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Week 3: Radical Empathy

“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” 

– Jeremy Bentham (1789)


Should we care about non-human animals? We'll show how it can be important to care impartially, rather than ignoring weird topics or unusual beneficiaries.


We'll also cover expected value theory (which helps when we're uncertain about the impact of an intervention), and give some ideas for how we could improve the lives of animals that suffer in factory farms.


Key concepts from this session include:

  • Impartiality: helping those that need it the most, only discounting people according to location, time, and species if those factors are in fact morally relevant.

  • Expected value: We’re often uncertain about how much something will help. In such circumstances, it may make sense to weigh each of the outcomes by the likelihood that they occur and pick the action that looks best in expectation.

  • The importance (and difficulty) of considering unusual ideas: Society’s consensus has been wrong about many things over history (e.g. the sun circling the Earth, the morality of slavery). In order to avoid making similar mistakes, we need to be open to considering unusual ideas and moral positions, while still thinking critically about the issues and acting cooperatively with others.

Required Materials

Impartiality and radical empathy:

Expected value


The case for caring about animal welfare:


Strategies for improving animal welfare

Exercise (10 mins.)

This session’s exercise is about doing some personal reflection. There are no right or wrong answers here, instead this is an opportunity for you to take some time and think about your ethical values and beliefs.


A letter to the past (10 mins.) 

This exercise asks you to explore what it would take to change your mind about something important.


Imagine someone from the past who held views characteristic of that time. Also imagine, for the sake of the exercise, that this person is not too different from you - perhaps you would have been friends. Unfortunately, many people in the past were complicit in horrible things, such as slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia, which were even more prevalent in the past than they are now. And, sadly, this historical counterpart is also complicit in some moral tragedy common to their time, perhaps not out of malevolence or ill-will, but merely through indifference or ignorance. 


This exercise is to write a short letter to this historical friend arguing that they should care about a specific group that your present self values. Imagine that they are complicit in owning slaves, or in the oppression of women, people of other races, or sexual minorities.


For the sake of this exercise, imagine your historical counterpart is not malevolent or selfish, they think they are living a normal moral life, but are unaware of where they are going wrong. What could you say to them to make them realize that they’re doing wrong? What evidence are they overlooking that allows them to hold their discriminatory views? You might want to write a few paragraphs or just bullet points, and spend time reflecting on what you write.

More to explore

An expanding moral circle?

The case for caring about animal welfare

Reforming animal agriculture

  • Dominion - Dominion uses drones, hidden and handheld cameras to expose the dark side of modern animal agriculture.  (Film - 2 hours)

    • Content Warning: Much of the film here can be extremely disturbing and includes graphically violent footage of factory farming. Please make sure to watch this in a moment without e.g. any upcoming deadlines or important meetings the same day. We include it because we think it’s important to really see how broken the world is.

  • Food impactsa tool to explore the moral impact of different dietary choices. 

  • A New Agricultural Revolution (~22 mins. and transcript available; Q&A after Friedrich’s talk is optional)

Wild animal welfare

Criticism of EA-related animal welfare work

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