Demolishing Compassion – Greed, Profit, And Animals As ‘Converting Machines’

You would not be mistaken if you have noticed that there is a certain harshness about mainstream corporate journalists, their reporting and their responses to readers. Anyone who has worked for large corporations, as we have, knows that compassion, kindness and concern for others find little space in the bottom line accounting of corporate managers. Noam Chomsky indicates the reality:

“The chairman of the board may sincerely believe that his every waking moment is dedicated to serving human needs. Were he to act on these delusions instead of pursuing profit and market share, he would no longer be chairman of the board.” (Chomsky, Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Pluto Press, 1991, p.19)

What kind of impact do these bottom line framing conditions have on the kind of personnel recruited to work in this environment? And what kind of behaviour does it promote in them and in society? Psychologist Erich Fromm discussed the problem with reference to a fictional merchant who he imagined experiencing the curious impulse to give away goods free of charge to someone in need:

“We live in a society that is directed toward success and profit, and not one that is founded on love. Thus, the person who acts out of a sense of love excludes himself from social thinking; he becomes an outsider. The merchant in our example [of experiencing but repressing the desire to be compassionate and generous] can hardly tell his wife about this because she would call him an ‘idiot’. Even less can he tell his colleagues about it; he would lose his credibility and be considered half feeble-minded.” (Fromm, quoted The Essential Fromm, ed, Rainer Funk, pp.124-5)

Many readers may themselves have winced at Fromm’s reference to a society “founded on love”. As we will argue below, concern for others directly conflicts with the inherent greed and violence of modern capitalism, and is therefore deeply opposed by the political and economic centres of power that influence and shape our culture. Well-meaning readers occasionally advise us not to even discuss these issues on the grounds that “this may alienate some of your audience. By broadening the scope of your work is there not a risk that your current success regarding the media may be diluted?”

There is indeed, but we believe it is vital to recognise the fundamental importance of the choice between greedy self-obsession and concern for others in determining the extent to which people collude with, or defy, attempts to subordinate people and planet to profit. The Vietnamese peace activist, Thich Nhat Than, writes of a social activist, Yasodhara, who lived around 500 BC, recognising that she (and we) are not driven merely by political ideas:

“People were entrapped not only by illness and unjust social conditions, but by the sorrows and passions they themselves created in their own hearts and minds. And if in time, Yasodhara fell victim to fear, anger, bitterness, or disappointment, where would she find the energy needed to continue her work?” (Thich Nhat Than, Old Path White Clouds, Routledge, 1991, p.66)

The reluctance to discuss exactly where activists are supposed to find the energy to continue their work in response to these problems is one of the great failings of modern dissent. Many writers focus almost entirely on politics and economics, on facts and figures, as if there were nothing more to us – feeling, suffering human beings though we are.

Is it not obvious, for example, that it is the sincerity and intensity of their concern for others that separates the likes of Chomsky, Herman, Zinn, Beder, Pilger, Curtis, and Roy from their mainstream counterparts? It seems clear to us that it is their refusal to suppress their doubts and criticisms in exchange for money and prestige – their shame at even the thought that they might do so at other people’s expense – that separates these writers from the mainstream.

Their compassion, we believe, is rooted in three inter-related factors: first, a basic rational honesty contained in the understanding that our personal interests are +not+ more important than the interests of others – we are only one individual, after all, whereas other people and animals are numberless. We cannot credibly justify subordinating the interests of others to the needs of this single self. Second, it is rooted in the ability to feel the misery of others as real and important, to not be so totally swallowed up by our own goals and desires that we are numb to their pain.

Hidden away alongside this rational honesty and emotional sensitivity is another factor promoting compassion – the sense that reining-in self-concern and increasing our concern for others is also conducive to our own well-being. Focusing solely on our own needs places those needs – which are, after all, problems – firmly at the centre of our psychological universe. Like objects under a magnifying glass, to the extent and intensity that we focus on these problems, the larger and more important they seem to us. Fromm commented on the common mistake in response:

“They [patients in therapy] think the best way to cure oneself is the complete concentration on one’s own problems. But that is +not+ the best way – it’s the worst way.” (Fromm, The Art of Listening, Constable & Company, 1994, p.166)

Indeed, it makes sense that placing other people’s problems at the centre of our concerns some of the time means that our own problems thereby come to seem smaller, less significant. Compassion for others thus has the effect of actually removing or reducing problems in our mind. In his book, Destructive Emotions, psychologist Daniel Goleman reports research by Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience Behaviour at the University of Wisconsin, which suggests that intensive and sincere concern for others does indeed have positive effects:

“The very act of concern for others’ well-being, it seems, creates a greater sense of well-being within oneself.” (Goleman, Disturbing Emotions – And How We Can Overcome Them, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.12)

This has very real implications for human happiness. Cultures around the world have long warned of the hidden dangers of a self-obsessed life and the hidden benefits of compassion. Aryadeva made a witty observation about the nature of desire, for example:

“If desire were pleasurable
There would be no need for women [or men].
Pleasure is not regarded as
Something to get rid of.”

If desire is in itself uncomfortable, then so is acting on desire – whether we are successful or not – as the Chinese philosopher, Hsing Yun, notes:

“When one seeks an object of desire,
one suffers.
When one gets an object of desire,
One fears losing it.
When one loses an object of desire,
One is greatly troubled.
At each and every point,
There is no joy.”

By contrast, as Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche notes, working for the happiness of others has an extraordinarily beneficial effect:

“Come to an understanding that no matter how it may seem, the root of all suffering is in actuality the desire to accomplish our own benefit and our own aims, and the root of all happiness is the relinquishment of that concern and the desire to accomplish the benefit of others.”

It is a remarkable claim, but one worth investigating by anyone who has tried devoting their energy to the alternative without success. Note that this claim is the absolute antithesis of everything our culture needs us to believe – devoted, as it is, to the promotion of unrestrained greed and endlessly rising consumption. This means that many of us have plenty of trained resistance to it, and it means we are unlikely ever to encounter it in the mainstream.

The Noise Of A Little Spring

The suppression of compassion in Western culture is sometimes so extreme that it verges on the surreal. For much of Western scientific history animals have, for example, been dismissed as clockwork mechanisms to be abused at will. Descartes, among many others, declared animals “thoughtless brutes”, arguing that it was mere sentimentalism to credit them with actual feelings. An unknown contemporary of Descartes described one result of this conviction:

“The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood…” (Quoted, Masson and McCarthy, When Elephants Weep, Vintage, 1996, p.33)

The curious conviction that animals are without feelings has gone largely unchallenged to this day, as Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy note in their book When Elephants Weep – The Emotional Life of Animals:

“So persistent are the forces that militate against admitting the possibility of emotions in the lives of animals that the topic seems disreputable, not a respectable field of study, almost taboo.” (Ibid, p.20)

To be sure, this is not for lack of evidence:

“The scholarly literature on animals contains many observations, accounts, anecdotes and stories that suggest interpretation in terms of the emotions the animals may be experiencing or expressing, or call for further research into this possibility. Little to none is forthcoming.” (Ibid, p.20)

The issue has simply been ignored. Of the research that might have been carried out, Masson and McCarthy report simply that “there is almost none”. Modern society has been happy to passively accept centuries-old dogma as “common sense fact”. But why? Surely it could not be through a lack of scientific objectivity, through the influence on scientists of vast economic and political forces requiring a particular view? The answer is almost as obvious as the question:

“Dominant human groups have long defined themselves as superior by distinguishing themselves from groups they are subordinating. Thus whites define blacks in part by differing melanin content of the skin; men are distinguished from women by primary and secondary sex characteristics. These empirical distinctions are then used to make it appear that it is the distinction themselves, not their social consequences, that are responsible for the social dominance of one group over the other.” (Ibid, p.21)

If you wonder why so many of us cringe at even the mention of the word ‘compassion’ consider the display of conditional humanitarian concern represented by the 1954 Protection of Birds Act, which states:

“If any person keeps or confines any bird whatsoever in any cage or their receptacle which is not sufficient in height, length or breadth to permit the bird to stretch its wings freely, he shall be guilty of an offence against the Act and be liable to a special penalty.” (Quoted, Danny Penman, The Price of Meat, Gollancz, 1996, p.82)

These fine words are followed by a small proviso: “Provided that this subsection shall not apply to poultry.”

Why the exception? The answer is provided by the briefest of glances at the factory-farming system.

More than 700 million chickens are currently reared and killed in Britain each year. A standard modern broiler unit consists of four sheds, with the floor of each carpeted by some 30-40,000 birds. For efficiency, today’s broilers have been designed to grow at twice the rate of 30 years ago. Their legs and hearts, however, have not. The result is that the chicken rapidly outgrows its skeletal strength such that its legs literally break under the weight; crippling joint pains and other skeletal problems are inevitably legion.

Research published in 1992 in the Veterinary Record reported that 90 per cent of birds had detectable abnormalities in walking; in about 26 per cent of cases birds were likely to have suffered chronic pain. The hearts and lungs of broilers are similarly stressed by their rapid body growth: the Agriculture and Food Research Council estimates that about seven million birds simply drop down dead for this reason every year. About two and a half million birds die while being ‘harvested’ for slaughter, with half dying of heart failure and a third from physical injuries: many birds have their femurs dislocated at the hip as the result of being carried by ‘catchers’ ‘harvesting’ them by one leg. This generally causes internal bleeding and, in a third of cases, actually drives the bone up into the abdomen.

The attitude required by the poultry industry in general was summed up by the Farmer and Stockbreeder in 1982:

“The modern layer is, after all, only a very efficient converting machine, changing the raw material – feedingstuffs – into the finished product – the egg.” (Ibid, p.82)

As for pigs:

“Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory. Schedule treatments like you would lubrication. Breeding season like the first step in an assembly line. And marketing like the delivery of finished goods.” (Hog Farm Management, quoted, Peter Goering, Helena Norberg-Hodge and John Page, From the Ground Up, Zed Books, 1993, p.25)

We might recoil in horror at the experiments conducted in Descartes’ time and imagine that we have entered a new, enlightened age. Alas, consider last month’s report by ITN’s science editor, Lawrence McGinty. ITN, like the BBC on the same day, discussed research by the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh suggesting that fish had the capacity to experience pain. McGinty said:

“Anglers are seething about this research… Anglers are very concerned that this will be used as ammunition against them. Especially when only last month there was another set of research published in America showing that the brains of fish are actually so primitive, so undeveloped, that they can’t feel pain in any sense, directly contradictory to the research published today. So I think this is a thorny question to which science doesn’t yet have the answer.” (ITN Lunchtime News, April 30, 2003)

Over on the BBC, Jon Kay reported:

“Today, we have the first scientific study” showing fish feel pain. “Britain’s anglers are angry – they insist their sport is not cruel and fish do not suffer when they’re caught.” Kay went on:

“The research has been seized upon by the animal rights lobby – they’ve long claimed that fishing is just as cruel as hunting and shooting.” But anglers “say there has been plenty of research done to disprove these latest findings”. (BBC 1 O’Clock News, April 30, 2003)

The research referred to by both McGinty and Kay, suggesting that fish do not feel pain, was published in February of this year by James Rose, an angler, of Wyoming University, and is the first to draw this conclusion. Max Gastone, co-ordinator for the Campaign for the Abolition of Angling said:

“This is pure spurious science. Mr Rose has been hawking these claims since 2001, and they simply don’t float. He is obviously biased in favour of his sport. We wonder why he has not had his work independently examined by people in his own specialist field, as opposed to publishing in a journal dedicated to general coverage of fisheries issues.” (Press Release, ‘Anti-angling group dismisses new ‘study’ on pain in fish as spurious’, February 10, 2003)

The BBC’s claim that the latest research was “the first scientific study” showing that fish feel pain is flatly false. Studies from the University of Utrecht in the 1970s showed that fish appear to feel the pain of electric shocks in a way comparable to that experienced by humans:

“That the perceptions evoked in fish by local electrical stimulation do parallel to some degree the similarly produced sensations of pain in man is indicated by the results of other experiments. We have found, for instance, that conspicuous transitions in fish behaviour on the one hand, and in sensations of human subjects on the other hand, tend to occur at comparable levels of electrical stimulation in either species.” (‘Do Pain And Fear Make A Hooked Carp In Play Suffer?’, by Prof.dr.F.J. Verheijen & Dr.R.J.A. Buwalda, published April 1988)

An RSPCA report concluded in 1994:

“These studies show that fish… avoid noxious stimuli, show a reluctance to resubmit themselves to noxious stimuli, and learn to associate neutral stimuli with painful stimuli, indicating that fish are indeed capable of feeling pain.” (Kestin, S.C., ‘Pain and Stress in Fish’, Bristol: Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1994).

In 1980, the RSPCA-sponsored Medway Report was published, which concluded that “all vertebrates (including fish), through the mediation of similar neuropharmacological processes, experience similar sensations to a greater or lesser degree in response to noxious stimuli.” This led the RSPCA to adopt a policy stating:

“The RSPCA believes that current practices in angling do involve infliction of pain and suffering on fish.” (RSPCA Policies on Animal Welfare: Bloodsports, 1991).

It seems remarkable that anyone can still seriously claim that fish are incapable of feeling pain. In an article titled, ‘The Moral Standing Of Insects and The Ethics of Extinction’, published in the Florida Etymologist in 1987, the authors reported that the answer to the question: “Can Insects Feel Pain?” was a resounding “Yes”. This conclusion was supported by C.H. Eisemann et al, in ‘Do Insects Feel Pain? A Biological Review’, published in Experientia in 1984.


Some may find the issue of animal suffering of marginal importance, and yet this suffering is the result of the same logic at work at the heart of all capitalist operations: Third World nations and peoples are “converting machines” changing human and natural resources into profit. The corporate mass media system of newspapers, TV, radio, books, magazines and films is a “converting machine” changing the raw experiences and possibilities of human existence into a web of business-friendly delusions and deceptions. Parliamentary politics is a “converting machine” changing the raw human desire for genuine happiness and freedom into a “moderate” desire to select from profit-friendly options. Schools are “converting machines” processing human beings into obedient producers and consumers – and so.

Mainstream culture has a vested interest in suppressing compassion for people and animals beyond our immediate circle of family and friends. The point is that self-seeking greed and compassion are opposed. Vested interests, such as advertisers, want us locked into desire mode, thinking primarily of ourselves, working hard to earn, buy and consume. The last thing our profit-maximising system wants is teenagers concerned about civilian victims of bombing in Iraq, or tortured animals in our farming system. Compassion, therefore, has to be ridiculed as ‘naïve’ and ‘sentimental’.

If, as has been claimed by many of the world’s most sophisticated cultures and philosophies, compassion is the fundamental root of human well-being, then it is reasonable to argue that modern capitalism is organised to generate profit and power at the expense of human happiness.