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Social scientists call on organizations that promote empathy and compassion to include animals

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Dr Melanie Joy, Dr Will Tuttle, Jeffrey Masson, Dr Jonathan Balcombe and Professor Casey Taft are among more than 30 leaders in social sciences who have signed an open letter urging institutions whose work focuses on empathy and compassion to overcome their blind spot when it comes to nonhuman animals.

Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, and the The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT are among a group of 12 organizations targeted in an open letter calling for them to include all sentient beings in their work and mission.

The letter, spearheaded by vegan Maryland-based psychotherapist and social worker Beth Levine, and including signatures from several luminaries in the animal advocacy movement, highlights ways in which cultural norms position nonhuman animals either as commodities to be exploited for our pleasure, or as having interests 'less than' those of humans. It also points out that these social norms negatively impact not only nonhuman animals, but ourselves and our societies.

"We know that compassionate action leads to happier, more fulfilling lives, as well as an increase in mental, emotional and physical well-being and contributes to a less violent world. Imagine how much happier and emotionally and physically healthy individuals would be and how much more peaceful society would be if we all expanded our moral consideration to include all animals, human and nonhuman," the letter says.

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Sentience is at the heart of our moral code of conduct, according to Levine. "Sentience means that individuals experience various emotions including pleasure, pain, and fear and is aware of what is happening to and around themselves," she says. "Unfortunately, despite the understanding that animals other than humans are sentient, the reality is that many humans treat nonhumans as things that we can do whatever we want with; use as resources, whether for food, clothing, entertainment, product testing, or vivisection."

Levine, who has worked in the field of mental health for over 20 years and who has a keen interest in intersectionality in social justice, believes organizations that promote empathy and compassion need to fight against these cultural norms that see animals as commodities to be exploited and include all sentient beings when promoting empathy and compassion.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you does not depend on race, gender, sexual orientation or species," she says. "If these organizations were true to their mission, they would be advocating that we treat all animals, human and nonhuman, as individuals whose lives matter to them."

The letter includes signatories from 33 leading social scientists in the US, UK and Australia, including:

  • Dr Melanie Joy, Professor, University of Massachusetts
  • Professor Casey Taft, Professor, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Dr Richard Ryder, psychologist, author, coined the term 'speciesism' in 1970
  • Dr Will Tuttle, author of The World Peace Diet
  • Dr Jonathan Balcombe, author of SecondNature: The Inner Lives of Animals
  • Nik Taylor, Associate Professor, School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University, Australia
  • Jeffrey Masson, author of When Elephants Weep
  • Dr Richard Twine, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences, Edge Hill University, UK
  • Dr David Nibert, Professor of Sociology, Wittenberg University, Ohio
  • Dr Carol L. Glasser, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Minnesota State University

The full text of the letter and signatories can be read here.