Animal Studies Journal


In The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison offers an unusual perspective: ‘Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse’ (23). This essay is dedicated to elaborating that crucial observation. A vast amount of recent research concerns empathy – in evolutionary biology, neurobiology, moral psychology, and ethics. I want to extend these investigations by exploring the degree to which individuals can control our empathy: for whom and what we feel it, to what degree, in what circumstances, and with what practical results. My inquiry is aimed toward showing that humans can find ways to empathize with non-human animals – a capacity that is manifest in our relations with animal companions, but more rarely exercised when we consider animal victims of human exploitation. I introduce the notion of moral laziness: aversion to and avoidance of moral efforts and exertion. The foundation of this failing is often empathic laziness: aversion to imagining the mental states of others, feeling congruent emotions, and experiencing the impulse to help that empathy arouses. This is a serious moral failing because it enables continuing complicity in animal abuse and undermines integrity. Jamison remarks in relation to empathy, ‘I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones’ (23-24). I offer practical suggestions for that work.