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Tl;dr: if you are intellectually convinced that a cause is important, but you don’t emotionally empathize with the people or animals affected, you can develop this emotional empathy intentionally.

When Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla first heard that Charity Entrepreneurship wanted to incubate a charity devoted to shrimp welfare, he was pretty sceptical. He’d cared about animal rights for a long time, but this still seemed like a deeply weird idea. However, over the course of the CE incubation program, he learnt some things which shifted his perspective. He discovered that 350 billion shrimp per year are farmed for food. Even if there was only a tiny chance that shrimp are sentient, astronomical numbers like that meant that he should take the issue seriously.

Andrés gradually became intellectually convinced that shrimp welfare could be a very important cause, but he was not yet emotionally invested. He decided that it was important to emotionally connect to the cause. When covid lockdowns lifted, he went to visit a shrimp farm and actually witness the beings he would be helping, an experience that he found extremely powerful.

He now runs the Shrimp Welfare Project. He says that he feels deep empathy for shrimp, as well as being intellectually convinced that it is important to improve their welfare. He even has a shrimp tattoo on his arm!

EAs sometimes say that they feel intellectually compelled by the arguments that they should care about the suffering of non-human animals, future people, digital beings, or some other group of sentients who are outside of our typical moral circle, but they struggle to have emotional empathy for the suffering of this group.

However, in my experience, this is not a fixed fact about a person - you can work to develop empathy for beings who are very different to you, or distant from you in time or space. In this post, we offer some advice on how to do this.

Why should I develop more empathy?

It’s not necessarily a problem to have a mismatch between your beliefs and your emotions.

In Radical Empathy, Holden Karnofsky suggests that we should care intellectually about many beings and causes that we don’t care about emotionally. The opposite is also true - in his book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom argues that our intuitive emotional caring might lead to bad choices. EAs are generally somewhat suspicious of ‘warm fuzzies’, and it’s a central aspect of EA that we should be guided more by our brains than our guts when it comes to altruism.

However, there are some reasons why people might want their empathy to match their beliefs:

  • Congruence: it’s easier to decide what to do if our emotional intuitions and our considered beliefs line up. When they conflict, we are more unsure about how to act, or how to think about unfamiliar scenarios.
  • Motivation: you might feel unmotivated to work on the causes you care about if you don’t feel enough empathy for beings who benefit
  • Understanding other EAs: even if you don’t want to work on (for example) ending insect suffering yourself, developing some empathy for insects might help you better understand people who do

This post is about aligning our intuitive emotional empathy with our cognitive, intellectual empathy.

How can I develop more empathy?

Here are some suggestions for how to develop empathy. In general, detailed knowledge creates empathy (particularly for people who are already empathetic by nature). If you want to empathize with a certain type of being, try to find out more about their lives and their troubles, or imagine in detail what it’s like to be them.

Learn more about the beings you want to empathize with 🦐

When I (Edo) heard about Andrés’ story, I decided, as a personal challenge, to try to develop empathy for farmed shrimp. Despite initially finding the concept of shrimp welfare almost absurd, I found this surprisingly easy! For example, it turns out that shrimp are quite cute. And shrimp farming involves painfully removing their eyes 😢. By just finding out more about shrimp, and the ways in which farmed shrimp suffer, I immediately developed more empathy for them.

GiveDirectly 💵

Needless to say, most people find it a lot easier to empathize with other humans than with non-human animals like shrimp. However, even with humans, it can build our emotional empathy if we learn more about the day-to-day experience of people whose lives are very different from ours. GiveDirectly has always included stories about their recipients on their website, and they are now experimenting with a new system where donors are told the specific person or people that their donation will fund. This helps donors understand the lives of people in poverty more concretely, and see how their donations can help them.

Building compassion for insects 🐛

If you want to care more about insect suffering, you could try to learn more about the experience of insects. We are so used to seeing insects as pests or irritants that it doesn’t occur to us that insects might have their own complex internal experiences.

In this post, Jamie Gittins discusses some of the science of insect behaviour, highlighting facts that suggest that insects are sentient; Brian Tomasik discusses similar things here.

Videos, photos and first-hand experiences 📹

We often find it easier to emotionally empathize with people when we directly witness their experiences: in photos, videos, or even first-hand. Animal rights organizations often share videos of cute piglets or fluffy chicks to make people feel warm and compassionate towards those creatures.

Some people find that witnessing suffering itself helps them become more empathetic. Ajeya Cotra says that she started caring about suffering when she visited India as a child and witnessed the ‘hunger, pain, anger, desperation’ of many people living in poverty there.  In this video about the moral priority of preventing extreme suffering, Brian Tomasik says, ‘I think it’s important to see suffering in its raw form to appreciate how bad it can be.’

Meditation 🧘‍♀️

Max Görlitz has developed an EA-flavoured metta (loving-kindness) meditation, designed to increase our compassion for suffering beings and our motivation to end suffering.

Visualization 👽

Sometimes, we can’t develop empathy by watching videos or reading research, because the beings we want to care about don’t exist yet - for example, the people, animals and digital sentiences who might exist in the far future. For this, we can use our imagination.

Reading science fiction about future societies can make future humans seem more concrete to us. The humans (or post-humans) of the future may be very different to us, but they will likely have feelings, dreams, experiences, and hopes just like we do. You could try writing your own EA fiction (even if you don’t intend to publish it) - write down some of your predictions for what will happen to sentient beings in the next hundred, thousands, million, billion… years, and imagine what that will be like.

Conclusion

A classic post argues that EAs should purchase fuzzies and utilons separately, and not assume that the most important work will also feel the most urgent or the most emotionally satisfying. However, if we consciously try to align our empathetic feelings with our considered beliefs, maybe we can purchase both at once.

Acknowledgments: This post was written collaboratively by Edo Arad and Amber Dawn Ace. The ideas are Edo’s; Edo contracted Amber to help with the writing. If you are interested in working with Amber, you can email her at ambace@gmail.com.
Edo would like to thank Karolina Sarek and many people from the EA Israel community and introductory courses for engaging and inspiring conversations about the topic.
We are especially thankful to Andrés for agreeing to be interviewed with such kindness and humble openness.  

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:09 PM

Edo and Amber, thanks a lot for writing this. I really enjoyed looking back at when my co-founder and I launched SWP! 

I'm happy to chat with anyone interested in discussing this process further. My email is andres@shrimpwelfareproject.org

This post is really well written and explains a lot of ideas in an approachable way.

Thank you for this post! 

You identify two parts to developing empathy that I want to note:

  1. develop knowledge about the situation that some people endure
  2. develop emotional empathy for those people in that situation

I develop emotional empathy from videos, photos, and first-hand experiences, but it is not always necessary.  For example, I was moved by Gail Eisnitz' book Slaughterhouse to become a vegan for a few years[1]. Learning in depth about the troubles of factory farmed animals helped me appreciate their plight. It did contain photos, but those were not the convincing part of its content.

On a related note, I particularly enjoy stories of animals that help humans and help each other, that is, animals that show empathy. Weird as it is, I also enjoy stories of animals helping each other across species, and animals that show empathy or feeling for humans (for example, dolphins rescuing humans or tigers happy to see their former trainers).  Video evidence of such interactions are very convincing for me (for example, watching a tiger hug and play with its trainer).

For me, it seems emotionally moving to learn about the commonalities with humans of animal emotions and affective experience, or to interpret animal behavior as showing those commonalities. 

  1. ^

    I found the diet difficult, and in particular, dealing with protein requirements difficult. However, a kernel of interest in vegan protein remains in me, enough to motivate changes in my food consumption in a future where that is easier.

This is great - thanks for writing this.

My addition to this would be that you can increase your empathy for the suffering of others by connecting with your own suffering. Experiences of pain and fear in my own life, definitely make it easier to connect with those feelings in others. 

(And as well as helping empathy, connecting with the motivational usefulness of negative experiences can make the experiences themselves feel a little more meaningful (so a little less bad).)

Thanks, great post!

Both for our own and total wellbeing, I think it is really valuable to align our intuitive system-1 values with our intelectual system-2 ones.