What’s Love Got to Do with it? An Ecofeminist Approach to Inter-Animal and Intra-Cultural Conflicts of Interest


Many familial and cultural traditions rely on animals for their fulfillment - think of Christmas ham, Rosh Hashannah chicken soup, Fourth of July barbeques, and so forth. Though philosophers writing in animal ethics often dismiss interests in certain foods as trivial, these food-based traditions pose a significant moral problem for those who take animals’ lives and interests seriously. One must either turn one’s back on one’s community or on the animals. In this paper, I consider the under-theorized area of intra-cultural critique. My focus is how we should think about and seek to resolve inter-animal conflicts of interest that arise within our own communities and cultural or religious groups. How should a theory that takes animals seriously approach a conflict between animals’ interests and culturally important human interests in the context of one’s own cultural, ethnic, or religious group? How, for example, should we think about the person staring down at a bowl of her grandmother’s chicken soup while recognizing the moral impermissibility of slaughtering chickens for human consumption? In contrast to traditional approaches that fail to take these robust, food-based, interests into account, I offer an ecofeminist approach that highlights the importance of respecting animals’ interests while also undertaking the work of moral repair to address damage done to relationships of love and care in the process.

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  1. 1.

    I use the term “inter-animal” to refer to conflicts of interest involving humans and animals. “Inter-species” conflicts is less cumbersome, but I want to differentiate between conflicts of interest involving humans and nonhuman nature (as between humans and plants) from conflicts involving humans and nonhuman animals. By “inter-animal” conflicts of interest I mean only conflicts between human and nonhuman animals and not conflicts between nonhuman animals (e.g., lions preying on gazelles).

  2. 2.

    In Emmerman 2012 I critique the prioritization schemes offered by Peter Singer, Paul Taylor, and Gary Varner. Tom Regan also takes up the issue of priority in Regan 1983. See also VanDeVeer 1979.

  3. 3.

    Cf., Singer 1972.

  4. 4.

    For descriptions of the lives of factory farmed chickens see Baur 2008:147–166; Masson 2003:55–95; and Singer and Mason 2006.

  5. 5.

    Richard Twine (2016) highlights the various ways food intersects with other life practices.

  6. 6.

    There is an extensive literature on this tension as it manifests in the inter-human realm with respect to the obligations of affluent people to the global poor. There the tension plays out in terms of the apparently strong obligations affluent people have to alleviate the horrible suffering of the world’s poorest inhabitants and the importance of leading a flourishing human life.

  7. 7.

    Posthumanism has many variations, but in general is best understood as a response to Enlightenment humanist thinking. Posthumanism questions, among other things, human superiority and human exceptionalism (Abrell 2018).

  8. 8.

    By “moral remainder” I mean “some genuine moral demands which, because their fulfillment conflicted with other genuine more demands, are ‘left over’ in episodes of moral choice, and yet are not just nullified,” (Walker 1989:21).

  9. 9.

    The approach is ecofeminist in many ways. It emphasizes themes brought forth in feminist work regarding the moral relevancy of issues connected to inter-personal relationships of love and care, the importance of context in moral deliberation, and emphasizing how emotion can and must play a role in morality alongside reason (Donovan 1993; Gaard 2002; Gilligan 1982; Gruen 1991, 1993, 2004; Held 1995; Luke 1995, 2007; Kheel 1985, 1993; Slicer 1991; and Walker 1989, 1995). The approach also insists on the importance of first person narrative as a source of information in moral deliberation (Lugones and Spelman 1983; Warren 1990). Finally, the approach politicizes the ethics of care (Curtin 1991; Donovan 2007:187–189; Donovan and Adams 2007:3). This includes recognizing the role of inter-locking oppressions in shaping our interests and the choices available to us when conflicts occur.

  10. 10.

    See Jones 2004, Davis 2012, and Marino 2017 for more about the complex social lives of chickens.

  11. 11.

    Cf., Twine’s discussion of the vegan killjoy (Twine 2014).

  12. 12.

    Cf., Bishop 1987 and Walker 1989, 1995 for discussions of how in meeting our moral obligations in one area we might act wrongly in others.

  13. 13.

    Adams 2010, Kheel 2004, and Gruen 1993 examine the role of gender in meat-based cultural practices.

  14. 14.

    See Virginia Held’s discussion of the moral elements of relationships (Held 1995: 160).

  15. 15.

    This may sound dramatic, but those of us who have turned our backs on the foods that contribute to cultural or religious identity know the depth of the problem here. In some cases, family gatherings fracture and relationships are compromised. See Jonathan Safran Foer’s discussion of table fellowship for more on the importance of gathering around food to families and communities (Safran Foer 2007).

  16. 16.

    Grant and MacKenzie-Dale’s discussion Lisa Simpson and Darlene Connor as vegan-feminist killjoys helps highlight the inter-personal phenomenon here (Grant and MacKenzie-Dale 2016).

  17. 17.

    See Lori Gruen’s discussion of resentment and when it is and is not legitimate in the inter-cultural conflict setting (Gruen 2001).

  18. 18.

    Some of this resentment might be deserved. As a young convert to vegetarianism, I admit, I would moo at the table while my family ate their brisket. Deane Curtin reminds us that veganism is a moral direction rather than a moral state (Curtin 1992: 131). If vegans in general were less smug about their moral superiority and better equipped to understand that even veganism is not cruelty free, these issues of resentment might dissipate. (I first heard the expression “veganism is not cruelty free” from vegan food justice activist lauren Ornelas.)

  19. 19.

    See Bailey 2007: 51–55 for a discussion of feminist vegetarianism and elitism.

  20. 20.

    Many vegans experience alienation from our families and communities. Twine’s sociological research on transition to veganism provides empirical backing for this felt experience (Twine 2014, 2016).

  21. 21.

    I owe this point to a participant in the Wesleyan University “Sex, Gender, Species” conference.

  22. 22.

    A participant at the Wesleyan University “Sex, Gender, Species” Conference raised this important point. The obligations to one another run both ways. Something disrespectful happens when my grandmother consistently puts chicken soup in front of me even though I am a vegetarian. This is important, but it is also worth recognizing that the likely scenario here is one where my grandmother must make a vegetarian soup for me in addition to the chicken soup she is making for the rest of the family. My commitment to vegetarianism puts an added burden on her. While I could make the soup, my grandmother never would have allowed that when I adopted vegetarianism at 13 years old. Children providing their own food was antithetical to her understanding of the right ordering of things. Carol J. Adams suggests that bringing one’s own vegan food to gatherings is an important part of self-care and managing the social and relational complexities of living as a vegan (Adams 2009). I agree with Adams but note that bringing one’s own food may not work in certain cultural or familial groups depending on the norms and traditions.

  23. 23.

    Marilyn Friedman talks about the importance of using inter-subjectivity to avoid bias in moral decision-making (Friedman 1989). Dialogue will be useful in undertaking inter-subjective reflection on the work of moral repair.

  24. 24.

    This movement is known as Hekhsher Tzedek.

  25. 25.

    See Safran Foer’s discussion of how Thanksgiving dinner might be enhanced without the traditional roasted turkey (Safran Foer 2007: 249–257). For more on the possibility of shifting traditions see Twine 2016 and Ciochetti 2012

  26. 26.

    My family may not care what Ethiopian Jewish grandmothers feed their families. They care that in our family we eat chicken soup and the chicken soup is what my grandmother fed my mother and so on all the way back to the shtetls of Poland. Therefore, my appeal to the multicultural nature of Judaism may require time to take root.


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I thank numerous friends and colleagues at the University of Washington who have thought along with me about this topic over time. I am grateful to the organizers and participants of the April 2018 Kline Workshop at the University of Missouri for thoughtful discussion of this paper in its earlier iteration, particularly Asia Ferrin and Bob Fischer. I also thank two anonymous reviewers for Ethical Theory and Moral Practice for their helpful feedback.

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Correspondence to Karen S. Emmerman.

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Emmerman, K.S. What’s Love Got to Do with it? An Ecofeminist Approach to Inter-Animal and Intra-Cultural Conflicts of Interest. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 77–91 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-019-09978-6

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  • Animals
  • Ecofeminism
  • Veganism
  • Foodways
  • Basic interests
  • Nonbasic interests
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Moral repair, culture, gender, intersectional veganism, Jewish vegetarianism