The following is a debate between Gary Francione, author of Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, and several other titles, and Michael Marder, author of the forthcoming Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life.
The debate and the questions were inspired by Michael Marder's controversial New York Times op-eds Is Plant Liberation on the Menu? and If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them? which generated a variety of responses from animal right advocates, philosophers, and others.
How does plant ethics relate to veganism?
Michael Marder: Plant ethics shares with veganism a strong commitment to justice, which is to say, to the reduction of violence humans perpetrate against other living beings. It is by no means a threat to or an invalidation of veganism. Rather, plant ethics is an open invitation to fine-tune our dietary practices in keeping with the philosophical and botanical considerations of what plants are, what they are capable of, and what our relation to them should be.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau made a useful distinction between perfection and perfectibility, arguing that the latter defines human beings. If veganism considers its moral bases to be perfectible, it will, I believe, admit plant ethics into its midst. Doubts sometimes arise as to whether or not veganism is a genuinely philosophical position when its unbending commitment is mistaken for doctrinaire rigidity, and its morality—for self-righteous moralizing. A serious engagement with plant ethics will finally dispel all such suspicions, as it will demonstrate the dynamic thinking behind veganism, ready to push its own limits.
This does not mean that, having entertained the real possibility of violence against plants, vegans would throw their hands up in despair and concede that it is pointless to alleviate animal suffering by refusing to consume animal flesh and by-products. What it implies is that they would not rest on the laurels of their accomplishments but would consider residual violence against other living beings, such as plants, thoroughly instrumentalized by the same logic that underpins human domination over other animal species.
Gary Francione: If plants are not sentient—if they have no subjective awareness—then they have no interests. That is, they cannot desire, or want, or prefer anything. There is simply no reason to believe that plants have any level of perceptual awareness or any sort of mind that prefers, wants, or desires anything.
Although I am in many respects sympathetic to Jain ethics, and particular to the notion that we should never engage in intentional violence against sentient beings, I do not share the Jain notion that plants and microscopic organisms, because they are alive, have souls. You really need that sort of approach to start to make sense of your position.
I do believe that we have an obligation not to eat more plants than we need to live, but that is because I think that overeating is a form of violence to our own bodies. I also believe that we have an obligation to all sentient inhabitants of the planet not to use more non-sentient resources than we need. In both cases, we have obligations that concern plants but these obligations are not owed directly to plants.
I am all in favor of vegans perfecting their moral bases and I urge all vegans to consider embracing a progressive understanding of human rights that rejects racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and all other forms of discrimination, which are indistinguishable from speciesism.
Michael Marder: As I have pointed out, contemporary research in botany gives us ample reasons to believe that plants are aware of their environment in a nonconscious way—for instance, thanks to the roots that are capable of altering their growth pattern in moving toward resource-rich soil or away from nearby roots of other members of the same species. To ignore such evidence in favor of a stereotypical view of plants as thing-like is counterproductive, both for ethics and for our understanding of what they are.
When we, humans, use ourselves as a measuring stick against which everything else in world is evaluated, then an anthropomorphic image of sentience and intelligence comes to govern our ethics. True: the life of plants resembles our living patterns to a lesser extent than the life of animals. But to use this as a cornerstone of ethics and a justification for rejecting the moral claim plants have on us is a case of extreme speciesism.
Gary Francione: Speciesism occurs when the interests of a being are accorded less or no weight solely on the basis of species. To say that a being has interests is to say that the being has some sort of mind—any sort of mind—that prefers, desires, or wants. It is to say that there is someone who prefers, desires, or wants. You cannot act with speciesism with respect to a being that has no interests, such as a plant.
Your entire argument rests on your confusing a reaction with a response. If you put an electrical current through a wire that is attached to a bell, the bell will ring. The bell reacts; it does not respond. It is as absurd to say that a bell has a “nonconscious response” as it is to say a plant does.
Question: What would it mean for ethical eating if plants were shown to suffer pain and have feelings, even intentionality?
Michael Marder: We run the risk of caricaturizing plant intelligence studies and experiments in neurobotany when we directly translate animal and human sensorium into the sentience of plants (such as tomatoes) that, when attacked by insects, biochemically signal the danger to other specimen nearby and render their leaves unpalatable. It is, however, more productive to think about what in Plant-Thinking I termed “the nonconscious intentionality” of plants—their extended and dispersed striving, expressed in growth and reproduction. What is the moral claim of this intentionality upon us?
Ancient Greeks thought that every living being tends toward the Good, in each case appropriate to its kind of existence. It is clear that, although they might not cognitively know it, plants are and act in ways consistent with what is good for them. We must at the very least take this “vegetal good” into account in our ethical treatment of plants.
At the same time, their intentionality cannot be easily integrated into a coherent unity or a totality we usually associate with an organism. Plants are remarkable in how they may shed almost any part and still germinate from whatever remains in the loose assemblage that they are. The dispersion of vegetal intentionality shifts the moral focus onto communities of plants that disrupt all our anthropocentric distinctions between the individual and the collective.
At the risk of oversimplification, I would suggest that ethical eating demands that we respect plant communities, paying attention to both the methods of their cultivation and their reproductive possibilities.
Gary Francione: To answer the question, if plants were able to suffer, or had intentionality, we would be under an obligation to accord plant interests moral consideration. I have not yet seen your book but I suspect that, at best, you have provided more information about the reactions of plants. But no one would deny that plants react to stimuli. There is, however, not one shred of evidence about which I am aware that plants suffer or have any intentional states.
Let me say that even if, contrary to all that we know, plants are sentient, how would that change our moral behavior? It takes many pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of flesh. Assuming that we concluded we were not obligated to commit suicide, we would still be morally obligated to consume plants rather than consume flesh or animal products that required more plants than if we consumed those plants directly, and that also involved animal deaths.
As a general matter, you appear to be confusing being alive and having reactions to stimuli with having responses that require moral consideration. You are arguing that every life form has a “nonconscious intentionality” that requires our moral consideration. So, in addition to plants, we would have to consider moral obligations to bacteria. After all, they are alive. They have “nonconscious intentionality.” Every time we wash our faces, or brush our teeth, we are engaging in violence because we “instrumentalize” bacteria. We need to respect communities of bacteria.
Do you really believe that?
Professor Marder: You presuppose that plant reactions are automatic and quasi-mechanical, as opposed to the freedom of animal and human responses. But, just as humans and animals often act on reflex, so plants engage in nonconscious determination of the course of their growth, above and below the ground.
You ask where to draw the line of moral considerability. We should certainly not reject the possibility of respecting communities of bacteria without considering the issue seriously. But my research has to do with the life of plants, not bacteria. It is counterproductive to recreate hierarchies of beings, instead of giving each kind of being its due.
Professor Francione: Again, you are confusing reaction or reflex with a response and your framework would necessarily apply to bacteria and anything alive that reacts in any way. There is no way to distinguish among beings all of whom have what you call “nonconscious determination” And to the extent that you exclude the bell from the moral community, you create a hierarchy among things that react.
Question: What, at bottom, is the nature of the dispute between you?
Michael Marder: It is still somewhat early to offer exhaustive commentary on the nature of the dispute between us. I will limit myself to three basic points.
First, it seems that the “food chain,” at the top of which we, humans, presumably are, is the contemporary reflection of the metaphysical Great Chain of Being. In my view it is not enough to meddle with only one aspect of this structure (the relation between humans and animals), while leaving the rest intact. I would think that we need to question such hierarchical formations in all respects, and I am yet to hear my vegan friends endorse this position.
Second, Western philosophers have thought about plants at best as deficient animals, and therefore the violence against animals was magnified manifold when it came to plants. If vegans subscribe to this position, they appear still to operate in the spirit of the very philosophical tradition that has devalued animal lives.
Last is the question of strategy and of principles. It does not make sense to me to advocate something clearly unethical—a total instrumentalization of certain living beings, or plants—in the name of ethics—a complete de-instrumentalization of other kinds of living beings, or animals. In such advocacy, the end does not justify the means, but the means annul the end.
Gary Francione: It may be too early to offer an “exhaustive commentary” about our dispute but I think a simple commentary is in order: I reject completely the notion that we can have direct moral obligations to plants. I reject completely that plants have any interests whatsoever.
You disagree. What else is there to say?
In my own work on animal ethics, I have rejected anthropocentrism completely in maintaining that all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of having the moral right not to be treated exclusively as a human resource. But to say that by drawing a line between the sentient and the non-sentient, I am invoking the Great Chain of Being or operating “in the spirit of the very philosophical tradition that devalued animal lives,” assumes that there is someone here to devalue. There isn’t.
I should note in the 30 years I have been doing this work, when I discuss this issue with people who are not vegans, the conversation almost invariably turns to a sudden solicitude for the “interests” of the vegetables on our plates.
We both know that the primary audience for your book will not be vegans who want to ponder whether they are under-inclusive ethically, but those who claim that we should skip over the interests of the cow and worry about whether the carrot had a tough harvesting season.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that a scholar should not pursue a topic because his or her theory or work may be used in a particular way. I am, however, saying that in a world in which we kill 56 billion sentient beings a year for food (not counting fish), the idea that we need to think about plants or risk being accused of “self-righteous moralizing” is, on many levels, disturbing.
Michael Marder: Before considering whether or not we have any obligations toward plants, it is crucial to ask what (or who) they are, instead of acting upon a preconceived notion. This question is at the core of my book. Any non-dogmatic acceptance or rejection of the moral considerability of plants must rely on ontological foundations.
Gary Francione: I am at the disadvantage of not having yet read your book but you acknowledge that plants are not sentient. In my view, that is all the “ontological foundation” that is needed.
I assume that you are vegan, or, at least, that you see veganism as a baseline requirement of justice toward sentient animals. If, as you say, plant ethics involves a commitment to justice just as veganism does, and that the former does not undermine the latter, you would, it seems be committed to veganism as a non-controversial position, even if you think it remains perfectible. If, however, this enterprise is really about putting cows and corn in the same group, then it would most certainly be an attempt to undermine veganism.