The Narcissism Behind Our Use of Animals

The planet is an organism and we are all components of it - parts of the sum. We are of it. We are the planet. There are and have been many peoples whose engagement with the world rests on this ecological cornerstone: every human, animal, insect, plant, mineral, drop of moisture is responsible for contributing, in its unique and equally vital way, to the health and survival of the organism of which we collectively form the whole. There is no one component whose contribution is less crucial than another's, nor is there any one component to whom all others are in service. We all are in collective service to the whole. So it is with every organism, biological or social, if the organism is to remain healthy and to thrive. The payoff for the individual is that the act of keeping the whole on track keeps the individual parts on track. If the organism as a whole appears to be in trouble, we scan its constituent parts to see where one component might have stumbled and caused weakness and instability elsewhere, because one part of the whole being in decline leaves the whole in a state of decline. The health of the Earth can be assessed by examining the relationship of all its component parts.

Albert Schweitzer: "When man learns to respect even the smallest being of creation, whether animal or vegetable, nobody has to teach him to love his fellow man. Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man."

In addition to Schweitzer, a Western thinker, the indigenous peoples of this continent had a similar worldview - i.e., identifying with everything as an equally critical part of the cosmos - that held sway until they and it were displaced by Europeans and their way of ascribing meaning to the process of living. The kind of thinking that prevails in much of the world today (and not just in the West) is different. It is based on the notion of humankind as the principal organism to which all else on the planet, including the planet itself, is in service, and everything exists for the human to use. This way of thinking does not allow for interdependent, mutually supportive relationships with our organism cohorts. This way of thinking leads to a tyrannically dominant, exploitative relationship to everything and at all costs, even when that cost is suffering. What kind of mental adjustment has to be made not only to justify causing suffering to something else, but also to develop a comfort level for witnessing that pain?

Mahatma Gandhi: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

There is no shortage of people crying out about inhumane treatment of animals. In fact, there is so much outcry, I wonder how this problem maintains its epidemic proportions. "Inhumane" suggests a lack of empathy and remorse; "epidemic" describes widespread sickness. There is a sickness here, and it is not animal cruelty. Animal cruelty is the manifestation of the sickness and an extension of a worldview. The sickness is the absence of empathy and remorse that allows causing misery to others without moral compunction.

That feature - a lack of empathy - is a primary feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is identified by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and specialness that involves a sense of entitlement and a tendency to be interpersonally exploitative, AND a lack of empathy. Other conditions can develop from NPD, such as sociopathy, though they do not inevitably do so. Nevertheless, narcissism is where such things start. Not every human is a narcissist, and narcissism has not defined every historic moment. However, the general way of thinking today, certainly in our country, about our planet, about our role on it, and about our behavior on it is narcissistic. It is predicated on our considering our own value and needs so greatly as to abandon any sense of value in another that merits similar respect and prioritization. If we can make this mental adjustment to undervalue anything, we can make it to undervalue anyone. And we do.

It is important to remember there is no bifurcation of body and mind. When we talk about the mind, we are talking about the brain, which is another physical organ. Mental activity (e.g., ideation, emotions, etc.) is what we use to identify and examine the brain's condition. "Mental illness" is an indication of dysfunction in the brain. We do not say elimination is sick when there is diarrhea. We say the GI organs are diseased. Likewise with mental activity and the brain. When we eat an animal, the whole body processes everything that the animal is, and the body is affected by all of it. Our intestines can be vulnerable to another's bacteria; our brain can be vulnerable to another's anguish. We are affected by any kind of toxicity and trauma we take in. If we stopped taking in sick, traumatized animals, the brain, like all our organs, would certainly function differently. Albert Einstein, who got as close as anyone to an appreciation of universal disorder and existential threat, believed we would function not just differently but better without animals as part of our diet.

Albert Einstein: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

I reference all three of these great thinkers to indicate that the ideas of not using animals as we do and of a plant-based/vegan diet are far from fringe thinking. Knowing so much more now than we ever did, all of us should be able to think, if not like Einstein, then bigger and better than we did in previous centuries. The grizzly details of the factory farming industry are available to all. And if one were to think it through, the only conclusion could be that our exploitation of animals for any purpose causes them extreme suffering. Today, I can meet all my needs without using animals. So, why would I? Yet we continue to make the choice to turn off the empathy-and-remorse switch in order to tolerate our cruelty. We have seen these cognitive contortions before. In order to justify dehumanizing behavior towards slaves, the United States government dehumanized them with the Three-fifths Compromise by devaluing them. Slave-owners had to find a way that was bearable and acceptable to treat African-Americans the way they did. The difference between a boy torturing cats and a factory farmer raising and slaughtering pigs in gruesome conditions is one of social acceptability. Not everyone who eats meat and wears leather shoes will become a Jeffrey Dahmer, but make no mistake, the psychological and ethical modifications, whether conscious or unconscious (we bury in our brains material that is too painful to tolerate), that the slave-owner and the cat torturer and the pig farmer - as well as the complicit end-user - make in order to desensitize themselves to acts of cruelty, are the same: suspending empathy and justifying another's suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh: "By eating meat we share the responsibility of climate change, the destruction of our forests, and the poisoning of our air and water. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian will make a difference in the health of our planet."

Narcissism has become a defining feature of the human species. While it is a "sick" way of being in the world, it is maladaptive, not absolute. We each can continue to adapt. By choosing to change the way we think and behave, we each can heal what ails the larger organism of which we are a part so we all can be healthier in all ways.