Musings, philosophy, arguments on vegetarian living, from the heart of Europe (Belgium, that is).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making compassion easier

October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury - mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries - while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.

Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.

You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.

We are empathic beings - at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch - perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability - and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and - for many of us - probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one's meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.

What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.

Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.

More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: al these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.

After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi.


  1. Like you, I used to love eating meat, eggs, and dairy. I grew up in Germany, where it was just 'normal' to eat animals. Breakfast consisted of Käsebrot (an open-faced buttered sandwich with slices of cheese or cream cheese, sometimes with jam); lunch was the holy trinity of meat, carbs (potatoes, pasta, rice), and vegetables, with a dairy-based dessert; and in the evening, another open-faced buttered sandwich with "Aufschnitt" (cold deli meat) on top, decorated with pickles, tomatoes, cucumbers, and maybe a salad on the side. I had no idea that it was possible to survive without animal products; after all, that's what we were fed at home, at school, in restaurants, and at work.

    I quit eating meat after the meat scandals in the early 2000s came up - mad cow disease, swine fever, e.coli in chicken, you name it - and after I learned that meat is connected with bowel cancer, which runs deep in my family. In the beginning, those were mainly health considerations, but of course, I also loved animals and didn't want to see them suffer in the increasingly brutal livestock industry. I still ate lots of cheese and eggs though, and occasionally fish, because, well, you need your protein and your Omega 3, right? It took me 10 years to ditch them, and only after I read 'Eating Animals'. That was my game changer. I suddenly connected the dots. From then on, it wasn't difficult anymore to leave animals and animal products off my plate: I looked for alternatives, and in today's internet delivers all the information you need right on your screen, for free. EVA was one important source, and so were many vegan US food blogs, other national vegan associations, and recipe collections. I never bought a vegan cookbook in my whole life.

    The meat, egg, and dairy industries do a fabulous job in hiding the truth from the public. And yes, the public wants the truth to be hidden. But as much as I believe that we need to make tasty and nutritious alternatives ubiquitously available, I still believe it's not enough to do that. I have a lot of carnist friends who enjoy coming over for delicious vegan dinners or visiting my favorite vegan restaurant with me. They are usually full of praise about the food - but once they go home, they still cook their meat and eat their cheese - because it's tasty.

    We should learn from the US and their smoking policies of the past 40 years. They worked from all angles to make the percentage of smokers in the adult population drop from almost 40% to 20% in in just 30 years. They achieved this by information (in that case, health information - in public advertising campaigns, on cigarette boxes, and through tapping into the medical sector, where new profit opportunities were created - nicotine patches, stop smoking programmes, etc. - ), by issuing smoking bans in public, by issuing bans on tobacco advertising, but most of all, by creating peer pressure on smokers, which requires campaign funds. Smoking just isn't cool anymore, no, it's frowned upon.

    I believe we need to do the same with animal consumption: Provide information about ethical issues, health issues, and environmental issues; work on the governments regarding regulation: stopping subsidiaries to the livestock sector, but instead subsidizing organic produce farming, vegan start-ups, and practical education (plant-based cooking classes in schools and for parents); government-sponsored campaigns to increase peer pressure on animal consumers; AND providing more plant-based food options in public.

    Once it's frowned upon to eat animals, we've won.

  2. gabi, providing the options is certainly not enough, indeed. my argument, however, is that most NGO's/groups lose sight of this aspect too much, and focus for 90% on the information :-)

  3. Is that really so? I find an increasing number of organisations are set up actions like VeganChallenge, "vegan-friendly" labels for restaurants, vegan recipe exchanges, and more. I am very much in favor of all of that, but I do think we need governments to become active as well.