Where does it stop?

Where does it stop? That tiresome question with which, it can sometimes seem, all ‘animal’ people and vegans are relentlessly assailed. Where does refuge stop? Where does your compassion reach its limit? Where will your refusal to kill/eat stop? And all of the corollaries, most commonly – pronounced as if it were some kind of trump card – the assertion that ‘every thing you eat lives, every thing you eat feels; surely, if you’re consistent, you’ll end up eating only air, and even that is full of living things!’ 

I am advised not to confront this question directly – not to go into this place – but (with the proviso that veganism is a work in progress, and that there is no reason why – the suffering of animals being so urgent a matter – it should suspend or restrain itself while it searches for answers) the mind, trained as it is to think ‘logically’, goes back to it, over and again, banging itself against this wall, looking for an exit, a solution, an adequate response. 

Setting aside one’s suspicion that their real question is where, amongst the animate creatures of this world, can we start eating again? as if the killing and eating of animate creatures were somehow fundamental to their being (most vegans I know have simply decided to avoid eating any animate creatures, whether or not they are ‘sentient’, or can suffer in any way fellow humans might recognise as such), what is the logic of the questioners here? That if one cannot avoid all suffering, then it is somehow unreasonable to avoid any? That if one can’t save all then why save any at all? That if there is some creature you might inadvertently harm, then you relinquish your right to care for others? 

Even though their questioning is itself almost always flying in the face of reason – no amount of logical reasoning will persuade most people to change their dietary habits in this regard, and yet it’s very often these same people who insist upon logical, reasoned responses – one is convinced that there is, has to be, an answer, even if it’s only some understanding of why it is that such a question cannot be readily answered.

Where does it stop? The concern, when this question is asked, is rarely for the vegan/‘animalist’ involved, or for any other living being, let alone for receiving or considering an answer, but instead to reach, like a sad and familiar punch-line, that point when, by supposedly exposing a radical inconsistency in veganism and in so doing reducing it to an absurdity, a non-sequitur, the asker can absolve him- or herself of any further conscience in the matter and, by a further abuse of logic, feel affirmed in his or her Carnism. (1) 

Numerous attempts have nevertheless been made to provide answers to this question – the Question – and most have failed. Most recently, in the long and ancient history of such attempts (for surely they were asked even of Pythagoras), there has been the argument of sentience, most famously articulated by Peter Singer, whereby it is sentient creatures – creatures who various tests and observations have seemed to demonstrate have the ability to feel, and so possess a major prerequisite of what we call consciousness – that one does not eat, presumably because beyond that level, that cut-off point, the creatures one eats cannot feel that that is what’s happening to them, are unable to experience what we understand as suffering.

In Animal Liberation (1975) Singer situated that cut-off point, that barrier, at the oyster. I am not about to take on the issue of where this barrier should be drawn. (Somehow, confoundingly, this argument-by-sentience has become intertwined with a point about movement; the oyster is a bivalve mollusc, but, although it does have a foot, unlike other such molluscs does not, in its ‘adulthood’, have the ability to go anywhere.) Nor, at the risk of seeming to cede ground immediately to those I attempt to answer, will I pretend that the question of sentience isn’t a deeply problematic one.

The question of sentience, of comparability (of brain size and function, of the capacity to experience emotions that we recognize), while I can see and must admit that we cannot do without it, only shows how far we’ve gone wrong. Why then does it exist? What further (larger?) question does it enable us to deal with or keep at bay? Is it that we must have a cut-off point, for fear that if our compassion extends too far we will starve? Or that the quality of our lives will be intolerably diminished? Or is it a matter of our self-image, the assumption that creatures must be of our club before they become entitled to our compassion? 

The very scientists and sceptics who argue against anthropomorphism are the ones we most often find demanding proof of similarity. A further non sequitur: the question is not a/the question, but an ‘intellectualising’ of a fundamental will-not-to-change. We argue, but – leaving aside, when we assert that these creatures are to be respected the more they are like us, that it is we who are the problem (what does it mean to say ‘like us’?) – argument was never the point.

Do I fail to answer the question? Probably. But such failure may not be quite what it appears to be. The supposed dominion over non-human animals is at the core of our logos. It would be erroneous, I think, to imagine that that mode of thought which led us into so cruel an assumption and has sustained us within it for so long is going to be able to lead us very easily and convincingly out of it. To the question implicit in all of the questions above – When will we/you see reason? – one might respond: When will you see that there is more than reason (or, perhaps, that there are more kinds of reason than that one)? 

It is not reason that leads most ‘animal’ people to their position of resistance to the prevailing cruelty of the societies in which they find themselves, not reason which brings vegans – ethical vegans (for there are different kinds) – to their positions of refusal. At least, not reason alone. Although it’s not unusual for them to come to feel that their position is almost quintessentially one of reason, and that this reason, when presented to others, must surely prevail, reason alone is rarely sufficient to change the course of those whom they find themselves trying to convince. Something else is required. 

It is not that reason will not work to bring about a change (of habit, of diet, of attitude), but without this ‘something else’ this change is unlikely to be sustained.  It is common to refer to this other thing as a change of heart. Others refer to it as a matter of revelation – of, say, having one’s eyes peeled. All of these expressions are awkward, as we might expect of the submerged or discounted terms of a binary, the other, dominant part of which is attached, oyster-like, to the prevailing Logos.

This essay, from Brooks’s book Turin: Approaching Animals, is published with the permission of Brandl & Schlesinger.

David G. Brooks is a poet, novelist, short-fiction writer, and essayist. He has taught literature at various Australian universities, and from 1999 until 2018 was co-editor of Southerly, the premier journal of Australian literature and new Australian writing. He is the author of Turin: Approaching Animals, The Grass Library, the collection of essays Animal Dreams, and many other award-winning works. Currently, an honorary associate professor in Australian literature at the University of Sydney, Brooks is a vegan and animal rights advocate and lives, with rescued sheep, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

Feature photo credit: Teya Brooks Pribac

(1) Melanie Joy (Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, 2009) uses this term to indicate that the decision to eat meat is a matter of belief and choice  – one believes one needs to eat it, and chooses to do so – rather than something (a ‘biological necessity’) inherent/essential to the species.