The animal rights cause faces stiff resistance at almost every turn. Industries profiting from the sale of animal products are firmly entrenched, and every relevant authority figure in a child’s life – parents, school, government – appears to sanction animal exploitation at mealtime. As if not enough, there are now those who would accord moral consideration to plants, further clouding the debate on what constitutes ethical eating. Although not necessarily intended to denigrate veganism, “plant liberation,” as espoused by philosophy professor Michael Marder in two New York Times articles, is a potentially regressive development for animal advocates.
In the first article, Mr. Marder cites a recent study that finds pea plants relaying biochemical messages (through roots) to other pea plants. This leads the easily-impressed Marder to ask: “Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?” And then, this gigantic leap: “When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics.”
Although “the subjectivity of plants is not centered in a single organ” (of course not, they have no brain), “this dispersion of vitality holds out a promise of its own”: Yes, Marder says, we can eat the “renewable gifts” from perennials, but “it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends.” In other words, ethical eating requires us to judge each plant species on its own merits. Wow.
In the second piece, Marder expands on this human-plant relationship. While conceding that plants are perhaps not conscious, he, nevertheless, sees them as “intelligent beings” and invokes Aristotle’s “vegetal soul.” We should not, Marder argues, treat plants as machines because we know what Cartesian evil that can engender. As applied to animals, this translates to a 17th Century scientist nailing unanesthetized dogs to boards and cutting them open to study their beating hearts. Is this even remotely similar to harvesting wheat? He also says “it is especially pernicious to grow plants from sterile seeds,” calling it a “violation” of their capacity for reproduction, and in a particularly offensive allusion to the Kantian precept that rapists and mass murderers often start out by abusing animals (which is generally true), Marder claims that “violence against plants backfires, as it leads to violence against humans…”
In fairness, Mr. Marder acknowledges that “plant stress certainly does not reach the same intensity and does not express itself the same way as animal suffering,” and he calls attempts to halt using animals as “meat-generating machines” “commendable.” But then he says, this “does not justify strategic argumentation in favor of the indiscriminate consumption of plants.” Sorry, but that’s exactly what it does because animals (at least the ones we regularly eat) are sentient and plants are not. Undeterred, Marder ends with this: “It follows that the struggles for the emancipation of all instrumentalized living beings should be fought on a common front,” and towards that end, “plant liberation” must be added to “our moral menus.”
I could call Mr. Marder crazy, but his university professorship would seem to indicate otherwise. In any event, Professor Marder, perhaps you could descend from your elitist tower and poke your head in at the real world where 50 billion animals whom nature has so generously endowed with the requisite hardware for experiencing pain are mercilessly confined and brutally slaughtered each year. Your senses thus bombarded with the same, easily-recognizable signs of suffering – writhing, contorting, moaning, crying, shrieking, squealing, avoiding – we see in ourselves, maybe, just maybe, the proper focus for empathy will begin to emerge.
In Michael Marder’s reconfigured society, the vegan/activist who insists on clinging to an antiquated (early 21st Century, that is) object of compassion risks being tossed from the moral high ground where only those willing to also embrace plant liberation need apply. But worse, if adopted, Marder’s specious nonsense would carry grave consequences for animals: Inspiring plant-eating compunction will confuse and paralyze well-meaning consumers, leading to “why bother” indifference, and the almost unfathomable suffering of livestock will continue unabated.