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There’s no conflict between human and animal rights

New research shows that concern for suffering isn’t zero-sum.

PETA activists throw toy chicks into a fake shredding machine to protest the killing of male chicks.
Jan Woitas/AFP/Getty Images

If you care about animal rights, you’ll inevitably run into a wall of whataboutism. What about homelessness? Or racism? Or sexism? Why are you wasting your time on chickens when so many human beings are suffering?

You run into whataboutism on all issues — the term itself dates back to Cold War arguments — but I’ve found it’s particularly prevalent on animal suffering. People are used to weaving disparate threads of human suffering into a single matrix of injustice. That’s the point of many moral and political philosophies. But animal suffering is a different category: to fret over animals, given the anguish experienced by so many people, can seem like misplaced priorities at best, and a callous insult to the needs of the human community at worst.

Whataboutism is a rhetorical strategy meant to paralyze, not persuade. But it works because it plays on a real fear: that compassion is a zero-sum resource, and political capital even more so. The energy we spend on chickens is energy stolen from the opioid epidemic.

New research from Harvard’s Yon Soo Park and Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino tested these concerns directly. In one half of the study, they used General Social Survey data to see whether people who supported animal rights were likelier to support a variety of human rights, a test of whether abstract compassion is zero-sum. Then they compared how strong animal treatment laws were in individual states to how strong laws were protecting human beings, a test of whether political activism is zero-sum.

The answer, in both cases, is that compassion seems to beget compassion. People who strongly favored government help for the sick “were over 80 percent more likely to support animal rights than those who strongly opposed it,” the authors write. The finding held even after controlling for factors like political ideology. Support for animal rights was also correlated — though the size of the effect was smaller — with support for LGBT individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, unauthorized immigrants, and low-income people.

In other words, concern for human suffering seemed to feed concern for animal suffering, and vice versa. It’s the suffering, not the species, that matters to many.

Similarly, states that did the most to protect animal rights also did the most to protect and expand human rights. States with strong laws protecting LGBT residents, strong protections against hate crimes, and inclusive policies for undocumented immigrants were much likelier to have strong protections for animals. Again, these results held even after controlling for “each state’s economic dependency on animal agriculture, state-level political ideology, state per capita wealth, the religiosity of state residents, and race.”

A political system that sees human suffering and takes action is more likely to be one that sees animal suffering and takes action, and vice versa.

Park and Valentino can’t say why these correlations exist. Perhaps compassion is a muscle, and it strengthens with use. Perhaps, as we open ourselves to witnessing injustice and oppression in one area, we become better, not worse, at seeing it elsewhere. Maybe the political organizing needed to address suffering in one area builds a political system more capable of addressing suffering in other areas. We are, in philosopher Peter Singer’s term, “widening the circle of compassion.”

But there’s no contradiction between worrying about one form of oppression and being concerned about others. There’s not even a contradiction between trying to pass laws protecting animal rights and building a political culture that’s likelier to protect human rights, too. Compassion begets compassion. The response, both in argument and in practice, to “what about X?” is “yes, that too.”

For more on animal suffering, and how recognizing its scale changes your outlook on the world, listen to my interview with Melanie Joy by streaming it here, or subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you get your podcasts.

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