Ahimsa and Human Values

by eatpulses

What human values are important to you? Perhaps there are certain ones you hold most dear, values that may even be central to your self-identity. I suggest you make a list of your values. If you want to compare your list (or if you need help in making it), try the links to these lists. The values below were represented in at least five of the twelve values inventories studied in this meta-inventory.

(1) freedom, (2) helpfulness, (3) accomplishment, (4) honesty, (5) self- respect, (6) intelligence, (7) broad-mindedness, (8) creativity, (9) equality, (10) responsibility, (11) social order, (12) wealth, (13) competence, (14) justice, (15) security, and (16) spirituality.

Our values reflect who we are and, perhaps more importantly, who we want to be. The extent of our shortcomings, which is to say, how far short we fall of self-actualization (or self-realization, if you prefer) may be reflected in how we impact others. I’ve noticed that some people’s flaws find mostly internal expression, while others’ flaws manifest externally, affecting those around them in major ways. Put another way, some people cause themselves to be the harmed through self-doubt, anxiety, self-destructive behaviors, etc., while maintaining sort of a firewall to contain the problems, so as not to burden friends, family, coworkers, etc., while other sufferers are inclined to freely share their miseries, which manifest as bad behaviors. Just as children develop the ability to care about the needs of others, when we as adults become more self-actualized, that capacity can continue to develop, and I would argue that it should, as a natural progression for those who continue to grow emotionally, or psycho-spiritually, if you will.

How is our caring and compassion for others limited? I’ll explore other answers to that question in future posts, but for this one, let us start with a quote from Proust’s Swann’s Way:

I had taken note of the fact that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself. The tears which flowed from her in torrents when she read of the misfortunes of persons unknown to her, in a newspaper, were quickly stemmed once she had been able to form a more accurate mental picture of the victims.

What makes the above passage so interesting is that it’s the opposite of a normal response. If a bus goes off a cliff half way around the world, and you don’t know anyone on it and don’t identify with the victims, you may feel some sadness, but if people you do identify with in some way, or people you know, die in the same kind of accident, your response will be much stronger. This brings us to the model I call span of concern, span of control. The further away you are from an event—either literally (distance) or figuratively (can’t relate to those involved), the less you care, and the less you can do about it. This is a general observation based on the nature of physical world and on human psychological needs. If you were to react like Proust’s character when you read news articles about distant tragedies, you’d be so overwhelmed you couldn’t function.

When something falls within your span of control, that doesn’t mean you can fix the problem, but it does mean you feel you can take some sort of action. It’s your behavior you’re controlling. In taking action, you’ll feel some measure of empowerment. There are, of course, situations where our span of concern widens, and our span of control grows with it, such as the recent widespread protests against white police officers killing unarmed black men. (The news increased the span of concern; the protests increased the span of control.) The victims of natural disasters that provoke news stories also expand the span of concern among those who learn of the destruction; the Red Cross and other organizations will take donations; donors thus find ways to expand their span of control. But if you find no mechanism by which you can mitigate the situation, you will come to care less deeply about it, and ultimately it will fade from your awareness. If you learn of another situation you also care about, and it falls closer to the center of your span of control (meaning there’s more you can do about it or that your actions will have a greater impact), that would be another reason your attention would drift and your action would shift.

To have something fall within your span of concern, you have to know about it and care about it. You would care because of your values and/or your ability to sympathize or empathize. At this blog, I found a concise differentiation between sympathy, empathy, and compassion: Sympathy focuses on awareness; Empathy focuses on experience; and Compassion focuses on action. 

I’m inclined to agree. Either sympathy or empathy can lead to compassion, but empathy is more likely to do so because it is a deeper feeling, a deeper connection. How might you act compassionately? Broadly, I’d suggest that there are general and special ways to do so.

The special way to act compassionately would involve particular incidents that are either irregular or infrequent (which I’d define narrowly as less often than daily): donating to Vegfam, bringing home a lost dog and taking him to the animal shelter, volunteering in a nursing home, etc.

The general form of compassion has to do with your daily interactions and activities, as there are infinite ways to cause harm, many of them subtle. This is where ahimsa comes in. Manifestations of ahimsa include considering how people might feel before you speak, trying not to inconvenience others, and taking into account how much or how little suffering will result from your food choices. The latter kind typically becomes part of your daily life when you have knowledge of modern food production practices and methods (especially factory farming) coupled with sympathy or empathy. Empathy for animals is hard for most people to muster because they are unlike us and we don’t see them until the food, already processed, is before us. We care about the suffering of other humans, and about animals we know personally. The ahimsic perspective recognizes that the suffering of animals we don’t know is essentially the same as the suffering of animals we do know, and that, were we to bring animals we don’t know into our span of concern, we could also bring them into our span of control by avoiding purchasing or consuming animal products. Ahimsa tops my list of values. Could you—will you—add ahimsa to yours?