As conventionally defined, compassion is the awareness of the suffering of all sentient beings, accompanied by the desire to alleviate that suffering. In The Compassionate Mind scientist and compassion researcher Dr. Paul Gilbert writes: “Compassion can be defined in many ways, but its essence is a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it.” It is a fact of biology and a matter of pure common sense that both animals and humans possess the capacity to suffer. Just like us, animals strive to avoid pain. Their reactions to pain and confinement, though not expressed in spoken language as we understand it, are easily recognizable as suffering. Since the capacity of non-human animals to suffer is analogous to our own, it is hard to justify denying compassion to them. Any definition of compassion that does not encompass all sentient beings is therefore incomplete.
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in the essay On The Basis of Morality (Über die Grundlage der Moral) published in 1840 “Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” The sense in which Schopenhauer intended the word “universal” is made clear by the preceding line: “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity.” Both modern day scientist Gilbert and eighteenth century philosopher Schopenhauer explicitly include animals in their definition of compassion. Animals possess all the traits that we relate to the right to compassion and moral consideration: sentience, intelligence, the ability to form social and familial bonds, and sensitivity to pain.
If one accepts that compassion, in order to be true compassion, must involve consideration for and a desire to alleviate the suffering of all animals, both human and non-human, then it naturally follows that one must not abuse or mistreat them. This point seems too obvious to need articulating, but if we accept it, then we must also embrace the corollary notion that abusing animals by proxy is equally incompatible with a compassionate existence. In other words, it will not do to merely refrain from direct acts of abuse or violence toward animals; we must also withdraw our support, both morally and practically, from those enterprises, that lead to the abuse and the oppression of other sentient beings. For is there an appreciable difference, either morally or practically, between committing an act of violence oneself and paying someone else to do it on one’s behalf?
Though in the latter case, one is not the direct agent of the violence, one is nonetheless equally culpable and complicit in it. No amount of distance between a person and the act of violence that he has paid or induced someone else to perform on his behalf will extricate him from the moral implications of the deed itself. Commissioning an act of violence is the moral equivalent of committing it. As the English writer and social reformer Henry Stephens Salt stated in Volume III of his Humanitarian Essays, “The ignorance, carelessness, and brutality are not only in the rough-handed slaughterman, but in the polite ladies and gentlemen whose dietetic habits render the slaughterman necessary. The real responsibility rests not on the wage slave, but on the employer. ‘I’m only doing your dirty work’, was the reply of the Whitechapel butcher to a gentleman … ‘It’s such as you makes such as us.’”
That the production of meat, eggs, and dairy involves tremendous suffering on the part of tens of billions of animals every year is both inescapable and incontestable. To take just one example, in the United States alone, eight-billion chickens are slaughtered for human consumption every year. That amounts to twenty-three-million chickens every twenty-four hours, or two-hundred and sixty-nine chickens who are slaughtered every single second of every single day. By the time you finish reading this sentence, more than a thousand chickens in the United States alone will have had their throats slit in order to satiate the gastronomic preferences of human beings.
A diet that includes meat, eggs, and dairy supports violence and cruelty on an enormous scale, and is thus incongruent with the aspirations to lead a compassionate existence. Buying animals products is supporting an industry that harms animals on a daily basis, helping that industry thrive. For how can we cultivate concern for the suffering of others and aspire to alleviate that suffering while at the same time demanding that sentient beings by the billions sacrifice every trace of their liberty and pay with their very lives for our sensory pleasure and the caprices of our palates? Eating animals is not a matter of survival for us – it is possible to lead a healthy, balanced, vegan diet – but it is a matter of life or death for them.
The cultivation of compassion requires that we be mindful of our intentions. Mindfulness of this kind requires constant effort and although lapses of attention are inevitable, mealtime should not provide three opportunities a day to disengage mindfulness and insulate oneself from the suffering of others. Quite the opposite. Whenever we sit down to eat, we are making a choice: either to alleviate suffering or to perpetuate it – either to reduce harm or to cause it. If we are motivated by compassion, or at least the desire to not do harm, the choice is clear.
Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality and those of us concerned with cultivating compassion in ourselves and in others mustn’t allow our notion of “universal” to be restricted to our own species. Extending our circles of compassion to all sentient beings means leading a vegan life-style.
Eric Walton is an activist, writer, performer, and photo-journalist. His writing has been published in American Vegan Magazine, Soho Life Magazine, and on the Lincoln Center Institute blog. His photographs have appeared on the pages of the Village Voice, Metro News, the New York Daily News, and the New York Times. He is also the founder of Vegan Future Now, a grass-roots organization dedicated to vegan advocacy, education, and culture. He took Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training at Tibet House in the spring of 2014.