Boundaries of Empathy and Their Consequences

post by Tihitina · 2019-07-28T13:22:13.870Z · EA · GW · 13 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?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-07-28T17:07:26.665Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Down voted for question begging in the way you phrased the "ethical argument," and descriptions like "the mere desire of taste." [Edit: I changed my vote based on changes made.]

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-07-30T05:22:47.749Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Unless the post has been edited, I don't see this as necessarily question begging, although I can also see why you might think that. My reading is that the claim is assumed to be true, and the post is about how to best convince people of it (or to become more empathetic) in practice, which need not be through a logical argument. It's not about proving the claim.

It could be that making it easier for people to avoid animal products is a way to convince them (or the next generation) of the claim. Another way might be getting them to interact with or learn more about animals and their personalities.

Replies from: ZacharyRudolph
comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-07-30T05:50:19.832Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"(3) The ethical argument: killing or abusing an animal for culinary enjoyment is morally unsound"

I'm understanding abuse as being wrong by definition, a la how murder is by definition a wrongful killing. (3) seems to transparently be a case of arguing that something that is wrong is thus wrong. But, I agree, this by itself wouldn't warrant downvoting so much as how the generally dismissive tone of the writing came off as assuming some moral high ground, e.g. "to accept that this being with no identity, little conceivable intellect, and no means of advocating for itself or expressing relief or gratitude is suffering to an extent that is not justified by the mere desire of taste," "too inconvenient," "culinary enjoyment."

I felt I should comment instead of anonymously downvoting in case it was just a misunderstanding.

Replies from: Tihitina
comment by Tihitina · 2019-07-30T11:46:24.553Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I see what you mean and I've made some significant changes (let me know if you don't think they are significant enough).

But I want to make it clear that I am not claiming neutrality on the issue-I am trying to troubleshoot why one side of the argument is not being received. That being said, I don't want my position to distract or deter people from help in troubleshooting so I am grateful you said something.

Replies from: aarongertler, ZacharyRudolph
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-08-01T08:15:02.741Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(Meta: It's cool that you changed the post in response to feedback!)

I wouldn't recommend trying to hard to shift the views of that single coworker, unless the two of you are close enough friends that you can keep pushing every so often without annoying her too much.

On your question (a), I think the answer is "yes", in the sense that some people will naturally see much greater morally relevant differences between humans and animals than other people. If you take your co-worker at her word, she may literally "not see it that way".

To be frank, I have a very difficult time empathizing with farmed animals, and accept arguments about suffering based on biological evidence (and trust in the rest of the community) rather than innate feelings. If I weren't surrounded by people and research pushing me to care, I don't know how I'd feel now. If pushed, I can articulate reasons why I struggle to empathize despite my rational knowledge, but the reasons will sound silly, and I have to dig to get past my natural apathy and actually find the reasons. Your friend may never have done that kind of digging.

On (b), I very much doubt there are generalizable answers. For every major film about animal welfare, there exist people whose views were transformed by the film and people who watched it and didn't change their views at all. The same is true for every relevant book, every veg*n argument, and so on. People are different along so many different axes that you rarely find a "general" path to persuasion, especially on a cause that entails such a different way of thinking about the world (and acting in the world).

This doesn't mean you have to give up on persuasion, though. My response to developing this view was to take causes I cared about (e.g. the general case for effective altruism) and develop a collection of distinct arguments/frames [EA · GW], so that I could try to shape my persuasion to match any person I spoke with. The same approach might work well for animal advocacy; there are arguments you could use to appeal specifically to libertarians, socialists, pet owners, environmentalists, Christians, and any number of other groups.

comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-07-30T17:17:18.654Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes! It's much more conducive to conversation now, and I've changed my vote accordingly.

To actually engage with your question: I personally find (1) to be the most motivating reason to adopt a more vegetarian diet since I'm more compelled by the idea that my actions might be harming other persons. Regardless, (1) and (2) are both grounded in the empirical observations. (and both of which are seriously questionable in how much of a difference they make in the individual case: see this and the number of confounding factors in veg diets causing better health)

I personally reject (3) because animals don't fall, in my ontology, under the category of morally significant beings (neither argument nor experience has yet made me think animals possess whatever it is that makes us consider, at least most, humans as persons) I take this to be a morally relevant difference. (Though, I would endorse many efforts to improve animal welfare for reasons ultimately grounded in human person welfare.)

Moreover, regarding changing behavior, I can think of a number of additional reasons someone might not change their behavior that aren't related to empathy, e.g. they might find it supererogatory, they might have ingrained cultural reasons, they might not think they'll be able to make a difference, and reasons to do with poverty and food injustice.

Thus for me, an answer to (a) and (b) would be a convincing theory of personhood and a further convincing argument that animals share that person-making feature (or other moral relevance-making feature).

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-07-31T19:39:39.543Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the best explanation for the moral significance of humans is consciousness. Conscious individuals (and those who have been and can again be conscious) matter because what happens to them matters to them. They have preferences and positive and negative experiences.

On the other hand, (1) something that is intelligent (or has any other property) but could never be conscious doesn't matter in itself, while (2) a human who is conscious but not intelligent (or any other property) would still matter in themself. I think most would agree with (2) here (but probably not (1)), and we can use it to defend the moral significance of nonhuman animals, because the category "human" is not in itself morally relevant.

Are you familiar with the argument from species overlap?

Replies from: ZacharyRudolph
comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-08-01T16:52:53.228Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm familiar with the general argument, but I find it persuasive in the other direction. That is, I find it plausible that there are human animals for whom personhood fails to pertain, so ~(2). [Disclaimer: I'm not making any further claim to know what sort of humans those might be nor even that coming to know the fact of the matter in a given case is within our powers.] I don't know if consciousness is the right feature, but I worry that my intuitive judgements on these sorts of features are ad hoc (and will just pick out whatever group I already think qualifies).

Just to respond to the conclusion of that article, it doesn't seem at all obvious that humans should be treated equally despite having different abilities, at least in contexts where those abilities are relevant. They also seem to equivocate a bit on treatment/respect. I can hold that persons should be treated with equal respect or equitably (or whatever) without holding that they should be treated equally. It also seems to me like personhood would be a binary feature. I don't think it makes sense to say that someone is more of a person than another and is this deserving of more person privileges.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-08-01T18:23:33.294Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think if you decide what we should promote in a human for its own sake (and there could be multiple such values), then you'd need to explain why it isn't worth promoting in nonhumans. For example, if preference satisfaction matters in itself for a human, then why does the presence or absence of a given property in another animal imply that it does not matter for that animal? For example, why would the absence of personhood, however you want to define it, mean the preferences of an animal don't matter, if they still have preferences? In what way is personhood relevant and nonarbitrary where say skin colour is not? Like "preferences matter, but only if X". The "but only if X" needs to be justified, or else it's arbitrary, and anyone can put anything there.

I see personhood as binary, but also graded. You can be a person or not, and if you are one, you may have the qualities that define personhood to a greater or lesser degree.

If you're interested in some more reading defending the case for the consideration of the interests of animals along similar lines, here are a few papers:

Replies from: ZacharyRudolph
comment by ZacharyRudolph · 2019-08-02T16:52:55.775Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm mostly using "person" to be a stand in for that thing in virtue of which something has rights or whatever. So if preference satisfaction turns out to be the person-making feature, then having the ability to have preferences satisfied is just what it is to be a person. In which case, not appropriately considering such a trait in non-humans would be prima facie wrong (and possibly arbitrary).

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-08-02T20:29:22.185Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree, but I think it goes a bit further: if preference satisfaction and subjective wellbeing (including suffering and happiness/pleasure) don't matter in themselves for a particular nonhuman animal with the capacity for either, how can they matter in themselves for anyone at all, including any human? I think a theory that does not promote the preference satisfaction or the subjective wellbeing as an end in itself for the individual is far too implausible.

I suppose this is a statement of a special case of the equal consideration of equal interests.

comment by IrenaK · 2019-07-29T15:13:23.633Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In my experience is not so much that they person does not grasp the ethical argument through empathy, many people do. The reason they do not change their behaviour is mostly because it is normalized in society. People do not usually realize it in the moment and so it is not what you would often hear as an answer but uppon reflection, that is what many vegetarians realize - they did understand they were acting wrong but it seemed like it was not a big deal because everyone was doing it.

Replies from: Tihitina
comment by Tihitina · 2019-08-10T00:45:05.716Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I hear you-what is the way to resolve this circular trap though? Until a majority of society adopts the argument, many people will continue to mistreat non-human animals, and so long as many people continue to mistreat non-human animals, a majority of society will not have adopted the argument.

I am also in disbelief that people still just stick to tradition or "the norm."