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Nonhuman empathy

Matt Jones jonesmat at ohsu.edu
Thu Feb 11 19:13:40 EST 1999

In article <79v3i5$49j$1 at news1.tc.umn.edu> Jason Ebaugh,
ebau0002 at tc.umn.SPAMNOT.edu writes:
>Saying "he gets nervous" is a little close to the line of
>anthromorphizing. But my observation is of behavior. He hides. Again,
>you have ideology on your side. To assume he has a blank mental life
>is as unsupported as to say he has a mental life. 

I sort of agree. One might say that you don't have enough information to
assign a particular mental state to your turtle because you don't have
shared experiences or whatever, but that argument can easily be applied
to any human interaction also. 

Imagine that you're walking in the park and you come upon someone holding
a gun on another person. You quickly reach a decision as to what's going
on, and you would probably say that you can empathize with the person
being held at gunpoint (they feel scared, angry, are trying to decide
whether to run or hand over their wallet, etc...). At this point few (I
think) people would deny that you had sufficient information to assign
mental states. OK, then just as you're about to run and get the cops, you
see that nearby there is a camera crew filming the scene. Now you realize
that you've stumbled onto a movie set, and no one is in any danger, and
maybe you feel kind of foolish for getting so excited.

Here's the question: did any empathy take place? You assigned mental
states to other people, in a way that was perfectly reasonable. You put
yourself in their position. But it turns out you were completely wrong,
and you were really acting on insufficient information.  But who cares?
It would be ridiculous to come upon a scene like that and immediately
conclude "Oh, this must be a movie set." Just like it is ridiculous to
see your turtle jump for cover and conclude "Oh, there must be some
explanation for that that doesn't involve being frightened or seeking
protection from a perceived threat." 

I guess my point is that empathy is in the eye of the beholder. You
assign certain mental states to your turtle because those are the states
you think you would have if you were the turtle. That's what empathy is,
and that's how we empathize with other human beings too. I don't really
hold with this "anthropomorphic fallacy" idea, because it's easy to show
that we're committing that "fallacy" even when we assign mental states to
other humans (even the term is rife with generalizations: why isn't it a
gyno-morphic fallacy?). 

Maybe I'm in the minority, as someone else suggested, but I think it's
preposterous (and dangerous) to suggest that animals (dogs and cats, for
example) don't feel pain or anger or jealousy.  Are we somehow chemically
priviledged that we have the machinery for those emotions, but cats don't
(the answer is no). Or is our brain organized in such a way that we can
somehow generate emotions through a feat of supreme mental computation,
whereas creatures with less cognitive and logical horsepower can't
(answer: no). Quite the contrary. The closer you are to being eaten, the
more acutely you're likely to feel emotion, which would put turtles
pretty much at the top of the list if it weren't for that shell.

Matt Jones

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