Some vegans watch Earthlings or Meet Your Meat and go vegan overnight, but most vegans went vegan slowly. I’ve long believed that the path most vegans arrive at veganism – the path that begins with reducing or eliminating consumption of mammals and then extends to birds and then to sea creatures and then extends beyond flesh to milk and eggs – is a path that follows a natural or logical progression of empathy extending out from our own kind to those who are similar to us.
That is, it is common for humans to feel some empathy for cats, dogs, dolphins, horses, rabbits and other mammals like cows and pigs. Some people act on that empathy by eating only certain types of animals that they think of as dissimilar to humans (such as chickens or fishes). Some people act on that empathy by eating only animals who have been treated according to certain “humane” standards. Vegetarians extend the empathy and choose not to eat animal flesh. Vegans extend that empathy to reach all sentient species and refrain from intentional and unnecessary harm to them.
But what gets someone who cares about animal suffering to make the leap into veganism?
A recent study on empathy compared omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans. The study looked at the brains of vegans and nonvegans while showing them images of human and animal suffering. Among other findings, they discovered “a distinctive pattern of empathic response and emotional control in vegans.”
“while omnivores are characterized by a greater activation of the bilateral posterior MTG during both human and animal negative valence scenes, vegetarians and vegans have constantly an higher engagement of empathy related areas while observing negative scenes, independently of the species of the individuals involved” [...]
“Collectively, our results reveal that distinct brain responses are evoked by emotionally significant pictures of humans and animals in people with vegetarian and vegan feeding habits, as well as between vegetarians and vegans, suggesting that different motivational factors might underlie their preferences and moral attitudes.”
What can a vegan advocate learn from this? The take-away, as I see it, is that nonvegans think differently than vegans. We don’t just have different beliefs, habits, education, resources, etc. though we may have those, too; we literally process the knowledge of others’ suffering differently. We literally think about animal suffering differently than omnivores.
Hence, if we want to effectively advocate for animals, we can’t rely solely on the reasoning that is most compelling to us. Nonvegans don’t think like us. So we must include discussions that appeal to nonvegans. We must find ways to encourage animal rights that fit into nonvegans’ paradigms.
Hat tip: vegan.com