The philosophy behind the development of the IVRA and why I believe that vegans should look to human rights to emancipate nonhuman animals
By Dr Jeanette Rowley, Founder of the IVRA
This short explanation of the reason I think vegans should look to human rights to liberate nonhuman animals involves an unfortunate, but necessary, oversimplification of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.
So, why should vegans claim human rights? To answer the question, we need to firstly consider why ‘human rights’ exist.
1. What are human rights?
Emmanuel Levinas says that the idea of human rights comes from the simple awareness that we live in a community of others to whom we owe duties. He points out that the concept ‘human rights’ only makes sense because we have acknowledged that we are born into a community of others. By this, he means that we have no concept of being alone in the world. We only know our lives on this planet in the context of a multitude of the others around us. Levinas argues that our awareness, that there are others around us, makes us ethical and is the foundation of human rights.
Levinas argues that human rights emerged because we recognise that we all live precarious lives at the mercy of mortality. Recognising the precarious nature of our mortality means that we have acknowledged the mortality of others and the universality of suffering. Levinas wants us to understand that these observations create human ethics. We know others suffer the forces of mortality and we want to help. Our awareness that there are others, who suffer, is the source of human ethics informing the idea of human rights.
For Levinas, human rights are not, first and foremost, claims for ourselves. They came about because we recognise we have duties to all others around us. Many legal philosophers agree with this argument. They have explained that modern human rights exist because we recognise that we live in community, we are aware of the universality of suffering, we know that mortal others live vulnerable lives, can be arbitrarily abused, oppressively thematised and they need to be protected from harm. Legal philosophers agree that the suffering of others motivates us to ethical action. They agree with Levinas that the idea of human rights is primarily about the duties we have to others who suffer.
This idea about the existence of human rights, argued by Emmanuel Levinas, contrasts the more dominant philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who promoted the idea that human beings are essentially autonomous, self-legislating, rational beings. Levinas says we are not autonomous, nor essentially and primarily rational but are, first and foremost, inescapably responsible to others because we are aware of them before we have free thought. Our free and autonomous thinking comes only after our awareness that we live in a community of vulnerable others to whom we must respond.
Levinas goes a step further, saying that we are pre-disposed to care about the suffering of others. He says that their suffering impacts upon us automatically and, because we know suffering is universal, we take care to act ethically, as much as we can, to avoid harming the others living in our shared community. We can think of some examples of where we might experience this kind of pre-disposed commitment to others around us.
2. Examples of ethical responsibility
To better understand what I have said so far, imagine this scenario. You walk down the supermarket aisle and suddenly you see a frail person fall to the ground in pain. Does that situation motivate you to action? Levinas says that a situation such as that, is one of ‘no choice’. The suffering of the other person demands a response from you. You are inescapably forced to respond. Levinas wants us to understand that this is a moment of ethics because it is an example of the ‘original ethical encounter’. You saw frailty and suffering and it motivated you to action. Similarly, if you saw a dog in a canal in difficulty, what would you do? It is very likely that you would do your best to help the dog get to safety, using whatever means you have at your disposal, even calling the emergency services. Again, this is a moment of ethical responsibility. It is a moment when the suffering of ‘the other’ speaks to you, asking for a response to the unspoken question ‘what will you do now that you see me suffer?’ Of course, you can apply your subsequent ‘free thought’ to the situation and you can choose to do nothing to help, but that would be to deny your ethical obligation.
Levinas uses everyday situations, like those above, to explain that we are not totally autonomous but we are responsible to others. Our ability for rational thought comes second to our awareness that we have no choice but to respond to what we experience. We can simplify (with great caution) his argument by thinking about ethical responsibility as being something similar to cause and effect. We know there are others who suffer and this causes us to care, to the extent that we create numerous institutional measures to support and assist them, whether they are nearby or far away. Suffering motivates us to action. We acknowledge the universality of suffering and we know we are duty or ethically obliged to respond. Levinas says that human beings are ethical and have developed a system of justice because we are aware that we have no choice but to respond to all the others in our community. An important aspect of this justice is the creation of ‘human rights’.
3. Human rights represent innate responsibility to others
The awareness of ethical responsibility to others is why we developed ‘human rights’. The first human right is the right of the other not to be harmed, arbitrarily abused or thematised in an oppressive way. Our framework for protective (human) rights was built upon this acknowledgment of duty to vulnerable others and the feeling that formal protection ought to be in place. Human rights are an ethical statement of humanity; that the suffering of others matters and must be eradicated, wherever it exists. But the framework humans have developed for protection and emancipation, excludes the suffering of nonhumans. The exclusion of protection for the suffering of those who are not human, can be thought of as the original violence of human rights because it violates the principle that it is natural to respond to suffering and overlooks one of our essential and most important characteristics: that we are pre-programmed to care about, and respond to, suffering, vulnerability and arbitrary oppression, wherever it exists.
4. Do we feel innately responsible to nonhuman animals?
Levinas said that he wasn’t sure if we are ethically motivated by nonhuman animals, but he writes about how he responded to a dog when he was a prisoner of the Nazis during the Second World War. Other philosophers who have examined the idea further, have said that his philosophy is very relevant to the human-animal relationship. Most people ‘love’ animals, we have over 300 treaties recognising some needs of other animals, we have cruelty legislation, nonhuman animal sentience is explicitly referred to in law, and we have case law that makes it very clear that one of our most valued ‘social goods’ is to treat nonhuman animals with respect, care and compassion. But the human community and law are not logical in the presentation of the moral standing of nonhuman animals and they are presented with a confused status; other animals are beneficiaries of some protective legislation, but they are also defined as property and economic commodities. This confused message, entrenched in law and our social fabric, perpetuates the unjust terms imposed on nonhuman animals by human society, despite the fact that they are as much a part of our shared community as are human beings.
We know that nonhuman animals need the same resources as the human community, such as air, water, food and shelter. We also know that they are subject to the forces of mortality, like us. They suffer too, but they are arbitrarily thematised, exploited, oppressed and have been commoditised by human beings, who are continually denying the full extent of ethical responsibility owed [to nonhuman animals] as suffering others who motivate us to ethical action. In my view, vegans have realised the travesty of this and managed to liberate themselves from the imposed denial that we don’t have to extend moral responsibility to nonhuman animals by respecting their fundamental rights. Vegans have accepted their infinite, cross-species, ethical duty to respond to the unspoken question ‘what will you do now?’.
5. Veganism as ethical responsibility
On the basis of what I have said above, we can think of veganism as giving expression to what Levinas describes as the first characteristic of human beings: to be infinitely responsible in the face of the suffering of others. Vegans respond to the unspoken question that demands a response. I believe that we desire to extend compassion whenever we see suffering. This responsibility is not only extended to those in close proximity. Levinas says that we know the universality of suffering and our feeling of duty is infinite. He argues that because we know infinite duty, we try to avoid hurting others, even when they are not present. We can think of vegans as expressing this infinite duty. We feel motivated to care about suffering in the world; we care and respond to unjust, arbitrary oppression, unfair prejudice and oppressive thematization.
I think that veganism is a manifestation of a much wider ethical regard for suffering and concern, with pressing social justice issues. Human beings care when they see vulnerability, arbitrary abuse, exploitation and suffering, and when we speak out, we are speaking for all the others, not ourselves. We are giving expression to Levinasian ethical duty because we are saying that we acknowledge that the others around us express their authenticity, and that we are responding to their demand for a response.
Living our lives as vegans means that we live according to the first principle of acknowledging the frailty, suffering and precarious existence of nonhuman others. We acknowledge that they and their lives matter and that we are ethically obliged to respond to their unspoken question ‘what will you do now?’. We feel the moral imperative and care about the suffering of other animals, even when we haven’t met or seen them. We know they are there, being abused, and we feel the infinity of responsibility. We speak for them through our daily practices that re-present their existence, their call for a response and their suffering to those around us so that they can be heard through us. Levinas said that we have a duty to speak for the others who are excluded from justice.
6. Why vegans should look to law to liberate nonhuman animals
Human rights have excluded nonhuman animals from protection, but, when vegans claim their human rights, we bring nonhuman animals into our exclusive system of justice. This is a productive paradox. Our framework for human rights was written to protect people, but the basis of vegan human rights claims are the fundamental rights of nonhuman others.
If we think about the human rights in the way Levinas did, we can say that the first moral right is the right of mortal, suffering others not to be harmed further, either by physical means or by imposing oppressive themes and categories of convenience, such as ‘food’, ‘vermin’, ‘laboratory animals’, ‘pets’, etc. We can also say that since it is our very nature to extend care and compassion in the face of suffering and arbitrary oppression, then doing so can be seen as the first moral human right. Therefore, we should not be restrained from living practically as vegans and, in fact, we should be positively supported in our endeavours to liberate those who suffer. This is why I say vegans should look to human rights law for support in their endeavour to help liberate nonhuman animals.
When vegans claim rights, they are re-claiming their fundamental right to extend responsibility and duty to those who are vulnerable, and, in so doing, they re-present the natural moral standing and the basic rights of nonhuman animals to the majority and to our framework for social justice for a response.
What I should emphasise, however, is that I do not believe that the extent of accommodation for vegans in law should be determined under an individual right to freedom of conscience. This basic human right recognises that we all have thoughts and ideas that may ground our personal moral compass. Religious or non-religious convictions guide our conduct throughout our lives and, to accommodate a multitude of positions, law provides that we will each have some freedom, but not absolute freedom. Whilst vegans currently resort to initiating this basic human right to give effect to animal rights, it is not appropriate for society to judge veganism on this level. As I said above, I believe that veganism is a manifestation of a very broad ethical and social regard for nonhuman animals and is not a matter of individuality of conscience, but a human characteristic manifested logically in the face of universal suffering. It is a desired social good that is supressed by structural and institutional forces of oppression. My view is that any arbitrary abuse of nonhuman animals ought to be deemed criminal in the same way as other undesirable acts against our community values. I further believe that to adjudicate the claims of vegans according to the principles of negotiation in a democracy as individual matters of conscience, is an affront to a humanity that recognises universal suffering and desires to live in a cross-species community.
7. The wider benefits of otherness in ‘human rights’
If our system of ‘human rights’ recognised the kind of ‘human nature’ Levinas speaks of, we would address the broader issues of inclusion and intersectional justice differently. Instead of thinking of rights as the entitlements of self-seeking individuals, we would be thinking first about what duties we have to others. I believe that veganism is an expression of an inclusive social justice, and that we can look to Levinas for support to develop a better principle for social justice than the one we currently have, which has been distracted by the idea of autonomous, self-legislating, rational individuals who must compete for recognition and inclusion.