Prof. James McWilliams writes, on his blog Eating Plants, that “ loving a particular animal or species strikes me as a useful, and readily accessible, starting point towards an appreciation of objective animal rights.” You can read the entire post here.
While I don’t disagree with McWilliams, I would say that he doesn’t go far enough. That is, rather than love for others beings a useful starting point toward objective rights, I believe that if not for love, there would be no real sense of justice at all. Love, therefore, isn’t just a useful starting point, as if there are other starting points just as useful. Rather, love is the necessary starting point without which justice has no value at all. Please let me explain.
Few people would argue that how we treat physical objects involves any sense of justice towards those objects in themselves. That is, there is nothing we owe, as a matter of justice, to physical objects; however we might act toward physical objects, it isn’t for their own sake. So, for example, no one ought to be outraged that a person might destroy the Mona Lisa because the Mona Lisa has some right to be left alone; anyone outraged ought to be so because humanity would presumably lose something valuable to humanity were that masterpiece destroyed.
When it comes to other conscious beings however, we do often think that we owe them – in themselves – something as a matter of justice. If we are outraged when someone swings a cat by her tail, we are outraged not because of some harm done to us, but because of the harm done to the cat, herself. Why are we concerned with what the cat feels? Because we have feelings for the cat. That is to say, because we have empathy for what another conscious mind experiences, we consider that other conscious minds ought not to be treated in ways that harm them.
Justice, therefore, isn’t objective in the sense of a cold calculating rationality unconcerned with the emotional lives of those it is meant to apply to. Justice is objective in the sense that it is best judged from a third party perspective, so that it can be applied as equally and fairly as possible. But, justice is fundamentally subjective. Justice only applies to conscious beings who have experiences of their own lives. We only care about those beings when, and because, we can empathize with them.
Whenever we attempt to decouple love from justice, we take away from the concept of justice that which is necessary and fundamental to it. Without love, justice is not only blind, it would be deaf and dumb as well; it wouldn’t be justice at all.