This guest post is by Sam Woolfe, a freelance writer who blogs about philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health at Catch him on Twitter: @samwoolfe


A psychedelic experience can often be a chance to put our fundamental beliefs and opinions under the spotlight, whether intentionally or not. I’ve had a few experiences like this, particularly through solo experimentation with mescaline HCl, with the most profound experiences featuring major shifts in how I view myself and existence itself. In moments of clarity, narrow and negative beliefs about what I am like as a person and how I view the world and other people were replaced by more expansive and warmer tendencies.

There have also been times when I’ve examined certain philosophical assumptions I hold. One of these philosophical beliefs was veganism. In this piece, I’d like to describe what this experience was like and how it – through a process of integration – helped me to better understand the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.


My Introduction to Animal Ethics

Before any of my experiments with mescaline, I had been committed to a vegan lifestyle for many years. I first got interested in animal ethics at university, where I studied a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. During our first year, we were studying applied ethics and so one of the standard topics to look at was animal ethics.

Part of the reading list included Peter Singer’s essay All Animals Are Equal (1974). In this essay, I felt that Singer made an irrefutable case for why the exploitation of non-human animals was morally unjustified. Singer also quoted Bentham (a fellow utilitarian like himself) who famously said of non-human animals: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” It was clear to me that all of the animals I eat could suffer and given the way they were treated – as outlined by Singer – suffered immensely. Singer also brought into focus for me the irrationality of speciesism, the idea that it is justified to mistreat non-human animals for the sole reason that they belong to a different species. This way of thinking seemed as arbitrary (and dangerous) as the mindset that underlies sexism and racism.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, courtesy of Wikimedia via CC BY-SA

After digesting Singer’s arguments for some time, I eventually discovered footage of factory farms and I think that emotionally sealed the deal, as it were, motivating me to become vegetarian – not to cut down on my meat consumption, but to give it up entirely. Although it felt like a major decision, I felt unable to continue eating meat, given the horrific consequences involved.

Only after a few months of being vegetarian, I realised that the logic of Singer’s arguments applied to all animal products, not just meat. Coming to terms with the cruelty of the dairy and egg industries made me want to avoid funding them as well, so I then made the switch to veganism (which was 10 years ago now). After this switch, I continued to read up on veganism and the specific debates associated with the lifestyle, although I was always firmly committed to the belief that the exploitation of non-human animals was unjustified. Later on, environmental arguments in favour of a vegan lifestyle and (to a lesser extent) health arguments provided further justification for taking the lifestyle seriously.


How I Viewed Non-Human Animals During a Mescaline Experience

After some time, the vegan lifestyle became second nature and ethical veganism wasn’t really something I questioned, besides some of the less important debates like eating eggs from backyard chickens or eating oysters and honey. During one solo experience with mescaline, however, I found myself thinking about ethical veganism again. It was strange. I didn’t go into the experience with the intention of examining this belief system, but during the introspective journey I was on, that was the direction the experience went.

Sitting on the floor with eyes closed, I remember asking myself: “Besides all of the philosophical arguments, what is the fundamental reason I’m vegan?” As soon as I asked the question, the answer appeared to me visually. Animal-based images and scenes flashed through my mind in quick succession. I saw a school of fish swimming in unison in the sea. They had a frantic, vital energy about them. In their eyes, I could see their striving, their fear, their desire to stay alive. I also recall seeing a herd of deer running together and in their eyes I could see the same striving and desire for life as the school of fish. This theme repeated with other types of animals.

On a very visceral level, I felt the struggle common to all sentient non-human animals. And I realised, humans share this struggle, this burning desire for life and the avoidance of pain and danger. The mescaline experience did not add any philosophical weight to veganism, but like with any psychedelic, it helped to invoke an intuitive and more compassion-based perspective. That’s not to say veganism never appeared to me as intuitive or compassionate before this experience, but the lifestyle did take on more emotional depth as a result of that experience. I could feel (rather than simply rationalise) the ways in which humans were united with non-human animals, rather than separate from them.


Understanding Schopenhauer’s Will-to-Life and Moral Philosophy

It’s not that unusual for psychedelics to help elucidate a particular philosophical position or idea. For example, in a paper titled The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide (1882), the psychologist William James waxed lyrical about his personal experiences with nitrous oxide (or ‘laughing gas’). He wrote:

With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence. The mind sees all the logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel; only as sobriety returns, the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly at a few disjointed words and phrases, as one stares at the cadaverous-looking snow peak from which the sunset glow has just fled, or at the black cinder left by an extinguished brand.

He then goes on to state that “its [nitrous oxide’s] first result was to make peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all, and that the deepest convictions of my intellect hitherto were wrong.” James unequivocally felt that the nitrous oxide experience helped him to understand the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Based on my own experience with mescaline, I would say that those animal-themed visions helped to clarify the ideas of another German philosopher, those of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer

In The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer postulated that nature is fundamentally governed by what he called ‘will’, a blind, aimless, striving force. And in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, this will expresses itself in life specifically as the ‘will-to-life’, an unconscious force that makes us cling to existence and want to perpetuate it, namely, through the act of procreation. Our desires all serve the will-to-life: hunger, thirst, lust, greed, and so on. Schopenhauer was the first Western philosopher to draw significant influence from the Eastern traditions, and like in Buddhism, he defined life by suffering, saw desire as the cause of suffering, and asserted that desire could never bring us any lasting satisfaction.

Before having the particular mescaline experience I described above, I was already somewhat acquainted with Schopenhauer’s philosophy, as well as the basic tenet of Buddhism that craving leads to suffering (since we are unsatisfied up until the point that a desire is satisfied, which is only a brief moment of satisfaction, and then we find ourselves back in a state of craving again). I could conceptualise how all sentient life – not just human life – was subject to the will-to-life and so easily flung back and forth by the momentum of different desires. However, during my mescaline experience, this worldview became less abstract. It was truthful on an experiential level.

When I experienced the common struggle felt by all sentient life, I didn’t feel despondent or pessimistic about it all, which is the outlook Schopenhauer has become well known for. I did, nonetheless, take on an attitude that Schopenhauer also adopted: the compassionate point of view. My experience was infused with sympathy for non-human animals who, like us, value their life and desperately strive to preserve it. In his essay On the Basis of Morality (1840), Schopenhauer argued that morality is based on:

the everyday phenomenon of compassion,…the immediate participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it…. Only insofar as an action has sprung from compassion does it have moral value; and every action resulting from any other motives has none.

While the other being we hold in the gaze of compassion is – we understand – external to us, we nonetheless experience his or her suffering. As Schopenhauer states:

I nevertheless feel it with him, feel it as my own, and not within me, but in another person… But this presupposes that to a certain extent I have identified myself with the other man, and in consequence the barrier between the ego and the non–ego is for the moment abolished….

Although Schopenhauer here is using the terms ‘person’ and ‘man’, he certainly included non-human animals in his circle of moral consideration. For instance, he said:

The assumption that animals are without rights, and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance, is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.

I now see the relationship between the will-to-life and veganism in the following way: since I recognise that all sentient beings share the will-to-life, which is a major cause of suffering, I can identify and empathise with other animals on a basic (but crucial) level. The lecturer Terence McKenna talked about how psychedelics were boundary-dissolving substances. In light of my mescaline experience, it appeared that the boundary between non-human animals and myself dissolved and allowed me to feel compassion for other animals in a way that was quite new to me. The strong feelings of compassion I experienced at the time had this underlying desire for other animals not to suffer, which is essentially why I went vegan in the first place.

This particular mescaline experience underscored that the foundation of my veganism, and the foundation of morality in general, is simple compassion. Thanks to two unlikely allies (Schopenhauer and mescaline), I’m convinced that cultivating compassion is one of the most important aims in life. I’ve found that many of the most meaningful interactions and moments I experience are based on this feeling.

It’s interesting to think about what direction Schopenhauer’s philosophy might have taken if he himself had experimented with psychedelics. It may be a bit naïve to imagine that he’d completely reject his pessimistic worldview, but based on my own experiences, I can easily imagine how psychedelics could have helped to reinforce his belief that compassion is the basis of morality.


Read more by Sam Woolfe at his website or on Twitter.

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