Same Difference

By Risa M. Mandell

In her interview with Scientific American (April 4, 2017), Dr. Gay Bradshaw builds support for trans-species empathy based on similarities between humans and other animals, that is, shared brain structures and processes, which determine how we experience ourselves and the world.  These similarities include the vulnerability to trauma, as she deftly elucidated in her previous book, Elephants on the Edge (Yale, 2009).  Bradshaw continues this line of thought in her newly released, Carnivore Minds (Yale, 2017), in which she uses neuroscience, ethology, and psychology to document our commonalities as well as the vulnerability to trauma in carnivores, as she did with elephants previously.  In doing so, she redresses the toxic reputation these animals have been given, even postulating that we can learn compassion and morality from some of them.

Empathy can be understood as a transitory identification with another and rests on the assumption that we are more likely to feel empathic with those with whom we share similarities.  Still, one cannot help but wonder, What about the empathy of difference?

Picture by TigerHawkVok (Wikimedia Commons)

Not everyone is going to look into the eyes of a rattlesnake and be able to see from the eyes of the rattlesnake, that is, from the subjective experience of the rattlesnake.  What is it like for you, Reuven Rattlesnake, to be squashed?  Hacked?  For you, Susie Salmon, to have a hook in your mouth?

Assuming sentience and therefore, being empathic, underlies the Humane Party’s “ecosystem-neutral” philosophical approach to the environment.  The term ecosystem-neutral addresses all ecological factors, as distinct from carbon-neutral, which addresses only a single factor.

Moreover, ecosystem-neutral seeks to eliminate not only intentional destruction of the environment (e.g., clear-cutting) but also accidental interference and disturbance.  Importantly, this approach seeks not only to deal with the overall, net impact, but also to account for every individual being who lives within a given ecosystem.  In other words, it is not good enough to worry about averages and “populations”; we must also produce solutions that protect actual individuals as we use the political process to forge a non-violent groundswell to the abolition of all slavery.

Live and let live.  Vive la différence!