Compassion Based upon Empathy: The Universal Ethic
The ethics taught by all of the world’s major religions and most of its important philosophical systems are ultimately derived from this simple equation: Suffering and death are bad, life and happiness are good. This fundamental value judgment is hard-wired into our brains and brought to consciousness by our immediate experiences of pleasure and pain, hope and fear. We all experience suffering and death as bad, life and happiness as good. We experience this directly, immediately. We do not experience suffering and then through some process of reason or analysis determine that it is bad. Bad is an integral, inseparable component of the experience of suffering. Just as good is an integral, inseparable component of the experience of happiness. Thus, good and bad (or evil, if you will) are built into the experiences of happiness and continued life and suffering and the anticipation of death. This is axiomatic knowledge that is not subject to logical proof or rebuttal. It is immediate knowledge, irrefutable knowledge, and knowledge beyond the reach of reason and argument because it is not acquired knowledge. It is an integral part of every one of us. It is who we are rather than something we learn.
This inborn, intuitive value judgment is the foundation of all valid ethics. Because I experience my own happiness and continued life as good and my suffering and death as evil, I can recognize that all sentient beings experience happiness and life, suffering and death in the same way. I can, in a word, empathize with all of sentient life. And from empathy arises compassion, which tells me that it is right to promote the happiness and continued life of others and wrong to cause or permit their suffering or death. We have a moral obligation to treat the lives and happiness of all sentient beings with the same high regard that we treat our own. There are, I believe, exceptions to this rule, the most prominent of which is defense of self or others; but this is the basic principle of ethics, and the exceptions should always be construed as narrowly as possible. Appetite and convenience do not qualify.
Compassion based upon empathy is the foundation of the core ethical teachings of all authentic religions. In Judaism, this is most succinctly expressed as, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) and in Christianity as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matt 7:12) In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad told his followers to treat others the way they would want to be treated and to not treat others the way they would not want to be treated. (Hadith: Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, 146) Confucius said, “Don’t do to others what you would not want done to you.” (An. 15:23; in some editions, 15:24) The Buddha taught that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated. (Dhammapada, X) The ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata includes the injunction to “Treat others the way you treat yourself.” (Shanti Parva 167:9)
I could go on, but the point is clear. The world’s major religions (along with many secular systems of thought) all teach the ethic of compassion based upon empathy, usually expressed as some variation of the Golden Rule. This is the ethic of ahimsa, nonviolence, doing no harm, the ethic of peace, of being a true friend to all. Austrian philosopher Helmut Kaplan has called The Golden Rule “the universal ethical formula,” (die ethische Weltformel). He has it exactly right.
Compassion based upon empathy is not universal solely because it has been taught all around the world and in many religions and philosophies. It is also universal because it applies equally to all sentient beings. It grounds morality in the ability to suffer. If a creature can suffer, the universal formula protects her. Compassion based upon empathy does not protect only human beings; it protects all who are able to suffer and who fear death. And if we, as spiritual seekers, do not protect them, we are not living up to the standard that the world’s religions have set.
There are three reasons why we can be confident that animals experience suffering and death, happiness and life in the same way that we do. First, behavior. All animals try desperately to avoid suffering and death while seeking happiness and extended life. Second, anatomy. All animals except the very simplest have a sensory apparatus and nervous system (whether centralized or decentralized is immaterial, both serve the same function) that we can recognize by comparison to our own as capable of registering both physical and emotional pleasure and pain. And third, evolution. Animals who did not prefer pleasure over pain and life over death would be at a severe evolutionary disadvantage. Such animals would have no motivation for doing anything. There would be no reason even to eat and drink. They would die before they could reproduce, quickly joining the ranks of the extinct.
This conclusion is confirmed by the work of contemporary ethologists. Jane Goodall, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Lynn Sneddon, Victoria Braithwaite, Jonathan Balcombe, Marc Bekoff, Lori Marino, Theodore Xenophon Barber, Susan McCarthy, Frans de Waal, Birute Galdikas and a host of others have demonstrated beyond any possibility of doubt what common sense has always told us. Animals experience both physical and emotional suffering. They abhor pain and long for happiness; they love life and dread death.
Specific texts of the major religions that endorse the enslavement and slaughter of animals violate that religion’s core ethical principle. Such texts are, therefore, not an authentic, intrinsic part of the religion. They are corruptions absorbed from the world at large, and should be ignored. Every spiritually aware person who eats or wears animal products should pause and ask themselves, How can I grow spiritually while I am inflicting so much terror, pain, and death for the sake of my own appetites and pleasures? Does the inner voice tell me this is the right thing to do? Is this really the kind of person I want to be?
If we truly want to become spiritual people, the world’s great religions will all show us the way. But they all require one commitment: that we become practitioners of peace, that we set about molding ourselves into instruments for easing the fear and pain of others. A life sustained by violence against animals is a violent life, no matter how peaceful we may be in other respects. Peace, as the old animal rights slogan has it, begins on our plates.
Note: A lightly edited version of this essay will appear in the upcoming edition of the newsletter of Quaker Concern for Animals (QCA). The newsletter does not publish online. I am grateful to QCA, Heidi Stephenson and Marian Hussenbux for inviting me to contribute to the newsletter and for generously granting me permission to post the article online.
 I use “pleasure” and “happiness” interchangeably; and likewise “pain” and “suffering.”