Caring for Animals: A Feminist Approach
An Animal Rights Article from


Josephine Donovan, AAVS American Anti-Vivisection Society
February 2017

The feminist care approach therefore pays attention (a key word in feminist ethic-of-care theorizing) to the individual suffering animal but also to the political and economic systems that are causing the suffering. The feminist care approach in short recognizes the importance of each individual animal while also developing a more comprehensive analysis of why the animal is being abused in the first place.

lab animal

Beginning in the 1980s, feminist theorists developed a feminist approach—based on care and interspecies communication—to the issue of the moral status of animals, or what is now termed “animal ethics.” the feminist approach was rooted in “ethic-of-care” theory, as articulated primarily in Carol Gilligan’s celebrated in A Different Voice (1982). Gilligan identified a women’s “conception of morality” as one that is “concerned with the activity of care...responsibility and relationships,” as opposed to one more concerned with “rights and rules” and an abstract idea of justice.

The women’s approach offered a more exible, situational, and particularized ethic, one that showed a concern with “sustaining connection...keeping the web of relationships intact.”

The feminist care approach to animal ethics applies these ideas to the human-animal relationship, calling for a situational ethic of care and responsibility. As with feminism in general, care theory rejects hierarchical dominative dualisms, which establish the powerful (humans, males, whites) over the subordinate (animals, women, people of color). Instead, care theorists see all living creatures as having value and as embedded in an interdependent matrix.

In applying the feminist care ethic to animals, theorists argued that while natural rights theory makes important contributions to theorizing about animals, it nevertheless is in many ways inadequate and unworkable when applied to animals. One problem is that it requires the claim that animals are in many respects similar to humans, that they are autonomous individuals who have an intelligence that is similar to human reason, and therefore are entitled to rights. While animals undoubtedly have highly developed forms of intelligence, it is a stretch to equate them with rational, property-owning men, the original rights-holders.

We therefore need an ethic that acknowledges that nonhuman animals are different, are not in fact human, but are nevertheless entitled to moral respect. Care theory argues that we have a moral responsibility toward all creatures with whom we can communicate, regardless of how different they may be from us.

Rights theory also presumes a society of equal autonomous agents, who require little support from others, who need only that their space be protected from others’ intrusions. But, in reality, animals are not equal to humans; domestic animals, in particular, are for the most part dependent for survival upon humans. We therefore have a situation of unequals, and need an ethic that recognizes this fact. Rights theory has in fact been criticized by feminists when applied to humans because its vision of the equal, autonomous individual (male) ignores the network of supporting persons (usually female) who enable his autonomy; that is, who raise him, feed him, clothe him, etc. In short, rights theory ignores the fact that most humans and animals operate within an interdependent network, and it provides no obligation to care for those who are unable to operate autonomously.

Another problem feminists have had with the rights approach is that it devalues, suppresses, or denies the emotions. This means that a major basis for the human-animal connection—love—is not encompassed. Since the exclusion of the emotional response is a major reason why animal abuse and exploitation continue, it seems contradictory for animal defense advocates to also claim that feelings are inappropriate guides to ethical treatment.

The feminist ethic of care sees animals as individuals who do have feelings, who can communicate those feelings, and to whom therefore humans have moral obligations. An ethic of care also recognizes the diversity of animals; one size doesn’t fit all; each has a particular history. Insofar as possible, attention needs to be paid to these particularities in any ethical determination regarding them.

One of the primary theories that continues to legitimize animal abuse is Cartesian dualism—the division of the world into mind and matter. In the Cartesian view, matter is assumed to be lifeless and without energizing spirit (unlike in much premodern thinking, which is animist), and is held therefore to be of lesser value than mind, spirit, or reason. In this viewpoint, which undergirds much modern thinking about animals, which is instrumental, animals are reduced to mere things, machine-like automatons lacking inner spirit, sensitivity, or feelings. It is this theory that legitimizes vivisection and factory farming, for example, and, as Thomas Kelch has pointed out, it is this view that supports the current common law conception of animals as property. Kelch argues for reconceptualizing the moral status of animals as feeling subjects, which he believes will lead to changing the legal status of animals.

The feminist care approach therefore pays attention (a key word in feminist ethic-of-care theorizing) to the individual suffering animal but also to the political and economic systems that are causing the suffering. The feminist care approach in short recognizes the importance of each individual animal while also developing a more comprehensive analysis of why the animal is being abused in the first place.

Care theory recognizes that ideological systems often screen humans from animal harm and suffering by offering legitimizing rationalization for those harms, as a number of theorists, notably Brian Luke, Kenneth Shapiro, and Carol J. Adams, have emphasized. Men especially, Luke and Shapiro note, are socialized from an early age under our “sex-species system” (Adams’s term) to consider sympathy and compassion for animals as unmanly and feminine, which Adams sees as one aspect of a more general derision of compassion in society at large. Animal harm is moreover rendered invisible for most people, as Luke notes, by massive ideological screening that allows people not to see the suffering animal in the laboratory or slaughterhouse.

Recently, some ethic-of-care theorists have proposed that our attention should be directed as well to what the animals are telling us, rather than what other humans are telling us about them. In an article “Caring to Dialogue,” I have called for a renewed emphasis on dialogue with animals, learning their communication systems, reading their body language phenomenologically, and taking these communications seriously in our ethical decisions.

Such communication may be imperfect. It may indeed be impossible to really know, as Thomas Nagel famously put it, “what it is like to be a bat” (1974). But we can nevertheless decipher animal communications suf ciently to formulate an appropriate ethical response. Indeed, we use the same mental and emotional operations in reading an animal as we do a human. Body language, eye movement, facial expression, tone of voice all are important signs. One might in fact argue that nonhuman animals’ emotional responses are more clear and direct than humans’ and thus are easier to read. In reading animals, it is sometimes helpful to know about species’ habits and culture. And as with humans, repeated experiences with one individual help one to understand that individual’s unique needs and wishes.

One of the principal ways by which one understands animal “language” sympathetically is by analogy to one’s own experience. If a dog is yelping, whining, leaping about, and licking an open cut; and since, under similar circumstances, I know I would likewise be (or feel like) crying and moving about anxiously because of the pain, I therefore conclude that the animal is experiencing the same kind of pain as I would, and that s/he doesn’t like it. Knowing that one would wish one’s own pain to be alleviated, one is moved to do the same for the animal. Of course, the animal’s expressed feelings or wishes cannot always be determined. At times, humans may have to override them for their own good (as when one vaccinates one’s companion animal). And to be sure, the more different the creature is from oneself the more dif cult the communication.

But even insects, shes, reptiles, and birds react in ways we can relate to: avoiding pain and what threatens death, and seeking what enhances their life.

If, in short, we really begin to pay attention to what other creatures are telling us, we will hear that they do not want to be slaughtered, eaten, subjected to pain, or treated instrumentally as feelingless objects. It behooves us humans as ethical beings to incorporate their wishes when we make decisions—as we inevitably must—about their lives.

Josephine Donovan, Professor Emerita at the University of Maine, has written widely on literature and animal ethics: most recently, with Carol J. Adams, she edited the Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (Columbia University Press, 2007). Parts of this essay are derived from the introduction. A longer version appeared in Tikkun (Jan.-feb. 2009).

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