Boundaries of Empathy and Their Consequences

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?