As a psychotherapist, I decided to write to leaders of organizations that research and promote empathy, compassion and altruism. I eagerly read about their efforts in the hope that their work will include our relationship with all animals, human and nonhuman. So far, I have found their focus to be on human-to-human relationships only. In my letter, I encourage them to see the necessity of including all sentient beings, human and non-human, when understanding and promoting empathy, compassion and altruism. Unfortunately, I don’t expect much of a response, but we have to keep knocking at the door of people’s conscious.
I share with you the letter I sent to Dacher Keltner, PhD. Co-founder of the Greater Good Science Center. I also sent an adapted version of this letter to: Simon Baron-Cohen, FBA, professor and author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, Emma Seppala, PhD, Associate Director, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and Mary Gordon, Founder and President, Roots of Empathy.
Dear Dr. Keltner:
I am a fairly recent subscriber to the Greater Good’s newsletter and value the research on empathy, compassion, and altruism and the efforts on how to help people create happier lives and more peaceful and civil societies. I am interested in your organization as a citizen of this planet, as a psychotherapist and as a vegan.
I wonder if you’ve ever considered how important it is to study and teach extending our empathy, compassion and altruism toward all sentient beings, human and nonhuman. Here’s an analogy that might help with this perspective shift.
Imagine aliens visit our planet and decide to stay. They are bigger, stronger, smarter and faster than we are in every way. If they aren’t naturally more advanced, their technology is. The aliens can live without doing harm to us, but they can choose to do great harm. There is no way for us to protect ourselves from them, let alone over-power them. All we can hope for is their mercy.
Under this scenario, do you think an aliens’ empathy, compassion and altruism should be based solely on how they treat other aliens? Or you do think how an alien treats humans needs to be taken into consideration?
This story line is make-believe to us humans, but it is not to other animals. We are the omnipotent life-force. We do with them what we will. We bring babies into this world so we can kill and eat them. We kill them for their fur. We take them from their homes and from their families. We use them for our entertainment, in rodeos, zoos, movies, and theme parks like Sea World. We steal their babies, milk and eggs. We mutilate them. We hunt them. We trap them. We genetically engineer them to grow bigger so we can slaughter them within weeks or to produce more eggs than is natural. We deny other animals everything that makes their life worth living. We objectify and commodify other sentient beings, which, as you know from Professor Simon Baron-Cohen’s work, requires zero degrees of empathy.
Empathy is about crossing boundaries between “self” and “other.” If we restrict our empathy to humans only, we are drawing a line between “us” and “them,” just as in any form of discrimination. The process of prejudice and violence is the same whether between human and nonhuman animals, whites and blacks, men and women. In fact, Coretta Scott King and her son Dexter Scott King became vegan as a natural extension of Martin Luther King’s teaching of nonviolence. Mrs. King understood and Mr. King understands that how we treat nonhuman animals is directly connected to how we treat each other.
When left to our innate predisposition, we include other beings in our circle of compassion. Research shows that children have an innate empathy for and desire to protect other animals and that society teaches them to go against their natural compassion, particularly as it relates to food animals (The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood by Kate Stewart and Matthew Cole). If we’re addressing our capacity for empathy, compassion and altruism, wouldn’t we want to help children retain their innate capacity of kindness for all sentient beings and help adults return to their natural roots of compassion?
As you are aware, compassion begets compassion. Brain scans show that vegetarians and vegans have a greater empathic response to both human and animal suffering ). It is unclear how much of the greater degree of empathy is due to genes, hormones, early experiences or culture. I would hypothesize that culture plays a significant role and that once a person steps outside the cultural mores of objectifying nonhuman animals, his empathy grows for all sentient beings.
There will be no Martin Luther King, Jr. to rise from and speak for the oppressed nonhuman animals. As members of the dominant group, we play an imperative role in dismantling this system of violence. Organizations like yours are integral to creating a more just and peaceful world. After reading my letter, perhaps you’ll see the necessity of having no caveats or restrictions when promoting empathy, compassion and altruism. I would be happy to discuss with you how your organization might integrate the philosophy of doing no harm to any sentient being into your mission of promoting happiness and well-being on an individual and societal level through altruism, compassion and empathy.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I do hope to hear back from you to discuss my ideas further. In any case, I wish you the best in your endeavors.