contingent nature of our moral “frames.” Understanding the “human” as a production rather than as a natural entity politicizes ontology. Humanity becomes both an accomplishment and a differential value. Anthropocentric humanism, as long as it exists, will continue to be deployed against vulnerable animals, whether they are human or nonhuman. In part, this is because life always exceeds the frames through which it is recognized. There are, as Butler puts it, “subjects who are not quite recognizable as subjects, and there are lives that are not quite—or indeed, are never—recognized as lives” (Butler 2009, 4). Nonetheless, the limits of the moral community could and—I would argue—should be different. We must ask ourselves not merely, “What is a life?” but also, “How can I prepare myself to be addressed by a life that lives below my ability to apprehend it?” The “who” of ethics is prior to the “what” in the sense that injunctions against violence do not protect those whose lives are not recognized as valuable.

As Butler in her analysis of racism indicates, moral outrage, indifference, and guilt in the face of violence are not rational, cognitive acts but rather are conditioned, habituated, and affective responses. Our ability to be responsive to others, a prerequisite for responsibility, is found in conditioned, bodily responses. Individuals who are not moved by nonhuman animals, who do not perceive their lives as grievable, will not perceive or recognize the atrocities committed against them as violence. For this reason, the process of becoming vegan is a transformation in one’s worldview. The moral community is seen, smelled, touched, heard, and tasted differently. The smell of bacon may no longer recall childhood memories but instead becomes a perception of death and destruction. A vegan ethics of nonviolence acknowledges the making-killable of animal others as a violent act, and it necessitates the symbolic and practical rejection of such violence.

Once we make explicit the boundaries of the moral community, the division between moral subjects and nonsubjects becomes an ethico-political judgment. We must then ask: How do we draw the precarious line between human, animal, and plant? The division between the human and the animal is marked, in Derrida’s terms, by the making-killable of the animal. In other words, those marked as human are subjects protected by the moral prohibition against violence, whereas those marked as mere animals are not. The claim of nonviolence, upon which vegan ethics is based, asks us to hold open the question of who or what requires moral consideration as a means to acknowledge the infallibility of our capacity for recognizing life.

In vegan ethics, ethical action is no longer limited to individual actions in isolated scenarios that demand utilitarian calculation, such as, “Do I eat the bacon or not?” Rather, the concern becomes how to reconceptualize the frames through which animals are perceived to make violence against animals be perceived as violence. Because these frames are rooted in affective and embodied habits, ethico-political strategies must work at the level of perception and the senses. Veganism, from this perspective, can be seen as a practice of expanding the realm of grievable life or as a precautionary principle of moral standing in action. This rejection of violence, or the refusal to accept the “better” and “humane” deaths of free-range ethics as a moral ideal, throws a wrench into the anthropological machine that dissimulates widespread, institutionalized violence against other animals (Agamben 2002).


  1. Thank you to Lori Gruen, Anthony J. Nocella II, and Richard Twine for their editorial comments

11 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium: Returning the Ethical and Political to Animal Studies by STEPHANIE JENKINS”

  1. Stephanie,
    Your insistence on avoiding the all too easy line-drawing between human and animal so prevalent in animal rights and welfare debates is a welcome change. Often whether animal ethicists are utilitarians or Kantians, they are looking for set criteria to use to determine our ethical obligations to animals. They draw lines between those to whom we are ethically obligated and those to whom we are not, always using the human as the baseline. Usually this means animals like us may be moral agents while those radically different may not be, whether what we have in common is intelligence, interests, the ability to feel pain, or some characteristic or potential that makes us/them ends in themselves. These ethical principles are based on likeness or similarity and cannot address differences between humans and nonhuman animals, or vast differences within the categories “human” or “animal.”

    Your remarks raise the much needed question: what would it mean to rethink ethics such that we imagine that we have obligations to those who are not like us, those whom we do not recognize? This might suggest the “impossibility” (and the necessity) of the ethical demand upon which Derrida insists.

    But, even “killability” is not a definitive criteria given that we kill plenty of other humans directly in wars and indirectly through poverty, on the one hand, and we don’t kill our pets (although we can euthanize them while we cannot euthanize other members of our families; yet we don’t usually call euthanizing “killing”).

    Shifting the debate away from moral rules or even moral principles to questions of political imagination seems promising….

    Kelly Oliver
    W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kelly.

    You’ve highlighted the motivating theme for my essay, which is influenced by my work in feminist, animal, and disability studies. I’d like to think about moral standing (by which I mean how we determine who or what must be considered, which does not exclude killability, as you rightly mention) as being based on something other than what Michael Bérubé calls performance criteria. Such performance criteria, such as rationality, intelligence, language, etc., perpetuate the understanding of morality as based on likeness or similarity.

    I want to think about how we can recognize or address the ethical demands of others who are not like us. Some scholars have suggested “universal” considerability as a solution to this problem. I am not satisfied with this because, in my view, there are morally relevant differences between killing a carrot versus a pig, for example. There have been some interesting discussions lately about plant “suffering”, but I am very resistant to thinking this way.

    I recognize that part of my problem is that I’m still “line-drawing” in the sense that I would like to identify some sort of standard for determining who we are responsible to, while the very nature of my project points towards rejecting such criteria. At the same time, I think that is important for me to address the logical and practical consequences of proposing a precautionary principle of moral standing. Ethics, as you mention, certainly is impossible (and necessary!).

    I should add that your philosophical work has been influential in how I think about these issues! If you have any resource suggestions, I would greatly appreciate them.

  3. Hi Stephanie,

    I was hoping you might discuss and explore a tension I see between yourself and Traci Warkentin when it comes to being openly vegan. Specifically, you mention how animal studies theorists “often seek to bracket, postpone, or eradicate questions of ethics” and that, for this reason among others, “conference presentations, conversations, and lectures will be prefaced with statements such as, ‘I’m not a vegetarian,’ ‘I’m no Peter Singer,’ or ‘I’m not for animal rights.’”

    Although for different reasons Warkentin makes a similar observation with respect to participants in animal studies conferences who feel compelled to self-identify as vegan or carnivore (although I wonder who’s willfully grouping themselves in the latter camp). However, and here’s where I think you two part ways, Warkentin prefers to sidestep questions about her diet–which, I believe, is in fact vegan–by rebranding it in terms of a “conscious diet.” Now, we might wonder if this newly constructed “conscious versus unconscious” dualism is any better than the old “vegan versus carnivore” divide Warkentin is concerned about fomenting (when it’s implied that one’s on an “unconscious diet” I imagine it stings just as badly).

    Of course, the real issue here is whether eschewing the label “vegan” is a good idea. I’m not sure that it is. In this context, I worry that ambiguity will beget self-effacement and threaten to “reify the status quo ‘war’ against animals” as you put it. And if I’ve understood you correctly, coming out as vegan, at conferences and elsewhere, is a gesture that carries with it a great deal of importance as it signals a disruption to the dominant narratives, ontologies, and abusive attitudes taken toward animals (and women!).

    All that said, how should we balance the benefits of making ourselves visible as vegans with Warkentin’s belief that self-identification, at least in academic contexts, creates an environment where the “vegan lifestyle” (whatever that may be) is viewed as “unquestionably good, and, perhaps, the only ethical choice among animal studies scholars”? Do we risk needlessly creating harmful and mutually reinforcing dualisms by self-identifying as vegan? When questioned about your diet, could you ever see yourself telling fellow conference participants, or anyone else for that matter, that you’re a practitioner of a “conscious diet” without feeling disingenuous about it?

    Thanks for your time and the deeply insightful article,

    Justin Ross Morris
    MA Candidate, Department of Philosophy, University of Windsor

    (And thanks to James Stanescu’s “Critical Animal” blog for bringing this wonderful online gathering to my attention.)

  4. Hi Justin- Thanks for your questions! I’ve actually been thinking about a comment for Traci’s essay. Now I will have to decide what I should post where!

    For now, I’ll quickly say that I do think it is important to publicly identify as vegan, but that part of the problem is that veganism is often reduced to a diet or lifestyle choice (which is part of why I am not satisfied with the “conscious diet” label). I’m currently working on an essay with a colleague that criticizes understanding veganism in terms of an individual lifestyle.

    1. Hi Justin and Stephanie – Thank you for bringing our pieces into direct conversation. I strongly agree that feminist animal ethics must involve action. I, too, am impatient about academic bracketing; scholarly work should engage in/with advocacy work and acknowledge the real lives of animals in myriad ways. This necessarily involves critical dietary choices and challenging the larger institutions of industrial animal agriculture rather than focusing on just individual dilemmas. And here is where I hesitate about labels of “vegan”, “vegetarian”, “carnivore” which can become reified as static characterizations and potentially close off opportunities for making positive dietary/lifestyle changes if they are perceived as strictly all or nothing ways of being. Unfortunately, I’ve seen veganism perceived as a rigid ontological self-identification (one is a vegan or not and anyone in-between is a hypocrite), which some see as impossible so they throw up their hands and justify doing nothing at all. I wonder if talking about diet as a dynamic process and encouraging strategies that can incorporate small but significant positive changes over time, which positions it more as something one does rather than who/what one is, makes lifestyle changes more practical, approachable, less exclusionary. Perhaps this is just semantics, but I wonder if it is presented as “practicing a conscious diet,” it can be perceived as a more flexible way of challenging the complicated processes of eating, dressing, interacting with other animals, and the structures (political, commercial, social, institutional) that limit them? As you point out, Justin, the “conscious” description suggests the alternate as “unconscious,” which can be off-putting, although I think it may be fairly accurate (whether one is naively or deliberately uniformed about animal food issue). I appreciate that the approach I’m suggesting may seem like too much of a compromise given the scale of the industrial animal agricultural complex and other forms of violent exploitation and look forward to the conversation continuing.

      1. Hello! Thanks for the clarification, Traci. I suspect we have more in common than I initially thought. I am resistant, however, to thinking about veganism as a diet. Diet is certainly part of it, because for many of us food is our most common and extensive interface with non-human animal exploitation. For me, it is a practice through which I enact the “sacrifice of the sacrifice” of the animal, to use Derrida’s terms. Additionally, I think the focus on diet buys into a lot of the consumer logic that was discussed on Traci’s page.

        I really hoped to post something in more detail on this, but other deadlines got in the way. If comments stay open past tonight, I’ll see what I can put together.

        In any event, thank you for the conversation!

  5. Thanks for an interesting discussion, and just a quick comment about this. I had a discussion about dietary commitments (I didn’t use the term lifestyles) when I was recently at a conference in France. My interlocutor suggested that both veganism and vegetarianism were matters of aesthetics, rather than ethics. I can understand that he may have meant this as a kind of Foucauldian ‘care of the self,’ but I wonder how ethics and aesthetics become disarticulated, if not opposed in this way. His certainty was unshaken by my surprise.

    1. Hi Kari- I too am curious about the disarticulation. I would think that if your interlocutor was suggesting a sort of Foucauldian technique of self that he would not have distinguished the two terms in this way.

  6. Hi Stephanie,
    Thanks for such a powerful essay. You ask the kinds of brave questions that need asking at what is an important moment in the trajectory of animal studies. Your response to Haraway’s quite weak argument and her claim (a claim that is both factually untrue and simplistically offensive), that “[t]ry as we might to distance ourselves, there is no way of living that is not also a way of someone, not just something else, dying differentially,” namely, that it fails to “distinguish between differences in degree, kind, and intent of killing,” is the exact right response. Your point that “[o]ntological and epistemological investigations are inseparable from ethical inquiry” is on-the-mark, but seems more and more ignored by animal studies scholars. I find it puzzling that some of us who are opposed to oppression and committed to ending it in all its forms (e.g., in sex, gender, race, class, species) do not see veganism as a consequence of such a political commitment to animals. Perhaps this phenomenon is best explained by the fact that such studies, once they become ‘fields” in the academy, are then often abstracted away from their political commitments. I, for one, see animal studies stripped of its ethical and political concomitants as impoverished, and see the current turn towards theoreticalizing animals away from their conditions as actual subjects of oppression—those actual, real animals out there in the world, tortured and exploited on factory farms and in laboratories—as a turn away from animal liberation and not something I, personally, would have any interest in pursuing professionally. My 2¢. Again, thanks for a great essay!

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