Complicating Compassion For Animals

» September 30th, 2014

“Just be compassionate.” So goes the practically mantra-like phrase popular among those who advocate for animal justice. It seems to be an unassailable advice, a perfect lead rope to the land of reform. “Expand the circle of compassion”!

It becomes complicated, though, when considered in light of another fundamental quality of social life: justice. Thing is, it’s possible to be compassionate and, at the same time, unjust.

A dear friend applies for a job. You are head of hiring. A better-qualified applicant sends a resume across the transom but, because you know your friend is in financial straits and would be greatly relieved by this job offer, you give the job to your friend. That’s compassionate. But it’s also unjust.

Matters get complicated here because compassion is a felt emotion while justice is an understood concept.  That’s overstating the distinction a bit, but still, emotions sometimes lead us to just decisions but they are as likely to lead us away from them. I know that my emotions have caused trouble on more than one occasion.

It happens. I recall my former neighbor, the owner of Max, a massive Weimaraner dog, defending Max—“oh you’re still a good boy Maxie”—after he was appropriately deemed an “out of control beast” by a neighborhood kid who Max had yanked off his bike.  My neighbor’s canine compassion—however biased—outweighed the justice of a due apology.

Compassion, in other words, is never enough. There must be moral justice, too, and that requires thinking critically—often disinterestedly so—about justifying moral choice. On many occasions, readers will suggest that The Pitchfork not get overly tangled in the intricacy of ideas, lest we lose sight of the bedrock message of compassion. But those ideas, however abstract or entangled, keep compassion on target, maximizing its potential while protecting it against itself.

So I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them.” You could say that’s a sign of compassion, and it is. But it’s also a statement that everyone who advocates for animal interests needs to be able to justify without emotion and, yes, without compassion. Do that, and then your heart flow with love for the creatures who, by virtue of justice, we choose to respect as a moral imperative.



5 Responses to Complicating Compassion For Animals

  1. Nice piece!
    Thanks for Pitchfork.

  2. Teresa Wagner says:

    Agree! Compassion without action about important issues for the animals is just sentimentality.

  3. John t maher says:

    Compassion means an unjust structural ontology is acknowledged by all. Let’s take away compassion and the power it presupposes and have species respect instead.

  4. Dave Brett says:

    In the 1960s some people felt that love is all you need. The Beatles even wrote a song to that effect. In an interview towards the end of his life Abbie Hoffman was asked if love is all you need. His answer was no. Love is a nice thing to have, he said. But it’s not all you need. He said that all you need is justice.

  5. Sharon says:

    Compassion comes and goes and is relative to a situation. Veganism requires something stronger than that to survive in the long term and needs to be hinged on the right of animals to live in the same way humans have a right to life. After all, we see over and over again the people who work for humane societies and in animal rescue groups holding fried chicken and hamburger fund raisers because while compassionate towards animals, they don’t believe the animals have a right to life.

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