The ethics of eating talking plants

In a blog post on The Atlantic Wire, Sara Morrison writes,

“Just when moral vegetarians thought their meal of choice wasn’t sentient, it turns out that plants can totally talk to each other. Even weirder, they communicate through underground fungi. So mushrooms aren’t cool to eat, either. Sorry.”

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Because that is how simple moral reasoning is. Morrison assumes, with no evidence, that moral vegetarians base their decisions on whether animals can communicate. This may be because others such as Descartes have denied that animals can have thought without language. Descartes further argued that without thought animals could no more experience suffering than a machine could. Perhaps to make a point, or not, he described some rather vivid scenes of vivisection.

But it is a mistake to think ethical vegetarians are motivated by Descartes’ thinking. We tend to think more along the lines of Jeremy Bentham, who famously said:

“Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

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In response to the ethical vegetarian’s focus on suffering, some philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have shown that it is at least possible that animals can experience pain without the attendant suffering that vegetarians assume. It is possible that animals are automata that respond to pain without being aware of it, just as we may roll over in our sleep when we become uncomfortable (Dennett’s example). We can feel the pain and respond to it with no awareness whatsoever. (Interestingly, Dennett seems pretty sure dogs, and no other animals, may experience suffering in an otherwise uniquely human way.)

So, ethical vegetarians are stuck between those who claim that plant communication implies suffering that make moral demands on them and people who deny that clear expressions of pain are conclusive evidence that any given creature actually experiences suffering. For me, I’m quite content to assume that plants are not suffering until they express their suffering in a less ambiguous manner (or someone manages to measure it in a more convincing manner). At the same time, I’m content to assume animals with a nervous system similar to mine and pain expressions similar to mine are experiencing some kind of suffering that is enough to motivate some moral concern on my part.

At any rate, I can’t imagine how an indifference to the appearance of suffering can be something to go around bragging about. (And one final note: I really don’t understand vegetarians who are inexplicably eager to explain that they have no concerns whatsoever about the suffering of sentient beings but are only trying to lose weight or something.)

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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