Indifference in Humans and Animals

What does it mean to be indifferent? The word itself is not all that clear. Is indifference a purely neutral term, referring to an absence of feeling? Or is it a negative term, meaning unfeeling? Is it synonymous with apathy?

For the Greeks (apatheia), and even for some Buddhists, there was a state, much to be desired, when one was without feeling for the external world, a form of dispassion (nishkãma, literally, “without love or desire.”) Even though I taught Sanskrit texts in which this achievement was praised, I never really believed it possible. Or if it was possible, I did not see it as a good thing.

How can we ever be without feeling when we see something terrible happen to a neighbor? At the very least, there must be an unconscious identification with her? “That could be me.” Is indifference a mask for fear? “If I intervene, will something violent happen to me as well?” And when something bad happens to a child, can anyone honestly say it does not affect them? If somebody is drowning, and we do nothing to help, will we not be scarred with guilt for the rest of our life, even if we could not possibly have saved the person?

There are those who say no. They point to how widespread indifference appears to be in the animal world. When an animal is “taken” out of its herd by a predator, the others continue grazing, as if nothing of major importance had just happened. Or so it would appear to us. But in truth we don’t know what the other animals in the herd feel. Relief that it’s not them? Grief because the one taken was a daughter? What we see as indifference could simply be something we do not recognize, or for which we have no word, or no understanding. It is hard enough to understand human feelings. Even Darwin acknowledged that when a cow looks at a dead herd-mate, we cannot possibly know what goes through her mind.

Sociopaths, we say, have no feelings of sympathy, or empathy. Or rather, they might well feel empathy: they can imagine the pain felt by another. But they feel no sympathy. They don’t care. If they are the source of the pain, they feel no remorse, or, worse, take pleasure in the suffering they have created. We don’t like those people, but we fear them, and we fear they are becoming less visible, but more widespread, hence books like Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.

But is there any such thing as a psychopathic snake? Snakes are simply doing what snakes do. It is not personal. Snakes do not have enemies (humans have lots of enemies, including snakes). Snakes don’t have a choice. Only humans can be psychopaths. Which means that only humans can be true bystanders, people who watch a tragedy and make no attempt to intervene. That is what we mean when we talk about the “problem” of the bystander during the Second World War. We don’t just judge individuals, but whole countries, neutral Switzerland say, or Sweden, and we contrast them with other countries where a greater effort was made to save the innocent, for example Denmark, or even Italy in spite of its alliance with Germany.

We don’t know enough about animals to refine our understanding of their simply “standing by” while their companions are picked off. But we do know that what is taking place is about food. Humans are rarely sentimental (that is, have feelings) about what they eat and how what they eat came to be food. Maybe animals are the same? If this is so, maybe the roots of indifference in the negative sense of the term are to be found in our willingness to eat what was once a living, feeling animal. If we gave that up, would we reconnect with feelings we have suppressed, repressed, or never known? I ask the question because I am not sure of the answer. There are always vegetarian psychopaths.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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5 Responses to Indifference in Humans and Animals

  1. Katy says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful essay. I’ve never been very comfortable with Buddhist indifference. Maybe acceptance of the inevitable but not indifference. BTW, I just attended the Ferenczi Society conference on trauma in Budapest and there were wonderful presentations. The core element that makes trauma really traumatic is the bystander who does not intervene or the person who is reported to and denies the assault. (These deniers are usually dissociating themselves from having been traumatized.) Perhpas trauma is the source of indifference and animals can be traumatized as a group so that they tune out just as people may do in extreme situations. Who knows, some may even have DID.

    PS I loved the feeling for dogs (and small children) that I saw in Budapest, even in a large city there was friendliness, caring.

  2. I think this state of Buddhism that you mention, is not ‘indifference. “Mysticism schools teach that the first we must learn is to get a completely control our thoughts, feelings, emotions. But that doesn”t mean that things are not important.
    I think the problem is that we measure a non-human animals according to our parameters.
    They are as inteligent as they learn to do what we want. The chimpnazze is inteligent because he can speak with a human sign, but I don’t known a human talking a non-human language.
    We are very far from knowing what they have inside.

  3. Girija says:

    I have often wondered if the roots of our indifference could be traced to misinterpretation, perhaps? Dharma ( is often translated as religion, it is only just close) is “that which upholds”. Dharma is also about everything being linked with every thing else in complete harmony.
    Is it even possible that this grand, all encompassing vision of Hindu Dharma, which is all about realising the Divinity already within us, would support consuming a food that is an outcome of violence? I am particularly thinking of milk and its products, honey, silk which are “important” components of daily worship ritual in a Hindu home.

    David Frawley, who is a very respected authority on Vedas, writes about special herbal honey preparations and herbal ghee preparations in the Vedic times, in one of his articles. This mention of honey and ghee as herbal preparations (my elders at home have never once even toyed with the idea that ghee or honey could come from a plant!!) has kind of strengthened my apprehension.

    PS: I am using the word religion to imply a framework that makes Cosmic order, possible. Ideology of Food is an -ism, and is part of this reference. Being a Hindu myself I am in disbelief about how things were explained to me. And I am thinking aloud about it in the comment here.

  4. “Snakes don’t have a choice. Only humans can be psychopaths.”

    If this is to imply that humans can choose to be psychopaths or not, I have to differ. I don’t see that humans are much or at all different from animals is not being able to choose their mental state. Could you choose to be a psychopath, a schizophrenic, a suicide, a homosexual, a theist, a fascist? Myself, I think volition is a delusion, the delusion of the falling rock who just happens to choose to fall just as fast as he happens to be falling.

    • Katy says:

      Well, the native people (Chumash) where I’m from did/do believe that rocks have volition in falling, if that helps the dialogue. Everything has power and choice in their view. The rock may have less of it. Power is in constant flux.

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