Making compassion easier

October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury – mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries – while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.

Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.

You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.

We are empathic beings – at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch – perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability – and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and – for many of us – probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one’s meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.

What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.

Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.

More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: al these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.

After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi.

3 thoughts on “Making compassion easier

  1. So true. Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, making compassion easier is so important. Thank you, I’m going to make it my new focus. The only thing I’ve ever pushed on people is the food – and it works – it really does. Give me a week in Dawkins’ kitchen and I’ll turn him!

    You mentioned the fact that we empathise with animals (apparently 97% of people). From an evolutionary perspective, why do you think that is? Why do we care? Why do we pour our precious assets and resources into (in the case of pets) members of other species? It can’t possibly increase our fitness, or can it? Any ideas? Could it be some sort of genetic misfiring? Are we mistaking them for kin? Do pets parasitise us, like cuckoos, exploiting our parental mechanisms? or is it a symbiotic/therapeutic relationship? Sorry, I’m a bit of a reductionist. I wonder if understanding the relative evolutionary psychology might me helpful to our cause?

    1. i haven’t read enough about that, but there’s certainly books and articles about cross speciesism altruism out there, so they may be able to answer that a lot better than i can. i’m no biologist, just someone who tries to think straight. personally i don’t need an answer to that question. there may exist some reductionist answer on that level, but i wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t 🙂

  2. Ok thanks for your time Tobias, I’ll keep looking. Maybe it’s selfish, but I find that reducing things eases my own mental pain.

    “The worst pain a man can have is to know much and be impotent to act” – Herodotus

    (not that we’re entirely impotent, but it sure feels like it sometimes :))

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