Understanding Others in an Alienating World: Comments on Lori Gruen's Entangled Empathy


Is moral theory alienating? This question, and the worries that lie behind it, motivate much of Lori Gruen's distinctive approach to animal ethics in Entangled Empathy. According to Gruen, the “traditional” methods of moral theory rely on abstractions that strip away the details that give our lives meaning. Although I am deeply sympathetic to these worries, as well as to the alternative ethics Gruen proposes in response to them, in this article I express a few reservations about the argument Gruen uses to motivate her worries and to establish her solution. First, I raise some questions about her conception of “traditional” moral theory and the possible historical figures she means to indict. I then suggest that the principal gear of her argument—her conception of “entangled empathy”—suffers from some inconsistency in application, which risks leading her to posit a thicker notion of empathy than she should want. In particular, her argument risks setting a standard of correctness for “successful” empathy that is implausible on its own terms, but that is also a standard of correctness with morally and politically questionable implications in the human context.

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