The Value of Empathy

Photo courtesy of ABC News, accessed 9/23/2016

I read an article today by UCLA professor Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., that was sent out to everyone within the UCLA hospital community. The article was excellent and reminded me why I changed the way I eat, live, and treat others. It talked about how we as humans should learn from animals how to treat others with empathy.  I encourage you to read it. The article inspired me to write my own blog post again, so after a nearly one year hiatus, here I go!

In explaining my reasons for following a plant-based diet, I have noticed that people seem to place more value in certain ideas. The concern that animal farming is deleterious for the environment is understandable to people. Animal farming contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than all the transportation in the world combined. It pollutes fresh water sources, oceans, and leads to deforestation and destruction of vital ecosystems.

People also understand the health advantages of following a plant-based diet. Animal products cause a cascade of inflammation in the body, which over time and with many insults can lead to multiple diseases. Modern Western diets are implicated in causing our modern Western diseases which drastically lower quality of life, lead to early deaths, and increase healthcare costs. Contrast this with plant-based products, which are generally anti-inflammatory and prevent and even reverse disease.

But when I mention animal rights, people seem to write me off quickly. They either “don’t want to know about it” because they love the taste of bacon, burgers, cheese, etc., or they don’t think it’s valid- why should an animal’s feelings interfere with a human’s diet?

I admit that there was a time when I barely gave a second thought to how the animal I was eating might have felt. The reasons were a combination of ignorance and disconnect between a suffering sentient living being with the delicious meat on my plate. I was guilty for a long time of choosing not to think about these things and ignoring any information I heard or read. Doing so indirectly led to the deaths and suffering of countless animals. I didn’t really think about empathizing with animals.

Empathy is one of the most valuable things I learned during my education. In middle school, I remember learning about the suffering of the poor and homeless. In high school I was exposed to my fellow students, people of color,  talking about navigating through systemic racism and facing discrimination in their daily lives. In college I learned about the killing of Southeast Asian and African people and the exploitation of their land by colonizing Europeans. I also learned about the rampant discrimination against people with AIDS, especially in the early years of the epidemic. In my Master of Public Health program, I studied the links between race, socioeconomic status, and physical and mental health. In medical school, treating indigent populations with poor access to healthcare in New Orleans showed me the extent of health inequalities and how to put another human’s needs above those of myself and my future family. Through these examples and many more, I learned about injustices in the world and how I could help, even if just a little, by educating myself, empathizing with others, and acting in accordance with my values.

Several years ago I realized that I needed to expand these principles to animals. Animals cannot speak our language, but that does not make them inferior or unworthy of our empathy.  Instead, they are more vulnerable to our actions. We share the earth with them, and our capacity for compassion should include them. Human power – our technology and our weapons – should not be used to harm others or our planet, but should be used to improve the earth and protect those without the same power. The definition of sentience, according to Wikipedia, is “the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.” Animals have their own families, social structures, intelligence, and emotions. Many animals inherently trust us and would not harm us. So why love one (like my dog) and kill another? That animal did not want to die, be experimented on, or exploited for human gains. Better options always exist. I would rather not contribute to the suffering of my fellow earthly citizens. It does not jive with the virtue of empathy.

People wonder if I feel limited by a plant-based diet in terms of convenience. Sure, that happens, but the more people who join this movement, the more our preferences will become the norm. They wonder if it was hard to “give up meat.” Yes, at first it was hard, but I got used to it. When one empathizes with and helps others, positivity is both sent into the world and felt within. Practicing something makes one better at it, and the same goes for compassion. My greater inner peace and my increased capacity for empathy far outweigh any inconvenience I may encounter.

I encourage everyone to expand their empathy, especially toward the most defenseless populations. Not only will you be helping others, but you will find a new sense of inner fulfillment.

I wish health, peace, and love to all of you.

Image courtesy of Country Living, accessed 9/23/2016
Image courtesy of Country Living, accessed 9/23/2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *