I have always found the love of animals to be an immensely appealing trait in the opposite sex. While it wasn’t one of the initial traits that attracted me to Jordan, per se, it was certainly one that I made sure to verify before marrying him. The question of why I find this trait so attractive thus arises. Is it because a man who is kind to animals is also likely to be kind to children? In part, yes, but there’s more to it than that.
Kindness to animals and the cultural value we assign to it is somewhat analogous to kindness to children and even the currently oft-maligned principle of chivalry. The core idea is that one should not pick on something that doesn’t have a fair ability to fight back.
Chivalry, as the most problematic example, I’ll address first. Nowadays the concept has picked up negative connotations, some well-earned, as a principle that actually oppresses and patronizes women. Nevertheless, it has not lost all its value, especially in the media. Nor should it. All its misapplications aside, the principle remains that a completely average man would be a good bit stronger than a completely average woman and it would therefore be unfair for him to hit her. In contemporary media, this manifests less often as men refusing to fight women than as men simply never being put in the position where they might have to. I believe that, in addition to the obvious fantasy-fulfillment value, this sort of chivalry inspires the beautiful enemy spy or warrior falling in love with the hero.
For instance, Jordan and I like the TV show Leverage. In its first two seasons, requisite tough-guy Elliott, who beats someone up nearly every episode, has fought a woman exactly once: during the episode where the team of good guys faces off against another, nearly identical, team of thieves, and the opposing team has a tough girl. If you’re about to ask whether both characters end up getting wet, clothing gets removed, and the whole fight turns into a make-out session, the answers are yes, yes, and yes.
The case of avoiding violence against women is a complex one; there are plenty of women who could beat up plenty of men. In the case of children, the cutural feeling is much clearer, as it should be. Violence against children is never acceptable. Not only is an adult far more physically powerful than a child, but adults and children share a social contract. Children are to obey and trust adults as authority figures. Taking advantage of this social contract is another reason why we find child abusers so despicable.
Not harming children is a minimum moral requirement, but in order to be morally praiseworthy, one should go beyond that and be actively kind to children. Oddly, one rarely sees this in the media anymore because the injection of a child into a story for the purpose of giving the main character someone to be kind to is a particularly noxious cliche; witness how The Day After Tomorrow uses the Littlest Cancer Patient to artificially make the heroine more sympathetic. Nevertheless, it applies well enough in real life.
While children are physically, and often psychologically, unable to defend themselves against adults, they have one powerful protection: the law. Sadly, the multitude of laws in place to protect children from abusive adults do an insufficient job, but the principle is there.
The strong social and legal pressure to treat children correctly is the reason that I find treating animals kindly to be an even more positive trait. I do believe that people, including children, are more important than animals and that they should always be treated kindly. However, the societal and legal pressure add an extra reason for one to do so beyond the simple moral requirement that it’s the right thing to do. I’m not suggesting that many people actually refrain from violence against children only out of fear of the law; it simply changes the balance of how people think about the topic.
There is, of course, a social pressure to not harm animals that is probably just as strong as the pressure to not harm children. It’s the reason that a stock villain kicks a puppy to show how evil he is. However, animals, especially small animals, have far fewer legal protections than people (which is as it should be), and far less ability to communicate if those protections are being violated. If you mistreat an animal, no one is likely to find out. Even if someone does find out, the odds that you will be punished and that the punishment will be very stringent are low. One treats an animal right on the honor system.
This is even more true when going beyond the minimum requirement to not be cruel to animals and towards actually being kind to them. No laws could possibly enforce this. In many cases, there isn’t even much of a social pressure. Why should one use a humane live trap to catch a house mouse and then release it, as opposed to killing it with a conventional trap? The latter is legal and doesn’t particularly invite reproach. This is exactly why I find the former to be an admirable choice.
Kindness to animals, especially small ones, is the choice to go the extra mile for something with no chance to either reciprocate or communicate its good or bad treatment. It is kindness exercised for no reason except that one believes that one should. That is an excellent trait indeed.