The aristocrat argued that the greater equality characteristic of the democratic era implies a softening of manners as well as an extension of sympathy. Drawing on the philosophical tradition, he takes sympathy to mean the intersubjective communication of feelings, of which the best example is compassion, namely the state of being affected by the suffering of others. “Sympathy is thus a phenomenon of identification by projection – of projective identification – by which we imagine being in the other person’s body, and suffering, albeit to a lesser degree, what we – with our own sensibility – would suffer if put in a similar situation.”
For Tocqueville, the growing sensitivity to the suffering of others cannot be dissociated from the fact that hierarchical discrimination – which affirms that all persons are not equally worthy of respect – was becoming increasingly unacceptable: “[T]here are several causes which can concur to make the manners of people less rude; but, among all these causes, the most powerful one seems to be the equality of conditions.” Tocqueville notes, in support of this argument, that “when the chroniclers of the Middle Ages, who all, by their birth or their habits, belonged to the aristocracy, report the tragic end of a nobleman, there are infinite sorrows; while they recount in one breath and without batting an eye the massacre and tortures of the men of the people”. For Tocqueville, this “cruel banter,” showing indifference to the suffering of the lower orders, as a consequence of the hierarchical mentality typical of aristocratic societies, “for there are real sympathies only between similar people; and in aristocratic centuries only members of one’s caste were regarded as being similar […].
As egalitarianism developed, anyone who showed such insensitivity to human suffering would be greeted with widespread condemnation. Indeed, democratic mores require a very different emotional economy which, Tocqueville stresses, implies a close interdependence between equality of status, introspection, identification with others, and finally “general compassion for all members of the human species”. When ranks are nearly equal among a people since all men have more or less the same way of thinking and feeling, each one of them can judge in a moment the sensations of all the others; he glances quickly at himself; that is sufficient. So there is no misery that he cannot easily imagine and whose extent is not revealed to him by a secret instinct. Whether it concerns strangers or enemies, his imagination immediately puts him in their place. It mingles something personal in his pity and makes him suffer as the body of his fellow man is torn apart.
In order to better understand the evolution of the emotional economy underlying animal welfare, we need to examine the extent to which the general trend described by Tocqueville – namely the gradual replacement of a hierarchical mentality, which encouraged differences in status between individuals, with compassionate egalitarianism – progressively extended to relations between humans and animals. Hitherto violence inflicted on animals had provoked fear and repugnance. Now, such acts also increasingly began to evoke compassionate feelings, thanks to the ability to feel, through empathy, another being’s suffering. In other words, the development of democratic compassion is closely linked to a process of reduction of alterity, meaning that the other – in particular the animal – far from being regarded as being irreducibly different, is confused with oneself: “sympathy leads to losing the other by bringing it to oneself”. Animal welfare thus increasingly had affinities with the anthropomorphic tendency to attribute to animals the same feelings experienced by humans.
We can see that the feelings of the humans and the animals, similarly exposed to the unjust treatment of men, are closely related. Hence the aversion to discrimination and domination, as well as the antithetic recognition of the language of the law, should provoke the solemn proclamation of the equal dignity of all animals. [T]he day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been with holden from them but by the hand of tyranny. Society has already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. In fact, it would be mistaken, on the basis of accounts of animal welfare campaigns, to reduce the story of animal protection to the acts of a succession of conservative, even reactionary, moral entrepreneurs.
Practically from the birth of the animal welfare cause, and increasingly as the century unfolded, the animal welfare movement included campaigns by progressive activists whose aim was to struggle against inequality and relations of dependence. Moreover aim to extend the principles of socialism by treating the exploitation of men and animals as manifestations of the same problem. Thus, the members of the Humanitarian League declared that they have to struggle against “the cruelties inflicted by men, in the name of law, authority, and traditional habit, and the still more atrocious treatment of the lower animals, for the purpose of ‘sport,’ ‘science,’ ‘fashion,’ and the gratification of an appetite for unnatural food”. Firstly, they pointed out that wild animals were also victims of human violence, and had the right to be treated with compassion; until then animal welfare campaigners had confined their efforts to the protection of domesticated species. Secondly, while RSPCA members were principally concerned about working-class violence, League members did not hesitate to condemn the fundamental brutality of a number of practices that were the preserve of the privileged classes: hunting, wearing fashionable clothing, and having a diet rich in meat. By presenting engagement with tenderness in a positive light, the Romantics enabled animal welfare campaigners – who were, however, initially suspicious of “oversensitiveness” – to trust their emotional reactions only had to listen to his own personal sentiments to write the page. ‘[O]bliging men to treat animals with the same kindness as they are required to treat one another is to improve mankind itself’”
Constitute such strong emotions that provoke your moral questioning: “Why are all the animals on the earth related to me, why does the mere idea of them fill me with mercy, tolerance, and tenderness? Why are animals, like men and as much as men, all in my family?” Let us love them [animals], because they are our little sisters, without words to speak of their ills, without the faculty of reason to use their gifts; let us love them because we are the most intelligent [creatures], which has made us the strongest; let us love them; in the name of fraternity and justice, to honor God’s creation which is in them, to respect the work of life and make our blood triumph, the red blood which is the same blood that flows through their veins and ours.
We did not know how to demonstrate courage, because the animal cause is for us nobler, [and] closely linked to the cause of men, to the point that all improvements in our relations with animals surely mark an increase in human happiness. If one day all men on earth are going to be happy, you can be sure that all animals will be happy too. In the face of pain, we have a common fate that cannot be broken, it is a matter of minimizing the suffering of all life. This growing affirmation of universal pity invites us to examine in more detail the influence on the animal protection movement of other leading figures too. In line with this, compassion, often combined with the doer’s pantheism, is described as being all the more praiseworthy when it expresses itself through zoophilia – pity for animals – which thus appears to be the most advanced form of charity. “You will never be, whatever the circumstances, completely unhappy if you are kind to animals” and, most famously, “Torturing a bull for pleasure or amusement is more than torturing an animal, it is torturing a conscience.” As the little bullies continue to torment the toad, a cart approaches, pulled by an “exhausted, lame and miserable donkey,” itself the victim of cruel treatment from its carter.
This quotation, though lengthy, nicely draws attention to one of the most important historical turning points in the history of animal protection. From the end of the 19th century onward the animal protection movement took on a more equivocal character, not only because it was joined by supporters, but also, and more importantly, because of a significant shift in its underlying emotional economy. The extolling of love for animals, the pity was shown toward the most despised animals, was part of a wider evolution that could be termed the leveling of compassion. “[T]he humble soul coming to the aid of somber soul / the stupid creature leaning over, moved by a horrible sight / The goodness of the accursed giving the cruel chosen one cause for reflection!” In other words, here we part company from that asymmetric pity, which is downward-looking and one-sided, which enables the upper strata of society to reaffirm their preeminent status. To counter this aristocratic emotional economy, one can contemporaries appeal to “goodness,” a horizontal pity which, rejecting the hierarchical model, affirms beneficial solidarity which is equally accessible to those at the top and at the bottom of the social ladder.
The sensitivity to this sympathy for the suffering of animals, and their firm belief that the nurturing of such sympathy can encourage the development of solidarity between men. This change led to a significant modification in the pedagogical approach that they chose to adopt. The aim was no longer to merely curb children’s tendency to be cruel; the aim is to make them aware – through the mediation of the relationship with the animal – of the pleasures of tenderness, regarded as a civic virtue of the highest importance.