Every vegetarian or vegan has probably heard someone lament the feelings of plants. Coming from meat-eaters, it’s hard to understand the point of this claim. It is a classic tu quoque* fallacy. Vegans, generally, maintain that “Animals are capable of suffering”, to which an omnivore might respond, “Well plants have feelings too!” It’s the you’re-no-better-than-me defense (also referred to as the ad plantarum* fallacy). Most of us reasonable vegans think we should be attempting to reduce animal suffering as much as possible. Are we forgetting the suffering of plants? If we are, so are meat-eaters. Later I will show why the “plants have feelings” hypothesis is essentially an argument for veganism.
Do plants have ‘feels’ though? Plants don’t “see” because they don’t have eyes; they do, however, track the sun’s movements, defend themselves against predation, and respond to environmental cues. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective – ancestors of modern plants that developed this ability were better at capturing the sun’s energy and passing along their genes, and the ones that didn’t weren’t. This is a far cry from saying that plants have what philosophers call a “phenomenological” concept of the sun. It is hard to see how plants could have a concept of the sun from a first-‘person’ point of view that is familiar to us. Not everyone agrees, but I think that animals have some sort of subjective experience. It’s hard to see how plants could form the idea of “sun” without any kind of central nervous system. They respond to stimuli whether it be photons or a caterpillar eating their leaves. Anyone who has pets is likely more sympathetic to the idea of animals having some sort of inner mental representation of external reality. With a healthy wariness toward anthropomorphization, we can ask if a house cat, when chasing the red dot from a laser pointer, sees the dot “in their head” or is merely responding to the a stimulus, like a plant.
A critical difference between plants and cats (and us) is brains. Ultimately brains respond to stimuli, but they also excel at model-building. This is probably the human species’ greatest ability. Non-human animals build models too, but at varying levels of sophistication. Descartes would disagree: he infamously considered animals as mere automatons and man as the rational animal. To him, animals were just complicated plants and only humans had an immortal soul capable of mental experience. So burning cats alive was totally okay. I think few of us today agree with Descartes - even the most ardent meat-eater wouldn’t torture a pet for the hell of it.
Can plants hear? Not in a way similar to how animals do. They don’t have any ears, obviously, but they also lack the accompanying brain systems associated with hearing that other animals have. They do sense and adapt to their environments, but saying they “hear” is like saying plants “see” because they respond to and track the sun. Again, it’s really not surprising that plants do this. A plant that doesn’t respond whatsoever to predation wouldn’t do as well as one that could initiate some kind of defense when being eaten. The plants that were more effective at fending off predators tended to leave more offspring, and those which were less effective had fewer offspring. Eventually, after enough generations, most plants would have at least some defense against predation.
For a moment, let’s imagine that the “plants have feelings” hypothesis is true, and that plants have some sort of pain-like inner experience when they are chewed, pruned, trimmed, or otherwise damaged. For the purposes of our thought experiment, this experience is not as advanced as a cat’s, but is non-zero: they are capable of “feeling” a sort of “pain”. What implications would this have for an ethical diet? The straw vegan, esposed by carnists across the Internet, would (should) instantly become a fruitarian*. If current trends are anything to go by, most non-vegans would be a bit more practical. Advocates of “humanely-raised” “cruelty-free” meat might start buying vegetables labeled with similar marketing buzzwords.
I propose that such measures would be ineffective in much the same way as free-range eggs are ineffective in the non-imaginary world; and, as a society, the first thing we should (must) do if plants were proven to have feelings would be to eat less meat.
There is a general assumption that vegans eat more vegetables than meat-eaters, so if the “plants have feelings” hypothesis were true (and I want to reiterate how incredibly unlikely that is and also how improbable it would be that said mythical plant feelings would be similar to an animal’s feelings) it would follow that vegans and vegetarians would be causing more direct plant suffering than omnivores. What is forgotten here is the inefficiency of raising meat. The numbers vary, but 2 to 5 times* more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock than directly through grain. So meat-eaters would be causing more plant “suffering” overall than vegans.
To break it down, if plants had feelings (which they don’t), they would factor into ethical calculations of consumption as painient* entities. Any society concerned with minimising suffering would have three choices:
- Stop eating plants, except fruits that have fallen off the stem.
- Start harvesting plants in a more humane way (As a vegan, I am skeptical of this being effective and being more than just a marketing label, as I am with these practices in animal agriculture).
- Cutting back on the consumption of plants.
Whatever ethical choices were made in this scenario, a highly effective approach would be to stop eating meat. Not only would (hypothetical) plant suffering be lessened, but (actual) animal suffering would be eliminated.
The “plants have feelings” gambit is the worst argument against veganism. It is so poor and internally confused that it actually constitutes a case for veganism.
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