When Empathy Fails Us

· | Comments

When Empathy Fails Us

I became a vegetarian because of empathy. At ten years old I realised the connection between the food I ate and the animals that were that food. When I saw uncooked beef burger patties at the supermarket I realised they were red and disgusting because they were made of meat. They had been my favourite food, and now I was repulsed by them. Around that same time I saw an television advertisement in which a fluffy chick toddled across the screen towards the cooked body of an adult turkey with all the trimmings. The chick cheeped out the word ‘Mummy?’ I’m not sure if that ad was supposed to be tragic or comic (or maybe both?) and I still don’t know what it was selling, but it was one of the things that contributed to me making an empathetic connection. Dinner is meat, meat is animals. I felt the loss of the orphaned chick and the pain of the animal that became the grisly red burger patty and I decided from that moment on I would be a vegetarian.

I am far from alone in citing empathy as a motivation to commit to vegetarianism, but empathy primarily fosters concern for other humans. Empathy is the ability to experience another’s feelings, not just to see things from their perspective but to feel things from their perspective*. Our modern concept of empathy is very similar to David Hume’s conception of ‘sympathy’ — a ‘feeling into’ that is essential for humanity to flourish. Empathy is often credited with inspiring everyday helping behaviours and inspiring acts of grand altruism*. It’s easy to see how an ability to feel other people’s emotions would be selected for by evolution in individuals; those who engage in reciprocal altruism* are more likely to conceive and raise healthy offspring.

The experience of feeling empathetic seems to be a result of the activation of ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain. Dr Christian Keysers has studied people who score high on ‘empathy quotient tests’* and found their brains have ‘especially busy mirror neuron systems’*. In a review in Nature Neuroscience researchers lead by Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochoner broke empathy down into three stages:

The first stage is ‘experience sharing’ or feeling someone else’s emotions as if they were your own- scared when they are scared. Happy when they are happy…

… The second stage is ‘mentalizing’, or consciously considering those states and their sources and trying to work through understanding them…

… The final stage is prosocial concern, or being motivated to act- wanting, for example, to reach out to someone in pain.*

This is a straightforward and intuitively appealing definition*. It explains the bridge from knowing others suffer to taking action to alleviate their suffering. We know they suffer and we know their suffering ‘matters’ because we feel it too — or at least get a glimpse of that feeling temporarily. No one could convince the ten year old me that that fluffy baby chick was not confused, frightened and grieving for her mother. I felt those feelings when I watched the ad and that experiential evidence was so convincing that it made me change my life. Many vegans and vegetarians have stories like this*. When I read people describing their growing awareness of animal issues they frequently cite empathy as a prime motivation, and I’ve noticed that often people confuse or compound the terms ‘ethics’, ‘emotions’, ‘empathy’ and ‘morality’ as if they were interchangeable or reliant on each other.

Provoking and Revealing Empathy

It’s no wonder that animal advocates have relied so heavily on two empathetic strategies to try and raise awareness of animal suffering. We try to inspire empathy by showing pictures or telling the stories of non-human animals. We focus on their faces; so expressive, so much like ours. We highlight their experiences; they have families, preferences for good food and comfort*. We show people pictures of the animals, or tell stories about them, so that they can truly feel the horror when they see images of slaughterhouses and other animal exploitation*. The advocacy material is intended to provoke empathy (and perhaps outrage or guilt) and that empathy is intended to provoke change. Advocates employing this strategy see a small flicker of empathy in their audience, and hope to nurture it into a force so strong that it can’t be ignored.

The other empathy-related strategy is what I call the ‘empathy reveal’. This approach doesn’t assume the audience has low reserves of empathy that need to be nurtured so much as as having plenty that is sadly ‘blocked’*. Instead of trying to provoke empathy, we hope to reveal to our audience that they already possess a wealth of it which is ignored or misdirected by cultural biases*. This strategy often starts by finding ‘common ground’ over our love of our companion animals, or our shared horror at events such as the death of Cecil the lion*. I have a huge library of photos of my cats that I am happy to produce for such an occasion. Once we have agreed on exactly how adorable my cats are and how slightly less adorable (but still very nice) their respective companion animals are I attempt my final trick: by pointing out how similar our beloved animals are to the ones that we eat and exploit I hope to provoke an epiphany. TA DA! You do care about all animals… can I buy you a soy latte?

A lot of us began our journey to veganism because of empathy. It makes sense that we try and use the same tool that worked on us to convince non-vegans to start down the path* and there is no denying that it works on a lot of people. But reading some of the op-eds social psychologist Paul Bloom has been writing* (as part of the research for his new book on the subject of empathy’s limits and pitfalls) has prompted me to re-examine how useful empathy is as a motivation for moral behaviour and therefore as a vegan advocacy tool.

Vegetarian because of empathy, vegan because of reason

Though I credit empathy with turning my ten year old self vegetarian it was not empathy that made me vegan in my mid twenties. Animal products like milk and eggs, cosmetics and household goods and even leather (yes I was one of ‘those sort’ of ‘vegetarians’) didn’t have enough of a direct connection with animals to provoke my empathy. It seemed too abstract, too distant, too theoretical. I could imagine happy hens and cows gladly giving eggs and milk in exchange for comfortable barns and lush pastures. Because I could imagine ‘humane’ farming, that’s what I did. I had a vague sense that consuming these products might cause harm, but I didn’t look into it any further because I didn’t want to know. I was afraid of what that knowledge might make me do: give up my favourite foods.

At that age I was moving towards skepticism and atheism. The cognitive dissonance I felt about consuming animal products was heightened by my increasing awareness of cognitive biases and my burgeoning commitment to rational enquiry. When my skeptical inquiry turned to my excuses for eating animal products I was appalled to see my own hypocrisy… and once I’d seen it, I couldn’t go back. To be the reasonable consistent person I wanted to be I had to change my behaviour.

My veganism resulted from a commitment to reason combined with a concern for the suffering of others. I didn’t have to ‘feel’ the horror of animals exploited for milk or eggs (I still haven’t watched Earthlings* — thank goodness). I just synthesized my new knowledge with my abhorrence of causing unnecessary suffering. Animals were suffering to produce items I consumed and I couldn’t stand the mental discomfort of knowing hypocrisy. If I wanted to maintain a respect for evidence and a moral concern for the suffering of animals I had to go vegan. It is like I skipped the first stage of empathy described by Zaki and Oscher and went straight on to the ‘mentalizing’ and ‘acting’ stages.

What I just characterised as ‘concern for the suffering of others’ is what Paul Bloom terms ‘compassion’* and what other researchers have called ‘cognitive empathy’. Unlike affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy is more akin to Theory of Mind* — the capacity to understand someone else’s perspective without having to experience their feelings. Cognitive empathy is the basis of much ethical theory. Although some philosophers such as Iain King* propose empathy as the ‘essence’ of morality most ethical philosophers argue for a moral framework based on liberty, equality and what Bloom and many Buddhists call ‘compassion’. In The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning Richard Paul defines ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures”*. The reason we care about sentient creatures is not because we experience their emotions but because we acknowledge their feelings matter — to them.

Empathic Mistakes

Philosophers may find this logical base for their moral framework more robust than an emotional impulse, and when debating academics or writing papers as a vegan advocate we may find this angle more appropriate. But surely in our everyday life, for those of us living the unexamined - or at best partially examined - life, empathy serves as a useful heuristic for getting along with each other and for informing our actions. Doesn’t it?

Not so, says Bloom. Empathy is, like many instinctive adaptations, a clumsy ‘patch’ in our brains to ensure we survive to pass on our genes. It makes mistakes, and basing our moral code or everyday behaviour on something so haphazard and unreliable is bound to cause trouble.

For years I nurtured more empathy towards a plush toy duck that had been with me since birth than I did the real-life birds that were exploited in the provision of eggs that I ate without a second thought. When, as a teenager, I lost a rucksack with the toy inside I imagined the experience of my toy so vividly that it gave me nightmares. I imagined him being taken out of the bag and thrown in the gutter, perhaps trodden on by pedestrians or spending an eternity of loneliness locked in a lost and found office somewhere, never to be retrieved. My despair at losing him was only in part mourning my loss, it was largely a concern for the feelings I imagined my toy experiencing. Even recounting this story now as an adult I can feel that childish anxiety over what happened to my faithful cloth companion. This is an example of how biased and irrational empathy can be. I wouldn’t tell my teenaged self that she was wrong to feel empathy for an inanimate toy - I’m not sure feelings can be ‘wrong’ - but if I had acted upon that empathy to inform a moral decision or used it to build an ethical framework that privileged cuddly toys over actual animals… well, I would be comfortable calling that wrong.

This example may seem ridiculous, but we make similarly irrational individual and societal ethical choices based on empathetic reactions. Though luckily no one is consulting my teenaged self about her empathetic reaction to the presumed suffering of plush toys to inform policy decisions, we do make important decisions on the empathetic whims of adults. One example of this is the influence of victim statements in jury trials*. A victim with whom we empathise can encourage the court to administer more punitive sentences than a victim with whom we feel no empathetic connection. It seems somehow ‘just’ to let the victim ‘have a say’ at the trial of their victimizers, but do we really believe that a rapist should be granted leniency if the person they rape is less emotionally compelling?

Empathy was evolutionarily selected for partly because it fosters in-group loyalty. It still performs that function. Humans reliably empathise with people (or plush toys) they know or who are similar to them. This shows up in a marked empathetic preference for our own race*, other cognitive biases compel us to empathise more with people who are youthful, attractive and charming*. These often unexamined biases lead to the development of a discriminatory society and legal system.

People also make empathetic mistakes in their charitable donations. If we assume that the purpose of giving to charity is to help alleviate the suffering of others, then we would expect people to donate to the charities that offer the most alleviation for their donations. And yet people do not donate to the most effective charities; they donate to the ones that appeal to their empathy most effectively*. A whole movement ‘Effective Altruism’* has sprung up to address this problem and attempts to encourage altruistic donors to ‘do the most good they can’ by donating to the most effective charities. Peter Singer describes effective altruists who are undoubtedly inspired by his own field of utilitarian ethics:

Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do… they don’t give to whatever cause tugs strongest at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have.*

For those of us who are concerned about animal suffering and able to make monetary donations Animal Charity Evaluators rates animal charities on their effectiveness and encourages people to donate to those that do the most good. Effective altruists often find themselves making counterintuitive decisions. Perhaps you will too, when you consider that your time volunteering at a local animal sanctuary - and helping several animals - could be better spent earning money that donated to the right charity could save thousands.

As vegans, we don’t need to examine the social psychology literature, contemplate our legal system or analyse the charity sector to see how damaging relying on empathy can be. Empathy leads us to to favour animals who we consider to be part of our ‘ingroup’ — common species of companion animals and those who express the cuddly, cute and affectionate traits we value. When we talk to non-vegans about cows, chickens or octopi we are dragging them further and further away from the animals they naturally empathise with. It seems absurd to them when we ask them to ‘care’ about these animals because we understand ‘care’ as a product of empathy and if our empathy-provoking or revealing tactics fail, we often find ourselves exasperated and despairing.

My friend the sociopath

Exasperation and despair often turn to judgement. People who, after seeing the footage of animals frolicking and being slaughtered, after being reminded of the similarities between the animals they love and those they eat still just ‘don’t care’, or don’t care enough to change their habits, seem monstrous to us. Callous, cruel… unsympathetic. Although ‘lack of empathy’ is only one of several (and apparently not the most indicative*) item on the dubiously diagnostic psychopathy checklist* it is tempting to see people who exhibit low empathy as psychopaths.

Psychologists measure empathy using a series of sixty questions to arrive at an Empathy Quotient, or EQ. EQ serves as our current best-guess approximation of a subject’s level of empathy. People with autism generally score lower than average on EQ tests*. If we succumb to the cultural narrative that low-empathy people are monstrous then we are forced to consider people on the autistic spectrum to be inherently more prone to evil — a judgement which I am not willing to make. Men also test lower on EQ than women, and again I think it would be offensive and inaccurate to conclude that men are naturally more monstrous than women. But if we reinforce the erroneous idea that you can only care about someone if you empathise with them, I can see how monstrous behaviour could be encouraged in those with low EQs.

Due to my experience turning vegetarian at a young age, my exaggerated empathetic response to losing my plush toy as a teen and an over-inflated valuation of empathy as a character trait, I always assumed that I was a ‘high empathy’ person. I took the EQ test*. I scored 40 on one try and 42 on another. That’s average. I was eager to find out the scores of my close friends, and I was unsurprised by their results. My partner measured markedly above average (which his emotional responses to cinema prepared me for) while another very close friend scored dramatically below average and texted me to say ‘yeah well, I guess I’m a sociopath’.

My friend the sociopath is in fact one of the best people I know, and like many of the best people I know he is now vegan. I had been vegan for a few years before I started talking to him about veganism and at first I tried the usual empathy provoking or revealing strategies. He listened to my descriptions and agreed that animal agriculture was a horrible industry but he didn’t care enough to change his behaviour. It was only when I approached our conversations from a more rational perspective that he began examining the issue himself and eventually decided to go vegan. Now when he talks about his veganism he will often say that he does not ‘love’ animals (perhaps as a way to ward off invitations to farm sanctuaries or requests to dog-sit) but he recognises that they are capable of suffering. He accepts that suffering is universally bad and he wants to cause as little of it as possible. He is much like a contemporary Jeremy Bentham who authored the often repeated quote:

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

My friend the sociopath might adapt the above:

The question is not, do I find them relatable? nor, do I empathise with them? but can they suffer?

Maybe the response to people who say they don’t care about animal suffering is to parse out what they mean by ‘care’. If they mean they can’t empathise with animals then perhaps there’s something we can do instead of trying to force them to manifest feelings they don’t have, or prove them wrong about their own feelings, or giving up on them and labelling them negatively. We can redefine ‘caring’ as something that does not require an emotional motivation. As Dave D of Pythagorean Crank says:

When it comes to nonhumans, we don’t need to make loving them a qualification for their consideration. It doesn’t matter how valuable they are to humans. They don’t need our patronizing crumbs of compassion based upon a misinterpreted action, picture or physical cuteness. It’s enough that we all find ourselves stranded upon this watery rock in space and we should learn to just get along. *

Dave is referring to the use of cute animal photos meant to elicit empathy and thus inspire us to treat animals better. The ‘misinterpreted action’ is that of an animal that looks to us like it’s dancing or smiling or experiencing a particular emotion — when in fact its experiences are impossible to decipher from a snapshot or a YouTube clip. This is not only a problem for non-human animals but for other humans too. Telepathy is not possible. We can’t actually read other people’s minds. Our empathy is a subconscious guess at their internal experience. We can’t even do it with the people we are most likely to empathise with: attractive, charming people of our race and culture who are known to us. We think we are feeling their emotions, but we aren’t; we are feeling our own. Atheist comedian Emery Emery is fond of dismissing the ‘golden rule’ often attributed to Christianity*:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

he suggests this maxim should be replaced by his ‘platinum rule’:

Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

It may seem like a subtle distinction but it is an important one. If we can put aside our instinctive emotional sense of how someone is feeling, and instead actually ask them, we are better placed to help them. As author Kevin D. Williamson points out in an article entitled ‘Against Empathy’ for The National Review:

The main problems of the poor and unemployed do not include a shortage of people able to commiserate with them — their problems are a shortage of money, a shortage of jobs, a shortage of marketable skills, a shortage of economic growth, etc.*

The main problem of non-human animals is not a shortage of people who commiserate with them. It’s the fact that the vast majority of people are happy to commission their exploitation.

Empathy Alternatives

Despite being somewhat convinced by Bloom and other enemies of empathy, I don’t think it should be wished away*. It’s a useful common sense reaction to guide interpersonal relationships. It’s a source of joy and connection, as well as perhaps being instrumental in how we enjoy art*. But since it is a biased, fictive emotional response I think it’s inappropriate to allow it to dictate morality.

Without empathy to guide our moral choices what would we employ? Bloom cites Steven Pinker* who has a few suggestions:

The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy… but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.

Pinker is referring to violence against human beings. The motivation for exercising the faculties he lists is our recognition of other people’s fellow humanity. Our culture occludes the recognition of our fellow animals’ sentience, which in turn facilitates and justifies our treatment of non-human animals. When people accept that animals are conscious* and capable of suffering perhaps we will be motivated to employ ‘prudence, reason, fairness and self control’ when considering their interests. Many people who ‘just don’t care’ about animal suffering may be lacking empirical knowledge rather than empathy.

Bloom uses the term ‘compassion’ to describe cognitive empathy; a term perhaps inspired by his experience with Buddhism. In a podcast talking with Sam Harris* they discuss the ‘metta bhavana’* a Buddhist practice I am familiar with. ‘Metta bhavana’ means ‘loving-kindness meditation’. The Metta bhavana is a meditation in five stages during which you focus on first yourself, then a friend, then an acquaintance, then a person you find unlikeable, then the whole world and all living beings. At each stage you acknowledge that they, just like you, want to be happy and free from suffering and you hope they achieve these goals. You do not (I made this mistake early in my practice) attempt to inhabit their experience - in other words, to empathise - you simply acknowledge and extend compassion. In the vernacular: you care. Practice is an appropriate word for this sort of meditation because it is a skill to be learned. Eventually it becomes a habit and, the Buddhists hope, will inform your actions, permeate into everyday life and eventually change the world for the better. There is some preliminary evidence* that compassion can be fostered by practices such as the Metta bhavana, and perhaps there are other strategies for increasing compassion or cognitive empathy that have not yet been explored.

Empathising for those with low EQ

It may seem hard to imagine what it’s like to have no empathy for a certain animal, but I think we all have empathetic blind spots that we should bear in mind. Consider the example of a child abuser convicted of horrible crimes. I find it hard (and I’m sure I’m in the majority) to feel empathy for such an individual. The only thing stopping me from shouting ‘lock them up forever’ is my compassion. I don’t need to have an empathetic sense of this person’s terror, guilt, self loathing or traumatised childhood. I can be emotionally repulsed by them and yet still believe they should be treated with compassion. I feel the same sort of abstract concern for people and animals that are yet to be born, which is why I care about the environment. I don’t have enough empathy to extend it to people who will live in the future. It is this abstract,unemotional caring that helps me make vegan choices even when the victim seems far removed from the product, or is some kind of frightening or disgusting creature that I would never find myself cooing lovingly at.

Convincing people who don’t or can’t empathise with animals to start ‘caring’ about them is a hard problem. The old strategies of provoking or revealing empathy work on some, but not all, of them. It’s important that we try to understand and respect these people. Calling them monsters is unlikely to convince them to reconsider their attitude towards animals.

If our advocacy is based on encouraging people to act on their empathy, then when faced with someone who lacks empathy we are forced to give up… I don’t want to give up. I think for the sake of formulating robust philosophical arguments, and for effective advocacy, we need to focus on encouraging people to develop or adopt ethical codes that are consistent and rational. We can base them on our knowledge of animals’ undeniable capacity for suffering. And we can encourage the practice of caring about animals without ‘feeling into’ them.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

« Previous article Next article »

We want your feedback

Reasonable Vegan is a constantly evolving community project. While we strive to research thoroughly and aspire to perfect correctness, we fully acknowledge that we make errors and omissions. The only way we're going to find out how wrong we are is if someone tells us. If you'd like to contact the author of this article or anyone involved in Reasonable Vegan directly, please email us at feedback@rvgn.org.