Jewish Vegetarian - Vegan ArticlesCompassion: Boon and Bane of Animal Rights By David Cantor
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Compassion: Boon and Bane of Animal Rights By David Cantor

By David Cantor From: Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) Online Newsletter - September 15, 2005

Article on a New Strategy for the Animal Rights Movement by JVNA Advisor David Cantor

[While Judaism teaches that only human beings are created in God’s Image, we have very powerful teachings on compassionate treatment of animals. Unfortunately, the realities on factory farms and in other settings are very far from Judaism’s splendid teachings. David Cantor’s article challenges us to think about how we can end current animal abuses. Comments/suggestions welcome.]

Compassion can move people to act, but obtaining legal rights for nonhuman animals will require fundamental change. Expressing our feelings and getting others to express theirs, while important, are not sufficient to produce the necessary social and political movement.


A key objective of the animal rights movement is to bring a dramatic reduction in animal suffering – nonhuman animals need legal rights because humans routinely destroy billions of them and cause billions to suffer. So it makes sense to understand how compassion can contribute to the movement’s success. To understand that, we must understand that merely nurturing or expressing compassion is neither a strategy, an interim objective, nor a long-term goal of the animal rights movement.

Compassion as it applies to policies and practices concerning nonhuman animals mainly moves people to wish animals were treated better, sometimes to request better treatment, or at least to refrain from opposing it. It should go without saying that appealing to compassion is a basic necessity for establishing animals’ rights – a human world that does not care at all will not consider animal rights. But that is a far cry from saying any amount of caring in and of itself can ever establish animal rights.

Nearly every human being living today probably cares about nonhuman animals to some extent. The same was probably true for nearly every human being who lived in the past. The percentage of people believed to have no capacity for empathy whatsoever is very small. But for well over a century, organized efforts to promote compassion and to legislate better treatment of animals have had no effect at all on animals’ legal status and therefore cannot establish rights or end even the most severe mistreatment of animals. If anything, they have solidified other animals’ status as human property by promoting assumptions that compassion and rules based on it can protect animals.

No amount of better treatment for animals considered property or life unworthy of life will ever amount to rights. Rights can reduce animal suffering, but working to reduce suffering without establishing rights is a massive wheel-spinning exercise. Just as I think it would be inhumane to induce a nonhuman animal to run on a treadmill until he or she dropped from exhaustion, I think it is inhumane to lead well-intentioned humans to believe they can significantly reduce animal suffering without making animal rights their explicit goal and the basis of their language, tactics, and strategies.

But the enormity of the animals’ suffering and the difficulty of promoting rights for beings who cannot speak for themselves and for thousands of years have been treated as property and life unworthy of life (many not treated as property are destroyed or driven from their homes for even the most frivolous human uses of land) move some advocates to abandon rights advocacy, having engaged in it little or not at all. Wishing animals could have rights and believing they are promoting rights by expressing compassion for animals and revulsion at cruelty and supporting any effort that conceivably can "help animals," some call their activities "animal rights" when even their "victories" have nothing to do with establishing rights and in fact further separate the animals from their rights.

Particularly with the news industry failing to distinguish between animal rights and animal "welfare" practices over a century old, confusion reigns. Compassion for animals and revulsion at cruelty are in no way wrong, of course. But for specific undeniable reasons, they cannot form the basis for animal rights. For related reasons, neither can eating only plants and urging others to do the same, getting people to "care" by exposing cruelty, and other practices that, even though well-intentioned and worthwhile, will always in and of themselves fail to establish animals’ basic rights.

Compassion is a personal trait. Present to different degrees in different people, manifested in a variety of ways in a variety of circumstances, it can move people to want changes in laws and policies. But without clear and complete understanding of the sources of suffering and of the need for fundamental rather than superficial change to eliminate those sources, it can move people to accept what amounts to a cough drop to treat pneumonia. Official displays of compassion and legislation superficially appearing to require improved treatment mollify and even elicit celebrations when nothing fundamental in the animals’ plight changes. Compassion is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, any other rights-conferring document, or even any anticruelty statute I know of. The Declaration of the Rights of Animals, too, is mute on compassion. That is highly significant for how we should view the role and limits of compassion in advancing animal rights.

Rights are legally enforceable; compassion is not. The goal of the animal rights movement is to establish nonhuman animals’ moral rights in law and custom, somewhat as human rights are established in the U.S. Rights do not afford complete protection against injustice, nor are they always enforced. But basic rights are easy to understand – Americans constantly infer their "right" to this or that from their basic rights – and they work to a large extent. They prohibit the state from inflicting certain kinds of harm on individual persons, because the state possesses overwhelming power to inflict harm.

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, in his 2005 book Rights from Wrongs, explains how rights come from wrongs – from injustices. Justice, not compassion, is the basis of rights. Opinions can differ on what resolution to a given situation will best serve "the interest of justice," but justice is observable in the world outside of the individual person. It is not a personal trait like compassion, even if one’s "sense of justice" is and even if compassion may inform one’s sense of what is just. Government, with overwhelming might, must be prevented from tyrannizing individual people; likewise humans, due to their capacity to inflict harm, must be prevented from tyrannizing nonhuman animals. That is the case no matter how much suffering may be caused or how much compassion elicited from any particular manifestation of tyranny or injustice. Rights obstruct imposition of the conditions for suffering, not suffering itself.

My right not to be the property of another human being does not depend on individual people’s compassion but on the Constitution and laws and customs flowing from it. Perhaps someone would like to enslave me or sell me into slavery if they could. My rights as a human being in the United States trump their greed, cruelty, lack of compassion – any personal trait – so they would have to go to great lengths to succeed in making a slave of me. No claim to being compassionate can suffice in a U.S. court to enable someone to enslave me. Not so for nonhuman animals, who have no legal rights. And their current legal status is inherently a basis for constant human-inflicted suffering and destruction, notwithstanding laws and regulations that may appear on the surface to mitigate them. Compassion leads many animal advocates to treat nonhuman animals as if they had legal rights – we seek loving homes for them, swear off eating them, and more – but in and of themselves those practices do not lead to establishment of any legal rights.

A nonhuman animal’s right not to be the property of a human being, when that right is established in law, will trump even a majority human preference that nonhuman animals remain property. Thousands of years of learning human supremacist ideologies from birth will make animal rights more difficult to enforce than human rights, perhaps, but without rights, nonhuman animals can have no meaningful protection.

The animal rights movement arose from the failure of animal "welfare" – now the status quo – to protect meaningfully, to provide genuine welfare, or overall wellbeing. Regulation and exhortation based on compassion could not possibly do the job, no matter how dedicated or talented animal "welfare" proponents or how large their ranks. Cruel mistreatment of animals, animal exploitation, and wanton destruction of animals grew rapidly under animal "welfare." And it is no coincidence that their growth coincided with the emergence of a massive corporate oligarchy as the dominant force in the U.S., threatening human rights as well as making it all the more difficult to protect nonhuman animals.

As non-animate entities, incapable of any experience, perception, thought, or feeling, corporations cannot have or show compassion. Public-relations doublespeak and advertisements easily confuse. "A message of caring from Johnson & Johnson," concluded a recent television ad. Driving the problem, the Supreme Court long ago ruled that corporations have the same legal rights as actual persons. Wielding tremendous power and being able to devastate sentient beings without themselves feeling anything or risking retaliation in kind, corporations are always potentially dangerous. Unjustly treated human beings used to get together and burn down unjust aristocrats’ mansions, tar & feather their lackeys, and the like. Now responsible parties are nearly impossible to locate, and corporations go on as before no matter what happens to individual directors, managers, or workers, like the surface of a lake hit by a rock.

Slaughterhouses, factory farms, colleges of agriculture, shampoo manufacturers, zoos, dog tracks, timber companies, and others take their terrible toll on nonhuman animals as decided by boards of directors. Front-line workers can quit because of cruel mistreatment of animals, but their jobs will never be vacant for long. Corporate capitalism relies on a desperate, impoverished human underclass willing to suppress their compassion to have a roof overhead and food on the table and powerless to influence policy or practice. Some feel it is right to place compassion for their children and other dependents above compassion for nonhuman animals and wrong to do otherwise. Some feel taking property – sentient or not – from owners shows a lack of compassion since speciesist ideologies learned from birth place even minor human interests over the most basic nonhuman interests.

Exercising compassion on a personal basis will not create the needed boundaries between corporations and nonhuman animals. And individual people tend to imitate corporations – their latest "slave masters," as pointed out by attorney Gerry Spence in his book Give Me Liberty!: Freeing Ourselves in the Twenty-First Century – just as scholars have shown actual slaves tend to imitate slave masters, prisoners their guards, and so on. So until all sentient beings’ moral rights are established in law and custom, we can expect more and more suppression of compassion, evasion of responsibility, pleadings of conflict between compassion for animals and compassion for family members and other "shareholders," and the like.

So informed, focused, persistent abolitionist educational and political activities are required to advance animal rights. I believe legislatures in the U.S. are as yet unripe for seriously advancing animal rights and today can only be counted upon, for the most part, to make "welfare" improvements, which are counterproductive with respect to rights. It is important to educate legislators constantly, though, because they are influential people connected to many other influential people including corporation directors. And because there are occasional openings for progress through legislation, I wrote "Get Political for Animals: What Does That Mean?" (Animal Writes, March 27, 2005; also available on the "Animal Rights" page at , outlining specific factors distinguishing abolitionist legislation that can advance animal rights from legislation that merely tinkers with the animal-exploitation status quo.

The animal rights movement is suppressed when advocates rely on compassion while identifying their cause as animal rights. That is because compassion-based advocacy does not threaten the industry-government-media complex that perpetuates animal exploitation and destruction; therefore some legislators are willing to team up with compassion advocates; and concrete short-term "welfare" victories are illusory with regard to animal rights. Except when they abolish exploitive practices altogether without providing exploitive alternatives, they bring no progress toward rights for nonhuman animals.

All of this is not to deny compassion is a wonderful trait. But rights are more likely to stimulate compassion than vice versa. Justice for nonhuman animals must be achieved under the rule of law that our system aspires to. It is the non-personal nature of justice that minimizes tyranny, for today’s liberator quickly becomes tomorrow’s tyrant. Does "compassionate conservative" ring a bell? And will Bush’s "tidal wave of compassion" carry a rescue fleet to those in need or just wash away concerns that the President "doesn’t care"? Even the Nazi Holocaust was billed as solving a "problem" for the truly worthy and thus an act of compassion. Some participants spoke of killing Jewish children "humanely."

When our society confers rights, it draws boundaries others cannot cross with impunity when the system functions properly. Ensuring that the system functions properly requires constant vigilance – that will be the same for nonhuman animals as for human beings, even after animals’ rights are established under the law. But vigilance for animals with only moral rights ensures nothing. Respecting the boundaries rights establish gives people the experience of treating others as they themselves would like to be treated. Whether people treat others appropriately is more important than whether they do so out of compassion.

So, when people who would like nonhuman animals to have rights limit their advocacy to nurturing compassion and favorable personal practices rather than on clear strategies for changing society’s institutions and the use of public funds, they hurt their ostensible cause and transform it into another that perpetuates the status quo. No wonder the industry-government-media complex treats animal rights as a threat but embraces animal "welfare"! Slaughter can never be humane despite a "Humane Slaughter Act." To operate as if compassionate, human society must eliminate nonhuman-animal slavery and unworthy-of-life categories, not merely regulate speciesist practices.

Compassion toward nonhuman animals will always be desirable. But when the animal rights movement succeeds, the animals will not have to rely on such an undependable personal trait as compassion, because far fewer animals will live under the boot and the backhoe. The fact that the goal is so terribly far off does not mean it is unattainable – unless we fail to pursue it.

David Cantor is a full-time animal advocate since 1989 and directs Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc.

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