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Posted by on Dec 23, 2009 in Society | 35 comments

Are Vegetarians And Vegans Biased Against Plants?

This might sound like a bit of a needling post, but that is not the intention at all. I see it more as provoking a sense of wonder.

Dr. E recently put up a Guest Voice article by Elijah Sweete, entitled “Interview With A Vegan” in which Marybeth Wosko argued passionately about how killing animals for food was inherently immoral. While I agreed with some of her practical points about the industrialization of food, I was struck most by this exchange:

ES: Please distinguish between animal rights and animal welfare and why you emphasize rights.

MBW: The distinction between animal rights and animal welfare may best be explained by an analogy to human slavery. In the abolitionist movement, a rightist would say “emancipate” whereas the welfarist would say “loosen the shackles and limit the number of whips in a beating.” Most animal rights groups adopt a welfare approach, but only because they feel it is the best way to minimize suffering in the face of a largely apathetic and, frankly, sociopathic public. It is better to reduce suffering if nothing else is likely to happen by way of change anytime soon. Rightists want immediate change today. Welfarists espouse the “pushing the peanut” approach because we have an ethically and morally retarded society. By retarded I mean slow to change. Yet I believe most welfarists are simply practical rightists. They concede to minimize suffering because people won’t stop eating turkey simply because they don’t want to, never mind the turkey’s position. So let’s make the turkey’s brief life as good as possible while he or she is alive because we are dealing with a sociopathic mentality which does not reason properly.

Well I could best be described as a “welfarist” I suppose, but it doesn’t have anything to do with practical rights, it’s more fundamental than that.

Last weekend I went to make breakfast and pulled out a potato that had sprouted. I discarded the sprouts and proceeded to cut it up of course. In the middle of the butchering I thought back to Wosko’s argument for some strange reason — perhaps just random neuronal firings triggered the memory — and then about the potato. Why should she give the potato less rights than an animal, surely they are both alive? The common argument is that plants can’t feel pain or think, but I thought about how there is increasing scientific evidence that they do respond strongly to stimuli and communicate. They actively engage in defenses to try to maximize their chance of survival and show obvious responses to physical harm. Sure they don’t have nervous systems, but neither do a lot of non-vertebrates. Plus, a nervous system is just a means, the actual aims are pretty similar.

I decided that there was a strong possibility that we just have a time and sensory bias. Unlike animals, plants don’t react in a short time and they are more about chemicals than noises or movement. On a fundamental philosophical level I had a hard time determining what was fundamentally different between plants and animals that would justify different treatment.

The next day I went to see Avatar and in that fictional environment the plants do react quickly and do have a nervous system that is global in nature. The natives (and humans that understand the nature of the lifeforms) treat the plants on the same footing and importance and focus not on a dichotomy of animal/plant but on the balance of the ecosystem in its entirety. If earth plants were like that, I think we would too.

It looks like I’m not the only one to think about this. A recent NYT article makes precisely the same point, and has a myriad of specific examples as supporting evidence.

I’m sure there will be some kneejerk reactions that it is ridiculous to count those responses the same as animals, but it wasn’t all that long ago that people dismissed that animals had any emotional or communicative capacity at all, simply because they weren’t human. Francis Lam at Salon writes:

Plants don’t have agency. They don’t feel, think, decide. They have coded, systematic reactions to stimuli — as Angier points out, way more sophisticated reactions to way more subtle stimuli than we knew — but in the end these are still just really neat systems.

To which a commenter replies:

One could compellingly argue that humans [or animals have been described as such in the past] do not “feel, think, decide”, and instead that most, if not all, of our behavior is “coded, systematic reactions to stimuli”. And in the end, we are “still just really neat systems”.

Ironically Lam excoriates the NYT author for anthropomorphizing, when the entire point of the article was that perhaps vegetarians and vegans that argue from a moral perspective are undertaking selective anthropomorphizing. Lam does conclude:

a commenter named Malcolm C gets to the heart of the issue for me: “Folks… all this is why we offer grace at the table before eating. Humility and gratitude. It works for beans, bass, or beef. Enjoy the gift of life, and be grateful.”

To which I would add that we should be concerned with stewardship in all forms, for our own sake.

To me the issue isn’t about being “right” on a moral level, I am not sure what that even is. We’re all just grasping for straws and fumbling through knowledge, instinct and tradition. The more pressing issue is how amazingly complex and wonderful life — all life — is and that honoring that is an active process. That sense of wonder and respect is what defines our relationship with earth, and the emphasis of how one lives should be on what it means. I know plenty of hunters that have that quality and plenty of vegetarians that wouldn’t know how to grow peas if their life depended on it.

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