Wednesday, January 06, 2010

And What About Plants?

Posted by Sherry F. Colb

Last month, Natalie Angier wrote an article in the New York Times about new research suggesting that plants have active and sophisticated methods of resisting predators and disease.  Such research is fascinating in its own right, but Angier identified an ethical lesson in it as well, namely, that choosing to be a vegan is morally no better than choosing to be an omnivore.  The claim is both spurious and telling.

Here is the argument:  Because plants escape predators in a sophisticated manner, it follows that they "like to live too," just as animals want to live.  If plants want to live, then it follows that killing them is just as immoral as killing animals.  Vegans fund the killing of plants, while omnivores (and vegetarians, I would add) fund the killing of animals.  Therefore, we are all equally unethical in our consumption habits, according to Angier, and no one can claim the moral high ground.

Angier herself chooses not to eat pigs, she tells us, because she learned that pigs' teeth most resemble human teeth, but she does eat chickens, ducks, fishes, and other animal products.  If her choice is arbitrary -- which she does not deny -- so, then, is the plant-eater's, she argues.

As is often the case in responding to the "gotcha" arguments of defensive omnivores, it is difficult to know where to begin.  To suggest that plants want to live because they have sophisticated chemical means of survival is to attribute consciousness to plants.  Only a being who has subjective experiences like plain and pleasure can want something.  It is, moreover, precisely a being's subjectivity or consciousness that  makes it immoral for us to cause harm to that being.

The fact that plants are well-designed to survive does not make them conscious beings -- "someone" rather than "something."  Most people understand this proposition at a basic level -- if we see a person stabbing a cow and hoisting her upside down as she howls and struggles with wide eyes, we feel sympathy and sadness for her (or we would if slaughterhouses were not so well-hidden from view).  We know that causing such suffering and taking away a conscious being's life is a harm to that being, even as we invent sophisticated justifications for the misery that we inflict.  If we see someone picking a carrot from the ground, by contrast, we do not experience a similar sympathy and sadness.

Perhaps Angier would argue that the new plant research proves that plants truly are conscious.  Otherwise, how could a plant successfully detect the eggs of a predator and produce chemicals to destroy the eggs or summon a super-predator to devour them?

The answer may be found if we consider our own immune systems.  When a harmful micro-organism enters our bodies, if we are healthy, we produce a very sophisticated cascade of immune responses.  We make astonishingly specific antibodies that target the invading micro-organisms and, if successful, devour the threat and prepare for fighting off similar threats in the future.  When this complex process take place, if it is effective, we have no sensory awareness of it at all.  We do not hear, see, smell, taste, or touch either the invader or the defender.  It all goes on outside of our consciousness.  If plants can assemble similarly sophisticated immune responses -- as it appears from the new research that they can -- there is no more reason to think that plants are therefore conscious than there is to think that our own immune systems' resistance to pathogens evidences or reflect our consciousness.

Let us assume, however, in spite of plants' lack of a brain or nervous system, that Angier is truly convinced now that when she eats a potato, she thereby contributes to the suffering of the potato plant.  Does she conclude from this that she should therefore strive to eat fewer plants?  No.  Her important moral conclusion is that vegans are hypocrites, because we murder plants, even as we criticize her for murdering animals (other than pigs, whose teeth are just like ours, and other mammals).

Apart from the immaturity of such an argument, it is also wrong, even on its own terms.  If we believe that plants suffer, then it is our obligation to minimize that suffering.  By eating farmed animals we instead maximize it many-fold, in addition to hurting animals.  Breeding animals requires that we grow plants to feed those animals.  Indeed, an overwhelming majority of the grains and other plants we currently grow in the U.S. is fed to the many billions of land animals we kill every year for consumption.  If we consumed the grain directly and stopped breeding animals, we would spare the lives of most of the plants now "slaughtered."  (And we would engage in billions of fewer killings-per-year of sentient animals as well).  Stated differently, eating animals kills many more plants than eating plants does.

I suspect that this undeniable truth about animal consumption will not move Angier to become a vegan for the plants.  This is because such arguments for the dignity of plants are not generally made in good faith.  Their objective is to mollify the conscience of those who articulate them and to persuade themselves and others that the killing and torment of sentient and aware beings by humans is unavoidable and therefore legitimate.  A clear-eyed look at the facts, however, says otherwise.


Tam Ho said...

Articles like Angier's aren't fit to print. What's happened to the NYT? Nice rebuttal, Sherry.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Thanks Tam!

Sam Rickless said...

Quite right, Sherry. Well said. The idea that vegans are hypocrites is ridiculous.

I am more worried about problems with *arguments for veganism* (and against mere vegetarianism or carnivorism) than I am with veganism itself. One problem is that animals are killed when plants are harvested in the way they are (by agribusiness). The deaths of these animals are not intended, but they are foreseen, and there are alternative ways of harvesting plants (costly ways, to be sure) that do not kill animals. The doctrine of doing and allowing (if not the doctrine of double effect) therefore seems to speak against combine harvesting as much as it speaks against killing cows for food.

The second problem is that eating meat is not morally equivalent to killing an animal. Those who eat meat are not murderers. So the question is whether it is morally wrong to use products derived from wrongful acts, or perhaps more particularly, whether it is morally wrong to consume the bodies of wrongfully killed animals. As to the first principle, it is clear to me that many (if not most) of the products we purchase derive from wrongful acts (mostly acts of exploitation, pollution, deforestation, and so on). Few of the companies that manufacture the products on which we depend are unionized, for example. As to the second, it is not obvious to me that it is true. I would not use soap that I knew had been made from the bones of Auschwitz victims, but it is not clear to me whether this intuition that it would be wrong to do so is derived from some form of non-moral disgust or whether it is derived from our moral sense. And even if the principle is true, it is not clear to me just *how wrong* it is to violate it. Is consuming products derived from the wrongful mistreatment of animals morally equivalent to rape or murder? I think not. Is it morally equivalent to the failure to return borrowed items? Maybe. It's just not clear to me what the answer is.

So I am not convinced that vegetarianism and carnivorism are morally wrong. The best argument for veganism, it seems to me, is a *political* or *economic* one. It is eminently desirable to end the killing and mistreating of animals for food or other purposes (say, medicinal purposes). Given the way things are, the best way to achieve this end (apart from political protest) is to stop consuming products derived from the killing and mistreatment of animals (that is, to boycott companies that sell these products). This is the most effective means of reaching the relevant goal, I think, because it is easier to convince carnivores that the killing and mistreatment of animals is morally wrong (and therefore something to be abolished) than it is to convince them that it is morally wrong to consume products derived from the killing and mistreatment of animals.

Sherry F. Colb said...

1) An answer to the assertion that the consumption of animal products is morally distinct from the killing and torture of the animals to produce the products:

Those who kill animals as part of the food industry are doing so in response to consumers' demand for the products. They are not off on their own committing rogue, harmful acts, with the consumer innocently arriving on the scene after the fact and enjoying the fruits of the carnage.

When a person consumes eggs, milk, chickens, etc., he is registering his demand for further "production" of eggs and milk. He is accordingly responsible for the mistreatment and killing of the chickens, baby chicks, cows, and baby calves, all of which the people working at the farms and slaughterhouses have carried out in order to provide the products the consumer demanded. This is how a market economy works. Those who supply corpses for consumption are responding to those who demand corpses for consumption.

2) As to the idea that harvesting plants in a manner that causes animals to die is a wrong akin to killing animals directly, I'd note two things.

First, I would reiterate one of the points I made in responding to Angier's strikingly similar defense of plants: by eating animals, you not only directly support the torture and death inflicted on the animals but *also* the unintended deaths of animals caused by the production of animal "feed" for farmed animals.

Therefore, if your goal is to minimize suffering and death (rather than to throw up your hands and conclude that you can do whatever you'd like, as long as it's legal), you would start by refraining from eating farmed animals and their products.

Second, I do think that one should try to minimize the harm one causes indirectly and unintentionally. When one can easily obtain food products produced without causing any collateral harm, then one should do so. At this point in time, of course, it is not only practical but easy to obtain delicious and nutritious food products that do not result from the intentional holding and killing of animals. The moral obligation to refrain from such consumption is therefore clear, regardless of whether one is in a position to buy plant-based food from companies that minimize unintended harm to wildlife.

Finally, though many products we consume may be derived from wrongful acts, this does not mean that there are no distinctions to be drawn. When you consume animal products such as cows, chickens, fishes, animal milk, and eggs, you know to a certainty that you are not only approving but demanding the slaughter of sentient beings, because it is how such products are produced. When you purchase an apple from a place that might have underpaid its workers, you are not registering approval for inappropriate labor practices.

Bob Hockett said...

Very nice, Sherry,

Many thanks. For what it might be worth, I find Angier's piece repugnant both for the reasons that you adduce, and for another reason as well that stem's from a devotion on my part to plants and other living things: She conscripts what I believe to be our obligations not to destroy plant life cavalierly, into an insidious sophistical spoof on our even more demanding obligations not to destroy or otherwise discomfit animal life. And it seems to me that this ought to anger plant- and environment- lovers in general in addition to animal-lovers in particular.

Here's what I mean about what I think might be our obligations to plant life: I think we probably owe it to all living things not to destroy or harm them without the most compelling of reasons. And there are many putative 'reasons' one might give for destroying a tree, say, that I think would fall very far short of compelling.

If, for example, someone were to douse a tree with petroleum and set it alight simply to enjoy watching it burn to death, I think this would be deeply wrongful, not to say deranged. And this would be so even were nobody else -- no human or nonhuman animal -- to be in any way affected by the act, it seems to me.

On the other hand, where people must take in nourishment and the only available options are animal and plant, then there is of course very compelling reason to consume plants, and in so doing, regretably, to destroy them. (Assuming we can't live healthily on seeds or grain alone, which appears to be the case.)

So while I find the Angier piece particularly disgusting in my capacity as a committed advocate of animal rights, I find it rather disgusting in my capacity as a devotee of plant- and indeed environmental-rights too. The piece seems at best to be an unsuccessful attempt at humorous rationalization of weak-willed, hands-in-the-air, eat-what-you-want muddle-headedness.

Thanks again,

Derek said...

Thanks for this post!

Blogger said...

For me, vegetarianism is about harm reduction and the avoidance of suffering. It may be true that plants suffer -- who knows? But my best efforts to understand suffering lead me to believe that animals suffer more, and therefore I focus my energy on the low-hanging fruit of avoiding harm to animals (no pun intended).

It is also important to note that the plants-suffer-too argument is ad hominem. It doesn't address whether eating animals is wrong, but rather attempts to impeach the character of the vegan by suggesting that she does other things that are wrong. OK, I admit it, I'm sinner! But that doesn't make me wrong about the morality of eating animals.

Blogger said...

P.S. Where did the post about the Con Law exam go? I guess there is always the worry that something like that will catch some flak from the people at

Michael C. Dorf said...

Hi Blogger,

The exam post mistakenly went up early. (I hit "publish" instead of "save.") It will return tomorrow!


James Foster said...

I'm a new reader of this blog and I have a few background questions on the arguments here in favor of veganism over omnivorism. A short answer or a link to a post or article where these are addressed would be appreciated.

Is the argument against slaughtering animals thus, that slaughter in itself is objectionable, such that it is always preferable to consume a plant product rather than an animal product?

Or is it that the way in which animals are slaughtered in the general practices of the meat industry is objectionable, such that an animal could be slaughtered, at least in theory, in a way that is not objectionable?

Also, are the current practices of farming animals seen as objectionable, meaning that even if a farmed animal were never slaughtered, it has still been wronged? And would this mean that the consumption of hunted animals is less objectionable than of farmed ones? And as above, would this mean that at least in theory animals could be farmed in a way that is not objectionable?

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hi James. You raise interesting and important questions. I cannot answer for all vegans, of course. I view the slaughter of animals for use as food, clothing, etc. as wrong, no matter how "humane" the process of killing them. Even if I thought that killing animals for consumption painlessly was okay, which I do not, I would oppose their slaughter in fact because it is excruciating and terrifying in virtually every, if not every, case. Given the current scale of animal consumption, it would not be possible to make it painless.
I also take the view that keeping animals for their use is wrong (and accordingly, that the entire process of breeding domesticated animals is unjust). For this reason, though I am morally opposed to hunting (both because it kills sentient beings and because it almost always causes terrible suffering to those beings as well as to their loved ones who witness and live in the aftermath of the death), I view the farming of "food" animals as generally even worse than the hunting of wild animals.

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