Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Some thoughts on plants

I probably need better blog post titles.

Anyone who has been a vegetarian for any length of time has heard some variation of the argument, "What about plants?". As Jonathan Safran Foer points out in the video I just linked to, it usually occurs in rather insulting and idiotic formulations, "Haven't you heard the carrots crying?". Much like Thomas Taylor's Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which sought not to support animal rights but to mock women's rights, these declarations have not sought to promote concern for the welfare of plants, but simply to belittle the welfare of other animals. Taylor, however, shows that sometimes the opponents of liberation have clearer sight. Much like people opposed to interracial marriages who argued such a destabilization would lead same sex marriages, we are currently in the midst of the fights for the rights of brutes. Maybe fighting for rights for other animals will give us a chance to see clearly if plants too deserve rights (or, at the least, ethical duties and obligations). Taylor ends his pamphlet with this closing paragraph:
And thus much may suffice, for an historical proof, that brutes are equal to men. It only now remains (and this must be the province of some able hand) to demonstrate the same great truth in a similar manner, of vegetable, minerals, and even the most apparently contemptible clod of earth; that thus this sublime theory being copiously and accurately discussed, and its truth established by an indisputable series of facts, government may be entirely subverted, subordination abolished, and all things every where, and in every respect, be common to all.
Though pure satire on the part of Taylor, don't tell me there isn't a part of you that cheers along, playing those lines straight.
I think the time is coming where serious concerns with plants are arising. Tom Sparrow runs down several places where people are moving in this direction (and I have heard of a few other instances). And we have even more from Tim Morton, including talking about slime molds and bacteria. Now, exactly a year ago I made a post about plants (okay, so I wrote this post a couple of days ago, but I could resist making these posts exactly a year apart when I noticed that), and I still stand behind it. I won't repeat it here, but I clearly need a more serious response if people are seriously engaging the ethical issues of plants without merely seeking to destroy our ethical commitments (which is how this argument has traditionally functioned). Are plants our next project for the expansion of our ethical sphere? Maybe beyond plants as well? Maybe until everything, everywhere is in common to all. In other words, flat ethics.
I want to begin by stating that many ethicists who have rejected speciesism does not logically extend to plants. If you are a devotee of Tom Regan or Peter Singer, there is nothing from their standpoint to extend their theories toward plants. The reason is they are working with some fairly precise criteria for who gets to be included in the moral community, and who gets excluded. And while there are plenty of gray areas for their theories, it doesn't mean there are some criteria from which they are extrapolating from. Meanwhile, few Continental ethicists have invested in these questions of who gets to count. If anything, there are frequent and explicit rejections of such discourses. Matt Calarco's wonderful book Zoographies, for example, is in many ways an extended argument for political, ontological, and ethical agnosticism. As he writes:
If this is indeed the case, that is, if it is the case that we do not know where the face begins and ends, where moral considerability begins and ends, then we are obliged to proceed from the possibility that anything might take on a face. And we are further obliged to hold this possibility permanently open. At this point, most reasonable readers will likely see the argument I have been making as having absurd consequences. While it might not be unreasonable to consider the possibility that "higher" animals who are "like" us, animals who have sophisticated cognitive and emotive functions, could have a moral claim on us, are we also to believe that "lower" animals, insects, dirt, hair, fingernails, ecosystems, and so on could also have a claim on us? Any argument that leads to this possibility is surely a reductio ad absurdum. In response to such a charge, I would suggest affirming and embracing what the critic sees as an absurdity. (p. 71, emphasis added)
How do you like that Calarco litany? Anyway, for those that do not engage in issues of moral considerability, or specifically reject such issues, the way forward gets more complicated. If you are a classical utilitarian, the way forward is to figure out if plants have the capacity for suffering. So far that seems highly unlikely, so you can just move on. But what if you don't know what gives a being a face (to use Calarco's Levinasian language), how can you say if you plants have faces? Julia Butterfly definitely felt that the tree Luna had a face. And while many of us might feel that a 1500 redwood does have a face or at least understand where she was coming from, few of us believe that the weeds in our garden have a face. As I said in my last post about plants, I find it hard to believe that breeding clementines to be seedless is the same sort of violence of breeding turkeys so they can no longer mate with each other, or enjoy basic sexual relations. Am I simply engaging in the same sort of 'moral schizophrenia' that people who eat animals and love their pets engage in?
This gets to the heart of much of my unease when talking about issues of plants. It is hard to at all be critical without having your arguments parallel those arguments made against animals. If you say plants do not suffer, do you not just repeat the moves of the Descartes and his disciples? If you wonder if plants actually have sociality just because they release chemicals that other plants respond to, are you not simply repeating all of those people who screamed anthropomorphism every time animals engaged in obvious modes of sociality? I think when arguments parallel the structures of obviously wrong arguments it is certainly time to be suspicious. However, saying, "Well, that is exactly like when x argues y" is not, in and of itself, an argument. For example, if someone said to you, "I know you believe that all the planets in the solar system orbit the Sun, but really they orbit as yet unknown black hole." Rejecting that claim until actual evidence is proffered does not make you the freaking Inquisition talking to Copernicus.
All of this isn't to say that plants are not beings worthy of our moral respect on the highest levels. But I remain far from convinced on these issues. Plants are awesome and cool. Like any being subject to evolutionary forces, they engage in active processes that resist them dying before reproductive. These processes in animals, both human and otherwise, have tended toward the abilities for suffering and joy, for sociality, for desire and and yearning, for senses of embodiment, etc. I have yet to see indications that plants responses to evolutionary pressures have really been the same. But I could be wrong, and am interested in hearing more on this issue.