Validating Veganism in Resistant Legal Systems – Part 2

by Dr Jeanette Rowley

Key consideration 4 of the Ontario Human Rights Code requires applicants to show how their belief ‘addresses ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence’. This means that vegan applicants must explain their convictions in coherent and persuasive, broad philosophical terms.

Traditionally and historically, answers to questions about human existence draw on religious explanations, which are well-respected in our legal systems. In fact, the relationship to the modern right to freedom of conscience is rooted in a dominant traditional philosophy that associates the assumed autonomy of human reason with the existence of God. This philosophy has contributed enormously to the idea that human beings function on an individual level and are, essentially, autonomous and self-legislating. This philosophy promotes the moral supremacy of human beings, and justifies the centrality of the (competitive) human individual in human rights. It also, denies nonhuman animals their natural moral standing and excludes them from the protective rights enterprise. This orthodoxy of autonomy, however, undermines the fact that modern human rights acknowledged that we are first responsive to the suffering of others, and to our awareness of universal suffering.


But there is a competing and compelling alternative philosophy of humankind. Emmanuel Levinas’ theory of ethics explains humanity in a different way, observing that our recognition of universal suffering is evidence that human reason is only a secondary activity. The first and most essential aspect of what it is to be human is having no choice but to respond to the precarious mortality of others. This human awareness of universal suffering is said to motivate ethical behaviour, as exampled by the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights following the suffering caused by the atrocities committed during World War Two.

Levinas’ theory of ethics argues that we are not primarily individual, self-legislating, autonomous beings, but are first responsive in community with others. He maintains that our primary characteristic is not the ability to reason but our responsi-bility to others. Simply put, we only know our existence in the context of others to whom we have no choice but to respond. Levinas develops a demanding philosophy of ‘otherness’ that explains our pre-determined connection with each other, our togetherness in community, and describes, what he believes to be, a higher order of ethical existence.

This philosophy is the antithesis to the idea of a selfish, competing ego that is entrenched in the idea of current human rights. It speaks to and for the suffering, unique, mortal other, and can inspire creative legal reasoning that may be useful for non-religious vegans presenting claims in resistant legal systems.

What follows is an extremely oversimplified application of Levinas to veganism, but shows how non-religious vegans can use the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas’ theory of ethics to ground their arguments under key consideration 4 of the Ontario Human Rights Code. For simplicity, I will split key consideration 4 into components:

  1. Can veganism address ultimate questions of human existence?
  2. Can this explanation include ideas about life, purpose and death?
  3. Can this explanation include ideas about the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence?

1.  Can veganism address ultimate questions of human existence?

Levinas argues that human existence revolves around a subject and the other. The first principle is that the other demands a response from the subject. The other expresses their precarious mortality and unique authenticity to which the subject has no choice but to respond. The other metaphorically ‘speaks’: ‘I am here, you cannot know how I experience the world but you know I am mortal and my mortality is precarious, what is your response now that you have encountered me and you know I suffer too?’ Levinas tells us that this is a moment of awareness that involves an epiphany that there are infinite others who suffer and to whom we are responsible and owe ethical duties. He says it is the first ethical demand to which we have no choice but to respond. When we do respond, it is with reason but Levinas maintains that our current application of human reason is unethical: it imposes oppressive themes, categories and vocabulary that marginalise and exclude others from a fair application of justice. Levinas argues that human life centres on dutiful obligation and that the destiny of humanity is to work out how to create a system of justice that can accommodate the infinite obligation to extend ethical duties to authentic others.

The claims of vegans can be argued to relate to this philosophy on human existence that explains the moral imperative to respond infinitely to the call of unique, mortal, authentic others. After all, the legal claims of vegans are not primarily about the individual vegan but concern the re-presentation of the natural moral standing of the other to which we have no option but to respond. Vegans can explain their ethics in these terms AND the urgent need, according to this philosophy, to remove and replace the oppressive themes and categories created by reason, that cause violent oppression and multiple forms of injustice.

2.  Can this explanation include ideas about life, purpose and death?

This philosophical theory of ethics, in which suffering others create our responsibility by demanding a response, includes ideas about life, purpose and death. Levinas explains that we can only conceive of death because we know others die and this knowledge of the death of the other is formative knowledge: we have no awareness of life or death without others in our world. Our awareness of and response to the death of others confirms our inseparable connection, need and desire for life with others.

Levinas’ theory of ethics includes ideas about life, purpose and death and can be applied to the infinite vegan concern with unique, suffering, mortal others who are marginalised and denied the protection of basic rights. The argument rests on our innate recognition and desire for shared community and that their precarious mortality and authentic expression motivates us to ethics, obligating us to include them in our system of justice.

3.  Can this explanation include ideas about the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence?

Levinas’ ideas are eschatological and concern the ultimate destiny of humanity. Levinas believes that the philosophy grounding the autonomy of human reason is misguided and that there is a higher peace to be discovered, not in human ‘reason’ but in ‘otherness’ from which a superior ethical justice can develop. Justice will always be ‘remorseful’ because it requires sacrifice, but this higher order of existence locates the individual, not an isolated individual atom in competition, but as a connected individual in a wider community of precarious mortal others with a natural disposition for compassion in the face of suffering. This disposition for compassion in the face of suffering is not a choice but intrinsic to human existence.

Part 3 of this extended blog will give an example of how vegans in various legal systems can discuss veganism in the context of the non-abstract, concrete terms of a plausible system of morality and ethics that supports veganism and the transcendental philosophical overarching terms about life, purpose and death.