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'The Empathic Civilization': Why Animals Deserve Our Empathy Too

A much-needed paradigm shift in how we view other animals and ourselves brings hope and life to our dreams for a more compassionate, empathic, fair, and peaceful planet in which social justice prevails.
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A number of recent books in addition to Jeremy Rifkin's "The Empathic Civilization" have been concerned with the importance and prevalence of human empathy. These include Dacher Keltner's "Born To be Good," D. Keltner et al. "The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness," and Frans de Waal's "The Age of Empathy."

Given my own background in animal behavior and cognitive ethology, I've written about empathy and its relationship to fairness and moral behavior from the nonhuman animal's (animal's) point of view in "The Emotional Lives of Animals," "The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons For Expanding Our Compassion Footprint," and with Jessica Pierce in "Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals." These books show that the competitive "nature red in tooth and claw" paradigm doesn't accurately reflect the way in which animals interact, and that we truly can be called Homo empathicus with clear evolutionary roots of our own empathic behavior present in other animals. Charles Darwin also believed that animals, like humans, could be emotional, empathic, and moral beings. He suggested that human morality is continuous with similar social behavior in other animals. What we now know about animal emotional and moral intelligence must factor into how we treat other beings. Rifkin touches on these topics in a number of places (for example, pp. 90ff and pp. 467ff). Here I briefly expand on them.

Many animals are far more empathic and fair than many people realize. Even mice are empathic beings and capuchin monkeys and domestic dogs expect to be treated fairly. Individuals who are short-changed during a bartering transaction by being offered a less preferred treat refuse to cooperate with researchers.

My own long-term research shows that one of the clearest places to see specific social rules incorporating fairness and empathy is in animal play. By studying the details of social play in domestic dogs and wild canids (members of the dog family) we may learn a lot about the evolution of human empathy and fairness and discover behaviors that hint at the roots of human morality.

Although play is fun, it's also serious business. When canids and other animals play they use actions such as vigorous biting, mounting and body slamming that could be easily misinterpreted, so it is important for them to state clearly what they want and expect. Animals at play are constantly working to understand and follow the rules and to communicate their intentions to play fairly. They fine-tune their behavior on the run, carefully monitoring the behavior of their play partners and paying close attention to infractions of the agreed-upon rules. Four basic aspects of fair play in animals are: Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play. Animals who don't play fair often find themselves excluded from their group and suffer high mortality. Thus, fair play and reproductive fitness may be highly correlated. Violating social norms established during play is not good for perpetuating one's genes.

Fair play, involving empathy, can be understood as an evolved adaptation that allows individuals to form and maintain social bonds. Canids, like humans, form intricate networks of social relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain a stable society. Basic rules of fairness guide social play and similar rules are the foundation for fairness among adults. This moral intelligence, so evident in both wild canids and in domesticated dogs, probably closely resembles that of our early human ancestors. It may have been just this sense of fairness that allowed human societies to flourish and spread globally.

Animals must be factored into our raising global consciousness in a troubled and wounded world. The central theme of "The Animals' Manifesto" is that humans and animals are basically empathic, compassionate, and fair beings and that we can all do more to act on behalf of animals. In this book I develop the notion of the "compassion footprint." I show how we can expand our compassion footprint and wear smaller shoes and step lightly as we make every attempt to take better care of the animal beings with whom we share our planet. Empathy and fairness allow us to do what needs to be done to heal the conflicts we have with other animals and amongst ourselves.

A much-needed paradigm shift in how we view other animals and ourselves brings hope and life to our dreams for a more compassionate, empathic, fair, and peaceful planet in which social justice prevails. We can make positive change as an empathic collective that will help other animals and us.

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