If Trees Could Scream

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.
Jack Handey

A friend forwarded me a provocatively-titled article by Natalie Angier in the science section of The New York Times: Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too. The premise is that plants are sophisticated organisms with complex defense mechanisms, and therefore have as much of a right to life as any other organism.

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze.

There’s some really interesting information about the defense mechanisms of some plants in the article, but they should have left the editorializing to the op-ed page. Angier may say that she does not mean to offer “a trite argument or a chuckled aside,” but that’s exactly how it comes off to vegans. This question has been posed many times online, usually facetiously and antagonistically, and most of us have heard it in person by at least a few people who think they’re being clever. Lots of reasonable responses have been written, too, but since it still comes up, I’ll add my own summary.

I don’t think most vegans think of plants as static or passive. It’s pretty obvious that they react to their environment, and if they didn’t have defense mechanisms, they wouldn’t have survived as species. That’s not the point. The concern is whether the plants perceive suffering. I’m not speaking for all vegans here, but in my opinion the only relevant question is whether eating a plant-based diet results in more or less overall suffering than one that contains animals.

The part that really bugs me, though, is the unstated conclusion that this line of argument usually implies: assuming that plants do suffer, that means that we can’t eat without causing suffering, so we might as well not worry about it. If vegans are still making plants suffer, then making animals suffer isn’t really any worse. Or, to put it another way, if you can’t be perfectly “good” by some ethical standard (don’t cause suffering) then you can arbitrarily redefine your ethical standards to validate whatever it is you’re already doing.

The key phrase is “whatever it is you’re already doing,” because most people who make this argument don’t really want to accept the logical conclusion of the idea that one form of suffering is just as significant as another, which would be complete nihilism. Why not eat humans, then? There’s another unstated assumption that humans get some untouchable moral status, but usually there’s no real rationale given for this. I think nihilism is a legitimate interpretation of the world, or at least a logically consistent one, but that’s not what most of the animal suffering apologists are promoting. They’re saying it’s OK to eat animals because eating either plants or animals might cause suffering, but it’s not OK to eat humans or intentionally cause other human suffering because… well, just because. It’s a lazy form of morality that amounts to “do what you’re taught” or even “do whatever serves you, if you can get away with conveniently.” To justify this against the case for veganism, you need to convince yourself that there is a fundamental flaw in vegan reasoning, so you argue a position that you don’t actually believe yourself: that vegans are committing an injustice by killing plants.

It’s a pretty easy argument to counter. The goal of veganism, at least in its utilitarian form, is not to be a perfect being that never does anything that causes suffering (which not even all plants can claim to be) but to make choices that try to minimize the amount of suffering caused. Even if plants are capable of suffering, a plant-based diet would result in less suffering for the simple reason that raising animals for food requires the consumption of far more plant food than feeding it to humans directly.

8 Replies to “If Trees Could Scream”

  1. There’s the other counter that many plants have evolved to attract animals to eat them, and even rely on animals eating them in order to reproduce, any fruit baring plant is a perfect example of this. These plants aspire to being eaten. But the same can be said of many animals, such as some species of worm and bacteria, that rely on being eaten in order to survive. But this of course has nothing to do with the moral choice of eating or not eating meat.

    1. Good point, James. Some people, often called “fruitarians” choose to only eat plant-based food that can be harvested without killing the plant, such as fruit, nuts, and seeds. I don’t think that it has been well established that this is nutritionally adequate, however.

  2. The super-salient difference here is that eating plants *might* (I cannot stress this enough — *might*) cause suffering in those individual organisms as supposed by some wholly new, amorphous and ill-defined notion of “plant awareness.”

    So, we can choose to eat that life which we’re certain – beyond any reasonable doubt – which *does suffer* (animals), or we can eat that life which might be said to “suffer” as an utterly abstract, theoretical question, wholly absent from the mechanics of actual sensation and awareness as we presently understand it (a brain, a central nervous system, sensory organs, nerves, etc.)

    The whole thing is just a silly attempt at rationalizing a claim that “I’m going to eat whatever I want, and I don’t actually give a damn about the amount of suffering I’m causing.”

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