Lori Gruen

Lori Gruen is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Professor of Science in Society and of Professor Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies. Lori is the author of a number of books on animal ethics, including Ethics and Animals: An Introduction (2011) and Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals (2015). She is also the creator of ‘The First 100’, a memorial for the first 100 chimpanzees used in research in the United States.

In Entangled Empathy, Lori describes a mode of ‘caring perception’, focused on attending to another’s experience of well-being. Rather than focusing on animal rights, Lori argues that we ought to work to make our relationships with animals right by empathetically responding to their needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and unique perspectives.

In this Q&A the Charter for Animal Compassion asks Lori about entangled empathy, the possibilities and pitfalls of anthropomorphism, and the extension of empathy to the non-sentient natural world


Charter: What is ‘entangled empathy’?

LG: I think of entangled empathy as a process of moral attention.  It is a type of caring perception that involves ethical and epistemic skills.  It is different from a familiar idea of empathy that is thought to be more reactive, biased, and potentially condescending. Entangled empathy, in contrast, involves developing and correcting one’s perception to better attend to an others’ well-being; to recognize and understand our relationships to others (including political, economic, and social relationships that are not usually thought to be relationships at all); and to see that these relationships entail responsibilities.  Entangled empathy is a dynamic process that involves both affect and cognition and a recognition that how I am entangled in a host of relations impacts others.

Charter: Is it possible to empathise with a nonhuman animal without slipping into anthropomorphism? (And is anthropomorphism necessarily a bad thing?)

LG: Anthropomorphism, which usually means inappropriately ascribing human qualities to non-humans, is a problem by definition.  But there are some human ways of being that are not unique to us — other animals are socially and emotionally attuned, they develop loving relations (and animosities too), they laugh, they grieve, they play. That there are many kinds of experiences that we share with other animals, facilitates empathy.  But there are dangers of projection. Entangled empathy relies on the iterative process of moving from my own state of mind to that of the being with whom I’m empathizing as well as recognizing our distinctive ways of being in the world. To meaningfully attend to another being’s interests, desires, sensitivities, aspirations, etc. as they occur in particular contexts, within social relations of all sorts, and to avoid projecting one’s own states of mind on others, this movement from me to you and back, through these shifting perspectives, is key. Entangled empathy helps us to understand ourselves and our own situations better and that will in turn help us to recognize the various nuances of the situation of others. Keeping in mind our differences is central to avoiding problems of anthropomorphism.

Charter: Are there limits to empathy? Can we empathise, for example, with rocks and rivers and landscapes?

LG: Entangled empathy is an ethical framework that is meant to help empathizers respond to the well-being of another and to work to improve relationships, both near and far.  Creatures with subjective experiences, beings that it is something to be like, will be those we can empathize with.  Rocks and rivers and landscapes, though often the source of admiration, wonder, and awe, don’t have thoughts and feelings in anything other than a metaphorical sense, so they represent a limit for empathetic engagement.  The animals that live in those landscapes, and who’s lives depend on clean rivers and non-toxic lands, for example, are those we empathize with so protecting the environment becomes a part of helping other beings to flourish.

Charter: Is ‘entangled empathy’ a skill that can be honed? And if so, how do we become more adept? 

It absolutely must be honed, no one is able to empathize well without working at it. There are a variety of ways to become more adept at empathizing, getting to know oneself better and discerning whether one is prone to over empathize or under empathize is important.  Also asking questions, rather than assuming answers is crucial. For example, in the human case, we might ask: What psychological predispositions do I have and does the person I’m empathize with have and how do they affect our different levels of confidence in making our way in the world? How do cultural understandings of value impact our sense of our worth? Have my goals or her goals been influenced by familial, educational, social, political, racial, gendered, economic or religious barriers or prohibitions?  Do people like me culturally or historically have less chance of empathically succeeding and of “making a difference”?

We can develop a slightly different set of questions when the relationship is between a human empathizer and a nonhuman towards whom one’s ethical attention is directed. For example, what were the early rearing conditions this animal experiences and how did that shape her current experiences? What sort of species typical behaviors does a creature of this kind usually engage in and does she have opportunities to engage in those behaviors? What sorts of social relationships are important, whether they be with conspecifics or animals from other species, including humans? Is this animal able to be alone, if she wants? Is she able to make choices about who to spend time with, whereto be, what and when to eat? Are these the sort of choices that are meaningful to this particular animal?

These are just examples, but answers to these questions and others will help us develop better skills at perceiving and noticing the complexity of experiences in the world and thus hone our empathetic skill.

Can one coherently extend empathy towards an animal and then eat it, or would a commitment to empathy entail not eating animals?

Because entangled empathy requires an understanding of context, I would have to have a better sense of the specific context to provide a complete answer.  But if we think about the billions of animals that are industrially produced to become food, animals who are kept in conditions that are at every level contrary to their well-being, then one could not empathize and participate in the violent system that leads to their consumption. Indeed, if one were empathizing with these animals (although it is hard to empathize with billions of suffering individuals) then one would want to end these exploitative practices. Because entangled empathy is a expansive practice, at least ideally, we would also empathize with “collateral damage” of the system of industrial animal production — workers who are often treated badly; neighbors, both human and nonhuman, who are suffering from the toxic blight of factory farming; and all the victims of climate change, given that intensive animal production is the number one global contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.


Visit Lori’s website: http://www.lorigruen.com/

Buy Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals, Lantern Books (2014) (Link)