Mister Rogers on peace, empathy, and make-believe

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2020

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.

Ancient wisdom and climate change

Maybe it’s time to learn from our past

Fresno Bee, August 6, 2016

Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.

According to NASA, the first half of 2016 was “the planet’s warmest half-year on record.” The warmest previous years were 2015 and 2014. The Earth’s atmosphere is more than 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Polar ice is melting. Sea level is nearly 3 inches higher than 25 years ago.

And yet we go about our business, unable or unwilling to change our collision course with climate calamity.

Some are in denial. Donald Trump has described climate change as “expletive.” He has claimed that it is a hoax foisted upon the world by the Chinese. His running mate Mike Pence has called climate change a myth. Trump wants to cancel the recent Paris climate agreement.

Others admit the climate crisis, while imagining high-tech solutions. At the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clintondeclared, “I believe in science.” She said, “I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying, clean energy jobs.”


Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.

Ancient sages teach that happiness and virtue are found in restraint and self-control. Desire is a flame that easily burns out of control. Materialism distracts us from higher goods. Tranquility and joy are found in peaceful harmony.

The Buddhists aimed to control desire. The Taoists sought harmony in simplicity. Jesus warned against greed and wealth. And the ancient Greeks praised modesty, moderation and temperance.

But we crave the goods of carbon culture: cars, planes and cheap plastic goods. We like air-conditioned houses, stocked refrigerators and weekend getaways. Billions of poor people dream of joining the American middle class in our relentless pursuit of happiness.

I thought about this as I watched shooting stars blaze across the sky on a recent night in the Sierra. The stars were amazing. So too is our hubris and hypocrisy. I spewed carbon on my drive to the mountains, contributing to the climate crisis.

Such is our predicament. Our daily choices contribute to the problem. It is difficult to imagine living otherwise. The habits of affluence fuel our economy and inflame our desires.

Something’s got to give. Or we’ve got to give something up.


Conan-Arnold PosesOne interesting suggestion comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has become a spokesman for meat-free meals as a cure for climate change. In a public service announcement he says, “less meat, less heat, more life.”

Schwarzenegger’s advertisement was made to support the Chinese government in its plan to reduce meat consumption as a response to climate change. Meat consumption creates more carbon emissions than a plant-based diet. Locally grown foods also produce fewer emissions.

All of our consumption habits have environmental impacts. Coffee is shipped across the globe. Coffee culture creates vast piles of disposable cups. Beer and soda also have an impact. Energy is used to refrigerate and transport it. There are ecological costs in manufacturing and recycling cans and bottles.

Even our hygiene habits have climate impacts. Hot showers produce carbon emissions. So do our hair and clothes dryers. And so on.

A climate-friendly life would be simple. We would take fewer showers, air-dry our clothes, take few long trips, and rarely eat meat. We would walk or bike to work, drink mostly water, and generally curtail consumption.

This is how most people lived before electricity and fossil fuels. The nights were darker then. The stars provided entertainment and inspiration. We rarely see those stars today.

A simple life is unimaginable in the era of unrepentant indulgence. Our lights and gizmos blaze at all hours. There is no space for silence or stargazing.

Studying the ancients reminds us of the value of simplicity. Of course we need science. But we also need to understand that burning carbon cannot create virtue or happiness.

It’s a hopeful sign that Arnold Schwarzenegger has become an advocate for climate-friendly behavior. If Conan the Barbarian is giving up meat, what are you willing to do to cool the planet and simplify your life?

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article93860892.html#storylink=cpy

The Vegetarian View

The vegetarian view

Fresno Bee, April 17, 2015 

  • Environmental and health concerns point toward vegetarian diet.vegetarian-mark-620
  • Concern for animal suffering leads some away from meat.
  • Vegetarian morality has deep roots.


Vegetarianism is on the rise. Actress Pamela Anderson recently served vegetarian meals to inmates in an Arizona jail. Anderson explained that vegetarian meals help promote compassion and nonviolence. The sheriff was less idealistic: he touted meatless meals as a cost-saving measure.

Not only is a meatless diet compassionate and cheap, it is also good for the environment. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that avoiding meat saves water. According to the Times’ data, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce one ounce of soy burger, compared with 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef. Earlier this year, The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded in a draft report that vegetarian diets are both better for the environment and better for human health.

The health argument is complex. Another study, from a medical university in Graz, Austria, concluded that vegetarians are less healthy. Exercise, affluence and other factors matter with regard to health. If you double down on French fries, you don’t benefit from skipping the burger. Despite the Graz study, the consensus seems to be that vegetarian diets are healthy and environmentally sustainable.

My own journey to vegetarianism began 20 years ago when my sister asked me to clean a chicken. She liked to eat chicken, she said, but the preparation grossed her out. That got me thinking about my own disconnect from the meat I ate. I decided that if I wasn’t willing to kill it and clean it myself, I wasn’t going to eat it. I haven’t eaten meat in 20 years. And I’m healthy and happy.

I discussed vegetarianism with a carnivorous dinner companion the other night. He told me of growing up on a poultry farm, where he’d killed more than his share of chickens. He had also slaughtered goats and cows. He admitted that it’s not pleasant to kill and bleed a cow. But he happily munched his steak. Disgusting but delicious, he suggested.

There’s no doubt that some disgusting things are necessary and justifiable. But meat eating is not. You can live quite well without it. But an argument based upon our feelings of disgust is fairly weak. A deeper moral argument focuses on the question of animal suffering.

Now some deny that animals suffer, claiming that animal pain is merely a physical response without moral meaning. But pet owners will disagree. Dogs wince in pain and wag their tales in delight. If I care about the suffering of dogs or cats, then I should care about other critters.

Some carnivores argue that the pleasure of meat offsets the suffering of the animal. But vegetarians claim that the pain of the pig outweighs the pleasure of bacon. We should be more humble, I think, about causing suffering in the name of pleasure. Related to this is the idea the we should “live simply so that others may simply live.”

Vegetarianism also has mystical and ascetic overtones. In Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, a commitment to nonviolence can be extended toward compassion for all living things. In ancient Rome, the philosopher Porphyry made a similar argument. He thought that learning to be considerate of animals helped us learn to be compassionate to one another. He also thought that taming the appetite for meat helped to liberate the soul.

You don’t have to be a mystic or monk, however, to understand that it is good to avoid causing suffering. Nor do you have to think that animals are equal to humans to reach vegetarian conclusions. Human interests matter more than animal interests. If I were trapped with my dogs and my children on a desert island, we’d eat the dogs. But in a world with plentiful vegetarian options, one can eat well without eating meat.

I’m not dogmatic about this. I eat fish and eggs on occasion. I don’t nitpick the ingredients in food served by friends or in restaurants. And I don’t mind sharing a table with amiable meat eaters.

There are vicious vegans and caring carnivores. There is no necessary connection between diet and morality. But vegetarianism reminds us to think about reducing suffering and simplifying our needs. Vegetarianism can improve the world, one bite at a time.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/04/17/4482343/andrew-fiala-on-ethics-the-vegeterian.html#storylink=cpy


Climate, Consumption, and Self-Control

Global-Climate-Change3Looking down the rabbit hole

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2015

The earth’s climate is changing. Last year was among the hottest on record. And human population continues to grow. Current projections estimate that the human population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, reaching 9 billion well before then. That’s an increase of between 25% and 50% from the current population of 7 billion.

Imagine 100 people crowded into a warm room. Now put 25 or 50 more people in that space. Now imagine them all wanting to live and consume resources at the level that Americans enjoy. If the scientists are right, we are heading toward a hot and crowded future.

The good news is that by now nearly everyone admits that the climate is changing. President Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union speech. Pope Francis will address the issue in an encyclical to be released this year. And the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 this week to affirm that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, 49 senators voted against the claim that human activity causes climate change. This includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment Committee. According to Sen. Inhofe, the Bible shows that humans can’t cause climate change — only God can.

A similar sort of denial occurs with regard to population growth. Pope Francis said this week that people should not “breed like rabbits.” But Francis backtracked a bit, later in the week, explaining that every child is a gift from God.

One obvious solution to both issues is birth control. Unfortunately, this solution is often taken off the table on moral grounds. The Pope, for example, opposes artificial birth control, advocating only natural methods for controlling sexual urges and channeling them properly within marriage.

Birth control is not the only solution. Another solution would be to reduce consumption. We could fit more people onto our crowded planet if each person consumed less. This is especially true if those of us in the developed world consumed a whole lot less. The earth could support a large human population if we all became vegetarians and lived much more simply.

But the difficulty of this solution is clear. The vegetarian option runs counter to our culture’s love of meat. And the idea of simplifying our needs runs counter to capitalism, which is based upon a model of continuous growth.

Carnivores, Catholics and capitalists do not appear to be inclined to change their thinking. We are creatures of habit, who remain committed to old ideas, even when they no longer make sense in present contexts.

We are also not very good at controlling our desires. Our inability to restrain ourselves helps explain a lot: from credit card debt to obesity and addiction. We readily sacrifice long-term goods for short-term pleasures. This explains why birth control — whether artificial or natural — fails. In the heat of the moment, passion undermines good judgment.

Good judgment also encounters resistance from strong cultural forces that are slow to change. When ideology is connected to self-interest, profit, and political gamesmanship, it is even more difficult to respond rationally.

The big question here is whether human beings are rational enough and virtuous enough to regulate our own behavior. Perhaps we are not much better than the rabbits of the Pope’s memorable analogy. Rabbits will continue to breed until they outstrip their food source, at which point the population declines. If human beings are like rabbits — unable to limit our reproductive or consumptive behavior — we may be doomed to a similar fate.

We often continue blithely along, ignoring reason and morality. We don’t change until we run out of money, until we are rushed to the emergency room, or until our addictions destroy our lives. We may be more like rabbits than we like to believe.

The ultimate solution is to stop hopping along the bunny trail. We should restrain our sexual activity, curtail consumption, avoid greed and profligacy, and live in balance with the world. Those are old moral ideas that make even more sense in light of the contemporary science of ecology. But these ideas will only prevail when we stop living like rabbits and start behaving like rational human beings.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/01/23/4344634_ethics-looking-down-the-rabbit.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy