THE BLOG

Entangled Empathy: How to Improve Human-Animal Relationships

02/26/2015 06:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

Entangled empathy and a rescued rat

A new book by Wesleyan University philosopher Lori Gruen called Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals is a wonderful addition to a growing literature in the transdisciplinary field called anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships (the Kindle edition can be found on Amazon).

An interview I did with Professor Gruen lays out the basic foundation for her ideas about entangled empathy, a new and practical ethic for improving our relationships with nonhuman animals (animals) and also other humans. When I asked her to answer a few questions, in true form and to living up to her own deep connections with other animals, Professor Gruen wrote back to me, "OK at the vet with one of my rescued rats, will do this as soon as I get home!"

Why did you write your new book?

I have been thinking about and writing about and talking about empathy for a while. I was at a conference at Yale a year or so ago and many people came up to me after my talk wanting to learn more about entangled empathy. They were activists, and people who do hands on work caring for animals, and scholars from a variety of disciplines. So I decided to write a short, accessible book to help people rethink our relationships with other animals.

Can you briefly define what you mean by entangled empathy?

I think of entangled empathy as a process whereby we first acknowledge that we are already in relationships with all sorts of other animals (humans and non-humans) and these relationships are, for the most part, not very good ones. We then work to figure out how to make them better and that almost always means trying to promote well-being and flourishing. In the book I provide this definition: Entangled Empathy is a type of caring perception focused on attending to another's experience of well-being. It is an experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another's needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.

How does entangled empathy differ from other ideas about connecting with other animals and caring for them and doing something about these deep feelings?

Entangled empathy involves blending our feelings and our knowledge of the others with whom we are in relationship and focusing on their situations to try to figure out who we can improve our relationships in ways that they would also see as improvements. Entangled empathy is a particular type of relational attention.

I see entangled empathy as being much related to my own ideas about rewilding our hearts and the growing field called compassionate conservation. Do you agree?

I do agree. Your ideas about rewilding our hearts, a personal transformation process to get others to reconnect and become re-enchanted with nature, have been very instrumental in my thinking about new ways to understand our relationships with other animals, including humans. And, compassionate conservation, with its focus on the well-being of individuals, is another practice of entangled empathy that I want to write more about.

Is there anything else you'd like readers to get out of your excellent book?

One thing I think is crucial in our process of thinking differently about our relationships is to recognize that making those relationships better requires practice. There isn't a "one size fits all" solution. We need to continually learn more about ourselves and others to improve the lives of everyone. We will make mistakes, so we should always engage with a fair dose of humility, but also be hopeful that we can fix our mistakes and hone our empathetic skills.

Empathy begets empathy

I highly recommend Professor Gruen's new book because it will get people to think deeply about the nature of our relationships with other animals and because it also factors humans in the equation. There is no way in our complex, challenging, and truly magnificent world, that humans can be left out of solutions for improving the lives of other animals, although we are so often the cause for conflict with them and for trumping their interests in favor of ours.

I've argued many times that empathy begets empathy, so my hope is that when we come to realize, as Professor Gruen stresses, that we are already deeply and empathically entangled in the lives of many other beings without even knowing or feeling these close and reciprocal connections, we'll act on these feelings for the betterment of all. On a personal note, I've known Dr. Gruen for a long time, and from the very first time we met I could feel her deep concern for the well-being of all other beings. So, her new book came as no surprise to me. Neither did her telling me that she'd get to my questions after taking her rescued rat to the vet. Her note made me smile. Of course, the rat came first.

Entangled Empathy is a most valuable guide for doing something to make the world a better place for all beings based on our shared feelings. Its compact size allows it to fit easily in backpacks, purses, and pockets, and I've been carrying it around with me so that I can flip through it whenever I please. And, when I do so, I always get a new idea about what can and needs to be done to help others in need.

We all will benefit from allowing ourselves to feel and to act on our entanglement with other beings. It's really not all that difficult to help others who need to be cared for and loved. And, Dr. Gruen's most welcomed book, shows how easy it really is to help them along.