18 March, 2008

What About Plants? And the Topic of Sea Creatures

For starters, let me just say that the "What about plants?!?!" question strikes me an awful lot like, "What about the men?!?!" whenever somebody brings up a feminist topic. There doesn't seem to be a genuine interest in the ethical implications of it; it's just a way to distract the question-asker from their own underlying feelings of guilt and threatened privilege.

Now. Ask yourself: do you honest-to-gods believe that cutting up a head of lettuce and cutting up a live, unanesthetized dog is the same ethically?

If you do, let me just say that you don't need to be on the internet. You need to be on a video with the caption, "This is what drugs did to me."

Now, since you likely do not believe that at all, let me ask you: why? Well 'cause, guess what, likelihood is that you don't really think that plants feel pain, just as you wouldn't think that bacteria (also alive by a scientific definition) feel pain. That's an important consideration. Just because something is alive does not mean it feels pain. While I have been told by several now-graduated students of marine biology that, in fact, most sea critters do feel pain because they possess, rather than a central nervous system, a "nerve net", plants have no nerves whatsoever. You can't use oysters as your scapegoat (hah) in this situation.

If there is nothing there to feel pain, if there is nothing there to feel at all, why worry about it? One only needs rights if one possesses emotions; rights only apply to those who will suffer if they do not have them.

Life, liberty, and bodily integrity. These are the three basic, essential rights of my moral code to any being with a self.

"Self" need not be humanlike to be important. Yes, sure, we know that we have selves, and we can recognise them in other mammals, avians, reptiles, amphibians and cetaceans where we cannot so easily recognise them in sea creatures. That doesn't matter; just because someone is different from you doesn't mean that they're unworthy of those essential rights.

However, again, there has to be something there.

Most people who honestly think that there might be a chance that plants feel pain point to the book The Secret Lives of Plants, which contained the results of a "study" (I use this word loosely) on plants that supposedly showed that they feel things and/or think. I'll note here that the author has actually not allowed anyone else to replicate his experiments through the withholding of information about his method, therefore it is extremely unlikely that it was true in the first place.

Another "study" was done on a plant using a polygraph test that supposedly showed "reactions" in the plant with random events. Now, if you know jack shit about polygraph tests, the results might in fact seem plausible. However, I do know something about polygraph tests. They are the so-called "lie detector test" machines, and they rely on the measurements of three physical characteristics that plants do not have: heart rate, skin perspiration, and... damn, I forget the last, but I believe it was muscle tension.

How the hell would you be able to tell anything from a test that depends on criteria that your subject doesn't even have?

But really, let's get back to why we're really being asked this question, which goes back to my first point: this is a distraction. It doesn't really matter if plants feel pain - the ones we're discussing are animals.

First, if you were really serious about plants feeling pain (which you're not), then you wouldn't eat animals because animals need plants to grow and you'd be eating several dozen to hundreds of times the plants that you would need to go directly into your body to sustain you - calorie expenditure, after all - in fact, you would be morally obligated to become a fruitarian so as to never cause plants pain again, which is also vegan.

Second, even though you can't fix everything doesn't mean you can't stop the pain you directly or indirectly cause others through your intentional actions. Or, put another way: just because you can't be perfect doesn't mean you're excused from trying to be better than you are. Life is, as they say, a series of trials and tests. You either grow as a person or you go back to the starting block because you keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

It is, however, the second that leads people to ask this question. So to all of you who have this question to ask, I say:

Stop fucking making excuses and go vegan.

Because the animals don't care about your excuses.


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  3. I was recently asked if I would eat certain plant species who withdraw or seemingly "defend themselves" against external stimuli or violence. I responded by asking what evidence they could produce regarding the plant's internal structure, evolutionary pattern, etc. While they couldn't cite any specific evidence, I considered the question for some time because I think it raises important questions about the possible sentience of some plant species.

    Although it was clear that the question was meant as a "gotcha!" moment, my response and the discussion that followed certainly got everybody at the table thinking in different ways about sentience and the importance of protecting certain interests.

  4. Venus fly traps, Waterwheel Plants, Bladderworts, and some varieties of Sundews capture and consume prey. The Sensitive Plant, Catclaw Brier, Mimosa, the Telegraph Plant, Partidge Pea, Sensitive Pea, Roemer Sensitive Briar, and Neptunia lutea all quickly close their flowers when touched. This proves that plants can react to outside stimulus, can actively hunt prey, and protect themselves, thus meeting the criteria for sentience.

    The author of this article should probably read the article two posts above it entitled: "Since I can't prove to myself that they feel pain, I should treat them as if they don't feel pain."

    It is intensely stupid to have an article that says "Now. Ask yourself: do you honest-to-gods believe that cutting up a head of lettuce and cutting up a live, unanesthetized dog is the same ethically?

    If you do, let me just say that you don't need to be on the internet. You need to be on a video with the caption, "This is what drugs did to me."

    then followed by another that says:

    "If there is more than a remote chance that they feel pain, I should treat them as if they feel pain."

    You really need to get together when writing articles to avoid obvious faux-pas as these in order to retain some semblance of authority and intelligence, if you are to make a successful "FAQ".

    You can say: "While plants feel pain and can react to outside stimulus, we place the suffering of animals above them as we place a higher value on the sentience of animals than we do on the sentience of plants."

    This way you'd actually be honest in your representation of your goals and your beliefs and not sound like a condescending moron who can't keep her facts straight with the other contributers.

  5. It's really easy to talk down to people like a self-important prick. It's also easy to nitpick, and purposely take stuff out of context in such a way as to misrepresent the purpose of the post. It's not so easy to do such a project yourself. If you don't like the way we're doing things, please, do a better job and show us, so that we can link to it.

  6. Nitpick? That's a major mistake. Look at the opening lines of this article and then to this one. Doesn't the author of this article seem to take the stance of a "prick" to new readers?

    It's actually very easy to create articles that inform and are not condescending to people who might have different beliefs. By explaining your beliefs in a civil and open manner, you will attract more people than you will with posts that compare people who disagree with you to people who should "be on a video with the caption, "This is what drugs did to me.""

    I don't have a problem with the concept for your site, but rather the content of this post. Perhaps you might want to change it to accurately reflect the views of vegans without being condescending and having the other article undercut the argument made against the sentience of plants.

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  8. Hi, akule. Let me address three points that you brought up. To summarize:

    - I disagree with your assertion that we are inconsistent in the two posts about pain that you cited.

    - Your summation of what we should have said does not reflect my position (nor, from what I can gather, the position of other posters or the majority of other vegans).

    - I do believe that a starting position of presuming that a target of violence does not feel pain represents a self-centered attitude. Such an attitude has been one of the bases for often-horrific violence against animals throughout the ages. Perhaps I can word that more gently, and I will sincerely take your suggestion under advisement; I appreciate the constructive criticism.

    To elaborate somewhat on points 1 and 2...

    I do believe that most anyone, whether 4 or 94 years old - can readily (if not instantly) and easily tell the difference in terms of sentience between a head of lettuce and a dog. The differences are stark.

    I do not think that there is more than a remote chance that a head of lettuce feels pain. I make this judgment based on science, common sense, and observation. (Those who are believers in the Bible may also note that God makes the distinction in his prescribed diet at the outset of Genesis.)

    Therefore the two sentences that you claim are a "faux-pas" are entirely consistent.

    There is nothing to suggest that plants have a brain that interprets sensations as pain. Furthermore, as the author of the article points out, it would be some sort of worldwide hoax to have, throughout nature, in almost every corner of the globe, an extraordinary number of beings that were, in some cases (say, a well-worn grass path, a fruit tree full of ripe fruit, or the dandelions in my back yard which are a favorite of the local cottontails), in a near-constant state of pain with absolutely no way to escape it. Of course, as the author points out, those beings would then be in a state of shock. The concept quickly becomes absurd.

    So, it is not the case that I (and I would submit, most vegans and most humans) put the sentience of animals and plants on the same level and merely show favoritism to animals.

    Now, having said that, if we did truly ascribe sentience to plants, I suspect that the vast majoritity of vegans and non-vegans would still consider it a greater moral transgression to kill animals rather than plants for non-essential reasons; animals are active, display profound capacities for suffering and happiness, communicate with us, show moods, and so forth. IOW, their degree of sentience is astounding.

    In my experience - and this happens quite consistently over the years - people who otherwise never consider plants to be sentient or to have feelings use the "plants feel pain" line only as a convenient, seat-of-the-pants - and, I would submit, usually disingenuous - defense of meat-eating. If, according to the theory, animals and plants have equal capacity to feel pain, then eating the bodies of tortured chickens and cows is ok. very convenient. The "equal sentience" theory, in my experience, is not seriously subscribed to otherwise. It is just one of a myriad of defenses for behaviors that the user of the theory knows deep down is morally troubling if not deeply wrong.

    There are always fringe and borderline cases, such as Venus fly traps. Note that even chemical solutions will respond to stimuli, so that in itself is a poor criteria for determining whether something can feel pain. (Or - more broadly, and perhaps more importantly - has interests.)

    Now, we could spend an endless amount of time talking about how, say, lobsters, frantically claw at the pot lid to escape pain, and run away, and in fact run away to premptively avoid pain, and - according to at least one non-vegetarian, non-animal rights scientist whom I know of - learn to recognize humans if not develop an elementary relationship with them, and seem to engage in actions with some thinking beforehand, and make decisions, and learn, and compare that to plants, including the Venus fly trap. But rather than split hairs at the borders, I would say this:

    - If you or anyone wants to extend their vegan diet to exclude certain plants that may have interests and the ability to feel pain, I think that's great. I say that in all sincerity and with full respect. Granted, no one (that I know of) eats Venus fly traps, but I see nothing wrong with extending the benefit of doubt to that small sliver of plants which catches prey or moves relatively quickly (though never very far) in response to stimuli.

    - As the author pointed out, and as is pointed out in most vegan FAQ sites, in nearly every case in the developed world, a vegan diet kills far fewer plants (and animals) than a meat-centered diet. So even if one thinks that plants feel pain or have interests, the clear choice is veganism. If one wants to go the extra mile, fruitarianism is a viable option.

  9. Good post; I would also add that if plants did feel pain (something which several people I've spoken to appear to genuinely believe), that would be all the more reason to live lower on the food chain and be vegan - you kill far more plants indirectly by eating animal-based foods than by eating the plants directly!

  10. Plants don't feel pain. How could they? Without a central nervous system or a brain they have nothing to translate physical sensations into pain!

    Now, having said that, I am one of those "New Age hippie" type vegans who thinks everything has a consciousness of sorts. That's part of the reason why I prefer organic fruits and veggies--organic farming is more respectful to the Earth than convential farming methods.

  11. GrimsleyTwosley10/9/11 3:10 AM

    I love the way you italicized "go vegan".  Reverence Lily.  Your blog name is bleeding self-righteousness all over me.
        -Morality, The Evolutionary Safety Net