From Cruelty to Compassion

One of the ways I understand and practice ethics (Kantian ethics, for example) is that when we hold a principle, we make no exceptions, because exceptions violate the moral principle. For example, if we hold the principle of “do not lie,” then we do not commit or allow any form of deceit, cheating or lying. If we make an exception, we violate the honesty principle. Of course, many lies have been told for arguably “good” reasons, and anyone who has watched “The Good Lie” can appreciate this point.

Which set of moral principles do we abide by? Which exceptions do we allow? How do we decide?  Are we deciding consciously?

I recall a conversation with my good friend Sailesh Rao, head of Climate Healers, in which he made the case that the fight against animal cruelty is intimately connected to the fight against sexism, racism, discrimination against LGBT folks, slavery, and even genocide. In all cases, fundamentally, some beings are considered inferior to others, and they suffer adverse consequences. We went on to agree that from this moral perspective, a perspective of justice, we could not condone cruelty or injustice some of the time; we were bound by morality to unhook ourselves from the entire system of cruelty. In our case, this means that we are both strict vegans for the climate, animals, children and future generations, our own health, and all life on the planet.

We were talking about why veganism, often called extreme, is actually not extreme at all, unless we think of it as extreme compassion, and extreme justice. From a scientific perspective, given that animal agriculture accounts for as much as 51% of global greenhouse gases, veganism is what common sense would suggest. In a world suffering disproportionately from aggression and inequality, compassion and justice seem to be what the moral doctor would order.

Similarly, a couple of years ago Mark Bittman’s medical doctor ordered him to go vegan to reverse his poor health. He decided he could not, but chose to go vegan before 6pm; he recommended his approach to others, condoning cheating, as long as folks could lose weight and have fun. From the moral and scientific perspective I mention above, this equates to saying that for the sake of our health and gratification, it is alright to support cruelty and contribute to climate change at some arbitrary time of the day, but let’s not do it at other times for the sake of our health…cognitive dissonance, anyone?

Do we want to take care of our health only some of the time? Does it make sense to support a stable climate only some of the time?  What about supporting marriage equality only on Sundays? As Sailesh pointed out to me in that conversation, such an approach is ridiculous at best.

Others, like my esteemed colleague Barry Bruce, have suggested to me that my strict vegan stance seems somewhat arbitrary, because mushrooms (e.g. mycelia) and plants are conscious and have active communicative networks. To this, the only response I could muster was this: does a carrot or mushroom suffer in the same way as a cow or pig or chicken or fish? My friend and dedicated animal rights activist brought this subject up at the San Francisco Cowspiracy premiere after-party; she asked if it was alright to eat plants, knowing that they are harmed. Such questions persist.

I do not have answers, but the path I aim to follow is one of sacred connection: to cultivate reverence for the carrot and mushroom that I need to eat to live. To take in their energy and nutrients with appreciation, acknowledging that they become a part of my body and help me achieve and maintain wellbeing. As a vegan, I show respect for the living beings I do not need to eat by letting them be. I draw inspiration from the ways that indigenous peoples maintain a sacred connection to all life. In this worldview, there is no separation between humans and the rest of nature. Only what is needed is taken. Violence, if needed, is committed with respect and ritual.

We have strayed far from this way of being. Violence, in particular, is rampant in our everyday lives. I flinch when someone utters a swear word – to me it represents a violent spike of energy, a harmful intent. I jump when someone tugs on their dog’s leash. Thoughts race through my mind: what if the dog could be free to sniff anything he wants? What if he could be completely free, as I aspire to be in my life? Well, then I would never own a dog again, or live in a place where he could always be off-leash. I cry when a bird or a squirrel or a raccoon is hit by a car or shot.

I want us to build systems that consider and account for the wellbeing of all life. I want us to live with other animals safely, not in domination of them. I want us to create a reality that is less violent, more loving, and more in tune with our own inner wiring for empathy.

Perhaps there are no absolute answers. However, I believe that we humans have the capacity to imagine and create a more compassionate and more just world for all beings. How we choose to embrace that role, and exercise our collective responsibility, is the question of our time. Let’s ask not how we can dominate, control, or benefit from the complex and beautiful fractal of nature, but how we can humbly fit into its sacredness.

I have by no means arrived; I still contemplate these questions and many others. Where do you stand on the spectrum between cruelty and compassion?

With sincere thanks to Sailesh and Molly for their thoughts, efforts, and for inspiring conversations that stay with me. 

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