Compassion and empathy research institutions must include all sentient beings in their missions

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Vegan Society Research Officer Lorna Marquès-Brocksopp links her experience of Gross National Happiness in Bhutan with the recent signing of an open letter by academics that urged compassion and empathy research institutions to include nonhuman animals in their work.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to participate in a programme by the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Center in Bhutan, and as part of my fieldwork I undertook research into what ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ meant for the people of this small Himalayan country. Back home in the UK, the Office for National Statistics had just announced its intention to ‘measure the nation’s wellbeing’ and move away from relying solely on capturing the success of a country in terms of GDP. I recall, sitting in a circle with fellow international programme participants, discussing Bhutan’s relatively novel way of understanding what made a society ‘well’.

A wild cow makes friends with Lorna in Bhutan

For the Bhutanese government, GNH is a “development philosophy” that requires development policies to achieve a balance between material wellbeing and the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of society. Research by the GNH Center placed a great emphasis on moving, in their words, “from the ego to the eco.” As someone who already was trying to live this way of life as a long-time vegetarian and aspiring vegan, this philosophy resonated very much with me. Fellow participants nodded their heads in agreement, and we discussed at length how we could develop a ‘GNH-inspired’ philosophy in our own work and research back in our institutions. The underlying values attached to GNH, and the programme we participated in, were of compassion, empathy and kindness and emphasised living in harmony with the natural environment and with respect for all sentient beings.

At lunch, however, as I enjoyed the lentil and vegetable dish in front of me, I felt that perhaps not all the participants were ready to include all sentient beings under their umbrella of compassion. Fresh from a discussion of compassion and empathy for all sentient beings, I watched many of my fellow participants heartily tuck into the dead animals on their plates without, it would seem, any regard for how perhaps eating meat was not a very ‘GNH’ way to live. 

This image, and the subsequent discussions throughout the GNH programme, made me realise that despite the best intentions, many people involved in ‘the greater good’ research have a blind spot for nonhuman animals. Unfortunately, it would seem that little has changed in the years since I returned from Bhutan. As part of my postdoctoral work, I scoured the online mission statements of these leading ‘compassion institutions’ (institutions that are usually affiliated to a university which set out to understand and promote concepts like kindness, altruism etc.) to see if they had begun to include empathy with and compassion for nonhuman animals in their work. They hadn’t. Their mission statements were similar, and unfortunately exclusive, in nature: non-human animals did not feature in calls for research into “the ethical and humane dimensions of life” (The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT); “the scientific understanding and application of compassion” (The Compassionate Mind Foundation); “cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society” (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford) and other similar statements concerning understanding and promoting empathy and compassion in individuals and societies. 

As such, I was particularly heartened to hear last week that an open letter has been sent to 12 leading institutions, including those cited above, to overcome their blind spot concerning nonhuman animals. The Vegan Society’s Research Advisory Committee members, Dr Richard Twine and Dr Kay Peggs are among more than 30 social scientists from the UK, US and Australia who have signed an open letter urging 12 leading institutions whose work focuses on empathy and compassion to overcome their apparent disregard of nonhuman animals. 

The idea for the letter was developed by vegan psychotherapist and social worker Beth Levine and underlines ways in which cultural norms position nonhuman animals either as commodities to be exploited for our pleasure, or as having interests 'less than' those of humans. It also highlights the negative impact these social norms have not only on nonhuman animals, but ourselves and the societies we live in:

"We know that compassionate action leads to happier, more fulfilling lives, as well as an increase in mental, emotional and physical well-being and contributes to a less violent world. Imagine how much happier and emotionally and physically healthy individuals would be and how much more peaceful society would be if we all expanded our moral consideration to include all animals, human and nonhuman."

As I read this letter, I remembered how I felt sitting with my fellow participants in Bhutan: that the institutions from which they came were change-makers. They were pioneering research into what makes the world kinder and more just. They were engaged in work which called for a more peaceful and caring society, which connected us to each other and the earth beneath our feet. Yet, beneath whose feet exactly? Where was the recognition of the four paws, the wing, and the fin - the other sentient beings who also share this planet? It seemed that these institutions, and my fellow researchers who sat with me that day, needed to fight against the cultural norms that permitted the exclusion of nonhuman animals from their research, and to truly include all sentient beings when promoting empathy and compassion:

“We are asking you to expand your horizons to include all sentient beings in your missions. This means, for example, researching how our social norms of treating nonhuman animals as commodities affect our well-being on an individual and societal level and how these norms affect the other living creatures on our planet and the planet itself. Providing empathy and compassion toward all sentient beings, especially those who are vulnerable and without social privilege, is precisely the practise required to make the world a better place.” 

I hope that times are changing. I hope that these pioneering places of research will honour the essence of compassion by including nonhuman animals in their missions. I hope, very much, that my former GNH colleagues from around the world will listen.

By Lorna Marquès-Brocksopp

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