Academic journal article New Formations

Turning to Animals between Love and Law

Academic journal article New Formations

Turning to Animals between Love and Law

Article excerpt

Grace is the law of the descending movement. To lower oneself is to rise in the domain of moral gravity. Moral gravity makes us fall towards the heights.

Simone Weil (1)

Animal ethics is perhaps the clearest example of the demands ofjustice as the falling towards the heights. To consider animals we have to stop, and stoop, required to withhold most if not all of the descriptive and normative claims that furnish and shape our everyday. In recent developments, as an alternative to the dominant utilitarian and rights-based models, animal ethics turned to the Continental philosophies of Levinas and Derrida that welcome and revere Otherness. Whereas utilitarianism relies on a 'closed' system of ethical calculations, the Levinasian model remains open-ended. This essay argues for a revised approach to animal ethics that combines Levinasian immeasurability, the disposition Matthew Calarco describes as 'ethical agnosticism', with a closed approach that sees ethics as embodied in particular modes of practice. By highlighting some of the problems inherent in the Levinasian model of an ethics of love, I propose a corrective that avoids predetermining the limits of moral consideration yet insists on the social and normative dimensions of ethical responsiveness. I take the practice of veganism--broadly conceived beyond the strictly dietary--as the heart of animal ethics and consider some of the philosophical and theological dimensions of veganism as neither naive nor as utopian but, on the contrary, as a worldly mode of engagement that acknowledges the realities of violence. Veganism's worldliness is an example of 'descending upwards' that gives shape to animal ethics, conjoining the openness of love with the delimited and bound system of law.

Preceding my discussion of veganism are a few reflections on contemporary Continental thought that has transformed animal ethics; the first two sections examine the dual theoretical track of transcendence and immanence that has been so important for developments in critical theory and posthumanist ethics. My critique of these two undercurrents informs the latter parts of the essay where I tackle the issue of animal ethics directly. My conclusion links veganism to abolitionist animal rights theory, which is rarely if ever considered from the perspective of Continental philosophy. If the route to the question of animal ethics seems tortuous, this is because my aim in this piece is to call attention to the theoretical temperament that underlies our thinking in the field. In other words, I am trying to connect ideas with the 'moods' that engender them, to better understand where and to what practical ends they might lead.


The work of ethics and of justice for Simone Weil is paradigmatically the movement of descending upwards- not figuratively but literally--and animals, routinely excluded from view and from the moral community, are a case in point. Animals' exclusion initially appears almost too self-evident to warrant comment, too visible to really appear. At all levels of life animals are subject to a catalogue of relentless bracketing. Morally, legally, politically, culturally, and religiously, animals are exemplars of exclusion, not merely symbolically, remaining outside or at the threshold of these various categories, but empirically: they embody a particular, and we might say an exclusive, case of exclusion. Despite what we know about the 'continuities of oppression' across species lines, nonhuman animals occupy an exceptional space, and the space of exception.

Yet as recent theorizing on animals and animality has shown, animals' very exceptionality endows them with a strange kind of agency which Matthew Calarco, following Derrida's 'The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)', describes as 'the disruptive force in animal suffering'.2 In their very exclusion, then, animals assert their proximity to and elicit a range of responses from us, from repression to violent retaliation to the recognition of animals' personhood. …

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