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Empathy and Meat

June 3, 2010

For many years now I’ve been suggesting that you don’t have to love nature to be green; and by extension, that you don’t have to love animals to be a vegetarian. Peter Singer himself says as much in his introduction to Animal Liberation. Many other ethicists presumably feel the same way. I’m even writing a book about it, tentatively titled The Wicked and the Wild: Why You Don’t Have to Love Nature to be Green (coming out with the University of Chicago Press sometime in 2011). And yet, it turns out that, at least descriptively speaking, empathy is what sets vegetarians apart from the rest of the nonvegetarian population.

The hypothesis behind this study is based on the observation that Vegetarians and Vegans tend to base their decision to avoid animal products on ethical grounds. Assuming that Vegetarians and Vegans – because of their underlying moral philosophies – show greater empathy towards animal suffering, it is very well possible that these differences in empathy extend beyond the animal domain and show up as general differences in the degree of empathy felt towards other humans also; even at a neurological level.

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The first main finding of this study is that, compared to Omnivores, Vegans and Vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.

A worrisome thesis indeed. Maybe I need to revise my subtitle.

Or, on second thought, maybe not, given that my hope is to inspire the non-empathetic among us to acknowledge that even if they don’t maintain the right psychological apparatus–and perhaps possess the apparatus of selfish bastardism, for instance, among many other psychological pathologies that would leave a person feeling that she can run roughshod over the earth–they still need to respect the basic tenets of environmentalism.

The true test will be whether I can persuade the sociopath that he needs to start advocating on behalf of the earth. I don’t expect much success on that front, so I’ll settle for the fence-sitters, the urbanites, and the otherwise environmentally disinterested progressives.

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