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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

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

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.