(Non-Human) Animals on the Agenda by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“[E]thical interest in nonhuman animals is flourishing.”

To my delight, the New York Times recently chronicled the growing scholarly interest in human/non-human animal interactions in a story entitled “Animal Studies Cross Campus to Lecture Hall.” There are now more than 100 courses in colleges and universities in the burgeoning field of animal studies. At least 40 U.S. law schools now routinely offer courses in animal law. A growing number of formal academic programs, book series, journals, conferences, institutes, and fellowships are also dedicated to (re)examining human-animal relations from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—“art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, [and] religion,” to name a few.

Indeed, in my academic field of specialization, philosophical and religious ethics, the total bracketing of “the animal question” is now untenable, as our human use and consumption of animals have long become serious and respectable topics of analysis.  Case in point: Peter Singer’s seminal Animal Liberation (1975), a book widely recognized as having spearheaded the contemporary animal movement, regularly appears in applied ethics anthologies and in philosophy Ph.D qualifying exam reading lists.

Admittedly, Singer’s view that the interests of nonhuman animals should be counted equally alongside of those of humans remains a minority position—even among scholars and activists devoted to improving animal welfare. Nevertheless, most ethicists today, regardless of their personal proclivities toward encompassing nonhuman animals in their sphere of moral concern, are being pressed to give reasoned responses to the claims or platforms of animal protectionists.

Students in my Fall 2011 Feminist Ethics class discussed this poster in our unit on ecofeminism

On the day that this blog is to be published, approximately 600 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ethicists will be convening in Washington, D.C. for the annual meetings of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE), Society of Jewish Ethics (SJE), and Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics (SSME). A glance at the joint program book alone will reveal that ethical interest in nonhuman animals is flourishing:

  • Rabbi Julia Watts Belser will be presenting a SCE paper entitled “”Suffering Rabbis and Other Animals: Theorizing the Connections between Animal Ethics, Jewish Feminist Animal Ethics in Conversation with Passage from Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metsia 83b-85a.”
  • Haley Rose Glaholt will be presenting a SJE paper entitled “Illuminated by the Inner Light: Victorian Quakers Negotiate Species Hierarchy and Moral Significance.”
  • The SSME will be hosting a session entitled “The Use and Abuse of Creation: Animas and Sustainability in Islamic Ethics.”  Panelists and papers include

– Kecia Ali, “Muslims and Meat-Eating: Vegetarianism, Ethics, and Identity”

– Irene Oh, “An Islamic Ethic of Eating for the 21st Century: Balancing Food Choice, Piety, and Sustainability”

– Robert Tappan, “Islamic Bioethics and Animal Research: The Case of Iran”

  • I will also be presenting the central findings of my book in two separate sessions at the SCE.  While the word “animal” doesn’t appear in my book’s title (and thus, not in the program book notes either), I discuss therein the ways in which claims of human rights bear upon those of animal rights and vice versa.

I should add that animals were also definitely on the agenda at the recently concluded 2011 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion as well. In addition to numerous sessions, panels, and solo papers that could be categorized under the heading of animal studies, there was also one well-attended preconference workshop that was jointly sponsored by the Sustainability Task Force and the Animals and Religion Consultation entitled “Teaching About Religion and Sustainability: The Animal Question.”

In future blogs I will discuss how and why my Christian and ecofeminist commitments led me to change some of my beliefs, practices, and patterns of relating to nonhuman animals.

Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834)

For now, however, I am curious to know what readers of www.feminismandreligion.com think about the following questions:

(1)  How do your feminist commitments (if any) affect the way you conceptualize or interact with nonhuman animals?

(2)  How do your religious commitments (if any) affect the way you conceptualize or interact with nonhuman animals?

(3)  How do you explain or account for the recent scholarly interest in the “question of the animal”?

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology.  She will be teaching her Animal Theology, Animal Ethics course again in Spring 2013. Read more about her work on her website.

 My students and family at a class field to Animal Acres–a farm animal rescue and refuge in the greater Los Angeles area


Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

7 thoughts on “(Non-Human) Animals on the Agenda by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. I am a big fan of Franz de Waal whose studies of chimps and bonobos show deep feelings in animals.

    When I was a grad student and up through the 1980s I was usually laughed at for suggesting that animals can think and feel, thank goodness science is finally figuring that out.

    I do believe the notion that animals cannot think and feel is part of the project of human male domination of everyone and everything else.

    Guess what women think and feel, subjugated peoples think and feel, and animals think and feel too.

    I agree with Charles Hartshorne’s theory of panpsychicalism which asserts that feeling and the power to respond to others permeates all of life, down to the particles of an atom.

    Recognizing that means responding to and relating to the world and everything in it differently.


  2. Since the latest research indicates plants have minds, feel pain and warn thei neighbors that there is danger near them via high pitched noise and pheromone, when are ethical concerns be extended to them. Or do just things with faces get consideration.


  3. First let me just say that as of late I am finding that questions 1 and 2 seem to inform the other and in many ways, are difficult to separate out. How I understand my feminist stance is by-and-large how I understand myself as a Christian. So with that said, my desire to examine how and what I eat (yes I am a vegetarian) in informed by both identities. But I see where you are going with the feminist question which is very thought provoking. The technical response would because I recognize the disturbing violence and oppression against women I therefore recognize that I therefore cannot in good conscience do the same to the nonhuman world, which on some level I suspect is true for me.

    The mindfulness which I bring to eating (which is fairly new) has grown out of my love for animals, fueled by Peter Singer’s argument of equal consideration and not equal rights for animals. Additionally, the Biblical stance of domination over creation has proven to be a disaster which has brought me more to a place of kin-ship and not stewardship with the created world.


  4. Thanks so much for this very important post Grace. I was a vegetarian for about six months and went back to meat eating for a number of reasons. I limit my intake now and try to be mindful – but eating meat is a major struggle for me.

    I have not read Peter Singer and certainly need to. I am putting it on my “to read” list. I am not sure how to respond to your questions – I need to give them a lot of thought. I have tremendous guilt over being a meat eater – but haven’t been able to get away from it.

    One thing I noticed, when I did go vegetarian I was challenged by the people in my life – they felt I was doing something wrong. How interesting, I went against the norm and it made people very uncomfortable. I wasn’t asking them to give it up, it was a choice I made for myself, but everyone seemed to be rattled.


  5. Great post Grace. Thanks for letting me know about this website. From my own religious commitments, which are Orthodox, I think the notion of the sacramentality of creation would be helpful in this discussion. Could all these dualisms, human v. non-human, etc., be a result of the post-Enlightenment loss of a sacramental imagination?


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