Does Guilt Have a Place in Animal Rights Activism?

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

“In considering guilt as a persuasive strategy in animal advocacy, I have in mind the awakening of an empathic, hopefully motivating, sadness in people toward animals rather than eliciting anger and defensiveness by scolding.” – Karen Davis

“Without guilt improvement is drastically diminished.” – Thomas Coates, Facebook comment, Nov 22, 2021

The fact that animals are suffering and dying for appetites that can be satisfied in many other ways makes some people, perhaps many, uncomfortable, though not necessarily because of guilt. People get annoyed that you’re bothering them, trying to curtail their freedom and uncover a guilt they may not feel or feel strongly enough, so that some end up feeling “guilty” because they don’t feel guilty, just vexed that they’re being victimized.

If animals are largely overlooked in the range of human endeavors, is it any wonder that their suffering is barely accorded human knowledge, and that it makes sense to speak of the “secret” and “hidden” suffering of animals?

Even so, many people regard pain and suffering as morally objectionable and would agree with the Reverend Dr. Humphry Primatt, who wrote in 1776, “Pain is Pain, whether it be inflicted on man or on beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being sensible of the misery of it whilst it lasts, suffers Evil.”

Protest signs near the White House Photo of our posters in Lafayette Park across from the White House.

Ecology of Pain and Suffering

Yet the idea that pain and suffering are evil per se is not always true. Pain can be constructive as well as debilitating. Pain that is degrading in one situation may be uplifting in another, as when a person suffers for the sake of a loved one or a worthwhile cause. Philosopher Jeff Sebo writes, for example, that “people often claim that traumatic events serve as catalysts for rational behavior, helping them to reprioritize their lives and focus on what is important.”

At the most basic level, pain is informative. Physical pain informs us biologically that we are injured or ill, while the pang of guilt informs us morally that we have done or are doing something wrong. Few would argue that a morally pain-free person is enviable simply because lacking a conscience is soothing and freedom from moral restraint is gratifying.

The fact is, not all pain is the same. While it is true that pain is pain regardless of who suffers it, other considerations apply. For instance, if I have to choose between suffering from cancer and suffering in a concentration camp, I will choose cancer. Why? Because cancer is not a sign of human character; it’s a malignant physical disease, not a malignant assertion of human will. Cancer is unfortunate, whereas a concentration camp is evil.

The contrast between human agency and random occurrence is important to counter the claim that it makes no difference whether a human or a nonhuman animal, say, starves to death from natural causes or as part of someone’s research; whether she or he suffers in the course of natural predation or in the machinery of somebody’s factory farm. Pain has a context. There are not only degrees and durations of pain; there are also causes and conditions. There may be motives and attitudes that enter into it that include a guilty, if unacknowledged, consciousness.

Clearly seen, each episode of pain reflects the environment that produced it. Images of animals undergoing vivisection and slaughter, Auschwitz inmates recounting their experience of being experimented on by Nazi doctors, the testimony of the doctors themselves, all show that there is a moral ecology of pain and suffering, as well as a natural ecology of misfortune, which may or may not overlap.

Pain is a symbol in the sense of something that is a part of – that stands out from and illuminates – a larger reality. To talk meaningfully about pain, we must take into account the conditions in which it occurs, including whether those conditions are primarily moral – involving human attitudes, motives, and conduct – or natural, like a plague or an earthquake. We will not then be confounded when someone dares to assert, as I once heard a researcher say at the National Institutes of Health concerning the head-bashing experiments that were being conducted on baboons at the University of Pennsylvania, that what “happens” to animals in laboratories isn’t so bad, because “life is full of suffering.” A guilt-free mind is indeed a great comfort.

By contrast, Thomas Coates, who is quoted at the beginning of this article, goes on to say in his Facebook comment, “There are a lot of things I used to do that were immoral. Guilt has continuously guided me to learn and improve. I’d hope that anyone watching this footage [of turkeys enduring massive cruelty on a turkey farm] will experience guilt and use it to make more educated and kinder decisions.”

Can Guilt Constructively Penetrate the Wall?

Animal advocates struggle with how to get people to care enough about animals to do more than just passively agree that animals shouldn’t be made to suffer. Encouraging people to feel guilty about contributing without reasonable cause to the suffering and death of a fellow creature is, in my opinion, an appropriate, even a necessary approach, as long as it empowers rather than impairs the ability to think and act better as a result. Guilt can be motivating along with pity and remorse and the uplift of deciding to wash one’s hands of contributing further to an abuse, and in this way transform the guilt incurred when one behaved less mindfully.

– Karen Davis