Compassion can be described as “empathy in action.” Vegans have not cornered the market on compassion — there are many types of compassion and many ways to be compassionate. However, most people construe compassion strictly in terms of human-to-human interaction, and even then often only in light of certain groups.
For example, it’s common to feel empathetic toward children; victims of crime, illness, or tragedy; single parents; the elderly; and others who are vulnerable or in need. However, some people who express compassion for one group of humans may withhold it from another. For instance, we may be compassionate toward our own ethnic group but not toward someone else’s. This does not in any way diminish or devalue the emotion itself nor the positive outcomes it might proffer. Nevertheless, the compassion is confined to a very limited segment of the population; consequently, its ability to ignite inclusive and far-reaching social change is stymied.
There are some people or groups of people who do include non-humans in their circle of compassion, but frequently this involves just a few specific “special interest” animals (such as spotted owls, wolves, bears, elephants, or whales) who may be confined, threatened, abused, or endangered. Other people focus their attention exclusively on domestic companion animals and issues related to their safety, overbreeding, and adoption. Although these pursuits are unquestionably important, urgent, and have great merit, the scope of the compassion is relatively narrow.
There is a degree of irony in selectively applying compassion. It's as though there were truth to the slogan George Orwell’s characters in Animal Farm came to believe, “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” One example of this paradox is consumers who intentionally purchase “dolphin-free” tuna (i.e. tuna fishes that were caught and killed without injuring dolphins in the process). Their concern is solely for the dolphins (apparently because they are mammals, like us) with no regard for the dead tunas. Another illustration of incongruous compassion is a bird watcher who eats poultry. Or a "pro-lifer" who supports capital punishment. Or an animal rights activist who wears leather.
The vegan ethic stands in stark contrast to convention because it applies compassion indiscriminately. In theory, vegans are concerned about every group or individual who is exploited, human or non-human. Although outsiders often view vegan principles as being “strict,” they are in reality far less stringent than they are aiming for consistentcy.
Implementing a compassionate perspective that embraces all life is at the heart of being vegan. On the surface, this precept sounds reasonable and relatively easy to adopt. In practice, however, it can be quite daunting. That's not because there are individuals who aren't worthy of respect and justice but because our cultural conditioning, prejudices, and habits have trained us to respond in predictable patterns of apathy and insensitivity.
To become wholly compassionate requires us to open our eyes and hearts, to behold the pain and exploitation our culture obscures, to arouse deadened emotions, and to rise above our egos. This is not an instantaneous transformation, as most of us possess deep-seated intolerances that often reveal themselves only after profound and deliberate examination of our innermost beliefs and feelings. Compassion follows only when we come to perceive and value diversity, and when we realize that the life force flowing through us is no different than that which flows through all others.
Being vegan does not automatically make anyone more tolerant, more open-minded, more patient, or more loving. However, since vegan principles strongly advocate lifting the social veils of oppression, there is more incentive and opportunity for vegans to grow in their compassion.
Compassionate people often become so enmeshed in their concern for others that they forget about their own very real and equally valid needs. Because veganism embraces all life, it is essential that we include ourselves in our circles of compassion. Sincerely honoring the vegan ethic dictates that we respect and cherish who we are. Therefore, taking time for our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs is as crucial as all other vegan actions. Learning to accept or transform our shortcomings and loving ourselves by caring for our needs will not only make us more compassionate activists, but it will also make us happier, healthier, and more fulfilled human beings.