"Empathy and Justice Beyond the Human," Lori Gruen, Chair & Professor of Philosophy, Wesleyan University, 1960s Scholars Program Lecture

On March 5th, students and faculty gathered in Griffin Hall to listen to author, professor, scholar, and activist Lori Gruen present her Class of 1960 Scholars Lecture entitled “Justice and Empathy Beyond the Human.” Gruen is a leading scholar in Animal Studies and Feminist Philosophy, currently working as Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. She is also a Fellow of the Hastings Center for Bioethics, was a Faculty Fellow at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Animals and Public Policy, is a fellow of the Brooks Animal Studies Academic Network and was the first and founding chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan. Her primacy focus is on ethical and political issues that impact overlooked communities. In her 1960 Scholars Lecture, she focused on the importance of relationships between humans and nonhumans, and discussed the vital role of empathy in the cultivation of these relationships. Her talk aimed to shift a fundamental ethical frame from a focus on individualistic ideas of obligations to a focus on relationships with animals and the ecosystem that we all share. 

Gruen began her talk by drawing the connection between animals and human problems. She discussed the ways in which the actions humans take against another are, in many ways, based on performing the same kinds of actions to animals. She then shifted to a broader discussion of “who is a subject of justice.” Gruen began by explaining the ways in which our world is fraught with hierarchies, but then explained the many ways in which animals are similar to humans and thus should be treated as equals. Chimpanzees, for example, use tools, manipulate their environments, solve physical and social problems, use symbols, create relationships, use language, and are similar to us in morally salient ways. 

Gruen acknowledged the widely-held concern that attempting to assimilate animals to a human-centric framework is odd, and urged her audience to focus on relationality between animals and humans. Relationships are important to animals and humans alike; they co-constitute who we are.  “We must improve our own self conception and be more perceptive and responsive to the deeply entangled relationships that we are in,” said Gruen. “This is at the heart of how we should think about relationships.”

Gruen then discussed her book Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals, which focuses on the ways in which our relationships with animals must be predicated on a deeper understanding of the other. This, she says, can be achieved through the non-linear process of entangled empathy.

Much of Gruen’s research focuses on chimpanzees, and she was sure to sprinkle anecdotes about her chimpanzee friends throughout her lecture. Her talk concluded with an insightful Q&A session regarding AI, the importance of plants, and more!