Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Plants, Again (or, ethics, still). Part I

Planted, An Introduction.

This post tries to think issues of veganism and vegetarianism alongside issues of the active nature of plants. The first part of the post will respond broadly to this question, and lay out my general ethical framework for these issues. For those of you have diligently read this blog for at least a few years, you might find part one repetitive (also, wow, thank you). The second part of the blog post (which will be posted another day) engages theorists forwarding these arguments, particularly Ian Bogost in his Alien Phenomenology, and Michael Marder in his Plant-Thinking, his article "Is it Ethical to Eat Plants?," and his debate with Gary Francione (Marder also has a forthcoming book I haven't read, The Philosopher's Plant).

Plants I:

This is not the first time I have addressed our ethical relationships to plants. See this post, and this post (and several more asides in other posts). This most recent post is immediately caused by a new scientific study that shows that "Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing." This has caused a variety of news sources to frame this recent discovery as being some sort of unique challenge or cause of concern for vegetarians and vegans. See, for example, this Gizmodo article which actually ends with this line, "Either way, we do know one thing for sure: The world just got a little less smug for the vegan set." Okay then. So, here is the relevant question, why? Why is it each time that some new study comes out expressing the idea that plants are more active and intentional than previously considered, there are a flurry of articles that seem to see this as somehow an argument against vegans? If you are concerned about plants, and any sort of suffering that may come from consuming them, wouldn't adopting a vegan diet be a first step to lowering that suffering? This is true because it takes from more plant protein to produce animal protein, and because that much of animal agriculture includes polluting and destroying lands. And of course, some people concerned with our ethical obligations to plants have made this very point. Near the end of Matthew Hall's Plants as Persons, he makes this very argument:
A third very significant driver of harm to individual plants, plant species, and plant habitats is the unnecessary, unthinking use of plants. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the use of plants to feed massive numbers of animals for the world’s wealthiest nations to consume. Recent estimates suggest that humankind farms and eats over thirty billion animals each year. In a plant context, this live- stock rearing is important because it accounts for more than 65 percent of the total global agricultural area. It also accounts for large volumes of grains and soya beans which are used as feed. In 2002, approximately 670 million tons of grains were fed to livestock, roughly a third of the global harvest. They were also fed 350 million tons of protein-rich products such as soya and bran. The areas cleared to rear animals and feed them on such a huge scale are natural plant habitats such as tropical forests, savannahs, and grasslands. The rearing of livestock on such large scales is one of the major drivers of habitat loss. Basing diets on meat consumption excessively inflates the area of land that is put under human cultivation. Reducing the amount of consumed meat is a direct way of reducing harm done to plants, animals, and human beings. Not least because this large industry is also responsible for generating 18 percent of global carbon emissions—which to provide an idea of scale, is more than all forms of transport combined. (p. 165)
So, rather than seeing plant sentience as a unique challenge to vegans, it seems vegans are already doing something to limit harm to plants. Rather than making the vegan set less smug, wouldn't this make the vegan set more smug? Actually, wait a second, don't you assume that the author of the Gizmodo article probably eats plants herself? So, there is no reason that plant sentience is at all something particular to vegans. This argument could be used against literally any social justice movement. For example, imagine this conversation:
Person 1: Would you like to help out to end genocide against X human population?
Person 2: Did you know plants might be sentient? So, I can't help you.
Person 1: Uhm... okay...?
Person 2: Well, see you are trying to expand our ethical obligations to X human population. But there are still groups you haven't expanded our ethical concern to. And until you figure out a way to respond ethically to all beings, you really haven't done anything yet, have you?
Person 1: I'm pretty sure that's not how ethics work. 
Okay, I hear your objections. This scenario ignores that maybe there is something particular combining our thinking about eating ethically. In other words, the failure to create a completely harm free eating experience negates trying to reduce harm in other ways. But again, if we aren't talking about veganism, would that objection really hold any water? Imagine this conversation:
Person 1: No thank you, I try to avoid X product because I try to avoid products produced by slave labor.
Person 2: Well, all capitalist labor comes from a system of exploitation (surplus value is theft), so there is no need to fight against products produced by slave labor.
Person 1: ... . So are you doing anything to stop either slave labor or capitalist exploitation?
Person 2: What? No, I am just saying stop being so smug, I don't have to feel guilty for using slave labor because of capitalist exploitation.
Person 1: I'm pretty sure that's not how ethics work. 
So, plant sentience is not an argument against veganism because (1) veganism already reduces harm against plants, and (2) if plants present an ethical call, it is an ethical call for all of us, not just vegans. There are, of course, other arguments we can explore. For example, while the research that plants are active beings seem undeniable, what that means in terms of how sentience is expressed seems to be a fairly open question at this point (see this article by Oliver Sacks, and this blog post from Scientific America). And even if sentience was answered, it would not always be a guide about what interests plants have. For example, I am concerned about voting rights being denied felons, but I am not worried about getting voting rights for my cats. And while I am concerned about what Lori Gruen calls the "ethics of captivity" in prisons and zoos, I have trouble believing there are similar issues in botanical gardens. But let us, for now, bracket these broader questions about our ethical obligations toward plants.
So, if there is no reason that vegans are uniquely implicated in the ethics of plants, why is it that we are constantly bombarded with arguments that plant sentience undermines ethical veganism? First, as I have long contended, there is a confusion between ethics and innocence. If there was the possibility for innocence, we wouldn't need ethics. Ethics exist because we have to try to figure out ways to live a good life out of a bad life. What are the ways we can live and act in a world where innocence is impossible? And as in the conversations above, the argument that there is no way to eat without harm is a way of removing responsibility. Universal guilt becomes its own form of innocence, a way of avoiding ethical calls. People don't want responsibility, so they figure out a series of ways to push ethical obligations away. Problems are seen as systematic, so individual change is not called for. Because no solution will be perfect, we know that any change and tactic can be co-opted, so we don't do anything. You only want to help these individuals who are in pain and suffering, and because it focuses on individuals, it is neoliberalism and we don't have to help those in pain. Because there is no innocence, we might as well go ahead and do what we wanted to do anyway. And suddenly, enough excuses pile up so that we somehow have managed to be radical and ethical without ever having to change who we are. It is hard, after all, to be responsible (even just for those lives in front of you). It is confusing to know that we will have politics that will be tainted, that we will communications that fail, and that we will have actions that will cause harm. Spinoza defined conatus as the striving to preserve oneself, and he called that joy. So, perhaps it is sadness to be haunted by others, perhaps it is despair to have to change for others. No wonder we want to create excuses to not act and still pat ourselves on the back. So, maybe we need some other definition of joy. One that finds in our vulnerability the basis of sociality, of laughing together, and of mourning. Perhaps we can find joy (as well as frustration and love) in the difference of others, and with the creative impulse to build a different world. To yearn, and to act, together.


Jack and her bean stalks said...

Great post. I've addressed the issue in similar ways a number of places, and share your frustration with the implicit claim that total responsibility (to all life) leads to no responsibility. The point I'd add, as a matter of practicality, is that plant sentience can be handled by considering the kinds of plants we use and how we use them. I spent last summer with the Jains who, despite some inconsistencies and troubling hierarchies, are very specific about the kinds of plants that can be eaten and how. Their parable of the mango tree (found in other literatures as well) details hierarchies of vegetative violence and suggests there are ways of consuming that are mutually beneficial, and those that are hierarchical and egoistic( As you probably know, the Jains do not eat any root vegetables, or other vegetables where the entire plant must be harvested for consumption. Anyway, this has always seemed to me a very pragmatic place to start when considering plant sentience and ethical obligation, which so many vegans already do in considerable detail.

Rhys Southan said...

I think you're right that meat eaters see alleged plant sentience as undermining vegan ethics because plant sentience would make ethical living (by vegan standards) impossible, thus requiring that vegan ethics as they are popularly portrayed be junked or at least revised. The vegan rule that we can eat non-sentient matter that comes from a lifeform that was never sentient but we cannot raise sentient lifeforms and make them non-sentient in order to eat them would - in a world of sentient plants - blatantly lead to human extinction.

So unless vegans embrace human extinction, the sentience rule has to go at the very least, leaving open the possibility that once veganism is revised to account for plant sentience, it will be harder to draw a plausible, ethically consistent line between eating animals and eating plants. (One example debate that could arise: maybe it would be considered ethical to hunt herbivorous non-humans, in order to protect plants.) But then, as I think you imply at the end of your post, even with the sentience rule gone, this overhaul of vegan ethics might not necessarily lead to an ethical system that allows the consumption of animals.

If plants were sentient, I don't think it would be enough for vegans to be content with killing fewer plants than meat eaters do. If they were content with that, that would make vegan ethics an unambitious rule of thumb that boils down to "suffering reduction," which anyone can claim to participate in by changing their behaviors in ways that don't necessarily require animal product abstinence. Unless the rule became "Cause the least amount of suffering possible," which would be a lot more demanding than eating only plants.

In a world with acknowledged plant sentience, it would be important for vegans to be able to draw a line between the sentience that plants have and the sentience that certain animals have. Doing so could allow vegan ethics to stay mostly the same. For instance, vegans could say that plants have a level of sentience and interests that resembles that of insects, and draw some kind of line around there. (This is a convenient line to draw for current vegan ethics anyway because of all the insects that inevitably die in plant production.)

If, however, it turned out that plants had the same interests in living and avoiding pain as animals do, veganism would probably have to put less emphasis on a right to life and instead focus on pain reduction. But practitioners of this sort of ethic might be okay with highly regulated ways of raising animals for food that avoided causing animals acute amounts of pain.

Scu said...

"Jack and Her Bean Stalks": I do know generally about Jainism, and have done some reading, but nothing of a serious study, and I also know there are disagreements about the way plants are treated in different schools or sects of Jainism (Matthew Hall gets to some of this in his Plants as Persons book, linked to in my blog post). I also think there are some serious questions of scale in terms of Jainist ethics. I understand that monks are held to different ethical standards (or try to live differently?) thank non-monks. But that is the sort of distinction that might be problematic from a secular viewpoint. I should, at some point, do a more serious study of Jainist ethics. Also, if you want to link to places you have addressed similar issues, feel free. Self-promotion is always welcomed.

Rhys Southan: I had thought I would already have finished part two, and I was holding off replying because I figure some of the issues you raise would be answered there, but it is taking longer than expected, so I figure I will make a short response here. Maybe more, later (I am terrible at keeping up with blog comments, so, maybe not, too).
(1) I think properly portrayed vegan ethics is doing a lot of work for you. I'm not sure I disagree, I'm just principally an academic and philosopher, so I am probably the wrong person to ask about what that is. However, just to name a few of the philosophies (a) Even if plants were sentient, it would take a lot for them to raise to the level of subjects of life under Tom Regan's understanding (indeed, several animals don't make it). (b) Sentience would require an equality of consideration of interests under Peter Singer's view, however concerning how Singer sees issues of memory, sense of time, etc, it is pretty clear that plants don't provide too much trouble from the viewpoint of Singerian utilitarianism. (c) Ecofeminist understanding of contextual moral veganism (nee vegetarianism) would find the issue of plant sentience important, but is far from absolute (I would say believe my position is probably closest to this viewpoint). (d) The Sliding scale of moral status (found in writers like David DeGrazia and Jean Kazez) would probably be the easiest to deal with sentience in plants. Like, not even an issue.
The point of this partial list is basically to name several important approaches to veganism, and none of them would be severally bothered by plant sentience (heck, two of them probably wouldn't even care). None of them are absolute system, though, which you seem to identify veganism with. Except for a group of thinkers associated with the term abolitionism I don't think I know many absolutist vegan positions.
(2) You state: "because plant sentience would make ethical living (by vegan standards) impossible." I think this misses entirely my point about the distinction between ethics and innocence. Plant sentience does not make ethical living impossible, it makes innocence impossible (as if it were possible beforehand). Again, look at the imaginary discussion about slavery and capitalist exploitation. One can ethically oppose slavery, while still not being innocent about exploitation in labor practices.
(3) You say that harm reduction is not enough if plant sentience is true. That it would require rethinking vegan ethics. Probably, but not just vegan ethics. Again, either this is an ethical call to all of us, or it isn't.

Rhys Southan said...


I think you're right about all this. I had abolitionist veganism in mind when I was thinking about plant sentience being a problem for "vegan ethics as they are popularly portrayed." I agree with you that vegans wouldn't have much of a problem distinguishing between the kinds of sentience and interests that sentient plants would have and the kinds of sentience and interests that a lot of animals have.

I'm sure you've talked about this, so maybe you could point me to some relevant posts, but I would be curious to know more about the difference between behaving "innocently" and behaving "ethically." Is it that innocence is an impossible state of causing no harm and only having a purely positive influence on the world, whereas behaving ethically just means adhering to a particular theory of ethics? If the distinction is something like this, then I see your point; it would certainly be possible to behave ethically in a world with plant sentience, as long as the ethical theory gave some allowance for the selfish harming of sentient beings.

My main problem with the way vegans often talk about veganism is that they sometimes pretend that vegan ethics do not have to give some allowance for the selfish harming of sentient beings. Instead, they act as if veganism is a way to achieve innocence. Certainly, that seems to be how abolitionists portray it.