From the editor
Keiko Ohnuma

Head or heart?

Ohmuma, Keiko 0414
Ohmuma, Keiko 0414

THE VERY THING that makes animal rescuers so compelling and convincing is also what makes them so hard to listen to: their passion.
    We animal-lovers are all guilty of this to some degree— our searing love for furry creatures, our anguish at their abuse, our horror and indignation toward those who abandon them, banish all attempt at argument. How can you sit and debate something as sacred as life itself?
    In fact, this utter resistance to reason reminds me of another group of passionate defenders of the innocent who usually occupy the other end of the political spectrum: right-to-lifers. Their anguish over unborn babies is so intense, they will stand vigil at clinic entrances in the desperate hope of saving just one.
    “It’s not the same thing,” an animal rescuer said to me the other day. But why not? The pro-lifer believes she is defending a living soul, not “just a dog.” The animal rescuer believes she is defending a living soul, not “just an embryo.” Each is absolutely certain she is right. Why? Because of how deeply she feels it.
    It seems that feeling has surpassed reason as our pre-eminent mode of communication, overturning centuries of advancement in thought, from Plato to Poststructuralism. We are constantly told that our personal sentiments matter, whether it’s rating a purchase or selecting a president. Political campaigns play heavily on feelings. So do commercials.
    It’s much easier to rely on sentiment than reason, of course. Thinking is hard, and feelings come naturally. But suppose you face the classic dilemma of having to choose which of the 25 souls who need saving gets to board a lifeboat that holds only 20. In a crisis, humans turn automatically to reason because it’s the best tool we have.
    It always seems strange to me how Americans today look down on rational debate, as if it were a thumbsucking exercise for nerds. What they’re really suggesting is that the hottest, strongest, most passionate argument should prevail, the one that most “speaks to the heart.” The truly lazy just cast about for some authority (the Constitution, the Bible) to end all discussion, as if there were not entire professions devoted to interpreting these supposedly self-evident laws.
    It all seems too convenient, frankly—as if all this passion were really driven by a fervent wish to be absolved of personal guilt.
    I received an unsigned letter recently that expressed horror at the essay we ran on hunting last issue (“Killing and Grinning”), because it supposedly defends “taking an innocent animal’s life.” Hunting is a difficult topic, for sure, calling up a whole complex of social and natural factors. That’s why talking about it seems worthwhile: Sharpening your ability to think about where you stand puts you in a better position to do what is right, just as learning to shoot well makes you a more humane hunter.
    The writer’s claim that “Their deaths are on your head,” lays bare a great, futile longing to stand apart from all the hunting that has gone on since the beginning of time, the fact that humankind has survived only by killing other creatures. Just because you do not eat meat, have abortions, or shop at puppy mills does not release you from all the cruelty of your species. Likewise, it feels really good to be a community that espouses a philosophy of “no kill,” and turn a blind eye to all the deaths that go on despite it and because of it. More righteous, though, perhaps, would be to take responsibility for the deaths and look rationally for alternatives, applying the best tool that humans were given to shape right and wrong: our minds.