Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What about plants?

In late December Natalie Angier wrote an op-ed for the NY Times arguing against ethical veganism by arguing for plants. Now, the old "But what about plants?" line is something that anyone who has taken an ethical stance toward our relationship with other animals have heard before. However, Angier hopes to up the ante by moving it away from "a trite argument or a chuckled aside" and instead give weight to this old argument by new science. And anyone who doesn't think plants are some how complex and fascinating should certainly read the article.
But the problem is that many things are complex and fascinating. And in the case of those beings who come under evolutionary pressures, there is a lot about them that resist being killed, or to be more precise resist being killed before reproduction. Otherwise, they probably wouldn't have survived till now. But, for all of that, does that mean they do not want (as in, desire, as in, have desires and interests and wants and suffering and joys and pleasures and all of that) to be killed? This is the crux of the argument, after all.
Angier contends that many scientists speak of plants in active terms, in terms of wanting and desiring. Which I have no doubt they do. After all, I hung out with Cornell chemistry grad students for three years and they spoke of particles and atoms and chemicals as wanting and desiring, as communicating and as active forces. Plants are not passive, neither are bacteria or atoms. But the chemists I hung out with didn't really mean that one atom wanted to bond with another atom, but rather given a certain set of conditions certain types of atoms would bond with other types. The short hand for these active processes was wanting. What I am confused about is if most scientists would say that plants had desires, wants, joys and depressions. It's harder for us who are not people who study plants to know this sort of thing as opposed to animals. For example, I just ate some clementines, which are all seedless. Is that seedlessness the same sort of violence as the turkey that is used for slaughter in this country, now unable to reproduce naturally and require artificial insemination (often through a turkey baster)?
This leads us to one of the more interesting parts of the article, that is, what is missing from its argumentation. The article is specifically set up as a response to committed vegetarianism and strong ethical veganism. But, and this is important, at no point does it make any attempt to explain why or how including plants in our ethical compass is a response to vegetarianism and/or veganism. Let's bracket the obvious answer that factory farming (which amounts to 99 percent of animal products that is consumed) destroys far more plant and animal life than just about anything else and therefore this argument should require one to be a practical vegan even if not an ethical vegan. We are going to bracket this argument because this arguments about plants have nothing to do with plants, actually. Rather, the argument works something like if you can eat nothing with innocence than everything is innocent. If guilt is everywhere, than you do not have to feel guilty about any particular thing. Status quo maintained. This argument seeks not to broaden our ethical considerations, but to obliterate them.
I have no doubt if it is true that plants have whatever it is that we consider important of being included in our moral community that everything will change. Everything will get more complicated. Ultimately, though, it will have to mean a serious way of learning to live, not an excuse for ignoring the suffering and damage we all know we are doing.