For Levinas, to be human is to respond ethically to others in close proximity and, infinitely, to express due regard for those we have not and will never meet. His theory of ethics explains that we are ethical, not because we are able to think ethical thoughts, but because we, first of all, apprehend the authentic expression of others. Before we think, we encounter another who we recognise as being subject to the forces of mortality. We recognise universal, precarious, vulnerability and feel compassion for the other, whose world we have entered, and become ethical because the other disrupts and suspends our autonomous will with a question: ‘It is me. Here I am in my world. I am vulnerable, how will you respond?’ Levinas believes that this encounter with the other is a non-abstract, concrete experience, and that it establishes compassion in community as the essence of human identity.
Levinas’ philosophy can be applied to the creation of the SAVE movement. Founder of the SAVE movement, Anita Krajnc, came face to face with multiple truckloads of (others currently referred to as) pigs being driven to slaughter. Their precarious mortality and suffering ‘spoke’ to her and she responded dutifully. Today the SAVE movement is global.
The philosophy of the SAVE movement is that compassion in the face of the suffering of nonhuman animals is a most fundamental human characteristic that will become evident through ‘witnessing’. Witnessing is the ‘beginning of awareness’. It leads to an awareness of conscience that does not let you ‘turn a blind eye’. It invokes strong feelings of connecting with others that transcend a mere desire to help. Witnessing arouses a ‘needing’ to help and a sense of responsibility that they cannot be ignored. These are feelings aroused by an innate duty to respond to the question posed by the facing. ‘I am here, you have seen me, what will you do now?’
Levinas’ philosophy is highly relevant to the creation of the SAVE movement. He argues that humanity is currently subject to an unethical ‘totality’, created by the prioritisation, in western philosophy, of human reason. Human reason, Levinas argues, is responsible for the creation of an unethical culture of self-prioritisation. It is a paradigm for social relations that subjugates through oppressive themes and categories. In this dominant paradigm of social relations, the wordless vocalisation of precarious, mortal others is ignored and gives way to oppressive rationalisation that denies the ethical nature of witnessing. Though other animals do express authenticity, their silent call for ethical responsibility and justice is dismissed. The ethics of the encounter are denied and nonhuman animals are subjected to an oppressive process of rational cognition that pertains to the unethical totality of reason and its oppressive themes, categories and vocabulary, maintaining dismissed and sullied moral standing.
For Levinas legal justice should emerge from a different authority than the autonomy orthodoxy. Justice observes the higher authority of pre-social compassion. Compassionate goodness is a normative social principle and ‘the first language’ reflecting one’s concern for the other. The ‘I’ of the subject is free to ‘become’ fully human with the other, in unity with the other as equal subjects at the mercy of the forces of mortality.
In Levinas’ philosophy, welcoming and caring for the other facilitate one’s ethical becoming. These are the conditions of a peace accessible through the first language that is normative, compassionate goodness. It is a liberating freedom in which non-indifference to the other grounds an ethical responsibility that recognises the community value, one-is-for-the-other.
Anita Krajnc eventually found herself answerable to speciesist law for her compassionate actions and her trial (R v Krajnc OCJ 2017) clearly evidences the cogs in the oppressive totality Levinas speaks of. However, the SAVE movement highlights the ethical nature of our interaction with mortal, precarious and suffering others and in a system of justice informed by Levinas’ philosophy, Anita would be morally and legally justified—duty-bound even—to re-present the natural moral standing of the (others currently referred to as) pigs and their right to life.
Levinas’ idea of a higher and different order of existence can support the non-religious, philosophical convictions of vegans who need to articulate in resistant legal systems that veganism addresses questions of human existence, life and purpose. His transcendental theory of compassion and ethics can help non-religious vegans explain why the ‘sanctity of life’ makes sense, why nonhuman animal sentience is important to humankind and why, when considering the right to freedom of conscience, an inclusive vegan, anti-speciesist world view has merit in reluctant human rights and equality law. This merit is our innate feeling of being duty-bound to acknowledge the precarious mortality of others and the universality of suffering: as is evidenced by the existence of a protective rights enterprise. Being responsive to precarious mortality and suffering is indistinct to human conscience and, arguably, a fundamental aspect of veganism. Subsequently, a vegan’s right to practice according to this innate conscience should surely have the support of law.
By Dr Jeanette Rowley