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Compassion and Action

What is the source of ethics, action, and motivation? The answer depends on one’s theory of nature. Are human beings rational and logical beings, or primarily affective and instinctual in nature? Are we primarily of a thinking essence or animalic products of a long evolutionary history? Much is at stake for how we answer these questions conditions how we seek to influence ideas and stimulate action about animal rights.

This human nature debate has been waged throughout the history of philosophy, and much of the Western tradition has argued that we are essentially rational beings and our passions and bodies are accidental to our essence, or even are obstacles to overcome on the path toward truth. For philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, abstract reason is the touchstone of human existence and the key criterion that separates us from animals. Like Christianity, philosophy and science have supplied human beings with a false anthropological identity by emphasizing the uniqueness of our soul or reason. Ethics too was typically defined in abstract terms, and involved obedience to the rational structures of reality, to the eternal natural laws that allegedly govern the cosmos.

But ethics cannot be considered apart from evolutionary theories that locate the origins of moral life in animal communities and in feelings rather than reason. In evolutionary terms, reason is the last player to arrive on the scene and the logical mind reflects on ethics well after the formation of rule-governed communities. As Frans de Waal demonstrates in books such as Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, ethical behavior begins at least with primate communities, and extends thereafter into human life.

In both the history of the species and any individual within it, convictions of right and wrong emerge through sympathy and empathy within close family and community settings, and moves toward what Peter Singer calls an “expanding circle” of concern. It is with some irony then that there is controversy in extending moral considerations to the very animal world from which moral feelings and actions first derived.

Since at least Pascal, Hume, and Rousseau, there has been a movement in ethical theory to root the origins of ethics in primordial feelings such as sympathy and empathy. Not reason and logic, but passion and compassion are the spark of ethical life. Passion is feeling toward, about, or for something, and like the instincts it stirs human beings to action, one category of which is ethical behavior. But passion can be directed toward any goal or cause, be it love and universal community or hatred and racism.

Compassion is feeling with and/or for another sentient being; it is the primordial force that binds us to one another. Compassion is:

A response to the suffering of another sentient being
This occurs through empathetic identification with the other’s pain
Empathy creates a shared experience and emotional bond that shatters the perception of differences
Compassion thereby enjoins us to action and thus to become authentic moral agents and political beings.

In compassion we make direct contact with another, unmediated by any prejudice or distinction such as class, race, gender, or species; we expose ourselves and become vulnerable to the other’s pain. As Buddhism emphasizes, compassion is key to human enlightenment. Through empathy and action, we transcend the limitations of our ego and species perspectives, we grasp the unity and interconnectedness of all life, and we establish larger and richer identifications that expand our awareness and feeling.

The logic of compassion is universal and trans-species in scope, such that it makes no sense to declare oneself a compassionate person while arbitrarily drawing boundaries among sentient beings as to who is a proper object of one’s compassion and who is not.

One can read the entire history of humanity as an ethical awakening to the boundlessness of the moral community, as human beings slowly realize that ethics extends to all sentient beings that can suffer.

This is the story of our moral progress and humanization throughout time, and animal rights activists thereby play a cutting-edge role in advancing moral evolution. Without being too self-congratulatory, we do this in a way that directly relates to human beings themselves, as animal rights promotes compassion for all life, emphasizes the interconnectedness of the biocommunity, and strengthens the force of ethics per se.

Neither passion nor reason alone cannot provide an adequate rudder for ethics. As Ashley Montagu said, "An intelligence that is not humane is the most dangerous thing in the world." 18th century philosophy Immanuel Kant emphasized that nothing is good unless it is informed by the good will. Without the good will, all possible virtues such as intelligence can become vices if employed toward harmful use. But Kant mistook the good will as a rational capacity rather than a mode of compassion.

While perhaps a necessary condition of an adequate ethics, a good will or heart is not a sufficient condition, as compassion needs to be tied to reason. Devoid of reasoned consideration, moral theory, and critical reflection, feelings can easily go astray. Passion can easily be manipulated through poisonous ideologies such as racism and xenophobia. Compassion too is subject to manipulation, as one could be persuaded to have compassion for one group in opposition to another.

Moreover, an ethic rooted solely in feeling lacks the ability to justify values and thus opens one to the charge of arbitrariness. No one in this movement wants to find themselves in the unfortunate position of one of Socrates’ interlocutors who cannot explain why they uphold values such as justice to be right and true.

Ethics is not a matter of subjective choices and preferences. Reason justifies ethical choices as right or wrong, and the arguments informing animal rights are strong. One need only read Tom Regan’s book, The Case For Animal Rights, or witness who comes out on top in his book-length argument with Carl Cohen in The Animal Rights Debate.

Many people convert to animal rights out of intuitive or primordial compassion for animals. But reason too can be a motivating force. Many of us came to AR not through feelings, but rather through an educational and philosophical awakening, such as prompted in so many by Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. Science too can prompt compassion and a paradigm shift through the evidence provided by cognitive ethology, which shows that animals do indeed suffer, and that like us they have complex psychological and social lives.

At the same time, we all have encountered people with closed minds and are unable to hear the facts about animal suffering or to become consistent about their alleged compassion (the ones who love animals but eat them). However we try to persuade, many people just don’t get it. Some have deep-seated, irrational barriers to considering a new or alternative view and cannot withstand the cognitive dissonance it might bring; others compartmentalize and illogically put domestic animals in the category of beings to love and pet and farmed animals in the category of beings to kill and eat. So we cannot deny that people have irrational psychological barriers to reconstructing their views about animals, and that there are limitations to reason as a motivating force.

To conclude, we need to overcome false distinctions between reason and emotions in ethical philosophy. We need a multidimensional ethics that uncovers the history of ethical sensibilities, that identifies the proper place of emotions in human action and motivation, that provides cogent reflections on what is right and wrong, and that supplies strong justifications for animal rights.

While it is crucial that we foster an ethics of care and reverence for all life, it is also imperative that we promote education, communication, and science. The 18th century project of enlightenment remains incomplete, but it will find its true fulfillment in the creation of a universal community of rights and compassion that transcends all imaginable prejudices.

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