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6 January 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 5:19pm

Take a leaf from Buddha’s book this year and enter the sublime states

Loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity – they might usefully be set as the guiding aspirations of any system of government.

By John Burnside

With little to celebrate in 2017, and much to inspire a Kierkegaardian dread that even the master himself failed to anticipate, last November’s debate over “animal sentience” did, nevertheless, rekindle some hope in this eternal optimist’s battered heart. The old arguments about our relationship to other creatures are finally being exposed for the wilful deceptions that they are.

When Michael Gove claimed that writing Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty (which recognises animals as sentient beings) into UK law would create an atmosphere of “legal uncertainty”, it was clear that nothing could be further from the truth. The very reason Article 13 came into being was that animal welfare standards across the EU needed to be more clearly defined. In her motion to stick to those Lisbon principles, what Caroline Lucas was asking of parliament was not some radical move towards Brahmavihara (a Buddhist teaching that includes the recognition of all creatures as sentient), but that this country should permanently adopt a legal apparatus that would serve us better than the 2006 Animal Welfare Act.

Gudrun Ravetz of the British Veterinary Association told the Today programme the difference between the two: “Article 13 puts a duty on the state to pay full regard to animal welfare and explicitly states that animals are sentient, while the Animal Welfare Act puts the duty for the animal welfare on the owner or the keeper.” The explicit statement of a principle and the acceptance of responsibility commit signatories to a defence of animal welfare that goes far beyond punishing miscreants when they are detected.

So why does all this bean-counting and wordplay inspire me with hope? For one thing, it didn’t seem altogether absurd, for once, to mention Brahmavihara in the context of contemporary politics – something I think should happen more often. Its “four immeasurables” or “sublime states” are metta (loving-kindness); karuna (compassion for all sentient beings); mudita (appreciative joy); and upekkha (equanimity). They describe an attitude of openness to others, appreciation and a refusal to do harm that might usefully be set as the guiding aspirations of any system of government.

Not that such ideas are exclusive to Buddhism: Francis of Assisi held to much the same precepts, as have many of the great Western philosophers. Schopenhauer was at pains to point out that any kind of cruelty to any living thing demeans us, insisting that: “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positivelyoutrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universalcompassion is the only guarantee of morality.”

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Brahmavihara. We can set aside the esoteric terminology, but wouldn’t some first steps in the adoption of those basic attitudes be a great way to start this new year? What is to stop us? I can only think of one thing, but science seems to offer an answer even to that problem. For, while it seems to be true that living creatures have feelings, there is one exception that proves the rule – and that is the psychopath. Such freaks of nature can cause a great deal of damage, even bring us to the brink of nuclear war, but they are relatively easy to recognise and can be found in fairly predictable places, operating, all too often, under such equally predictable titles as Mr President, His Eminence or plain old CEO. 

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This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old