Tag Archives: confirmation bias

“Animal lovers” and the limits of (speciesist) empathy

[Picture, from boingboing, mostly unrelated...but for some reason it reminded me of this post.] I was talking to someone recently about what kinds of students my animal studies class draws, and I noticed that they had framed “animal lovers” as a distinct (and clearly preferable) category against “animal rights activists”. In light of David Brooks’ new column on the limits of empathy, this got me to thinking about ‘who counts’ and the impact of structural violence on nonhuman animals.

Broadly, the animal lovers/activists split could be said to correspond to the welfarist/abolitionist divide, but I think the comparison can only take us so far. I feel that ‘animal lovers’ implies supererogation, while ‘animal rights activists’ take the ethical debate into the uncomfortable terrain of basic rather than optional obligations. (This minefield is probably why many people I know call themselves ‘animal advocates’ instead…) And I think Brooks’ op-ed misses the point when it comes to nonhuman animals: empathy can help us move beyond a frame where animal interests are merely supererogatory goods.

Regarding empathy, we seem to be at a curious historical moment. On the one hand, academics are aflutter with empathy-related efforts (although Pinker’s vision, unlike Rifkin’s, has a heavy dollop of Hobbesian contractarianism). On the other hand, Tea Party America verges on the embrace of cruelty, not empathy (but hopefully debate outcries–regarding capital punishment, health care, and DADT–are the exception, not the norm).

The core of Brooks’ argument here is that focusing on empathy gets us “feeling good without doing good”. As far as this argument goes, it’s a reasonable one. But the argument for extending protections beyond the domain of the anomalous and universally egregious (which, arguably, is all the dominant anti-cruelty ethic protects against) is predicated upon our ability to empathize with other living, sentient beings.

But the argument that “empathy is a sideshow”–and that we should focus instead on moral codes–runs too great a risk of defining nonhumans out of the policy cycle at the definition stage. Yes, animal advocates are often particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, over-reliance on empathy could muddle the rigor of animal ethicists’ arguments a la Dennett. But we need to guard against the dangers of an exclusivist and speciesist empathy that lock the doors behind the species wall, as some supererogatory ‘animal lovers’ arguably do.