Spirituality, engagement and commitment to animals
Earthly animal reality is "ambiguously" pleasant
Animals are magnificent to look at, but they eat each other
without compassion. Farm cattle, despite "being
well taken care of", are not even given a chance
to live according to their own species-specific natures.
For people things aren't always ideal either. In order
to stay mentally healthy you have no choice but to try
to overcome a sometimes brutal reality. In this respect,
there are three ways to try to raise (at least part
of) reality to a higher quality level:
You pretend nothing is wrong, as if earthly reality
is not your responsibility.
Spirituality comes down to searching for "enlightenment"
by "exposing" normal everyday experiences
and the suffering that comes with them as illusory.
You limit misery to yourself and you strive to
overcome only that misery.
Spirituality comes down to shaping your own life as
positively as possible, and trying to banish your
own suffering as much as you can.
You recognize all misery to the fullest, and try
to do something about it for yourself as well as for
Spirituality implies a search for personal happiness
and that of others, and putting an end to your own
and other people's suffering.
Let's see what this means for our attitude toward violations
of animal rights by others.
Spirituality: realizing life and reality
in searching for inner and religious experiences.
Engagement: taking action and joining a good
Escapism: the aim or inclination to withdraw
from the pressures of the present, to escape the problems
of one's own time or life.
Hedonism: teaching according to which pleasure
is the greatest good.
The illusion of earthly suffering
Even though Marx didn't say it exactly like this according
to some, we all know that he is supposed to have said
"Religion is opium of the people". By this
he meant that people under miserable conditions that
they cannot change are inclined to deny the importance
of those conditions and to flee in ideas of a better,
supernatural world. The question is whether many westerners
still adhere to a traditional religion in this way.
Anyway, there are forms of escapism that are now much
more popular, such as the "ideals" of neoliberalism
and unchecked hedonism. There are some movements in
the New Age world that come across as escapist. Not
because they involve in spiritual affairs, but because
they state that worldly problems are unimportant (that
they are illusory). Realism as a whole is in fact right
just as it is, and contradictions between good and evil
are only based on an error in our own perception. This
means for instance that we do not have to do anything
to fight wrongs in reality, because there are in fact
no wrongs at all. According to this statement there
is only one real problem, which is that we see reality
as too "dualistic" and randomly classify it
into good and evil. Both are supposedly just aspects
of one, undivided reality. For this reason we must not
want to change the reality around us, but only ourselves.
So we have to resign ourselves to reality as undivided,
"in order" and just give up our wrong perception
What does this attitude imply for the approach toward
injustice against animals? People will deny animal suffering
as much as possible, trivialize it or even try to represent
it as something that is in fact just as it should be.
Advocates of bull fighting, for instance, claim that
God has created fighting bulls to die in the arena,
and suffering and dying in the hands of a bullfighter
means that they fulfil their divine destination. Generally,
people with this attitude will see no wrong in using
animals for consumption.
Striving to improve yourself
Many or even most people who escapistly try to overlook
the negative sides of life, do not succeed in this in
the long run. After all, we have a mortal body with
pain receptors and a mind with emotions such as grief
and fear and sometimes frustrated desires. Sooner or
later the denial of the existence of worldly suffering
is abandoned. At first, these people will often be preoccupied
with their own misery.
Spiritually this means that they no longer try to tell
themselves, as they would in the approach mentioned
earlier, that worldly suffering is an illusion of which
they can magically, after a sudden inspiration of the
correct insights, be cured. Instead of this they will
recognize that escapism is senseless and try to get
as much grip as possible on their own suffering, for
instance through spiritual exercise, techniques and
If we apply this to the attitude toward animal suffering,
it may mean that people claim that they simply don't
have room for engagement, because their own lives are
still too painful. From the perspective of the humanistic
psychology of Abraham Maslow this is in itself very understandable. According
to Maslow, people have to feel safe, satisfied and happy
enough first, before they want to engage in others.
As far as that is concerned, modern society is not a
very suitable breeding ground for engagement, because
neoliberalism has led to a hard competitive mind with
an exaggerated emphasis on working out your own salvation
and having your own responsibility. This has affected
human welfare to such a degree that from a psychological
standpoint you cannot expect much engagement from others
To some, engagement has become almost suspect, and people
tend to try to reveal some sort of self-interest behind
it. And to prevent this distrust, people don't get involved
with others at all anymore or they shun engagement.
Unlike the attitude mentioned earlier, people do not
deny animal suffering, and that it would be better for
animals not to be used needlessly for consumption and
other purposes, but they do claim that it isn't their
task to change this.
Improvement for everyone
Maslow's humanistic model offers a realistic alternative
for the old dichotomy between selfishness and altruism,
by stating that people's own happiness is often a precondition
instead of an obstacle for active engagement. As an
advocate of animal or human rights you do not have to
regard spiritual exercise and development as an obstruction
of your ideals. On top of that, a strong basis for personal
happiness is a good guarantee for extra enthusiasm in
campaigning for everyone, including animals. When your
own needs are alleviated, you will be more able to see
the needs of others. According to Maslow it's mainly
the balanced and happy people who most effectively stand
up for the rights of fellow creatures. It would even
be a natural requirement to engage in others as soon
as your own life is sufficiently settled and satisfying.
Of course, Maslow doesn't claim that you can only do
this once you are completely happy in your own personal
life. The point is not that people are first concentrating
on their own needs and only then on those of others.
The point is that this does not have to be mutually
exclusive and that compassion for others, just as in
Buddhism for instance, has to be founded in compassion
for oneself. So the more personal happiness, the more
people are able to show enthusiastically commitment
to others. This is also connected with the fact that you can only help others if you understand them and their needs from their own perspective, which you can
only do after you have learned to fathom your own needs.
Without self-knowledge, knowledge of others is impossible
and so-called help often comes down to patronizing from
projection instead of from understanding. Some (but
definitely not all) relationships with pets seem to
be based on this phenomenon.
According to this division there is not a single inherent
clash between spirituality and commitment. Such a clash
only occurs with those forms of spirituality that are
rooted in the denial of suffering in this world.