Full video with closed captioning available here

I want to thank everybody for being here and I also want to thank Sarah for the really fabulous land acknowledgment and I wanted to add to the land acknowledgement, that she did so well, that we also be are aware of and paying attention to the original animals that are in our spaces. Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson have usefully identified a category of the animals that are in our presence, in our spaces, that are not part of the domestic work that we’re doing that also are not completely wild. And so, we’re interacting with all sorts of animals all the time and often we don’t take the time to acknowledge them before we start.

The image that I am starting with and what I wanted to talk about today, as a philosopher, is some of the theoretical ideas that we have been developing as ecofeminists. This is VINE sanctuary, it’s an ecofeminist sanctuary, for formerly farmed animals. It’s a sanctuary that I support.

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As mike said, I also do a work with chimpanzees and I won’t be talking too much about those today. But what I would like to talk about today is what I call “entangled empathy” and Carol was just talking to us about reproductive rights and what I want to identify is some of the problems that we think exist within a theoretical understanding of rights.

So I think we need to move away from rights as a concept – although I recognize that we’re deeply steeped in rights tradition all over the world, and so I’m not suggesting somehow that that is bad or that shouldn’t be done. But I want to suggest that there is really another way of thinking about how we might approach our relationships with each other and relationships with other animals. And part of what I want to suggest is that there has been a long and interesting discussion about both an ethics of justice and an ethics of care. And there are misconceptions, and I’ve been recently reminded of these misconceptions at two conferences, so I wanted to mention those first and then I want to highlight the ways in which focusing on empathy captures what I picked to be a much more progressive way of understanding the relationships that we are in, and I’ll say why. And then I want to talk a little bit about what I’m calling “entangled empathy” – distinguish that from sympathy – and then talk about some of the pitfalls or dangers
associated with “entangled empathy” and try to answer how we might overcome those difficulties or pitfalls.

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But before I get there, let me just try to say a little bit about the difference between rights-based approach – or a justice approach – and a care-based approach – or an empathy-based approach. Often because of the early history of – it’s not that early, maybe 30-40 years ago – of the articulation of an ethics of justice versus an ethics of care, that division tended to be gendered — and the idea was that men are concerned about justice, and women are concerned about care. That is actually a mistake, I think, although it gets discussed fairly regularly. 

What the difference is really about is a difference between a focus on individualism in the ethics of justice take and a focus on relationality in the ethics of care take. I focus on abstraction and generalities in the case of ethics of justice, and particularity as opposed to generality or abstraction, in the case of an ethics of care. And also, in the case of justice we have things that are pronouncements and judgments and assessment that are meant to be universal. In a more empathetic or care-based or ecofeminist way of thinking, we’re paying attention to its context. 

And so the idea then is that when you are interested in thinking about individuals and individualism, in the abstract and in a universal sense, what ends up happening is you end up overlooking important differences, differences that also lead themselves to in both a liberal and neoliberal context, all sorts of oppression. And so one of the reasons I think that it’s more both ethically and politically compelling to work for, on a more care – or empathy-based ethic, is because it seems that some of the real problems that we face in terms of exploitation and oppression have to do with, in large part, the grounding that comes through the liberal basis for rights. And so that is part of why I think that we need to move away from rights talk and instead develop what I call entangled empathy or an empathetic engagement with each other and the more intimate world. 

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So what’s, I think, important in trying to understand what that would mean, what that would look like, what empathy and entangled empathy is about, is to make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is – and these often get used in different ways, so I’m just clarifying here that this is what I mean when I’m thinking about empathy. Sympathy is often the idea that you feel sorry for someone else. Or you maybe pity them. But it doesn’t actually require a full understanding of what is the trouble or the problem or what the other is going through, to use what Carol said. Whereas empathy involves the ability to put oneself in the place of the other and to try to understand how the world looks to that other. And part of what’s really is important, I think, about developing the feel of empathy – and I’ll say a little bit more about this in a moment – is that that’s the kind of skill that helps us to really try to sensitively navigate getting rights. 

Sympathy can allow us to maintain our distance and our difference, sort of keep difference at bay. And empathy tries to allow us the skills that are associated with good empathetic engagement with another, helps us bridge various differences. Whether that’s differences in privilege, differences in gender expression, differences in animal embodiment. Empathy can do that. A couple of more specific ways in which empathy and what I’m calling entangled empathy helps us move across that difference is first: the reason I use the notion of “entanglement” is that entanglement entails that we’re already in relation and we are in these relations that already exist. We’re not creating new relations, we are already in the relations so the focus then becomes not “Oh, which relationships should I be in?”, but rather, “How can I make this relationship, that I’m already in, better?”

And so the entangled part of the empathy suggests that we are – these are not, sort of, moment by moment things, but because of various kinds of limitations on the material existence or means of existence as well as the ways in which all sorts of political and markets assemblages operate we end up in these complex relationships with others. And so what the entanglement idea does is helps us is sort of re-conceive of our activities and our actions as already being in relation and how to make those better. 

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Now the conditions for entangled empathy, I suggest, is that we have a self-other distinction and part of what that means is that if we don’t recognize that we are distinct from others, then what ends up happening is – and I’ll get to this in a minute – we might end up unable to fully grasp the perspective of the other from their point of view. We also need to develop skills to take the perspective of others and also become more aware of another’s interest and the combination of all these things actually has a motivating feature. That is, once we are able to recognize ourselves as distinct from another, but at the same time take the perspective of the other, then we are often going to be moved to act to better their situation.

I wanted to highlight, because there’s a lot of confusion here, that empathy is not just mere emotional contagion, it is a developed skill that requires a lot of cognitive and rational engagement so it’s not just a instinct or emotional contagion. An emotional contagion is this idea that we have heard and seen about of yawning. Somebody yawns and then other people start to yawn — it’s not very cognitive it’s just sort of reactive. But entangled empathy is not that. It’s not just a nurturing or caring reaction at all. It’s also importantly not about a precursor to moral judgment. It’s not the kind of thing in which one is entering into sort of a conception of praise and blame. And in this way, it’s still very linked up with compassion feeling with, but it’s not near feeling with. It’s engaged in, sort of what you’re trying to do is not, or not immediately, judge, but rather to – as Carol said as well – see what the other might be going through and try to understand what the others going through not from one’s own perspective but the perspective of the individual going through it.

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It’s also important that there is critical attention paid to the context under which the well-being or the flourishing of others is threatened. And this is important for a variety of your reasons because sometimes there can be a way in which you’re feeling with another to try to manipulate the other or take advantage of the other. And entangled empathy specifically has the notion of improving the well-being of all. Part of what I think is also important to highlight about this notion of entangled empathy, is that it helps us develop a certain way of seeing the world. So we are changed ourselves when we’re engaged in this kind of empathetic perception of others. And when we pay attention to the particularities of the lived experience of others – and here I’m just talking about other animals, but this applies across human animals as well – so the idea here is that one of the things that we want to be attending to and perceiving well is the species-typical behavior and desires and interests and needs of others.

And we want to try to develop an understanding of what Jakob von Uexküll called the “umwelt”, which is, sort of, the worldview of the other and try to see how that might look from their perspective. I often have my students try to imagine an exercise to try to figure out what it is that the world might like look like if you’re a polar bear or a whale. It’s not an easy thing to do. And so one of the ways that one gets better at doing this, is by studying animals in their, more or less, natural environments and also reflecting on those that do study animals in their natural environments. 

Also paying important critical attention to the larger conditions that undermine the well-being and volitions of animals. And here I would like to invoke our dear friend who passed away, Marti Kheel, who was one of the real founders of ecofeminism. She brought to our attention the notion that when we’re thinking about how to act and what ethics entail, we often just sort of look at the situation as a narrative, and we fail to recognize that is a truncated narrative. That actually what we should be attending to is
how we got into this situation – the larger broader context. How did we get into this situation in the first place? And so it might not be that if you’re going to act to engage, what you want to do is not just fix an immediate situation but actually look at the larger structures and the larger context that might have lead to the crisis in the first instance. So that’s a little bit about how I am understanding entangled empathy.

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I just want to leave with you common objections that I’ve heard and that you might have in your mind. So one of the worries, – and this is always a worry that brings people back to the strength of a rights-based approach – and that is, that we might just be engaged in a certain kind of projection. That we’re just unable, really, to take the perspective of another. And so when we say that we are empathizing, really all we’re really doing is taking our own desires and interests and locking them onto another. But I think it’s important to recognize that empathy is a process. You go back and forth between your perspective and the perspective of another. And that’s why the self-other distinction is so important because if you’re checking yourself through the second personal approach, against what your perceiving of another, you can really I think – through practice and skill and the development of this skill – you can really change it from being simply about you and being more about the relationship the other might have. Of course paying attention to context is also really super helpful here.

There’s also, and this is empathetic torture, it often gets brought up. And this is the manipulator and this is why I think it is so important that one of the conditions of entangled empathy is that it is geared toward promotion of well-being and flourishing. So yes, you can empathize in a cognitive way with another individual so that you can manipulate them further, you can become a better torturer or victimizer and certainly that has happened and is a problem with certain forms of empathy but I think the conception that I’m trying to discuss in terms of entangled empathy that’s not acceptable entangled empathy. Another criticism that I’ve heard is the criticism of the self-other distinction and I think that oftentimes the reason people are worried about the self-other distinction is because there is a sense that the self is more important than the other and certainly that’s been our understanding of how the category of the other gets  constructed, by strengthening and reevaluating and giving a greater value to the self. But I don’t think that the self-other distinction necessitates a value division. And so I think that’s important to recognize that the self and the other can simply be differently situated. They’re not necessarily differently valued. 

I think also and this is something that is really important from the struggles of early feminism, the struggles of LGBTQ activism, and particularly now trans activism, the struggles of anti-settler colonialism and certainly, anti-racism work, is that it really does amount to a certain kind of achievement to develop a self in the context in which that self is denied and so it’s important not to move to a place where the self becomes a universal whole because that’s giving up the self and blending the self with everything, which is something that happened in ecological work early on. And to only happen when you’re privileged enough to recognize yourself as yourself, whereas the history of lots of political struggles indicates that to achieve – the struggle for recognition is an achievement, and we shouldn’t just throw that away and I think that the self-other dualism shouldn’t be recognized as value dualism, and that is an objection, but we can have a recognition that we are also co-constituted in our self-other categorizations.

Okay, so I also wanted – those are objections that I think I’ve answered. Maybe you can come up with some other objections and I would really love to talk about them. But I wanted also to talk about ways in which, now, our own empathetic, entangled empathy can go wrong. So not an objection to the idea and structure of entangled empathy but objections to, or recognition of, the errors, the failures that we might make when we’re engaged in entangled empathy. And I called these empathetic failures and I see them as having two different versions. There’s an epistemic version and an ethical version. And I think the epistemic versions of empathetic failure are often easier to grasp, whereas the ethical versions of empathetic failure are a little bit more tricky.

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So let me just say a little bit about each of those: The epistemic failures occur when one is over-empathizing with the plight of another. And what I have in mind here is this idea that we get ourselves a little bit too involved in a particular kind of context of oppression and fail to recognize the full nature of the experience of the other. So if we imagine ourselves as being really, really concerned about a particular form of racism, what we might do if we’re over-empathizing is imagine that the victim of racism is suffering from the weight of racial oppression and racial discrimination. And we can sometimes fail recognize that even within oppression and even within conditions of extreme hardship, there still might be marvelous things happening. And so what happens when we over-empathize is we are unable to recognize the full nature of the experience of the other.

And so a way of correcting that particular kind of failure is to develop greater self knowledge and try to understand the other better. And – this is just a little aside – I teach in a maximum security men’s prison. And it’s obviously, in the United States, there’s a disproportionate number of African-American men in this prison, and oftentimes the writing tutors and teaching assistants, that I bring in with me to the prison, engage in a certain kind of over-empathizing with racism that is clearly a part of the carceral state here. And so it’s a process of trying to, sort of, correct that particular kind of over-empathy by gaining greater self-knowledge, recognizing when you’re doing that, recognizing one’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-racist work is not going to be the kind of thing that should occlude or prevent one from recognizing a variety of experiences, even within a racist, carceral system. Okay, so – that’s a problem.

The much bigger epistemic problem though I see is incomplete empathizing where people are just basically unable to see others for living their full lives, in the way that they are. And a lot of times in the case of nonhuman animals that’s what happening.
They just don’t understand, so more information. And by information, I don’t mean something clearly non-contestable but just trying to learn more can help us with these epistemic failures.

Now with ethical failures, I just want to suggest that there are three ways that we can have inapt empathy: One is “Affected Ignorance”, and that is a term that was coined by Michelle Moody Adams and Michelle Moody Adams suggested that often times we can say “Well, I just don’t know enough, so didn’t I just need more information? This is an epistemic problem. I don’t know enough.” But there’s an important sense in which we’re also responsible for knowing and what we know. And that’s also again why I thought the land acknowledgment that Sarah gave at the beginning is so important and I think it’s so important to think about all the animals that we are involved in harming, unintentionally. And that we also, sort of, recognize that we not be ignorant of that and the way that we should be acknowledging that. One of the things that I’ve been arguing, in the book that Carol and I mentioned, I talk about the ways in which it’s so important to see that even as vegans, as anti-oppression activists, and scholars, we are also involved in the death of so many others, and the distress of so many others. And to not acknowledge that, when we’re clearly able to and can acknowledge that, that’s a version of affected ignorance. So that’s a failure that needs to be corrected. 

The other idea is that we sometimes have empathetic bias. And I see this a lot in various social justice movements, and so I just want to flag it as something to pay attention to. And so the idea is that we need to recognize that we can be biased in favor of one particular form of oppression and empathize with the beings that we’re in relationship with vis-à-vis that lens of oppression. But the problem is that that can may be bias us to other lenses and we can talk a little bit more about that. And the other is empathetic overload and this is something that I think is really important, and again, gets to … I’m hoping you can hear me – the other is empathetic overload and I just want to suggest that this is a really important thing for activists to be attentive to, because given that we are in these relations and we care so much about the well-being of others, it’s oftentimes very, very difficult to not burn out and I think the self-care that Sarah talked about at the beginning, is a really important way of trying to avoid empathetic overload, to recognize what one’s limits are. And also empathetic overload can happen in a context in which one is on the front line of care work and I think that oftentimes what can happen is one can have to shut off their engagement with empathy to, as my friend and colleague, pattrice jones, puts it: “To not be alive to the feelings of the other because one is so overcome with the demands of the interests of others.” And so that is something that is really going to take a lot of work, and so I will end by saying, this is the kind of work that one needs to try to engage in.

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These are the skills that I think we need in order to become better at entangled empathetic engagement. Patience, which is, I know, very difficult in an age of such horrifying atrocities and oppression. Courage, the courage to be able to face it and also to be able to accept one’s mistakes. Self-reflection is obviously a hugely important part of any way of making one’s relationship better, and again, my idea is that entangled empathy is about making our relationships with others better. And self-reflection is obviously important. And humility. I think this is something that is something often, in our struggles, we fail to acknowledge and I encourage that we all call each other out
to try to maintain humility. 

And I’m really sorry that this audio is hard. I hope you were able to hear at least most of what I had to say. Thanks.


Q&A

Okay, so the question is a question about how – it’s a great question – it’s a question about how we, studying emotions and behaviors scientifically but science has traditionally been about maintaining so-called objectivity. And avoiding emotion. And I think that is to some extent true and to some extent not. I think if you think back in the work, 50 years of work that Jane Goodall has done; the work of scientists, like Marc Bekoff and Laurie Marino and others, it seems that compassion is a really important part of the work that they’re doing and they do recognize the individual as well as the individual’s relationship to others. And one of the, interestingly, one of the ways that I got thinking about this problem of inappropriate or inapt empathy has to do with the way a particular animal rights organization thought it would be best to treat chimpanzees. And failing to understand what a chimpanzee is in need of over there ideology of not interfering – and these were captive chimpanzees – so it was a little bit problematic. And so scientists who work with chimpanzees for example, I think have a very deep compassionate understanding, not all scientists, of course, not those who are doing biomedical research. But those who are doing behavioral research have a very deep compassionate understanding often, not always. 

The question of how to make science more compassionate is – and I think you’re right, it would be more accurate if it were more compassionate – is a pretty significant problem and I think unfortunately it’s a large question, but the way that we’re understanding other animals by way of imaging their brains for example, is in my view, that’s not going to get us going in the right direction. And sadly, because my work is on empathy, a lot of people think that this mirror neuron work is related to what I do, but I actually don’t think it is at all. I think it is actually another construct that’s somewhat reductionist
and fails to understand the full nature of the relationships that we’re in with others and how our emotions and reason work together. I hope that answers the question. It’s a big question.

Full video with closed captioning available here

Lori Gruen has been involved in animal issues as a writer, teacher, and activist for over 25 years. Her relationships with scholars thinking about animals, activists working to protect animals, and, perhaps most importantly, with many different animals, uniquely inform her perspective on how we need to rethink our engagement with other animals. She is currently Professor of Philosophy as well as Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies. She has published extensively on topics in animal ethics, ecofeminism, and practical ethics more broadly.  She is the author of two books on animal ethics, most recently Ethics and Animals:  An Introduction (Cambridge, 2011); the editor of five books, including Ecofeminism:  Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth with Carol J. Adams (Bloomsbury, forthcoming July 2014) and the Ethics of Captivity (Oxford, forthcoming May 2014); and the author of dozens of articles and book chapters. She is currently writing a book exploring the ethical and epistemological issues raised by human relations to captive chimpanzees. She has documented the history of The First 100 chimpanzees in research in the US and has an evolving website that documents the journey to sanctuary of the remaining chimpanzees in research labs, The Last 1000.

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