Empathy and Action

On a recent book-related trip and then at a dinner after I returned I overheard two conversations remarkably similar in content, if from two dissimilar sets of individuals.  Both were discussing, often heatedly, concerns about the mistreatment of animals in the United States and the concerns about starving and suffering children in war zones and third-world nations across the globe. The underlying question posed by one person in each of those settings was, essentially, why are Americans so concerned about suffering animals in the United States when there are so many suffering people, especially children, in the world who could use the dollars and caring lavished on animals here in the U.S.?

It’s a seemingly straight-forward question that isn’t, similar in many ways to the statement made a few generations ago to children who wouldn’t “clean their plate” by parents who said, “Finish your dinner. There are millions of starving children in China,” or some variation on that theme. Just as I wondered how cleaning my plate would do anything for starving children, since I perceived no way that my uneaten dinner could get to China, so too, today, the problem remains that much of the care lavished on mistreated domestic animals in the U.S. cannot be transferred economically or practically to malnourished children, even in the U.S., let alone across the globe.

But beyond that rather practical observation, and beyond the protests that there must be a way, lie even more fundamental questions/issues. Why must some people assume that concern over mistreated or deserted animals precludes concern over maltreated, abused, starving children?  Does a preoccupation with alleviating human misery, to the extent of ignoring animal misery, reflect not only real concern, but also an innate assumption of human “superiority” and a minimization of the ills of living creatures less able to control their fate and destiny?  Given that we are a part of the ecological weft and web of the world, and that our survival requires the continuation and prosperity of that web that is also the food chain of the world, in the “grand scheme” of the universe are we really that special?  Who says so?  Besides us, that is?  More and more studies show that the more intelligent mammals, as well as some reptiles, have what we term feelings, such as concern for offspring, affection, grief, and even forms of altruism.

Add to that the fact that studies have indicated that individuals prone to mistreating animals have a far higher propensity to mistreat vulnerable humans, such as children, spouses, and the elderly, and given that, wouldn’t it be better to not to create such a firm dividing line between the need to help animals who clearly experience suffering and humans who do?  That might also have a social and political effect on those not-so-“human” individuals, not only throughout history, but even today, who characterize groups of humans that they dislike as “little more than animals,” because in a very real and absolutely physical sense, none of us are more than animals who can think and use tools better than the other animals.

7 thoughts on “Empathy and Action”

  1. Derek says:

    Yes, but (insert culturally relevant ‘holy’-book) say’s I’m more special…

    I have seen this go beyond just care about animals, I’ve had conversations where I brought up subjects like the space elevator or increasing funding for agencies like NASA only to be met with, “When there are so many starving children/wars/problems here on Earth?” I worry about the world that would require all social ails be cured before we focused on scientific discovery.

    Or worse, “Let’s not worry about child abuse here in the United States until every child in the world has three square meals a day.”

    I’ll be thinking about this the rest of the day now.

  2. Tim says:

    I also overheard a similar related. The question put by one of the people was: ‘Is a dog’s life worth more than that of a human?’.

    The answer was ‘it depends on the dog and it depends on the human’

    which I thought was spot on.

  3. Indian says:

    As the production, distribution and creation of labor and commodities rests on a fundamental co-operation between humans, it is perhaps more important to first reinforce good will between humans then to squander resources towards moral causes that contradict such co-operation in the long run.

    People rarely forgive in the best of times, given human history, are arguments that equate human suffering with other lifeforms really logical?

  4. You’re assuming three things which aren’t necessarily so: (1) that better treatment of animals squanders resources; (2) the maximization of resources for human use will improve human relations; and (3) that I equated human suffering with animal suffering. To the first point… many resources used in improving the conditions of animals, particularly in the U.S., cannot be “transferred” elsewhere. In addition,reducing animal suffering/mistreatment doesn’t necessarily “waste” resources. Temple Grandin’s work with cattle has shown that humane methods of slaughter result in better beef at lower costs over the long run. Second, once a society obtains a certain level of material prosperity,the addition of more goods and resources doesn’t equate directly with the reduction in human suffering because studies have shown, rather consistently, that humans struggle for improvement in their societal position on a relative and not absolute basis, resulting in human cruelty on every resource/income level. Third, I don’t equate human and animal suffering; levels of suffering vary even among humans, and they certainly do between life-forms. I’m not opposed to killing and eating other animals so long as they are raised and slaughtered humanely; I am opposed to torturing and/or mistreating those animals. Justifying mistreatment of anything by humans is merely another form of ego and species power-tripping. And, in the SF sense, then what happens if we encounter another species more powerful and advanced than we are? Do we become their animals… subject to their whims and cruelties?

  5. steven says:

    Trying to alleviate cruelty toward and suffering of animals makes us more likely to act to alleviate human suffering. We become more humane. We become more human.

    I am concerned, however, that the arguments against speciesism often debase the human rather than elevating all life.

    I am concerned that if all life is not held as sacred then equating humans and animals allows for atrocity. Tim above says it depends on the dog/human. And if I am in charge and don’t like Tim? Or if Hitler is in charge and doesn’t like a person because he is Untermensch (Subhuman)or lebensunwertes Leben (Lifeunworthy Life)?

    To remain consistent I need to either give up the taking of any life, accept that I am an unrepentant murderer, or believe that I am superior.

    Finally a question. Mr. Modesitt, is it possible to humanely raise an animal for slaughter, slaughter it, and eat it? I raise and process my own chickens and turkeys. I hunt and process pheasant, duck, deer and elk. Through this, I have alternately felt a deep reverence and respect for life as well as guilt for having taken it. At no time while shooting, cutting a throat, or wringing a neck have I felt humane. I’ve felt powerful, provident, dutiful, or even guilty, but not humane.

    1. At this point in the development of our planet and life, in the vast majority of instances, all animal species must kill or chew off parts of other living things in order to survive. Even Plants require essentially dead and decayed forms of life, along with sunlight and water. The question you raise is why some families who raise animals often trade with others. At present, I don’t see a way out of killing, either plants or animals, if not both, if humans are to survive, but until such are needed for food, I don’t see any purpose to cruelty.

  6. JakeB says:

    At the moment I have nothing substantial to add, but I can’t resist quoting Patrick O’Brian’s _The Unknown Ocean_: “He assured me that toads are capable of gratitude!” “And are they not, madam?”

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