BUILDING A MEANINGFUL SOCIAL WORLD BETWEEN HUMAN AND COMPANION ANIMALS THROUGH EMPATHY
In memoriam Jean Harvey, amica
What kind of relationship do we have with our companion animals ? What facilitates this relationship, and does it help create a shared, common, meaningful world with our companion animals? In this chapter, I wish to examine the role that empathy plays in our understanding of companion animals. In particular, I draw upon the work of Edmund Husserl and Edith Stein on the question of Einfuhlung or empathy, as this body of work has garnered wider attention over the last decade.1 Scholars who have employed the foundational studies of Husserl and Stein on empathy generally agree that empathy works across species, that is, humans can carry out empathic acts that allow them to understand the minds of other animals: empathy permits human beings to understand the minds of animals through a kind of trading of mental places or an “introjecting” of themselves into the place of the other nonhuman animals, giving them access to the content of their minds but also facilitating an awareness of their emotional states, for example, whether animals are suffering or in pain. One can understand the mind of the other insofar as it is analogously similar to one’s own mind and vice versa. Empathy as a conscious act, however, whether exercised between humans or between humans and animals, has limits: we can never know perfectly or identify completely with the mind of the other, be it human or animal.
Philosophers extend the intentional analysis of Husserl and Stein, arguing that if empathy is possible between humans and companion animals, we understand that animals do suffer, and hence they should be extended care and protections, because they are conceived as moral subjects who suffer like human beings.2 Further questions also arise: How much like human beings are companion animals? And how similar is (or should be) their moral status to that of human beings ? What does empathy suggest is owed to them?
If we pay close attention to Stein’s analysis of empathy, however, we discover not only that empathy allows us to understand some things about other minds, including the minds of our companion animals, but also that empathy allows us to build a social world together constituted by a meaningful relationship of intersubjectivity. In this social world, empathy allows us to share an understanding of history, ritual, play, and even language. What, then, would a common social world between humans and companion animals look like? Drawing on Husserl and Stein, I argue that a shared social world with companion animals would have to include the following elements: a shared sense of a built environment, a common language, which includes speech but also gesture and bodily expression, a shared value system, and a rich common affective life. Empathy is foundational for creating larger social worlds between humans and companion animals where particular bonds of meaning, shared space, value, and togetherness manifest themselves.