4 min read

Complicating Compassion For Animals

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.