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Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Plants

Here's something I wrote about 2 weeks ago. I postponed posting in order to get some of the travel stuff up. It's somewhat in response to a NYT article, which several friends informed me of, directly and indirectly.

I'd promise not to post any entries related to veganism for a while, but this meta-post is sort of incomplete and needs a partner-post looking at the article itself. So just one more. For now. Bear with me.

There's a question that people often ask me and, I'm sure, others who profess to be vegetarians or vegans or lacto-ovo-pescetarians for ethical reasons. The question is: what about plants? Don't they feel pain and have a right to live, too? Though it's easy to brush the question aside - indeed, I usually feel like the people who ask it to me take it far less seriously than I do - I believe it does merit some attention, and that the way we answer the question ought to bear heavily on our daily food choices.

Before we get to the evidence, a word first about the question-asker, or better, the question-act. In my experience, the question is rarely asked honestly. What I mean by this is that the question is asked as a quick way to justify one's current meat-eating habits, and the asker rarely acknowledges that other conclusions that might have ramifications taking them away from their current habits are actually more logical.

The underlying argument is as follows (I'll call this argument "A" for future reference):

Premise 1) Animals feel pain and have an interest in living.
Premise 2) Plants also feel pain and also have an interest in living.
Premise 3) Humans have to eat.

Sub-conclusion: The process of eating necessarily causes pain to some kind of being and disrespects its interest in living.

Conclusion: There's no point worrying about what we eat. We're just assholes and there's nothing we can do about it. Eating meat is as OK as anything can be.

In practical terms: there's no need to change my habit of eating (industrialized) meat.

There are a couple problems with this argument. The first is

*Hidden premise 1) Everything we eat or can eat is either a living plant or an animal, capable of feeling pain and having interests.

While this is mostly true - aside from salt and water and maybe one or two other things, all of our sustenance comes from other life forms or products of those life forms - it would be possible live off fruit and nuts (which drop off plants naturally) and fungi (of course, whether or not fungi feel pain and have interests is also a question worth asking.) One could also eat dead animals (as our ancestors almost certainly did). These are admittidely difficult and unrealistic options, but it's possible to live by them, and so they ought not go forgotten in any discussion of right and wrong as regards eating.

The second, more significant issue is

*Hidden Premise 2) Animal pain and interests and plant pain and interests are identical.

Whether or not this is so can only be determined by honest, disinterested observation, but I'll go ahead and say that, prima facie, I'm not sure why we'd make that assumption, given how differently plants and animals react to stimuli. (Later, I'll refer to an NYT article about scientists who have investigated this in detail.) This is significant because, unless one can prove that all pain and interesets are identical, one is/may be justified in worrying about the pain of one species more than the pain of another, even if it's impossible to reduce that suffering to zero. The solution in this case would be to subsist on plants rather than animals - though of course, one could also discriminate among plants, eating primarily algae and other low-level life forms that most likely feel little pain.

The question-asker, in my experience, is rarely willing to accept that his/her premises, when all made explicit, lead more naturally to fruitarianism or consumption from the bottom of the food chain than they do to the indiscriminant consumption of any form of life. The reason, it seems to me, that people don't acknowledge this is because the argument is not about what, at the surface level, it purports to be about. It's not about whether or not plants feel pain or whether that matters. It's about whether or not the self-professed ethical vegetarian (hereafter, "SPEV") is a hypocrite and/or an asshole. First the implicit argument, from the POV of the non-SPEV, then some discussion:

Fact: This SPEV claims to be living according to the following Central Principles of SPEVism.

CP 1) It's wrong to cause other beings to suffer needlessly.
CP 2) It's wrong to ignore the interests of other beings in favor of our own interests.

Premise 1) (Acknowledged) Consuming meat is wrong according to CP1 and CP2.

Sub-conclusion 1) The SPEV thinks I am a (bad) person who does things that are wrong.

Premise 2) (Assuming that "A" is sound and valid) Consuming plant matter is also wrong according to CP1 and CP2.

Sub-conclusion 2) The SPEV, according to his own logic, is also a person who does things that are wrong.

Super-conclusion) the SPEV is a judgmental hypocrite and can't even follow the precepts of his own ethical system, which he won't stop talking about and pushing onto others. If he can't follow them, why should I? And what right does he have to criticize or look down on my preferences?

I understand completely why it may be nice to consider even benevolent and mild-mannered SPEVs like myself hypocrites and/or arses. The fact is, choosing to live as a SPEV requires condemnation, implicit if not explicit, of the act of eating meat, just as choosing to live as a teetotaler generally requires condemnation, implicit if not explicit, of the consumption of alcohol. Of course, implicit in almost every refusal, banal or not, is a condemnation of the act being refused; refusing to kill another human implicitly condemns those who do, as does refusing to pick your nose in public. Few get upset over the nose-picking issue, but nobody is surprised when soldiers don't appreciate pacifists. When the condemnation hits close to home - and what's closer to home than what you put on your plate and in your mouth at brekkie, lunch, and dinner? - it's easy to take it personally.

This is something that, as a newbie SPEEVegan (No typo! 5 points to whoever figures out what that means!), I take seriously. I feel deeply that CP1 and CP2 are right and want to live in a world where others do too, which means that I want to proselytize and convert. But I also want to maintain relationships with all my non-SPEV and non-SPEEV peeps, who have all sorts of other great qualities and who do other great things and who remember the days before I was a SPEEVegan. If we go way back, you may even remember when I was a non-SPEEV. Wow.

So, though none of my pals have ever really clashed with me about this stuff and I am preaching to people who don't need to be preached at, please consider this a plea to:

1) Refrain from asking the "what about plants?" question unless you
a) would consider becoming a fruitarian; or,
b) want to disagree with SPEV CP1 and/or CP2 (I haven't forgotten about you, Chris, formidable foe that you are); or,
c) think I'm wrong in my analysis of Argument A
2) Consider the plight of the SPEVs.
3) Let me know how I'm doing at being a non-threatening, friendly, non-arsey SPEEVegan. Give me tips from the non-SPEV perspective, which I abandoned nearly 8 months ago and may have somewhat forgotten. Really, it's important. To me and to SPEVs and SPEVegans and and SPEEVs and SPEEVegans and other permutations all over the world.

Alright, now that that joke is sufficiently played out, I'll sign off, leaving the original question (and article) unscathed. I intend to take it/them on later. Maybe on the 24 hour train ride to Mumbai tonight. For now, I'm going to try to beat the lunch rush at that restaurant I couldn't get into yesterday. Cheap pure veg food, here I come.


Dave said...

SPEEVegan = self-professed ethical and environmental vegan.

Yesterday I came to the conclusion that the reason Americans don't eat dog isn't because they're cute and cuddly, but rather, we don't like the thought of consuming an animal that eats cat shit. If this is correct (which it almost certainly isn't), it means that if you can train cattle, hogs, lambs, and chickens to eat cat shit, you'll convert our entire country to SPACSVeganism (self-professed anti-cat shit veganism).

I should probably stop talking for a while.

Mike said...

Your theory explains why Koreans don't mind eating dogs - they don't have many cats, and they have even fewer yards, so they don't realize that the doggies eat the kitty poo. Could you explain, though, why they don't mind eating the sea penis?

To be semi-serious for a second, farm-raised animals are fed/forced to consume stuff much more repulsive than cat shit. (Ever wondered why "batshit" is one word and "cat shit" is two?) I'm talking about antibiotics, and feed with GM, non-organic ingredients, and ground up baby chicks and what not. Also, they often stand thigh-deep in their own faeces, so some of it almost certainly gets onto their fur and then onto their meat.

In other news, you mixed up the two E's in SPEEVegan, so you don't get squat. Nice try.

el jefe said...

Please tell me you haven't jumped onto the anti-GMO train...I will grant that financially what some companies do with GMO's in terms of driving out local seeds/farmers isn't laudable, but that's as far as I'll go. It's just another type of business-for-profit. Which isn't to condone it, but if you want to be vehemently anti-GMO for that reason, you need to be vehemently anti-IBM, anti-Wall Street, anti-phone companies, anti-etc. Which is fine. But crazy and rather idiotic thinking.

To speak of GM crops as something "repulsive" is overboard. There's nothing inherently repulsive about modifying a plant to suit your needs. Are medicines and vaccines repulsive? Should we all just eat herbs instead, and hope our kids don't develop polio?

Shades of a larger argument here...which we can have if you want...