There are a couple horses that live near our house and hang out in the pasture by the road. Occassionally my kids will comment on whether they look happy, sad, hungry, cold or even bored. When they saw the horses while it was snowing, they worried they were too cold. If we drove by while the horses were standing by the fence just looking at cars, they assumed they were happy. And if they were eating in the pasture, they wondered if they had enough food.
They also wondered if they ever got sick of eating grass and weeds or if they ever aspired to be in a horse race. My 6 year old wondered aloud if they would be happier if they had Netflix. My kids were trying to have empathy for these horses but it’s hard for them to know what a horse is really feeling because they see things through the lens of their own experience.
In some ways, it’s much easier to have empathy for another person than it is for an animal. If we see someone out walking down the street during winter with no coat, we can be reasonably sure that they are cold. We can be sure because we have been in that same situation before or know what it’s like to be a human and be cold. Horses, obviously, are not humans. Unlike humans they have evolved for temperate climates to grow a heavier coat when winter approaches. And while horses do get cold at some point, they are much more comfortable outdoors in the winter than we are. So when we see horses in 38 degree weather, we see cold horses but they are probably just fine.
ACTIVE EMPATHY FOR ANIMALS
In a previous post, I talked a little bit about how the example of Thomas Nagel’s empathy for a spider was born of good intentions but probably ended up getting it killed. We may never be able to completely empathize with animals or arachnids for that matter, but I believe it’s something humans should continue to do. I decided to perform some exercises of active empathy with my kids. Here’s what we did:
Create Animal Profiles
Have your kids select 2 different animals. Animals from diverse habitats are a good idea for this exercise. For example, a dog, a fish or a bird would be a good choice since their experience in the world appears to be very different from each other. With each of the chosen animals, have your kids create a profile for them.
- On a separate piece of paper for each animal, have them label and draw a picture of it. Leave room at the bottom (or the back as well) to write a profile.
- List 3 or more things that might make this animal happy. For example, if the animal is a dog you might list frequent walks.
- List 3 or more things that might make this animal stressed out or scared. Try not to list overly-obvious things like taking water away from a fish. Better things to list might be taking a fish from it’s native waters or putting it in undersized fish tank.
- Describe how the animal might view the world. For example, a bird might see things from high in the sky or a dog would frequently be looking up at people.
- Either write a short paragraph or verbally explain what the best day for this animal would look like. Make sure they are paying extra attention to having active empathy about what the animal would like and not we as humans think they would like. For example, we might think a dog or cat would love their owners to give them hugs all day. The truth is that we love to hug animals but dogs and cats merely tolerate it (and in the case of cats, they may not tolerate it at all).
Mimic Your Animals
Now it’s time for them to get on all fours or on their bellies and mimic their animals. Do the best you can to experience what life might be like from their perspective (be safe–don’t climb any trees to experience what a bluejay sees).
- If you have an animal in the house, kids can shadow the animal for a little while (this might annoy the cats). We tried to get an idea how a parakeet might feel living in a cage by looking through the slats on the back of a chair. If you don’t have animals in the house, kids can mimic the animals in their profiles.
- Using a phone, let you kids video how an animal might move around the house or their habitat. If they chose a lizard, scurry around on your belly; a snake, try and slither. For a bird, you might get on Google Maps and zoom in on your house to get a bird’s eye view.
Do Humans Have Obligations To Animals?
There are some harder philosophical questions about what our moral responsibilities are towards animals. The idea of animal rights is often contentious. Those who argue against animals having rights say that rights belong only to moral agents. The argument contends that animals cannot act morally but only out of instinct–they lack the higher order of thinking found only in humans.
When you start picking at this argument, you can start by looking at animals such as primates who have demonstrated the ability to think. The literature about chimpanzees, for example, is showing more and more that they have capacity for information-seeking and can think about problems before acting.
So while it still seems absurd to extend animals similar rights such as the freedom of speech, there is a valid question of whether they have some set of natural rights. And with this comes a great set of moral and philosophical questions that even kids can think about. I did tread lightly with my 8 & 10 year old and didn’t want to send them into a tailspin about how awful people can be to animals. Here are some of the questions we discussed:
- Do we have an obligation to treat animals kindly? What should happen to people who are hurtful or abusive to animals?
- Do animals have a right to live? Do humans have a right to kill animals? If so, under what conditions (e.g. self-defense, when it is the only food options, or sport)?
- What are some ways you think people misunderstand what animals want or need? What types of animals are the most misunderstood?
- If we have a responsibility to not kill or hurt animals, how far does this extend? If it’s not ok to hurt a dog, what about a bird? What about a spider in the house? What about when we walk down the street and just can’t keep track of the bugs and insects that we might step on? (My 8 year old really tackled this question hard. What she came up with was that we were morally responsible to not kill any living thing that we could be aware of. So she was absolved of inadvertant ant-stepping but decided that scary spiders in the house should be captured alive and then released outside.)
Here are a few other questions that we didn’t actually get to.
- Is it ok to eat animals? If so, what should the rules be about how they live and are slaughtered?
- If it’s not ok to eat animals and everybody stopped eating them, far fewer cows, pigs and chickens will be born? Is there value in their lives even if they will eventually be killed for people to eat?
The phrases: moral rights for animals, animal rights, ethical treatment of animals all carry with them political tones. The purpose of this exercise is not to be political but to really step back from it and try to give kids the ability to honestly evaluate how they should treat animals in their lives. Giving them some freedom to come to their own conclusions can be extremely empowering to them. And if you’re lucky, you might even get your child a little more willing to change a litter box.