“If you had to choose between saving a child’s life and saving a dog’s life, what would you choose?”
I have heard this question a hundred times if not a thousand times since I turned vegan. Generally, I answer with another question: “And you, if you had to choose between saving your child’s life and saving the life of the neighbour’s child, what would you choose?”
Everyone would choose to save whoever is nearest and most familiar to them. This has nothing to do with racism or speciesism. This is how the human brain works. That which is familiar touches you more than that which is foreign, and what happens near concerns you more than what happens far from you.
In 2010/2011, I was very interested in experimental cognitive psychology. I wanted to understand human behaviour beyond any moral judgment. I was struck by a lecture given in the City of Science and Industry of Paris about “empathy, how to understand the other”. Berengère Thirioux, philosopher and neuroscientist, explained the senso-neuromotor foundations of our relation to alterity, that is to say our relation to everything that is not ourselves.
Sympathy would thus be the reduction of the other’s perspective to oneself, i.e. the simulation of the other in oneself. In other words, I feel sympathy for the other because I think the other is like me. Sympathy is reflexive.
Conversely, empathy is the mental relocation of oneself in the other, that is, the simulation of oneself in the other. In other words, I empathise with the other because I can establish a dynamic relationship between my experience and the experience of the other. Empathy is a cognitive approach.
If I talk about this today it is because I am meeting soon with representatives of the association for the advocation of animals. Most of them develop a discourse around animal suffering. It is because animals are sentient beings who suffer like humans, that we must recognize them as sensitive beings and protect them from exploitation. In other words, let us protect animals because they are similar to us!
In my opinion, the discourse on animal suffering is misleading. It discriminates against animals based on the idea that human suffering is the reference model to apply to all species in order to determine whether or not they should be protected from human exploitation. Suffering is defined according to egocentric human criteria that do not account for biodiversity at all. What do you know about the life and suffering of molluscs or insects, for example? Yet insects and molluscs are part of this world and participate in life.
Discrimination of suffering between animals is also a dangerous idea because it belongs to the emotional register. It reinforces the idea that humans are superior beings by keeping us in a primary and limited relation to otherness. Conversely, it freezes animals in a status of inferior beings and victims whom the man at the top of his omniscience can choose to exploit or not.
Animals do not need our emotions.
They need us to stop using and abusing life and biodiversity for egocentric purposes. They need us to work on our ego and stop believing that we alone possess consciousness and intelligence. They need us to open our consciousness and extend our empathy to that which is alien and distant from ourselves. Because, it is only on the day when we think about biodiversity not as predator but alter ego, that animals will be able to live in peace on this planet.