08 February 2004

Plants and Animals

I received a letter today in which the writer said we can't be sure that plants don't feel pain. Let me repeat something I've said many times: There is no reason whatsoever to think that plants feel pain (or anything else). They lack brains and nerves. They're rooted in the earth, so a pain response would do them no good (as it does animals). Even more puzzling is what is supposed to follow from this. Suppose it's not clear whether plants feel pain. Does it follow that it's not clear whether animals feel pain? Peter Singer makes the same point about oysters and insects. Doubt in one area shouldn't give us doubt everywhere. That there are hard cases doesn't mean there are no easy cases. There is as much reason to think that cows, pigs, and chickens feel pain as that a two-year old child feels pain.

The writer also expressed animosity toward Peter Singer. Please. Peter Singer is not the animal-liberation movement (although he inspired it). Peter Singer is not the only person who thinks nonhuman animals have moral status. But even if he were the only person who thinks this, nothing would follow about the moral status of animals. Don't confuse the question whether animals matter morally with the question whether Peter Singer is a good or likeable person. That's like saying that the war in Iraq was unjustified because George W. Bush smirks or swaggers. Distinguish the person from the argument. Good people can make bad arguments and bad people good arguments. Good people can act wrongly and bad people rightly. I'm not saying that Peter Singer is bad. In my opinion, he's good. But even if he were bad, it would have no bearing on whether animals have moral status.

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