Writing in the Guardian, Peter Singer, a leading figure in the animal rights movement, describes the confrontation between animal rights activists and researchers experimenting on animals:
"This situation has arisen, in part, because the animal research community holds an ethical view that the animal movement rejects. That view is, in essence, that animals are things for us to use, as long as we spare them unnecessary pain.
"The animal activists, on the other hand, reject the assumption that animals are inferior beings, and that their interests should always be subordinate to our own. They see this as ‘speciesism’ – a prejudice against beings that are not members of our own species, and similar in many respects to racist or sexist prejudices against beings who are not members of a dominant race or sex." (Singer, ‘Humans are sentient too’, The Guardian, July 30, 2004)
Singer notes the irony of scientists acting on the basis of an essentially Biblical version of the world. Genesis 1:28, after all, declares:
"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28, www.bibletools.org)
Darwin, by contrast, Singer notes, revealed an unplanned process of evolution – a process which provides no basis for assuming humanity should always take precedence over other animals. Singer roots his case for animal rights in a combination of objective fairness and compassion:
"As Jeremy Bentham wrote almost 200 years ago: ‘The question is not ‘Can they reason?’, nor, ‘Can they talk?’, but ‘Can they suffer?’"
The problem for Singer is that while science has helped challenge man’s ‘God-given right’ to exploit animals, it has also challenged the idea that animal suffering necessarily matters. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins writes:
"The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment." (http://www.world-of-dawkins.com/Catalano/quotes.shtml)
If we are merely "robot vehicles" produced by a random, godless universe, then restraint and compassion might be considered a freak of nature – a kind of ironic moral folly thrown up by selfish genes. In reality, the universe is supremely indifferent – the suffering of animal "robot vehicles" matters only if we choose to believe it does. If we choose to believe otherwise, who is to say we are wrong? By comparison, issues of human self-interest – health, longevity, pleasure, pain – are viewed as far more substantial and real, beyond mere subjective opinion.
Converting Pain Into Profit
A crude form of social Darwinism is certainly used to justify the ruthless operation of the greed-driven market economy. Unhindered economic ‘natural selection’ is said to emulate the natural world by ‘evolving’ more sophisticated technologies and societies, so generating wealth for all. It is understood that here, too, there is no place for ‘sentiment’ – efficiency is everything. Thus, the Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine in 1982:
"The modern layer is, after all, only a very efficient converting machine, changing the raw material – feeding stuffs – into the finished product – the egg." (Quoted, Danny Penman, The Price Of Meat, Gollancz, 1996, p.82)
And Hog Farm Management magazine:
"Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory. Schedule treatments like you would lubrication. Breeding season like the first step in an assembly line. And marketing like the delivery of finished goods." (Hog Farm Management, September 1976. Quoted, Peter Goering, Helena Norberg-Hodge and John Page, From the Ground Up, Zed Books, 1993, p.25)
The suffering that results from this reduction of feeling sentient beings to the status of unfeeling objects is beyond belief.
As noted above, people who feel compassion for the suffering of these and other animals are forever confronted by the ‘pragmatic’ challenge: compassion is all very well, but it is rooted only in the human mind, not in God-given morality, and so does not offer a serious challenge to the common sense priorities of profit, economic growth and national wealth. Typically, animal rights activists are met with a version of this response from the owner of a Dorset coarse fishing centre:
"If these people have a problem with what we do they should have the decency to come and speak to us and not threaten my family and our livelihood." (Quoted, Sandra Laville, ‘Lobster liberators boiling mad’, The Guardian, July 30, 2004)
From this point of view, compassion for animal suffering is seen as deluded and even immoral, involving the subordination of genuine self-interest to indulgent fantasy.
It is possible, however, to argue that the value of compassion and concern for others is rooted, not in divine authority, nor even in moral duty, but in enlightened self-interest.
Neuroplasticity And Pragmatic Compassion
The evidence is now overwhelming that the human brain continually changes as a result of experience. In his book, Destructive Emotions, psychologist Daniel Goleman notes that this ‘neuroplasticity’ has been observed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for example, in musicians:
"MRI studies find that in a violinist… the areas of the brain that control finger movement in the hand that does the fingering grow in size. Those who start their training earlier in life and practice longer show bigger changes in the brain." (Goleman, Disturbing Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.21)
Studies of top performers in a wide range of skills – from chess masters to Olympic athletes – have shown pronounced changes in the relevant muscle fibres and cognitive abilities. But there is much more.
Research conducted by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin recently studied brain activity in a European-born Buddhist monk, Oser, who had spent three decades meditating on compassion in the Himalayas.
Davidson’s research had previously found that people who have high levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain simultaneously report positive, happy states of mind, such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. Oser was asked to meditate intensively on compassion and then to relax after sixty seconds while being monitored by an fMRI magnetic imaging machine. Goleman describes the results:
"While Oser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function… In short, Oser’s brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an +extremely+ pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others’ well-being, it seems, creates a greater sense of well-being within oneself." (Goleman, ibid, p.12)
In another experiment, Davidson monitored the base-line state of left prefrontal cortex activity indicating normal everyday mood in 175 American individuals. Subsequently, he also monitored the base-line state of a ‘geshe’, an abbot, from one of the leading Buddhist monasteries in India. Davidson reports:
"Something very interesting and exciting emerged from this. We recorded the brain activity of the geshe and were able to compare his brain activity to the other individuals who participated in experiments in my laboratory over the last couple of years… The geshe had the most extreme positive value out of the entire hundred and seventy-five that we had ever tested at that point." (Goleman, ibid, p.339)
Davidson describes the geshe as "an outlier" on the graph – his reading was "three standard deviations to the left", far beyond the rest of the bell curve for positive emotion.
These findings support claims made by meditators over hundreds of years that compassion and concern for others are in fact the basis of human happiness. They also support the claim that human emotions such as compassion, love, anger and jealousy arise more intensively and more often, the more often we generate them.
It is important to understand the fundamental nature of the meditation in which Oser had been engaging. In Buddhist psychology, the word meditation has a very specific meaning. Here, the Dalai Lama explains:
"Meditation means creating a continual familiarity with a virtuous object [idea] in order to transform your mind. Merely understanding some point does not transform your mind. You may intellectually see the advantages of an altruistic awakening mind, but that does not actually affect your self-centred attitude. Your self-centredness will be dispelled only through constantly familiarising yourself with that understanding. That is what is meant by meditation." (The Dalai Lama, Awakening The Mind, Lightening The Heart, Thorsons, 1997, p.51)
In other words, repeatedly familiarising the mind with the suffering of others, and acting to remedy that suffering, has the effect of increasing the intensity and frequency of compassionate thoughts. The implications, as Buddhists have long claimed, and as science is beginning to confirm, are remarkable:
"If everything you do with your body, speech, and mind is done for the benefit of others, there is no need to do anything more for your own benefit because the one is included in the other." (Gampopa)
If it is true that concern for others is a source of personal happiness, then the implications for our relationships are also remarkable.
Every time we give time, energy, money, friendliness; every time we campaign, march, protest, send emails to journalists out of compassion for human and animal suffering; every time we do +anything+ out of a kindly motivation, we are strengthening these positive traits. And we do not need to be, indeed surely cannot be, faultless in our efforts – it is impossible to live without harming someone or something through our actions. The issue is not whether we are hypocrites, but that we should sincerely aspire to become less self-centred and destructive.
The ultimate rationale for defending animal and human rights, for working to reduce suffering and increase happiness, is that this motivation benefits us even as it benefits those we are seeking to help.
Compassionate individuals are happier, and a society of compassionate individuals is a happier, more peaceful, more sane society.