A Mister Rogers renaissance is under way. This soft-spoken pacifist and vegetarian is a counter-cultural force in the age of Trumpian bluster, militaristic swagger, and fast-food excess.
Fred Rogers thought kindness should extend to everyone in the neighborhood, including nonhuman animals. In an interview in Vegetarian Times in 1983, Rogers said, “It’s hard to eat something you’ve seen walking around.” He also said, “I don’t want to eat anything that has a mother.”
Rogers imagined a world in which peace and love triumphed over war and hate, a vision grounded in his own Christian faith. One recent book calls him a “dyed-in-the-wool pacifist,” highlighting the anti-war lessons Rogers delivered from Vietnam to the war on terror.
This may seem like something from the land of make-believe. But the path to peace begins with kindness to animals.
The key to this process is empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense what another creature is experiencing. Empathy can be developed with practice. One way to help kids develop empathy is to have them care for animals.
But empathy is only a part of ethics. We could care for animals and eat them, after all. We could also understand that other people are suffering but remain indifferent to their pain.
Empathy helps us see things from the other’s point of view. The moral question is what we do about what we see.
You can understand, for example, that the homeless man on the corner is suffering. This may move you to give him money. But you may worry he would spend the money on drugs. You might also think that his suffering is his own fault. Or you may have other obligations to attend to.
Moral judgment goes beyond empathy. This applies in thinking about animals. Once we see that animals can suffer, the moral question is whether their suffering matters and to what extent.
Most people think that animal suffering does not count for much. Even if animals suffer, most humans believe that this suffering is outweighed by human pleasures. We know that pigs are as smart as dogs. But we like bacon. Or we are unable to imagine a world without bacon.
But our thinking slowly evolves as we imagine things differently. California is leading the nation in new reforms aimed at alleviating animal cruelty. In October, California became the first state to ban fur sales. California also prohibited the use of bears, tigers, elephants, and monkeys in circuses, among other reforms.
The fur ban is a policy that Rogers supported a few decades ago. Animal fur is no longer necessary for warmth. We have come up with other ways to clothe ourselves. Something similar holds for circus animals. We have decided to find other ways to entertain ourselves that do not involve cruelty to animals.
Now some skeptics will claim that animals do not suffer and that empathy for animals is absurd. A skeptic might claim that to think that animals suffer is misguided anthropomorphism — a mistaken projection from the land of make-believe.
But Rogers taught us a lot about the power of make-believe. He once explained the power of make-believe in this way: “You can think about things and make believe. All you have to do is think and they’ll grow.”
Empathy begins with a kind of make-believe. When we project ourselves into the experience of another, we use our imaginations. Once empathy makes the connection, the next step is to imagine a world in which there is less suffering — a world beyond animal cruelty and a world beyond violence and war.
Peace-makers have always had very active imaginations. Fred Rogers explained his vision of the world in a commencement speech in 2002 where he said that the deepest part of the self is oriented around the following: “Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
We don’t live in a world like that yet. Not everyone shares this vision of a more compassionate world. But we are making progress. The first step is learning empathy. The next step is teaching our children, as Rogers did, that they have the power to imagine a better world.