What Sociology Can Tell Us about Empathy for Animals

Empathy for Animals is a Core Human Value

Humans across the globe share their homes with dogs, cats, rodents, and other animals. We call them companions, pets, or even family members. Thousands of pounds are invested in these animals with regard to food, treats, toys, clothing, kennels, healthcare, and even birthdays and funeral services. Clearly humans deeply care about other animals. At our core, we have empathy for animals other than ourselves.

Exploitative Economies Distort Our Empathy for Animals

So why do so many humans stop short of extending this compassion to animals categorized as food, clothing, or labour? Sociology offers a variety of explanations according to theoretical perspectives. Many sociologists, however, point to the economic structure of a society and the commodification of nonhuman animals. David Nibert has argued that our switch to a hunting economy not only created a society newly structured around the oppression of animals (speciesism) but it also created a society divided by gender. The transition to agriculture entrenched speciesism further with the advent of domestication. This also introduced class division since agriculture allowed for surplus goods (and unequal distribution).

By the late 1500s, early capitalism and colonial expansion spread and deepened speciesism across the globe (and, in doing so, introduced racial division as well). Today, in late-stage capitalism, speciesism (animal agriculture in particular) is more intensive than ever. It is rapidly normalizing in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other previously colonized spaces as a result of Western coercion. These are regions where plant-based consumption was once normative. The loss of traditional foodways is not only harmful for nonhuman animals identified as “food,” but the global poor identified as their consumers. Social stratification, in other words, is rooted in the adoption of speciesism as a primary economy both past and present.

Distorted Empathy for Animals Includes Humans, Too

Notice how human oppression codeveloped with animal oppression. This intersectionality is key to the sociological understanding of speciesism. Species, race, class, gender, and other social categories are economically functional. They ensure that unpleasant jobs will be filled and that labour may be exploited for low cost (or for none at all). These categories also represent social difference and tend to facilitate conflict and discourage cooperation. For sociologists, this tendency is politically relevant. A divided society, after all, is more easily manipulated by the dominant class in support of its own interests.

The most fundamental social division is that between humans and other animals. It is this animalization which separates those who are marginalized from those who are centered in society with regard to social recognition and allocation of resources. Women are animalized, people of color are animalized, humans with disabilities are animalized, homosexual people are animalized, ethnic minorities are animalized, and non-binary and trans humans are animalized. Even nonhuman animals themselves are animalized.

This is because “animal” is a social category imbrued with symbolic meaning. Just like race really has more to do with power, prestige, and access to resources than it does with one’s actual skin color, species is also not so much about one’s biological makeup (i.e. if one has hands or hooves, skin or scales). All groups, whether human or nonhuman, that are labeled “animal” are described as physically and cognitively inferior to the dominant class and can be denied rights accordingly.

Unteaching Empathy

True, nonhuman and human animals are indeed biologically different. But there are many more commonalities between the two groups. Why do we emphasize difference over sameness? I have described a society that is fundamentally in conflict. In order to maintain such a volatile system, powerful ideologies must be introduced and enforced through institutions and socialization. Psychologists point to a variety of cognitive and emotional mechanisms for managing the discomfort humans feel when faced with contradictions in their empathy toward other animals. Sociologists, however, are interested in how our empathy for some animals and our lack of empathy for others is learned (or, more accurately, is taught).

We are taught by our parents that some animals are for petting, some animals are for admiring, some are pests we should kill, and others are food we should eat. Doctors (who generally lack nutritional training) teach us that eating animals and drinking nonhuman breastmilk is good for us. We are taught by our teachers, museums, and zoos that nonhuman animals are ours to exploit. Mainstream media (which long since converged in the 1990s under the ownership of a handful of powerful billionaires) programs us that animals are objects and our using them is good for the economy. We’re being taught these lessons from childhood throughout our life course.

Reclaiming Empathy

Fortunately, if speciesism is something that is learned, that means it is something which can be unlearned. Sociologists are also interested in how social change happens and how social justice can be achieved in a society that is fundamentally unequal. Although the system may be rigged against us (and nonhuman animals), individuals can resist the erosion of our empathy by choosing food, clothing, and entertainment which does not harm other animals. Individuals can also work to create a more inclusive, peaceful world by getting active in our communities and putting pressure on policy-makers. It is possible to reclaim our empathy for animals.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the sociology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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