The Caring Vegetarian

By Nick Cooney

July 12, 2012

“There are more important problems to worry about than animals.”

If you’re an animal advocate, you’ve probably gotten a response like this at least once. You may have heard it at protests, when passing out vegetarian leaflets, or even when speaking with friends about animal cruelty.

As a way to ignore the issue at hand, some people spin things around and accuse animal advocates of being the uncaring ones. There is a persistent notion among some that vegetarians and vegans care only about animals, and not people.

The idea is not a new one. In the 1940s, one leading psychiatry journal even published a scholarly article entitled “The Cruel Vegetarian.”  The author — the head of psychiatry at a major American hospital — argued that vegetarians were domineering and sadistic and that they ‘‘display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings.”

Of course we know that is not true. Most animal advocates also care deeply about a broad spectrum of social justice and humanitarian causes. An interesting recent study shows that vegetarians and vegans appear to have more of an empathetic response to both human and animal suffering.

Vegetarian, vegan and omnivore brainsFMRI brain scans showed that the areas of the brain associated with empathy (such as the anterior cingulate cortex and the left inferior frontal gyrus in this study) were more activated in vegetarians and vegans compared to omnivores when all three groups were shown pictures of human or animal suffering. Written questionnaires on empathy, in both this and other studies, seem to confirm higher empathy levels in vegetarians and vegans (Preylo and Arkiwawa, 2008; Filippi et al, 2010).

Why do some people still have the impression that vegetarians care only about animals and not people?

For one thing, sometimes our anger over animal cruelty gets directed at others. While it’s frustrating when someone does not care about animal abuse, we need to realize that attacking them for it does no good for animals. It simply creates more of a divide between us and those we are trying to persuade.

A second reason could be that, although there are many serious issues that are worthy of our attention, we have made the choice to focus on farm animals. Because we focus on these issues and not others (poverty, environmental destruction, human health, etc.), we may unintentionally give the impression that we don’t care about other causes.

So when talking to friends, family or the public, it may be helpful to mention our concern for some of these issues. It’s easy to point out that we eat vegan for the same reason that we donate to fund anti-malaria efforts in Africa: they are both easy ways to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

And sure, it’s true that a small number of people love and dote on animals but lack much empathy for other human beings. While we may not be able to change their attitude, we can work to ensure that, in our own lives,  our empathy and compassion truly extend to all living creatures.

 

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