Philosophy, Activism, and an “Attentive Willingness to Reconsider One’s Duty Toward Others”

“Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” – Iris Murdoch

Dr. Elisa Aaltola is a force to be reckoned with. You only need to spend a short time in her presence before you become aware of two things: she is incredibly smart, and she uses her intellect to help create a better world for animals.  Aaltola is a philosopher who believes that her chosen academic field has much to teach activists about how to most effectively work for change. She is a compassionate, engaging person with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in her eyes. She is attentive and curious, and eager to chat about her two great passions, animals and philosophy. Aaltola currently shares her home in Finland with 3 rescue dogs, Ida, Siiri and Rosie, who she considers to be part of her family. She recently had to say goodbye to Vincent, a Rottweiler/Pit mix who will always have a special place in her heart. Vincent was rescued from a home in which he was confined to a crate 24 hours a day. He was not given opportunities to exercise and was forced to live in his own excrement. His human companions didn’t want him, but “didn’t have the heart to euthanize him.” Thankfully compassionate activists rescued Vincent and he found his forever home with Aaltola. He was, at first, nervous and scared in his new home, so she decided to put him in a crate one night, thinking that this might help calm him down as that was what he had been used to. She spent that night on the floor next to the crate with her fingers woven through bars so that she and Vincent could touch one another for comfort. After that night they became inseparable—“he was my shadow,” she recalls. Vincent lived to be 17 and even though he never fully shook his anxiety he had many happy moments as part of Aaltola’s family.

Animals have always been an important and influential part of Aaltola’s life. She grew up in the country where she was surrounded by many different kinds of animals. She was just seven years old when she became abruptly aware of the connection between the animals she encountered on a day-to-day basis and the meat that appeared on the dinner plate after discovering the severed head of a cow in one of the barns she regularly visited. This was, of course, a deeply upsetting experience for young Aaltola. While the discovery of the cow’s head was disturbing enough, she was even more distressed when she realized that this was the head of a cow she recognized, a cow she had once lovingly petted. This shocking encounter was the first time she had realized that animals—including many she knew personally—were sent to slaughter.

A few years after this incident Aaltola decided to become a vegetarian, something that her family supported. In 2002 she became vegan after joining an animal rights group. She identified herself as a vegetarian at one of the first meetings that she attended, and this revelation was met with silence and glares–one of the members of the group demanded that she justify how she could not be a vegan and yet still be supportive of animal rights. She realized that she was unable to defend this position, so she turned the tables and asked the members of the organization to explain to her why she should go vegan. Within a few minutes she had been won over by their arguments, and has not looked back. This incident demonstrates that even though Aaltola has strong convictions, she is also open-minded and willing to engage with perspectives that are different from her own.

Aaltola’s family raised goats when she was young, and she fondly recalls the relationships she had with these animals, especially her friendship with a goat named Tuhkimo (“Cinderella”). Her parents allowed her to keep Tuhkimo as long as she promised to look after her, which she did. Aaltola developed a special friendship with Tuhkimo, and it was very difficult for her to move away when it was time for her to begin university. A few years after she left, her parents also moved and were no longer able to keep Tuhkimo, so she was sent to live at another farm. Aaltola was heartbroken when she did not have the chance to see Tuhkimo again, and she feels that this experience certainly influenced her current compassion for animals.

While Aaltola was attending university she became a member of a committee that oversaw the regulations and procedures for experiments involving animals on her campus. She purposely took a position on this committee so that she could be fully informed about animal experimentation taking place at the university, and so that she could have an active role in reducing the number of animals used in experiments at that school. This role gave her access to detailed records about the studies being done and she quickly realized that many mistakes were being made. For example, she was able to determine that pain medication was, at times, not being administered properly. She also noticed a lack of justification in terms of the number of animals involved in many of the studies.  Aaltoloa spoke up about what she was finding and others on the committee (including the Chair of the committee and the veterinarian who was on the committee) began to pay attention to her complaints. While it may strike some as strange that someone dedicated to animal rights chose to be involved on a committee overseeing animal testing, Aaltola saw this as an opportunity to enact change from within the system—her motivation for taking this position on was to reduce suffering. She eventually quit over a proposed experiment that was to involve 36 beagles. The dogs were to be used in lethal toxicity tests for a fertilizing agent, and this proposal was so devastating to Aaltola that she could no longer stay involved with the committee. She also decided to leak the information about this proposed experiment to a Animalia, a Finnish Animal Rights group. This was a highly controversial move that angered many of her former colleagues on the committee, some of whom threatened to ruin Aaltola’s academic career over this action. This story made headlines and the increased attention resulted in the proposed experiment being cancelled.

Aaltola’s second great passion is for philosophy, and she sees her scholarly work in this area as having the potential to “help human animals to reflect on their attitudes toward nonhuman others, and thereby spark some change in how the latter are valued and treated.” Her father was a professor of philosophy and as she was growing up he would often share some of his work with her. This piqued her interest in the field, but it wasn’t until she was in university and one of her favourite professors brought animal ethics in to a philosophy lecture that she realized that it was possible to blend her academic work and her animal advocacy. While some might see philosophy as incompatible with animal rights—after all, as she points out, “philosophy as a discipline tends to be anthropocentric”—Aaltola sees philosophical debates as an essential for reframing the relationships that humans have with nonhuman animals. As she notes, “the nonhuman animal issue has slowly managed to become increasingly accepted as something that ‘serious philosophy’ can focus on.”

Aaltola is a prolific writer and lectures at both the University of Turku and at the University of Eastern Finland. She also frequently gives presentations outside the academic setting because she wants to “persuade people to consider veganism, and nudge them toward rethinking their attitudes toward animals.” She also feels that there are important insights that animal rights and animal liberation activists can take from philosophy and because of this makes a point of reaching beyond typical academic audiences with her work. This makes her quite different than many of her colleagues in philosophy, something that Aaltola thinks needs to urgently change.

I feel quite strongly that the ivory tower mentality of much of academic work is misplaced. Most philosophers write in a manner only accessible to other philosophers, and never seek to test their ideas among the broader audiences, nor try to make those ideas effective and helpful in practice – yet particularly if you are researching topics concerning morality or politics, this seems absurd, for surely seeking practical moral and political change is part of the process. Some activists feel that academic work is too far removed from the actual, on the ground campaigning that comprises the animal rights and animal liberation movements, but Aaltola takes issue with this, noting that “what the world needs is not less but far more academic research on animals.” What is crucial, she stresses, is that “this research needs to be made accessible and spread out far and wide, so that it can have more practical impact.” She agrees that much academic work is “inaccessible” and written for specialist audiences, but feels that this does not have to be the case, that academic work can certainly be used to “help nonhumans on a concrete level.” Her work stands as an important model in this respect.

As an example she points to her work on the importance of reason in activism. She notes that in recent years there has been “an affective turn” in many aspects of Western culture. In other words, there is more of a focus on emotions, and in the realm of philosophy this has translated in to a focus on the role of emotions in “making us into moral creatures.” What this means is that “the relevance of empathy has been underlined,” something that Aaltola sees as extremely important. There are, as she points out, many positive benefits to this shift, “since emphasising pure rationality is deeply problematic” and can lead to the exploitation of nonhuman animals. At the same time, however, she cautions both academics and activists from completely disregarding reason in the rush to embrace empathy, affect, and emotion. As she argues, “emotions—even empathy—can also be highly destructive from the perspective of how we treat others.” She elaborates by noting that, for example, “empathy tends to focus most on those who are closest to us or most similar to us, and thereby can even support social prejudices and hierarchies.” Aaltola also reminds us that emotions also, of course, include “negative and even hostile emotions such as shame, contempt, fury, pride, and so on,” and that “these negative emotions are important upholders of anthropocentric attitudes.”

What Aaltola wants people—especially those working to change the world for animals—to understand is that “celebrating emotions should not, therefore, be naive, for emotions can also spark inequality, power-relations, and instrumentalisation of others.” This recognition has important implications for activism, and Aaltola points out that “following emotions alone can lead to various dogmas and even fundamentalism, which alienate the broader audience, and fail to communicate persuasively the need for inter-species justice.” She uses the example of activists screaming things like “murderer!” at someone who eats meat. Of this tactic, Aaltola stresses that this “is not the most productive way of doing vegan outreach.” She feels that it is very important for activists to “pay attention to what sort of emotions they are raising in their audiences, and how/if their message is managing to spark reflection on anthropocentric emotions (such as contempt).” She believes that tactics that incite feelings of shame or anger can often be “counter-productive.” Further, she points out that even though encouraging empathy with other animals is important for activism, it is not enough, and that it “will fail to convince those, who are reason-orientated.” Her work, therefore, argues for a much more nuanced approach to animal advocacy.

Aaltola has found that people are generally quite receptive to her work, although it does often depend on the audience. Even though philosophy tends to be anthropocentric in focus, her academic colleagues have “generally given encouraging feedback” and “the nonhuman animal issue has slowly managed to become increasingly accepted as something that ‘serious philosophy’ can focus on.” She has found that her work has been less well received by those in the natural sciences and speculates that this may be because “many of them feel that how nonhuman animals are treated is a matter of ‘hard sciences,’ not moral or philosophical reflection.” She has often had scientists argue with her about what we are capable of knowing in terms of nonhuman animal emotions.

I often hear welfare scientists, veterinarians and cognitive scientists emphasising various points of “evidence” regarding animal minds (suggesting for instance that “we do not know if hens can experience joy”), whilst overlooking that the way in which that evidence is approached (and the fact that evidence is asked for) depends on our broader philosophical and cultural attitudes toward other animals.

She gives an example of a recent debate she had with a scientist whose research focuses on canine emotions. This scientist firmly believed “there was not enough evidence to suggest that dogs have emotions, or indeed that they are even conscious, aware creatures.” Aaltola “calmly tried to explain to him that ‘evidence’ in such a context may be absurd, and that his particular old-school way of searching for it is dependent on a philosophically naive take on what it is to have and know minds, and what ‘evidence’ means to begin with.”

Aaltola looks for opportunities to bring her work out of academic circles and frequently gives talks for broader audiences, something that is very much in line with her beliefs about needing to change the inaccessible culture of much academic work. In fact, she was one of the featured speakers at the 2015 International Animal Rights conference in Luxembourg, and it was there that we realized she would be an excellent fit for The Unbound Project. She finds that the responses she receives at events like this tend to be “mixed,” something she entirely anticipates. Some people come up to her afterwards and tell her “they had never thought of the issue properly before,” and that after hearing her talk they plan to become vegetarian or vegan. Other people “get angry or even furious” and find it insulting “that their customary ways of treating nonhuman animals should be philosophically criticised.” Aaltola has a calm, yet commanding presence when she speaks, and this undoubtedly allows her to reach a broad audience. As she notes, she her goal is to find “a way of speaking that does not spark hostility or cynicism, but rather change.” And Aaltola has witnessed first-hand how people can change–her mother used to have a rather harsh, utilitarian outlook when it came to animals, doing such things as poisoning animals who were considered “pests.” Today, however, Aaltola’s mother is passionate about animal rights. This shift in her mother’s understanding of how to treat animals has been really important for Aaltola to witness and has influenced the way she frames her work for a broader audience.

Aaltola lived in England for a while, but realized that she greatly missed the wildness of the Finnish countryside as she found the natural spaces of England were too manicured for her tastes. She moved back to Finland in 2010 and has since created a sanctuary for herself in an old house in the woods. Here she spends hours working at her desk, but when she needs to clear her head with a change of scenery she gathers Ida, Siiri and Rosie, and the four of them step outdoors to enjoy and explore the network of paths behind her house that wind deeper in to the forest. Aaltola finds that a peaceful, tranquil setting is essential for her work, and she moved from England to this space specifically seeking focus and clarity. This change of scenery has clearly been a positive one for Aaltola as she is an incredibly prolific writer and thinker. She has published dozens of essays (in both scholarly journals and popular magazines), and is also the author of number books on animal ethics. She is currently working on a book about “ineffable, non-lingual ways of understanding nonhuman animals,” and has two books about to be published—one on how empathy and moral psychology function within the framework of animal philosophy, and one on what she terms “omnivore’s akrasia,” which is an exploration of the philosophical tension that arises when a person does something that conflicts with their better judgement.

Aaltola cites female philosophers Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, and Iris Murdoch as her greatest inspirations as “they all challenged dominant moral and political notions not only with their writing, but also their personal choices and ways of life, which were quite bohemian and radical.” She especially admires “their capacity to step outside culturally accepted norms,” and is in awe of the fact that “they could do this in times which were still often aggressively antagonistic toward female philosophers.” While the work of Weil, de Beauvoir, and Murdoch is all quite different, the common thread that Aaltola sees in their philosophies is the “theme of attentive willingness to reconsider one’s duty toward others,” something that she feels is “always relevant also in the nonhuman context.”

When asked who she would like to see featured in the Unbound Project, Aaltola pointed to Lynn Sawyer, a “long-time UK activist, who has spent incredible amount of energy on helping other animals.” Of this nomination, Aaltola noted that “often male activists get the biggest credentials, and Lynn is one of the hard-working women, who have remained on the background. I don’t know her well, but I know much of her, and she is sheer devotion, empathy and humility.” We wholeheartedly agree with Aaltola’s nomination and feel that this description could also apply to her.

Elisa Aaltola, PhD, has published circa 35 peer-reviewed papers, three monographs and three edited volumes on animal philosophy. Her books include Animal Suffering: Philosophy and Culture (Palgrave MacMillan 2012), and Animal Ethics and Philosophy: Questioning the Orthodoxy (co-edited with John Hadley, Rowman & Littlefields 2014). She currently works as a Senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Eastern Finland (and as of 2016, will work as a Research fellow at the University of Turku).