Editor’s note: This post has originally been posted on 12th September 2018, and has now been updated and republished.
Before we look at possible answers, we should try to establish an ethical baseline we all can agree on and work with. Most but not all people will accept that it is wrong to intentionally inflict harm onto others with the exception of acting in self defence. Intentionally harming other people is morally seen not acceptable. Violence is generally not regarded as normal behaviour, as it obviously can cause harm. It seems natural to most of us to help others, who have been harmed or are about to be harmed. But what drives us to help? And where does empathy and compassion come from?
The Importance Of Sentience
The main reason for why harming others or getting harmed by others is not acceptable is that we humans are sentient beings. This means that we have the capacity to have positive and negative experiences, such as feeling pain and pleasure. This also means that we can relate to situations where someone is at risk of being harmed or is suffering of a disease or injury. This applies to all animals with centralised nervous systems, whether vertebrates or invertebrates, as they are all sentient beings. Our actions can benefit or harm non-human animals too. This is a long known but often conveniently ignored fact, which is scientifically proven. In 2012, an international group of scientists signed the ‘Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’.
This declaration states:
‘Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.’
Not that scientific evidence is actually needed, at least not for those people, who have already opened their minds and eyes. In fact, it is quite obvious to everyone that we as sentient beings can be harmed or can benefit from how we are being treated by others. Although this concept is generally accepted, it is unintentionally as well as intentionally used and abused. Moral hypocrisy seems to be common practice, even amongst ‘animal lovers’, rescuers and rehabbers. Generally speaking, humans do not tend to like to be harmed or taken advantage of. One can be certain too that non-human animals will not like to be abused either. In this respect, they are not any different compared to humans. However, non-human animals get abused and harmed on a daily basis, and at an unimaginable scale. Ethically seen, it does not seem fair or morally justifiable to oppose mistreatment of humans and at the same time to find it acceptable that non-human animals can be harmed for entertainment and pleasure.
The Difference Between Speciesism And Racism
Assigning different values, rights or giving special consideration to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership is called speciesism. In many respects speciesism is similar to racism or sexism. Racism, which is a still widespread and even increasing problem in many societies, is the belief in the superiority of one race over another, which often results in discrimination and prejudice towards people solely based on their race or ethnicity, despite the known fact that all are belonging to the same species.
The Superiority Of Human Intelligence
Moral values and subsequently human behaviour towards non-human animals are commonly based on the assumption of superiority of human intelligence. If we base our moral values on the level of intelligence or on the fact that humans are more powerful, then we would also have to accept that the abuse and mistreatment of children, elderly people or humans with mental disabilities or injuries is ethically justifiable, which seems rather difficult to digest. Intelligence takes on diverse meanings for different species and often we are too prone to use human standards. The problem is that we often look for human traits when we study animal behaviour. But what may be clever for us does not necessarily mean that it would be a viable attribute of intelligence in other members of the animal kingdom. We can easily fail to notice animal intelligence, if we only look for human qualities. It is important to understand that the assumed level of intelligence is not what matters, but the ability to suffer is!
The Interests Of An Individual
The interests of humans are not more or less important than those of other non-human animals. Non-human animals do suffer no less than we humans do. In fact, they value their lives as much as we do ours. One common argument is that humanity has got enough problems of its own, which should be solved first before we think of helping non-human animals. However, the existence of ill-fortune many humans have to put up with does not justify the exploitation of non-human animals. Also, the fact that something has happened for a long time, or has been regarded as a so called tradition, does not make it ethically more acceptable or morally just. This also includes at times legal frameworks many of our societies are built on. The fact that something has been made legal does not automatically guarantee that it is ethically sound or morally just. More importantly, it should not be regarded as an acceptable excuse to justify discrimination and mistreatment of sentient beings. Most laws in modern societies have been established to maintain power in the hands of a minority, which only exists through the exploitation of a majority. These laws have been rarely created with the primary intention to protect non-human animals. They have been created to preserve human interests and profits.
Respecting and helping non-human animals means to see them as individuals. Each individual matters, regardless of its species, whether it is a domesticated animal or an animal living in the wild. This also means that it is the individual which matters, and not the species the individual belongs to. A species is an abstract entity and as such it cannot be a sentient being. Ethical problems arise when respect for one particular species entails disrespecting sentient individuals. This becomes in particular relevant when it comes to wildlife or nature conservation measures.
What Is The Difference Between Empathy And Compassion?
Compassion is a natural tendency and it is being thought to be essential for survival. It may have ensured the survival of the human race because of its benefits for physical and mental health as well as overall well-being. Compassion is the ability to understand the emotional state of oneself, another person or sentient being and having the desire to alleviate or reduce suffering. Empathy is the visceral or emotional experience of another being’s feelings, regardless of its species. Although compassion and empathy are two separate things, having compassion for someone can lead to feeling empathy towards another person or sentient being. Altruism is defined as a selfless action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion. However, compassion often does involve an empathic response and altruistic behaviour.
What Are The Benefits Of Empathy And Compassion?
Humans and many non-human animal species seem to be hard wired to be compassionate. Compassion is already ‘detectable’ in children as young as two years. Research has found that our brain ‘pleasure centres’ are stimulated when helping or giving to others, which increases our own well-being. Compassion is considered to have a positive impact on our own health as it can serve as a buffer against stress, may boost directly our well-being and can help to broaden our perspective beyond ourselves actively fighting depression and anxiety. Also, our human societies are based on cooperation and our survival as a species may be directly linked to helping each other. For example welfare, healthcare and education are all systems based on helping each other. We as individuals simply would not have the resources we currently own as members of the human society, and without these systems we as individuals would not be able to achieve similar benefits and results.
Compassion is not limited towards one species, race or gender. More importantly, it does include non-human animals as well. Being compassionate towards each other and towards non-human animals is a natural process and instinct, which should be nurtured and not oppressed. It is well established that like language development the development of this inherent tendency may be affected in both ways by early experience and education. Childhood is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy and compassion.
It is in our nature, but it is also our moral responsibility to help humans and non-human animals alike, even more as we as humans are often directly or indirectly at least partly responsible for many of the problems and threats our planet and its inhabitants is facing. Everybody can play his or her small but nevertheless important part. However, as important as helping others is when help is needed, avoiding or at least minimising the likelihood of the occurrence of harm towards humans and non-human animals is even more important. Prevention is always the key!
All these complex appearing arguments and thoughts can be simplified and summarised in a couple of sentences. Firstly, avoiding and minimising intentional harm to others and actively helping humans and non-human animals alike, is the right thing to do. Secondly, helping one individual sentient being does make a big difference to the individual, who has received our help. Thirdly, there is no difference when it comes to who needs our help, as species membership, level of intelligence, gender or race should not influence our decision when considering to help human or non-human sentient beings.