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Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective by Marti Kheel

Lisa Kemmerer analyses a feminist analysis of hunting.

While I was visiting a colleague’s classroom to engage in a debate, a student, who happened to be a hunter, offered this argument as his primary defense for sport killing: “It’s as good as having sex.” As he expounded on the orgasmic pleasures of killing, I was speechless. How does one respond to such an irrational justification for destroying life? Surely no rapist would launch a defense by arguing that his experience was ‘orgasmic’.

In Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, Marti Kheel explores hunting and masculine identity, noting that images of manliness in Western culture require dominance and violence – even to the extent of slaughtering non-threatening creatures such as deer, whose only defense is to take flight. On pages 3-4 she lists eight masculinist tendencies:

• A belief that men in particular are driven by aggressive, self-centered biological drives that require controlled, rational expression;

• A belief in the superiority of sport (competition with publicly recognized rules, associated with valor, power, and prestige) over spontaneous play;

• Preserving the ‘primitive’ environment (the frontier experience) as a legacy for future generations, particularly for boys;

• Adventure;

• Ecology and natural history as a basis for connecting past and future generations;

• The moral importance of stewardship over the ‘whole’ of nature;

• An anthropocentric philosophy based on the unique capacity of humans/men for self-conscious deliberation and a transcendent perspective;

• Subordinating concern for individual creatures to larger constructs.

From this platform, Nature Ethics offers a lively attack on four well-known individuals who are often heralded as environmentalists: Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Holmes Rolston III and Warwick Fox. Her central thesis is that these ‘holists’ who defend hunting fail to incorporate respect for individual non-human animals because of an “orientation that idealizes transcending the biological realm as represented by other-than-human animals” (p.3). She argues that this attitude is masculinist because it “subordinate[s] empathy and care for individual beings to a larger cognitive perspective or ‘whole’.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, a man too genteel to shoot a bear who had been tied to a tree, nonetheless loved to kill. Apparently he preferred to shoot bears on the run, somehow convincing himself that this was fair sport. Kheel notes that in Roosevelt’s view, such killing was critical to the development of manhood, yielding such traits as stamina, skill, and a detachment from any personal feeling for the creature killed in the process. This noble activity was deemed ‘sport’, and required restraint (never shoot a bear tied to a tree).

Kheel writes,

“The idea that hunting is a sport contains a number of conceptual flaws, which seemed to elude nineteenth-century hunters. Sport is typically conceived as a voluntary agreement among participants to follow mutually agreed upon goals. But the other-than-human ‘players’ in this ‘game’ do not consent to be competitors; nor do they have the same objectives. The sport is devoid of symmetry. The hunter sets the rules, including the goal to kill; the animals merely respond by attempting to flee. The forcible entry of other-than-human animals into this ‘game’ renders the analogy with sport meaningless.” (p.92)

Among those holding political power in the early twentieth century – namely men – there were few constructs as important as manhood, which established their personal claim to the possibility of power and prestige. On behalf of men and their supposed need for sport killing, President Roosevelt became an advocate for “conservation of the country’s natural resources” which he viewed as critical to developing and preserving manliness (p.71). How would boys become men without ‘wild’ animals to dominate and kill, and what would society be without manly men, willing to kill unarmed ungulates and terrified little black bears fleeing for their lives? There was even something of sex – something akin to the dominance of males over females – in the hunting game, which requires a kill just as surely as sex demands ejaculation:

“Although sport hunters often downplay the final kill, none are willing to relinquish this as their ultimate goal. The narrative structure must entail the climax of the kill. The buildup of tension and excitement found in the ‘foreplay’ of the chase only attains meaning when directed toward the final release attained in death.” (p.90).

Kheel says that Aldo Leopold “viewed Park Service land, where hunting was prohibited, as a place where people engaged in the superficial experience of viewing pretty scenery. By contrast, he envisioned the national forests as recreational ‘play-grounds’ or ‘shooting grounds’ where men could re-create the wilderness experience” (p.112). Like Roosevelt, Leopold held sport hunting in high esteem, and felt that it should take precedence over hunting for survival. He could scarcely endure the thought of another animal killing out of need, while he justified sport killing for ‘higher ideals’, such as to fulfill man’s “inalienable right to hunt and kill” (p.120) – a classic circuitous defense.

Leopold held an “agricultural model of wildlife husbandry” which valued nature “for her reproductive potential and, in particular, her ability to produce crops” (p.112). In his view, non-human animals should be raised and harvested just like corn or trees, and Leopold envisioned game preserves as places to produce game for sport killing. Kheel notes that, significantly, this agricultural model of animal husbandry has been broadly adopted, and now extends to the wild. At least in part thanks to Leopold, wild non-human animals have been “placed under the Department of Agriculture” and we now speak of ‘harvesting’ deer and elk as if they were peas and beans (p.231).

Holmes Rolston III also finds value not in the individual, but in the system, and in the preservation of the system. Rolston was a man of science, and a man of God, who viewed suffering as part of life – as a beneficial sacrifice that might destroy the individual but would ultimately improve the whole. He argued for a hierarchy of value in which humans “have the greatest intrinsic value” (p.141). Humans are the overseers of the natural world, and it is “natural for humans to exploit nature” (p.149). Thus people are allowed to cause suffering, so long as it is not above and beyond “what might have occurred in the ecosystem” (p.148).

For Rolston, killing for the pleasure of the hunt is among acceptable suffering. Yet, while he is less adamant about defending man’s right to kill, he admits, “I eat animals... I kill goats to save a few endangered plants. I tolerate hunting under ecosystemic conditions. I accept some wildlife commerce as a management tool. I seem to have no mercy” (p.147). Indeed, Kheel suggests Rolston is an uninspiring environmentalist – decidedly mainstream.

Although praising humans for their “almost supernatural altruism, unprecedented on the planet” (p.143), Rolston justifies human bloodlust. These inconsistencies in his writing are not lost on Kheel. Like the student I encountered in class, Rolston compares the urge to hunt to the sexual drive. But Kheel steps up to the plate, noting that urges – including sexual – must not be satisfied at the expense of others.

Deep ecologist Warwick Fox argues that we, along with all other entities, “are aspects of a single unfolding reality” (p.175). However, this conception of reality is one in which only human beings are active participants “progressing toward a spiritual consciousness, inspired by an awareness of the global unfolding of the universe,” while “the rest of nature is entrapped in a material unfolding dictated by self-centered needs” (p.180). Kheel notes that humanity seems to fit the latter along with other animals. She might have added that the experiences of other animals remain unclear to us. Instead she objects that the trouble with Fox’s unfolding reality is that “the emphasis on human subjectivity... reinforce[s] anthropocentrism if it obscures the subjective identity of other beings” (p.181). She quotes John Cobb noting deep-ecologists’ “contempt for humane societies and animal rights activists” and concludes that, in the philosophy of Warwick Fox, non-human animals “exist only as a collective backdrop to the transpersonal, not as individual beings with [their own] subjective experiences” (p.195).

In the final chapter, ‘Ecofeminist Holist Philosophy’, Kheel provides a survey of ecofeminism, defining it as “A loosely-knit philosophical and practical orientation that examines and critiques the historical, mutually-reinforcing devaluation of women and nature,” adding that many “contemporary ecofeminists have further broadened this analysis from a focus on the parallel situations of ‘women’ and ‘nature’ to an emphasis on the shared ideologies that support multiple forms of domination, including those based on race, class, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.” Critically, she also notes that ecofeminism looks to the social and historical roots of oppression with the hope of uprooting “the ideological substructures that thwart the growth of an alternative orientation and consciousness toward nature” (pp. 208-209).

Reflecting on the ideas of Roosevelt, Leopold, Rolston and Fox as an ecofeminist holist, Kheel emphasizes that these four prominent male advocates of environmental ethics offer “a vision of ethical maturity defined by abstract constructs or ‘wholes’ that transcend empathy and care for individual beings.” Both wildlife and domestic animals serve as mere “props for attaining a desired psychological state which centers on humanity in general, and males in particular” (p.226). Kheel argues that we must uproot the underpinnings of male violence toward nature if we are to create a reasonable environmental ethic – one that includes the rest of the animal world. These men each take a view in which humans stand outside of nature, assessing, controlling, preserving or exploiting the world around them: hunting, she notes, comes from the Old English hentan, which means ‘to try to seize’. But as an ecofeminist holist, Kheel objects to these male ‘environmentalists’ justifying separation from, superiority over (Rolston), and/or violence towards nature (Roosevelt), expressed most famously through hunting. She also notes that the animal husbandry fostered by Leopold “grants agribusiness and wildlife managers access to the bodies and reproductive services of other-than-human animals” for exploitative purposes, just as marriage grants “a husband legal license to his wife’s sexual and reproductive services” (p.231). But, she responds, “humans are not husbands of nature, and nature is not our wife. Animal husbandry is long overdue for divorce” (p.231).

A key part of this divorce is Kheel’s plan for a change of diet. She says:

“While holist philosophers focus on maintaining the functioning of larger abstract wholes, my hope is that ecophilosophers will narrow their focus to acknowledge the pain and suffering currently experienced by many other-than-human animals, including those who are raised to be eaten. My additional desire is that ecofeminists will embrace veganism.” (p.233).

Yet, like other ecofeminists, Kheel ultimately takes a conciliatory approach. She finds a vegan diet integral to ecofeminist philosophy, but only advocates this as a preferred option, an ideal: “I do not attempt to impose this position as a universal injunction” (p.235). Trying to impose one’s beliefs on other people and cultures, she argues, rubs against ecofeminist inclusiveness, and ignores the context in which people make dietary decisions.

Kheel goes on to say that most people refrain from killing their neighbors not because of obedience to laws, but because of an intuitive feeling that such killing is wrong. This is likely to leave some readers with a gnawing question: What of those few who lack this moral intuition? Does Kheel imply that in the name of inclusiveness we ought to rely on intuition rather than clear, overarching laws to protect our innocent neighbors from murder? Does Kheel object to universal injunctions that protect women from domestic violence and rape? Would she be willing to trust her life to intuition and ideals rather than clear and concise laws, or only the lives of cattle and turkeys, deer and elk?

While there are likely some women and men who must eat flesh or diary products (eg those who live in places which offer few plant-based food options), this does not justify an ecofeminist gathering in Chicago or Birmingham serving factory-farmed flesh, dairy, or eggs in the name of contextual ethics and inclusiveness. Josephine Donovan writes in The Journal of Women in Culture and Society #31 of a dialogical feminist ethic of care in which the voices of all creatures are heard. Ecofeminists who have other dietary options, yet choose to serve animal products, certainly cannot claim sensitivity to the voices of all marginalized individuals. If ecofeminists are open to an interspecies dialogue, they will recognize that cows prefer to nurse their calves rather than provide milk for humans, and that hens prefer to raise their chicks rather than have their eggs taken for human consumption. If they could, cattle, pigs, hens and turkeys all would ask that they enjoy their bodies and lives rather than be devoured by human beings.

There is no reason that ecofeminism cannot take a firm stand against choosing to eat flesh or choosing to support the exploitation of cattle for their nursing milk and hens for their eggs. In Tools for a Cross-Cultural Feminist Ethics, p.10, Mary Ann Warren says that “the boundary conditions for a feminist ethic include an emphasis on both context and on the previously marginalized voices of subordinated others.” But there are none whose lives and wellbeing have been so thoroughly subordinated to the lives and wellbeing of humans, whose voices are so marginalized as to be completely ignored even by most feminists, as those of factory farmed animals.

An ecofeminist commitment to non-violence against cows and hens – other exploited females, who happen to be non-human – is likely to conflict with habits and cultural mores, and might even divide women along ethnic or religious lines. But this concern ought to take a back seat to aligning with the subjugated and defenseless. Feminists deny the rights of husbands to engage in forced sex, and the right of men to control and confine wives and daughters, even though this has caused controversy and divisiveness, despite the fact that these traditions could easily be defined and defended within the contextual framework of a number of cultures. If one makes an allowance for the exploitation and killing of non-human animals for the sake of cultural sensitivity, ought one not do the same for the exploitation and killing of girls and women, including such cultural habits as clitoridectomy, wife-beating and bride-burning?

Unlike most feminists, Kheel advocates a vegan diet. But she leaves room to offer up the lives of non-human animals as possible sacrificial lambs for the greater good of feminist cohesion, for the sake of a contextualized ethics. In a world of animal suffering and slaughter, however, either a moral theory will include and protect subjugated beings or it will not. Either dominance, exploitation, and enslavement of those least able to protect themselves from the violence and selfishness of people will be clearly denounced, or it will not. Ecofeminism (and feminist ethics in general) is either inclusive – defending not just abused women, but also abused hogs and hens – or it is not. Feminists like Kheel have developed and offered fascinating and worthwhile moral visions. True, these same adventuresome scholars have too often been afraid to follow feminist theoretical inclusiveness to its logical conclusion, which would protect all exploited and abused individuals. Yet true moral inclusiveness requires that all marginalized groups be accounted for, whether turkey or tuna.

While I find Kheel too willing to barter a universal commitment to animal life for the political project of articulating cross-cultural feminisms, I enthusiastically commend her for including non-human animals in her work with environmentalists, feminists, and ecofeminists, who too often remain speciesist in their theories and/or practices.

© Lisa Kemmerer 2009

Lisa Kemmerer is a U.S. philosophical activist.

Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective by Marti Kheel, 2007, 354 pages, Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 978-0742552012

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