At Our Hen House, we do our best to bring you the latest from the world of animal rights. That said, when it comes to telling you about books, there are just so many amazing new ones covering all kinds of animal issues, and we simply don’t have time to review them all (but don’t miss the ones we have reviewed). That’s why we thought long and hard and decided to bring you this exciting program. From time to time, we’ll publish excerpts of the author’s choice — highlighting the best in animal rights books (both fiction and non) — right here on our online magazine.
One general note about OHH’s intention to publish excerpts: We do our best to choose excerpts from books that reflect our values to change the world for animals, and to end their exploitation altogether. However, we are not able to read all of these books in their entirety, and so please note that the books we choose do indeed intrigue us, but might not fully be in line with our ethos — though we hope they are. In other words, vet these for yourselves, and feel free to share your thoughts with us at by emailing info [at] ourhenhouse [dot] org.
Today we bring you an excerpt from Lori Gruen’s new book, Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. Flock members — read on past the except for your chance to win a copy of this book! (Not a flock member yet? Join us!)
As an activist and a scholar I have come to see the idea of ‘animal suffering’ that is so central to the animal movement as far too general and broad. The general slogans of the movement don’t usually convey any of the depth of the experiences particular chickens, chimpanzees, cows, cats, and others have — experiences that make their suffering specific for them, from their point of view. And this is related to a second thing that has dawned on me: It is hard to get other people to see what was wrong with causing animals to suffer just by telling them that animals suffer. If we really want to make a positive difference for other animals, we need to acknowledge that we are already in relationships with them, and for the most part, they aren’t good relationships. We need to radically rethink these relationships if we want to improve everyone’s wellbeing.
I propose ‘entangled empathy’ as a tool in helping us improve our various, complicated relationships.
Entangled Empathy (enˈtaNGɡəldˈempəTHē): a type of caring perception focused on attending to another’s experience of wellbeing. An experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another’s needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.
Entangled empathy is a process. Although the process may not be linear, we can think of the various parts of the process as going something like this: The wellbeing of another grabs the empathizer’s attention; then the empathizer reflectively imagines himself in the position of the other; and then he makes a judgment about how the conditions that the other finds herself in contribute to her state of mind or wellbeing. The empathizer will then carefully assess the situation and figure out what information is pertinent to effectively empathize with the being in question.
This sort of empathy doesn’t separate emotion and cognition and will tend to lead to action because what draws our attention in the first place is another’s experiential wellbeing. Once our perception starts the process, we will want to pay critical attention to the broader conditions that impact the wellbeing or flourishing of those with whom we are empathizing. This requires us to attend to things we might not have otherwise. Empathy of this sort requires gaining perspective and usually motivates the empathizer to act ethically.
Many standard accounts of empathy suggest that what one does when one empathizes is put oneself in another’s shoes. But this suggests an account of the self that I am suggesting we discard. And there is another problem—other animals don’t wear shoes! What we need to do when we are trying to empathize with very different others is to understand as best we can what the world seems, feels, smells, and looks like from their situated position. To “stand in their shoes” can lead to problematic anthropomorphizing (not all anthropomorphizing is problematic) with animals and can lead to profound mistakes both in judgments and in practices.
That said, we don’t want to get lost in their perspective either…we need to move between our own and the other’s point of view, between the first- and the third-person perspective. This requires gaining as much knowledge of the ways the other lives as is possible. We can then make a judgment about how the conditions that she finds herself in may contribute to her perceptions or state of mind and impact her interests. So, entangled empathy involves a particular blend of affect and cognition. The empathizer is always attentive to both similarities and differences between herself and her situation and that of the fellow creature with whom she is empathizing. This alternation between first- and third-person points of view allows us to preserve the sense that we are in relationship and not merged into the same perspective.
Although everyone is entangled with others and to some extent with various forms and forces of life, not recognizing that there is a particular embodied being who organizes her perceptions and attitudes, a self, can be problematic. We need only reflect on the various ways that those in positions of power have obscured or disavowed the subjectivity of those they seek to dominate and the struggles for recognition that follow to realize the importance of holding on to the self, however porous, vulnerable, or shifting her boundaries may be. Entangled empathy is a way for one self to perceive and to connect with a specific other in their particular circumstance, and to recognize and assess one’s place in reference to the other. This is a central skill for being in ethical relations.
Entangled empathy with other animals involves reflecting on proximity and distance. To do it well we have to try to understand the individual’s species-typical behaviors and her individual personality over a period of time. Very often this is not easy to do without expertise and observation. Many, perhaps most, current discussions of what we owe animals fail to attend to the particularity of individual animal lives and the very different sorts of relationships we are in with them. The category “animal” itself obscures important differences and relationships. Chickens, chipmunks, and chimpanzees are animals, but we are in different types of relationships with each. Particular relationships with chimpanzees give us virtually no context for understanding and empathizing with chickens and the same holds true for chipmunks. Theories that generalize over differences will obscure the distinct experiences of others.
Entangled empathy keeps us mindful of differences in context and differences in particular experiences, but it does seem to be limited to sentient beings who have experiences. Entangled empathy provides insight into how we can improve our relationships with other animals.
Lori Gruen is Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Ethics and Animals and co-editor, with Carol Adams, of Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Animals and the Earth.
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