An Autocracy of Empathy: Human-Animal Relations and the Emotional Architecture of Speciesism

Kurtis Boyer

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


With a commitment to a relational ontology, scholars from within the feminist care tradition of animal ethics have been able to theorize how our moral significance - as well as our moral obligations to others - arise from the metaphysical and empathetic 'entanglements. Independent of species, gender and the like, we exist as embodied beings. Sharing a position that originates in nonwestern cultures and philosophies, animal care ethicists' claim appears contrary to a sense of separateness and independence that seems fundamental to Western culture and modern life. Similarly, this claim also contradicts the common logic maintaining a moral distinction between the human and nonhuman.
Recent scientific research in social neuroscience provides evidence resonant with the insight of a relational emotive interdependence. These works show how the content of our own mind-state is not determined by some separate cognitive process, but rather by those automatic psychophysiological responses our bodies have to our environment, such as those in distress. On these grounds, an interpretation of relevant brain research converges with the ontological claims made by relational approaches in animal ethics; I.e. that we are deeply and necessarily interconnected with others.
Despite the evidence of a built-in empathy, humans fail to act with compassion vis-a-vis others' suffering.
In addressing the question of how we empathetically fail to recognize the moral significance of animal suffering, most critical animal theorists employ a model of moral agency and consciousness that is at odds with the relational metaphysics that provides animals moral significance. Specifically, this model see our empathetic failure as an expression of internal qualities or processes of the person: volition, choice, lack of effort, lack of education and so on. This thesis shows how approaches inspired by this assumption fail to recognize how empathy itself presupposes a relationship between our conscious experiences, and the conditions that exist in the environment or intersubjective encounter.
While this project remains situated within a feminist care perspective on animal ethics, it nevertheless represents an attempt to reconcile the tension between a relational ontology and the framework used for explaining how and why humans fail to recognize other’s moral standing. In this spirit, this research employs a relational approach to understanding empathetic failure. In doing so, it shows how and why empathetic failure is relationally constituted. By mapping the presence of certain conditions in the human-to-animal intersubjective encounter, this work reveals the affordances which direct us towards certain aversive mind-states. As we find ourselves enmeshed in the conditions of our relations, both as care giver and perpetrator of violence, this dissertation reveals a politics of emotion at work: focusing how 'epistemic authority', the embodied reaction to distress, and the intersections that our relationships have with broader structures of power, come to influence the kinds of intersubjective experiences we have with the nonhuman. By extension, this theoretical investigation ultimately unveils the ways in which social relations become represented, or excluded, in our political communities.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Political Science
  • Hall, Martin, Supervisor
  • Kymlicka, Will, Assistant supervisor, External person
Award date2018 Oct 26
ISBN (Print)978-91-7753-866-0
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Oct 5

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2018-10-26
Time: 10:00
Place: Eden auditorium, Paradisgatan 5H, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Cudworth, Erika
Title: Professor
Affiliation: University of East London, Storbritannien

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)


  • human-animal relations
  • empathy
  • political agency
  • political theory


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