The emerging field of animal studies has a curious relationship with environmentalism. Instead of fitting comfortably in the latter’s capacious tent, animal studies has chafed at environmentalists’ commitment to holistic communitarianism best represented by Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.” The land ethic approaches the biotic community as a pyramidal ecological system that turns on the relations between producers and consumers and between predators and prey rather than as an egalitarian moral community. Animal rights activists have thus repeatedly clashed with conservationists in an internecine fight poignantly dramatized in T.C. Boyle’s novel When the Killing’s Done (2011).
In this paper, I argue that environmental justice cannot be secured by either the deontological argument underlying animal rights or the utilitarian argument often used to justify the land ethic. Instead, we might draw on the pragmatist traditions East and West and view justice not as a sui generis good but as a larger loyalty achieved as much by the moral imagination of the particular as by rational deliberation on the universal. Using a French novel (The Roots of Heaven, 1958), a Chinese novel (The Disappearance of Lao Hai, 2001), and a Chinese film (Monster Hunt, 2015) as my examples, I demonstrate how literature can help enlarge our loyalty and build ethico-ecological subjectivity by bringing particular instances of non-human distress into aesthetic, affective, and moral proximity with us.
Haiyan Lee is a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Stanford University. She is the author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (2007), winner of the 2009 Joseph Levenson Prize (post-1900 China) from the Association for Asian Studies, and The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination (2014). In 2015-16, she was a Frederick Burkhardt Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences where she began research on a new project on Chinese visions of justice at the intersection of narrative, law, and ethics.