Boundaries of Empathy and Their Consequences

by Tihitina 1 min read28th Jul 201913 comments


Most vegans choose to be so for one or more of the following three reasons:

(1) The environmental argument: animal agriculture is wasteful of resources (namely water and land) and aggravates climate change

(2) The health argument: vegans and vegetarians have lower prevalence of disease (coronary, epithelial, etc.) and longer life expectancy

(3) The ethical argument: treating non-human animals in way that one would never treat humans in the absence of a morally relevant difference between non-human animals and humans is unjust

In my experience, most people, even if they do not end up going vegetarian/vegan, accept (1) and (2). However, (3), the ethical argument, is frequently dismissed. As one of my coworkers recently said, she "just does not see it that way." As a proponent of (3), it feels like I've hit a dead end in terms of being able to convince her, and I would like to figure out what this dead end is.

One possibility is that the validity of this last argument comes down to one thing: a person's ability to empathize with a member of a different species- to accept that this being with no identity, little conceivable intellect, and no means of advocating for itself or expressing relief or gratitude is someone they should consider in their calculus. And until someone has this empathy, attempting to convince them that (3) is true seems futile. Arguments (1) and (2) do not rely on this empathy, and, potentially as a result of this independence from empathy, they are not refutable.

Thus, a question emerges: what is necessary to change our concrete-seeming breadths of empathy?

Exposure to the conditions that non-human animals face (typically through documentaries) can be something that can cultivate some empathy, but that is not always the case. Alternatively, some people seem to think (3) is true for non-humans animals that have features of human identity (e.g. a pet dog with a human name and socially interactive with humans) and so perhaps creating an identity for all non-human animals could be used, but this seems somewhat unfeasible.

Questions to readers:

(a) Is it really the case that argument (3) comes down to some boundary of empathy? If not, what else?

(b) What is necessary to change our concrete-seeming breadths of empathy? Is the answer something that can be generalized to everyone?