"Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality." As with so many famous quotes and familiar sayings, it is instructive to consider Arthur Schopenhauer's axiom regarding universal compassion as the only guarantee of morality within the context in which he originally wrote it. The sentence appears in Schopenhauer's essay On The Basis of Morality (Über die Grundlage der Moral) published in 1840, and the sense in which he intended the word “universal” to be understood is made clear by the preceding line: “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity.” He continues, “Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
Schopenhauer's concept of universal compassion explicitly encompasses non-human animals, and why should it not? Non-human animals possess all the traits that we invoke when arrogating to ourselves and the other members of our species the right to compassion and moral consideration: sentience, intelligence, the ability to form social and familial bonds, and sensitivity to pain. On what basis then could we possibly justify excluding animals from our circle of compassion? There is no legitimate, logically and philosophically tenable justification to be made for denying compassion to animals, and any definition of compassion that does not encompass all sentient beings is both incomplete and invalid.
As conventionally defined, compassion is the awareness of suffering, accompanied by a desire to alleviate that suffering; and that non-human animals possess the capacity to suffer is both an indisputable fact of biology and a matter of pure common sense. Just like us, non-human animals strive to avoid pain, and their reactions to it, though not expressed in spoken language as we understand it, are immediately recognizable as suffering. A failure to recognize the suffering of animals for what it is is an unfortunate relic of the Cartesian model of animals as mere automata; but science has confirmed and re-confirmed what has been evident from the start: that human beings do not have a monopoly on suffering and the capacity of non-human animals to suffer is analogous to our own.
If we accept that compassion, in order to be true compassion, must involve consideration for and a desire to alleviate the suffering of all animals, both human and non-human, then it naturally follows that we mustn't, if we aspire to live compassionate lives, abuse or mistreat any animal, either human or non-human. This point seems too obvious to need articulating, but if we accept it, then we must also embrace the corollary notion that abusing animals by proxy is equally incompatible with a compassionate existence. In other words, it will not do merely to refrain from direct acts of abuse or violence toward animals; we must also withdraw our support, both morally and practically, from those enterprises, the very basis of which is the abuse and the oppression of other sentient beings. For is there an appreciable difference, either morally or practically, between committing an act of violence oneself and paying someone else to do it on one's behalf?
Though in the latter case, one is not the direct agent of the violence, one is nonetheless equally culpable and complicit in it. No amount of distance between a person and the act of violence that he has paid or induced someone else to perform on his behalf will extricate him from the moral implications of the deed itself. Commissioning an act of violence is the moral equivalent of committing it. As the English writer and social reformer Henry Stephens Salt stated rather mordantly in Volume III of his Humanitarian Essays, “The ignorance, carelessness, and brutality are not only in the rough-handed slaughterman, but in the polite ladies and gentlemen whose dietetic habits render the slaughterman necessary. The real responsibility rests not on the wage slave, but on the employer. 'I'm only doing your dirty work', was the reply of the Whitechapel butcher to a gentleman … 'It's such as you makes such as us.'”
That the production of meat, eggs, and dairy involves tremendous suffering on the part of tens of billions of animals every year is both inescapable and incontestable. To take just one example, in the United States alone, eight-billion chickens are slaughtered for human consumption every year. That amounts to twenty-three-million chickens every twenty-four hours, or two-hundred and sixty-nine chickens who are slaughtered every single second of every single day. By the time you finish reading this sentence, more thantwo-thousand chickens in the United States alone will have had their throats slit in order to satiate the gastronomic preferences of human beings. Is it congruent with the tenets of compassion to condone or support violence and cruelty on such an enormous scale? Simply stated, a diet that includes meat, eggs, and dairy is altogether incongruent with the aspirations to lead a compassionate existence, as such a diet must rely on --indeed, is inseparable from-- the abuse and slaughter of those who are at our mercy. This fundamental incongruence stems from the inescapable conclusion that the abuse and slaughter of non-human animals for our own sensory pleasure is completely and axiomatically irreconcilable with the very premise of compassion. For how can we cultivate concern for the suffering of others and aspire to alleviate that suffering while at the same time demanding that sentient beings by the billions sacrifice every trace of their liberty and pay with their very lives for the caprices of our palates?
Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality, and those of us concerned with cultivating compassion in ourselves and in others mustn't allow our notion of “universal” to be restricted to our own species, but should extend our circles of compassion to all sentient beings by living a cruelty-free vegan life-style.
The cultivation of compassion requires that we be mindful of our intentions and that our intentions be consistent with the precepts of compassion. Mindfulness of this kind requires constant effort and although lapses of attention are inevitable, the student of mindfulness and compassion mustn't consciously exempt or exclude any part of her life or her behavior from the practice. And there is no logic whatsoever in the notion that mealtime should provide us with three opportunities a day to disengage our mindfulness and insulate ourselves from the suffering of others. Quite the opposite. Whenever we sit down to eat, we are making a choice: either to alleviate suffering or to perpetuate it. If we are motivated by compassion, the choice could not possibly be clearer.