19 April 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 2

It is astonishing how often plants come up in connection with animal liberation. Even intelligent people think that bringing animals into the moral community requires bringing plants in. Since it is absurd to think that plants have moral status, they say, it is absurd to think that animals have moral status. The assumption is that there are no morally relevant differences between animals and plants. Either both of them have moral status or neither of them has moral status. Since plants clearly do not have moral status, neither do animals.

The flaw in the reasoning is that there are morally relevant differences between animals and plants, differences that ground a difference in treatment. Animals (most of them, anyway; certainly those that are most often eaten) are sentient; plants are not. Both are living, to be sure, but nobody thinks that being alive is a sufficient condition for having moral status. Peter Singer doesn’t. Tom Regan doesn’t. I don’t. You don’t.

It might be said that plants are sentient, in the sense of having the capacity to suffer. There is no evidence for this. (Take my word for it. I wrote an essay entitled “Do Plants Have Rights?” for a graduate seminar many years ago, which required that I review the scientific literature.) The people who say it don’t believe it, either. I often hear it said that plants have amazing abilities. They respond to all manner of environmental stimuli, from light to heat to magnetism to noise. But machines can be made to respond to environmental stimuli. Your thermostat isn’t sentient. Your car isn’t sentient. Your computer isn’t sentient.

There is no reason whatsoever to think that plants can feel pleasure or pain. They lack brains and nervous systems. What good would a pain response do for an organism that can’t move to avoid painful stimuli? Animals can avoid pain by moving; plants cannot. Evolutionarily speaking, it would be pointless for a plant to be sentient. It is not pointless for an animal to be sentient.

There is a great deal of intellectual dishonesty among those who deny animals moral status. They seem committed to thinking of and using animals as resources and will let nothing—not even logic and common sense—stand in the way. They ridicule those who take animals seriously. When they make the point about plants, they do so with an air of triumph. But the joke’s on them. Those who think animals have moral status have thought things through to a much greater degree than those who don’t. Take my word for it. I’ve been reading, writing, and talking about the issue for a quarter of a century.

If you sincerely believe that plants are sentient, act on your belief. You may think it shows that any living organism may be killed and eaten. What it actually shows, when you combine it with your belief that pain is intrinsically bad, is that you’re acting wrongly. You should be foraging for plants and animals that died natural deaths, not raising and killing them for food. But suppose this were an inadequate diet. Then one would have to make comparative judgments about the degree to which various organisms suffer. Presumably, if plants were sentient, they would be less sentient than animals, so one would have an obligation to consume them rather than animals. Either way, it’s wrong to eat animals.

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