On Moral empathy, animal suffering, family and friends

Elliot Teperman

The Animalist
Jul 24, 2017 · 13 min read

My auntie jokes that there’s beef in the lasagna halfway through my rant to my dad about why he is the modern equivalent of a slave-owner whilst my sister is yelling over all of us, arguing that we should relax because there’s no right or wrong anyway. Somehow, somewhere along the way, something clearly went wrong. The part I find hard about being vegan isn’t my diet, it’s the effect it has on my relationships. It’s because three times a day I am reminded that the people I care about don’t care about animal suffering in the same way I do, it’s when they try and convince me to eat animals, it’s that they don’t want to reduce their meat consumption, it’s that they might then make jokes at my expense, or worse, jokes about the animal on their plate, and are baffled when I get offended or upset.

I don’t seem to be the only vegan/vegetarian (from here on referred to as veg*an) who has these problems. Common reasons why people give up on veg*anism are because they feel isolated from their friends, it strains relationships, expectations of compromise and never ending, frustrating conversations about where we get our protein. These situations, when you and the other person are talking past each other, where they ‘just don’t get it!’, is what is called a failure of moral empathy. This article will explore moral empathy, why it’s often missing, and how to have a conversation with your omnivorous family and friends about moral empathy so that those around you understand where you are coming from better. This article is not about converting them, it is about building an empathetic and respectful relationship with each other.

What is moral empathy?

From what I can gather, barely anyone discusses moral empathy. I found one academic article by Ditto and Koleva (2011). Amanda Askell (2016) also has a blog post on moral empathy, which I think does a great job at describing the concept:

“Having moral empathy for someone doesn’t mean that you agree with their moral views: it just means you recognize that someone genuinely believes that something is morally right or wrong, even if you happen to think that they are incorrect, and that you treat their beliefs like genuine moral beliefs rather than mild preferences. I think that a failure to cultivate moral empathy is bad for two reasons: it causes us to harm people unnecessarily, and it prevents meaningful dialogue from happening between people who morally disagree.”

Let’s unpack the above definition with an example: washing your hands before a meal. If you are like my sister, you might like to have clean hands before eating food. If however, you are an Orthodox Jew, you are following a commandment given by an all-knowing and all-powerful God. My sister has a mild preference. The Orthodox Jew has a moral belief. Even though both people want the same thing (to wash their hands), it’s obvious that if they both didn’t get a chance they would be upset in a very different way. Importantly, you yourself don’t have to believe that Jewish commandments were given by God to understand that the orthodox Jew has a moral belief and not a mild preference. This part is key, I can think that my sister is being perfectly reasonable in her request for water for hygiene, and that the Jewish person is wasting water because of a superstition, and STILL recognise that to deny the request of the Jewish person, offends them in a moral way. This is moral empathy.

Armed with this definition, we can see how a failure of moral empathy underlies a lot of the problems veg*ans have with family and friends. Often, family and friends mistake a moral belief for a mild preference. This might explain why they don’t get why hiding beef in the lasagna upsets you in a way that is very different to hiding olives in the lasagna if you dislike olives. It also explains why they don’t understand why jokes about animal suffering tend to upset you so much. Or even how they don’t understand why you try to persuade other people to reduce their meat consumption. If your veg*anism was a mild preference in the same way as I prefer instrumental music, it really wouldn’t make sense as to why you’re so set on convincing everyone else.

And remember, poor moral empathy doesn’t just apply to other people. The first rule of psychology is that it applies to you. Try and think of what is at the heart of other people’s positions, especially the ones you reject the strongest, because it is these positions you are most likely to misunderstand or mistake for mild preferences. Askell uses the example of abortion. A lot of people who are pro-choice say “if you don’t like abortions, don’t have one”. I think this is a failure of moral empathy of the pro-choice camp. People who are pro-life think abortion is MURDERING BABIES. Imagine if someone who was pro baby murder told you “if you don’t like murdering babies, don’t do it, but don’t tell me what to do in my free time!” Now at this stage you might be yelling at the screen that this argument is flawed because abortion isn’t murder. Remember, moral empathy isn’t about agreeing with someone’s position; it is just about understanding that the person’s belief is moral for them. I can think that pro-lifers are completely wrong, and that their views cause a lot of suffering to women who are pressured not to get abortions, AND still recognise that their position against abortion is a moral belief and not a mild preference. Understanding that they have a moral belief means I might not go out of my way to tell them abortion jokes, or speak to them in ways that are mindful that they think abortion is murder.

Moral Empathy and Veg*anism

So back to veg*nism. I think there are a few reasons why omnivores have particularly low moral empathy towards veg*ns. First, there aren’t that many of us, people often haven’t considered why someone would cut out animal products. Someone asked me why I didn’t eat eggs since eggs weren’t sentient, never considering the life of the hen. However, not all minorities face this challenge. I think our society often has a good understanding of religious minorities’ moral beliefs. That’s why we have prayer rooms at airports, or why in Australia the only reasons you can ride a bike without a helmet are medical exceptions or if you wear a religious head dress. A lot of society doesn’t have this same view yet for veg*ns.

However, for veganism this might take longer than usual. Veg*ans make omnivores feel guilty. Everyone tends to think of themselves as a good person. People also tend to know that veg*ans think that eating meat is bad, and this makes everyone else feel uncomfortable. It threatens their sense of moral identity (the idea that I am a moral person). People are more likely to feel guilty about eating meat when they are reminded that they are eating a sentient animal (Bastian & Loughnan, 2016), or even from reading a story about a vegetarian (Rothgerber, 2014). Unfortunately, if omnivores feel guilty around vegetarians, they are more likely to engage in strategies to reduce that guilt. You can do this by arguing that what you’re doing isn’t really wrong because the animal doesn’t really feel pain or suffer (Rothgerber, 2014). Another strategy is to criticise the veg*ans themselves (MacInnis & Hodson, 2015). If you establish that those judgemental veg*ans are hypocritical, human-hating eco-terrorists, then their criticism can’t be valid, and you can eat meat guilt free. I think the other reason people are particularly bad at moral empathy with veg*ans is because these conversations often happen in the context of a debate or argument. Each side is trying to persuade the other. And once we get into a mode where we are both trying to win, it becomes incredibly unlikely that either of us will hear any truth in what the other is saying. I think the solution is about changing the way we have these conversations.

Starting a Conversation About Moral Empathy

So now we have a good understanding of moral empathy, and why our omnivorous family and friends often lack it. Unfortunately, understanding a problem doesn’t mean we’ve fixed it. So here is how I think you can increase moral empathy in those around you: explain moral empathy to them, like I have done to you. While explaining the topic, link it to personal examples such as causes of tension in your relationship. Highlight that veg*anism is a moral belief for you, not a mild preference. Here are some tips and suggestions, but they’re just suggestions so feel free to do what you think will work:

1. Make sure the conversation is one of collaboration, not warfare

a. If either of you become argumentative, it is much less likely that they will hear what you have to say.

b. You can stay open with something like “I want to try and explain something to you, and just to be clear, I am not trying to persuade you right now that eating meat is wrong or I am right, I am explaining this so you understand where I am at emotionally/so we fight less/so our relationship is less strained.”

c. These conversations might often make you angry, frustrated or sad. Try to tone down the anger or frustration, as these emotions often cultivate a confrontational or combative environment. Focus more on the sadness. Sadness is an emotion that cultivates sympathy and invites others to help you. If your family/friends see that the issue makes you sad, they are more likely to want to help.

2. Describe moral empathy in the abstract

a. Describe moral empathy like I did, as the ability to understand when people hold moral beliefs compared to mild preferences.

b. Highlight that this doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone’s view to recognise that for them it is moral.

c. Then describe how people often do poorly at moral empathy.

3. Describe moral empathy using an example you both disagree with

a. Use an example of recognising a moral belief that you both disagree with. This way you can demonstrate how you morally empathise with a belief you don’t hold. Some examples you could use:

i. Washing hands: as I described above

ii. Abortion: as I described above

iii. Taxation: Some libertarians or anarchists view taxation as theft. We can appreciate that a libertarian might refuse to pay taxes, not because they are selfish, but because they think it is wrong. We can think that the libertarian is foolish, and support laws that forcibly take his taxes anyway, all the while appreciating he thinks taxation is a moral wrong, not a mild preference.

iv. Killing plants: Some fruitarians believe that plants feel pain and therefore don’t kill plants. We can recognise that it would be cruel or insensitive to kill plants in front of a person or tease them about it, and recognise that killing plants is a moral issue for them, without having to believe anything they say is true.

4. Describe moral empathy using an example you both agree with

a. Now use an example where you both consider the same act to be moral/immoral. The purpose of this is to explore the similarities between how you both act and feel because of this moral belief, and how you act and feel because of your beliefs related to veg*anism.

i. The example can relate to animals such as dogfighting, eating dog meat, bullfighting, treating animals cruelly as part of a circus, etc.

1. For example, you could say: “Imagine living in a world where everyone goes to these circuses all the time, and everyone knows the animals are whipped and beaten and not only do they not care, but they tease you for avoiding circuses. When you try and convince them not to pay the circuses they reply “if you don’t like the circus don’t go, but don’t tell me what to do”. Of course, I’m not saying these example are identical, or trying to convince you that I’m right, I’m just trying to explain what it feels like for me in these conversations and why I act the way I do.”

ii. You could also use a human example if it works better, but be careful because the person may argue that you simply can’t compare humans and animals. However, if the person has a moral belief that is rare, or large parts of society reject this belief, it can be beneficial to use this example, because they will appreciate the lack of moral empathy they often receive. For my dad, the example is anti-semitism.

1. So I might say something like: “I am not saying anti-semitism and eating meat are the same thing, they are super different in many ways, but I think the way anti-semitism upsets you, eating meat upsets me. Imagine living in a country where everyone you knew was anti-semitic, and persecuted Jews a few times a day (eating meat at each meal). You would try to convince them it was wrong, and they would reply “if you don’t like anti-semitism don’t do it, but don’t tell me what to do”. Or they would tease you for sticking up for Jews, or tell you that racism was natural, and try and convince you to change.”

5. Bring it back to moral empathy and veg*anism

a. In the context of this new information, explain why you find some situations really hard such as:

i. Jokes about meat/animal cruelty that you are expected to find funny

ii. Get offended

iii. Find it hard when people you love eat meat

iv. Get very offended when someone hides animal products in food

v. Try to persuade people to go veg*an

b. Present this issue as a problem that you are trying to fix, the problem being a strain on your relationship. But you need help from them too, you need them to try and understand your position, not agree with it, just understand what you think and feel, and that this is a moral issue for you.

c. If you’re feeling brave, try to display moral empathy in return

i. Maybe recognise that for your 90 year old grandma, making christmas turkey for the family is a really big deal and something special (remember, you don’t have to agree with someone’s preference to recognise it is moral for them)

ii. Better yet, pick something that is a moral belief for them, but a mild preference for you (rather than a moral belief in the opposite direction for you).

iii. Humans like to reciprocate, so if you go out of your way to recognise the other person has a moral belief, and that you will try to be mindful in the future, they are more likely to want to do it for you.

6. General tips

a. Try to speak mainly about your feelings and the broad idea that you think animal suffering/factory farming/eating animals is bad. It’s more about that you think this is unethical and makes you upset. If you engage in specific reasons why it is wrong it feels more like persuasion and they are more likely to get defensive.

b. If at any stage the person you are speaking to tries to explain why your moral belief is wrong, gently guide it back to the purpose of the conversation

i. Family/friend: “but me being upset about anti-semitism is different to you and meat because humans have a more complex capacity to experience suffering so the analogy isn’t comparable”

ii. Me: “I know the analogy isn’t perfect, but I am not comparing the two to say that the harms are the same, but that they feel roughly similar, so that we can understand each other’s minds and feelings better”

c. How to bring up the conversation.

i. There are a few ways I can think of:

1. You can bring it up at a time when something has made you upset or frustrated.

2. You can bring it up out of the blue: “So I want to try and explain why i get upset/angry/frustrated/sad/etc when you make jokes about meat/don’t want to reduce meat consumption/try to convince me to eat meat/etc. I’m not trying to persuade you, but I just want you to understand what goes on in my head. Is now a good time?

3. It’s probably best not to bring it up when you are currently angry, in the middle of an argument, or the other person is already in defensive mode.

d. If there is a specific person you want to try this on such as a parent or partner, and it is important you get it right with them, have the conversation with some other people first to get a feel for it.

e. Good luck, I hope it goes well. If it doesn’t, that’s ok. Humans are hard to predict. Maybe it might take practice to get it right. Or maybe that person won’t empathise. Ever. That sucks, you tried your best and I’m sorry.

Final thoughts

While the purpose of this article is about your relationship with your meat-eating loved ones, the conversation might also have the indirect benefit of actually getting a few ideas across, because if someone who cares about you is empathising with you, they are seeing the issue for the first time emotionally from your side, rather than defensively from theirs. They might actually hear some of your arguments. I think these conversations probably played a role in my friends understanding why I struggle in certain situations, and in my mum reducing her meat consumption. That may not seem like much, but it matters a fair bit to me, and a whole lot to the animals spared. Don’t expect everyone to change after one conversation, it won’t happen. Be gentle to yourself, and try hard to maintain positive relationships, even if the person on the other side is particularly difficult. It’s more important that you pace yourself over decades than burn out over months. Good luck.


Askell, A. (2016). Vegetarianism, Abortion, and Moral Empathy. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://www.rationalreflection.net/vegetarianism-abortion-and-moral-empathy/

Bastian, B., & Loughnan, S. (2016). Resolving the Meat-Paradox: A Motivational Account of Morally Troublesome Behavior and Its Maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Review: An Official Journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868316647562

Ditto, P. H., & Koleva, S. P. (2011). Moral Empathy Gaps and the American Culture War. Emotion Review: Journal of the International Society for Research on Emotion, 331–332. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073911402393

MacInnis, C. C., & Hodson, G. (2015). It ain’t easy eating greens: Evidence of bias toward vegetarians and vegans from both source and target. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations: GPIR, 0(0), 1368430215618253. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430215618253

Rothgerber, H. (2014). Efforts to overcome vegetarian-induced dissonance among meat eaters. Appetite, 79, 32–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2014.04.003

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