About predators and empathy

September 14, 2011

It is an established line of thinking among moral philosophers like Peter Singer, that sentient beings deserve our empathy, because they are able to feel pain.

A few days ago I read a comment about vegetarianism which in essence claimed, that carrots and apples also would deserve our empathy, as they are living things. Why should plants, lifeforms, that like we humans are based on DNA-RNA-proteins, be excluded from our feelings of empathy? What gives us the right to distinguish between species and spare the ones who presumably feel pain, when we will never be able to experience and understand any kind of pain except the pain we feel ourselves?

Though this comment was nothing else than a mean attempt to ridicule vegetarians, it made the valid point, that the distinction in species who feel pain and species who do not is by itself a moral proposition and not based on science.

Peter Singer writes in his book Animal Liberation:

Although human beings have a more developed cerebral cortex than other animals, this part of the brain is concerned with thinking functions rather than with basic impulses, emotions, and feelings. These impulses, emotions, and feelings are located in the diencephalon, which is well developed in many other species of animals, especially mammals and birds.

It is proven that animals in distress have body reactions similar to humans. Animals in distress whine and scream, they moan, they try to avoid the source of pain, they have widened pupils and an increased pulse, all symptoms that make it likely, that their experience is comparable to our feeling of pain.

But why should the fact, that other creatures have painful experiences analogous to ours make us spare them these experiences? And where do we draw the line? Does the backswimmer, fighting desperately till the end while eaten alive by a dragonfly nymph, feel less pain because its nervous system and tiny brain are not capable of creating complex body responses like increased pulse or perspiration?

Moral philosophers use the concept of consciousness, the related term sentience, and the (in my opinion nebulous) concept of qualia as the distinguishing factor, which is setting us and some higher developed fellow animals apart from other species. But consciousness, sentience, qualia are philosophical constructions and not based on science.

Linking the concept of consciousness with recent neurological findings, it can be argued that the working memory or central executive (located likely or partly behind our forehead) is our consciousness because the neurons of the working memory are able to fire continuously for a prolonged period of time (6 – 14 seconds), and by doing so can keep particular notions in play to be compared, combined, and correlated with other notions. This is a science based concept of consciousness, but it again offers no clearly defined borderline for including some species while excluding others — consciousness remains a matter of definition.

The crawling instinct and the escape instinct and all other behaviors of a fruit fly can be explained by neurological processes that are simple and limited, but nevertheless very near the theoretical concept of working memory, leading us in the end to the idea, that any kind of cognition could be categorized as some degree of consciousness.

If one defines cognition as understanding, acknowledgment, awareness, we could at least exclude invertebrates, microorganisms, and plants from having consciousness. But as I mentioned before, fruit flies, backswimmers, and most other invertebrates try to escape, fight for their lives, and indicate with their behavior that they are aware of a danger. These animals for sure don’t understand complex causal interconnections, but do we humans always understand this complex world? Or do we react appropriately because we were already in a similar situation and remember what we had to do then to successfully master the challenge? Most times our reaction is instinctive or based on experience. Are we lacking consciousness by not thoroughly considering the pro’s and con’s of every move?

Is the plant, who grows towards the light and spreads its seedling into all directions to keep the species alive, or the tree who kills the bark beetle with resin flow not acting appropriately to master a challenge? Couldn’t their reaction be construed as kind of consciousness? Could plants feel pain when they wither away?

It seams, that no reasoning can disprove the at the start mentioned comment. Even though carrots and apples may not be as dear to our heart as our cats, we have nevertheless to concede, that selecting particular species to deserve our compassion and pity just because they are assumed to be capable of feeling pain is a moral proposition, a convention rather than a factual finding.

There is another uncertainty beside the question, which species deserve to be treated kindly and spared pain, it is the problem of quantifying pain itself.

How do we measure pain and weigh one kind of pain against another? Is it right to shoot a sick animal and to cause the pain of being deadly wounded in order to spare it the longtime suffering from a disease which would also ultimately lead to its death? Going on from here one could argue that killing animals is always an ethical act because the killed animal is spared the inevitable fate of dying painfully from a disease or being caught and eaten alive by a predator.

In the end we will decide on practical rather than ethical grounds, in the end we will do, what our instincts and our experience tell us to do.

A researcher, wandering on arctic ice and suddenly facing a polar bear, will for sure not consider the fact, that providing himself as food to the member of a severely endangered species would be a two times ecological benefit because it would first help a needy polar bear mother to raise her cute cups and second end his disproportional use of energy and resources once and for all. Even if the researcher just was diagnosed with terminal cancer he will most likely not consider this particular fact and not weigh the pain of slowly dying from cancer with the pain of being slaughtered by the polar bear. The researcher will raise his gun, if he has one, and he will try to kill the polar bear, an understandable reaction, even though it is not the most ecological solution.

I don’t want to start a reflection about conventionalism or ethical relativism, but rather continue to point out the underlying reasons why some of us try to avoid or alleviate pain and suffering of fellow creatures, an attitude that is commonly described and subsumed with the words “feeling empathy”.

Neuroscience says, that responsible for the feeling of empathy are special cells in our brain, called “mirror neurons”, which enable us to imitate other creatures and also to some extent comprehend and understand their feelings. Mirror neurons are present in many species and they have the clear benefit that fellow members of the same species are treated more kindly, an approach that overall increases everybody’s chance of survival.

The existence of mirror neurons and the resulting feeling of empathy can easily be explained by evolution and natural selection, even the cross species feeling of empathy can be explained that way: When species, who have to live together and share a common ecosystem, don’t threaten each other or even support each other, they will all together have an easier time, they will more likely survive.

Unfortunately though there are many species who’s empathy is very limited and who like to kill and eat their fellow animals. They are called predators and carnivores (meat eaters). In fortunate circumstances they will find enough prey but not wipe out their prey. In fortunate circumstances an ecological balance will establish itself.

In less fortunate circumstances the predators will clear out all prey species and after eliminating their food source they will die of starvation. The prey species may have had essential ecological functions, like diminishing aggressive plants, and these plants will start overgrowing everything else. In the end the ecological system will collapse.

The Garden of Eden may have existed or may still exist in some heads, but it never existed on earth. Predators attack and kill other animals and are causing indescribable pain. All creatures, even the strongest and most ferocious ones die eventually, most die painfully — palliative care is not widely used in the animal kingdom.

Humans are very flexible and adaptive, this is the reason why we rule the world. Our brain is flexible (brain plasticity) and we can choose to grow and expand our feeling of empathy or suppress, reduce, eliminate it. Our digestion is flexible too. We are omnivores, we can choose to be herbivores (plant eaters) or carnivores (meat eaters). We can choose to be predators or to live in peace with our fellow animals, we can choose to feel or not to feel empathy.

We cannot only choose to be predators, to be carnivores, and feel no empathy, we can even choose to prey on our own kind and not feel any empathy for our fellow humans. Due to the magic of brain plasticity humans are able to completely eliminate feelings of empathy and to become the most ferocious predators to themselves. Humans in general don’t eat fellow humans (because the bodies are severely contaminated with chemicals and not fit for consumption), but they exploit them, enslave them, torture them, poison their water, destroy their food — starving them to death. Human predators have killed more humans that any other predator species in history. Human predators are more dangerous than sharks, tigers, lions, bears, crocodiles, piranhas.

Do we honestly have a choice?

The word choice is used here for reason of convenience and intelligibility/clarity though from a determinism point of view every decision is the result of genetic preconditioning and accumulated influences/experiences. The upbringing in a harmonious family, the combined life experiences and influences by humanistic ideology together with an above average number of mirror neurons will for instance very likely lead to the choice not to prey, to follow the feeling of empathy, to help fellow humans as well as animals in every possible way.

A below average number of mirror neurons, growing up in a dysfunctional family, an education based on ideals of competition and financial success, growing up in a conflicted, unjust, unequal society, influenced by racism, fascism, exceptionalism, will very likely lead to the choice of preying on other people and suppressing or ignoring feelings of empathy.

Set aside the genetic predisposition, education. and combined influences; could there be any rational argument made for not being a predator?

Yes, there are several striking arguments:

Human predators don’t fulfill any necessary ecological function.

A society dominated by predators is a cruel and dangerous place to be.

Predators occasionally prey on themselves, predators have to watch their back.

Predators will never experience the superb feeling of making other people happy.

When predators become old and feeble, they often fall prey to their peers.

Predators wreck society and nature and they destroy the planet.

Predators cannot enjoy the unique, wonderful feeling of love.


Human predators are also called:

Talk show hosts
Mass murderers
Military leaders


More infos about and examples of empathy: www.peta.org

One comment

  1. Thank you for your insight.


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