Multispecies Empathy: Introduction

It's not all bad news out there for all the multiple species here on earth. For instance, there is decreasing violence in the world, so says Steven Pinker in the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. One of the main reasons he cites is empathy. Empathy functions to help humans see each other's inherent worth and dignity, and then to enact society practices, expectations, and laws that curb our biological propensities. Just because we can, doesn't mean we do.

Is it possible that we can grow empathy for other species? Yes!  Steven Pinker cites multiple examples of how violence towards other animals has decreased in the last 100-200 years, including laws and policies reducing animal cruelty, dog and rooster fighting, animal experimentation, and whale hunting along with the rise of vegetarianism. We still have much further go in regards to the loss of biodiversity, extinction, the wildlife trade, and the suffering of animals held in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Earth and her beings call out to us to increase our empathy for others, which we can do intentionally and encourage others to do so as well.

 A study a few years suggests how we might go about this.* In the study, one group of students were asked to imagine what a bird was feeling for 15 minutes. The control group was given no directions. Those who pretended they were the bird showed increased levels of empathy and a stronger perceived obligation to help nature.

What is this bird feeling?

Putting yourself into the shoes, fins, wings, hoofs, paws, claws, or talons of another is a powerful exercise which doesn't take a lot of time. You can also do it anywhere as life is all around us. Such a practice is good for others, but also for ourselves as it is also a mindfulness practice. By being open to the other, we still our inner chatter and come to the present moment. Thus we improve our own health and relationships while also growing our sense of the inherent worth and dignity of others. In turn this grows our individual and collective compassionate action in the world.

Coming next: journal and videos to guide you through multispecies empathy exercises and experiences.

*Berenguer, J. 2007. The effect of empathy in proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors. Environment and Behavior 39,269-283.