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December 22, 2009 3:53 PM   Subscribe

Do plants have a consciousness? Michael Pollan seemed to argue they do in The Botony of Desire (original book) and that they were inextricably involved in co-evolution with their human cultivators, affecting human development, perhaps as much as the humans who are selectively choosing traits in plants. If that’s true, that plants are conscious, is it okay to eat them?
posted by Toekneesan (99 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
*Botany*
posted by ericb at 3:55 PM on December 22, 2009


If that’s true, that plants are conscious, is it okay to eat them?

And what exactly are our options? Because I'm not eating quorn.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:55 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't really feel that Pollan was putting forth the idea that plants were *concious*, just that they evolved, as did every living species, to manipulate their environment - since we're part of they're environment that evolution involves manipulating us into planting them (and in a more primitive sense, they've always gotten animals to spread them around, but humans are the first to cultivate them, so the species that are the most cultivatable tend to be grown the most)
posted by RustyBrooks at 4:00 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


No credible source can be cited that uses bgcolor=#66ff66.
posted by justkevin at 4:01 PM on December 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


My poinsettia agrees with you.
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:03 PM on December 22, 2009


It's okay if we eat them ESPECIALLY if they are conscious. They WANT us to.

Geez, didn't anyone watch Fraggle Rock?
posted by chronkite at 4:04 PM on December 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


I used to have an old issue of some journal from the 70s, which contained an article refuting the Cleve Backster experiment mentioned in the "consciousness" link.

IIRC, Backster's experiment had no controls, and no quantitative criteria—he just hooked his plants up to polygraphs, and whenever it looked like the polygraphs were responding to stuff that was happening, he took that as support for his hypothesis. He ignored the most basic protocols of experimental design. As such, his results are meaningless.

Not that this should surprise anyone.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:04 PM on December 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


Well, there are lots of plants that don't necessarily suffer when you eat PART of them, and lots of plants that fully expect parts of themselves to be eaten as part of their propagation strategy.

But whatever, let's just invalidate vegans so we can feel better about eating meat.

Disclaimer: I eat meat. A lot.
posted by keep_evolving at 4:05 PM on December 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


Quorn is awesome tasty! Though it should be noted that it contains evil non-vegan products to give it it's nice texture.

Anyway, are we saying that fungi are not part of the plant kingdom consciousness club here?
posted by Artw at 4:07 PM on December 22, 2009


Being eaten is a pretty important part of many plants' reproductive cycles, hadn't you noticed?
posted by hermitosis at 4:09 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


If that’s true, that plants are conscious, is it okay to eat them?

I've not read the book but Pollan clarified himself in a radio interview some years ago, he wasn't saying plants have consciousness.
posted by nola at 4:09 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Carrot Juice is Murder
posted by never used baby shoes at 4:10 PM on December 22, 2009


I'm pretty sure my neighbors are conscious but if things get bad enough? Stew pot.
posted by codswallop at 4:11 PM on December 22, 2009 [14 favorites]


Anyway, are we saying that fungi are not part of the plant kingdom consciousness club here?
Fungi are not part of the plant kingdom, period.

In fact, fungi and animals are more closely related than are fungi and plants (or plants and animals). Fungi and animals are both opisthokonts, unlike plants.
posted by Flunkie at 4:14 PM on December 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


What about Fanimals?
posted by nola at 4:17 PM on December 22, 2009


Pollan really does not argue that plants have a consciousness. Not in the slightest. He's just describing co-evolution among plants and animals.
posted by argybarg at 4:18 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


They WANT us to

That's an interesting point. It seems like trees WOULD want us to eat their fruit and shit their seeds as far and wide as we can. No?
posted by mrgrimm at 4:21 PM on December 22, 2009


If you're worried about killing living organisms, cease all breathing immediately.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:21 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. "

Autotrophic? Um...
There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between animals/organic processes (feces, movement (spreading seeds), dying/decomposing and so fertilizing, etc) and plant growth.
Some plants would do fine without a single organic being on the planet but lots of organic creatures - bees, say - do a hell of a lot of work to keep plants alive and spreading.

What's 'okay' is more a matter of quality of life, than of life at any cost. I hunt deer, et.al (I'm out right now) if there was no predation of deer, they would eventually overwhelm their food source and die of starvation.
One can argue deer would be better off without human development. And I'd agree. Though there still would be predation by wolves and a greater risk of, say, a species threatening disease which only human resources could actually deal with.
This of course is balanced by human stupidity in the past (the dodo, and other extinctions), but it can't simply be empathy for another species which guides how we interact with life on Earth.

Empathy for another must be balanced with understanding of the complexity of the processes which supports them. Otherwise it's just as oppressive as saying "Jeezus wants babby to be born, so no abortions."
This is not to say there shouldn't be more empathy. But too, we should understand that we're a part of, not separate from, the processes which support life on Earth and maximize our role in not only strengthening those processes but augmenting diversity and redundancy in them to better ensure survival.

Plus, hell, they eat us too.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:22 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


This implies that the reader has trouble eating sentient beings. I, for one, have eaten sentient beings whom I called by name, sentient beings that I cuddled when they were adorable young lambs.

Welcome to life in a farm community.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:22 PM on December 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


Well perhaps the reason this is even an issue stems from the potential conceptual vagueness inherent to the term "consciousness" (see this recent thread and about 10,000 books), something philosophers of all stripes have been making proverbial hay with for a long, long time. For instance, even an idea that seems at first glance to be counterintuitive, such as panpsychism (more here), can have contemporary defenders (in the case of panpsychism see for example Galen Strawson and Freya Mathews).
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:24 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


With a bit of seasoning and a good flame, yes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:27 PM on December 22, 2009


I like the idea of panpsychism - that everything has consciousness of a sort no matter how rudimentary - but it's the degree and quality of consciousness that counts, not consciousness itself. What was it that Mill said - that he'd rather be a dissatisfied man than a satisfied pig? Or words to that effect.

Anyhow I firmly believe that vegetables post 60% or more of youtube comments.
posted by fleetmouse at 4:27 PM on December 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


You need to edit your tags. It's Botany, not Botony.
posted by y2karl at 4:27 PM on December 22, 2009


THESE ARE THE CRIES OF THE CARROTS
posted by empath at 4:33 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hmm, interesting question.

*Chomps carrot sticks. Ignores strange alien screaming sound.*

If eating anything living is wrong, at least all of us in the animal kingdom seem unified in blameworthiness.
posted by bearwife at 4:34 PM on December 22, 2009


I'm not sure if botony is wrong or not. This came up with a Google images search.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:34 PM on December 22, 2009


I was coming to say double, but the other post got nuked? Hope this goes better, and I just had some delicious kale soup. I turned up the Christmas music so I didn't have to listen to it scream.
posted by fixedgear at 4:35 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, that's pollen, not pollan.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:35 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


For this post, I think "botony" might actually be a more appropriate tag.
posted by Humanzee at 4:37 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Michael Pollan seemed to argue they do in The Botony of Desire (original book) and that they were inextricably involved in co-evolution with their human cultivators, affecting human development, perhaps as much as the humans who are selectively choosing traits in plants.

This is a really awful misunderstanding of the metaphorical language that writers often use when talking about evolution.
posted by empath at 4:38 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]




From the NY Times article: " [...] the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. "

See, this quote has the kind of writing I really dislike, because it heavily anthropomorphizes the plant.
It's like saying "the vigilant light switch detects the presence of a simple factor, pressure on its external toggle. Cued by this force, the switch swiftly changes its internal configuration to change the path of electrical current running through it to brighten or darken the room to suit its needs."

I'm not saying this mechanism isn't interesting or useful, but there is no deeper intelligence behind it. It is a fortunate evolutionary accident that one of the plant's ancestors developed the chemical reaction behind this and was thus more successful than those that didn't, but it took no planning or consciousness to do that.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:44 PM on December 22, 2009 [11 favorites]


This is so dumb. How do you get from to plant consciousness from the fact that plants co-evolved with us? You don't. Might as well argue that because plants co-evolved with us, they have feet.

And that first link is wild. Look at the experiment on the Memory page! How in the world is a polygraph supposed to work when it's hooked up to a plant? If that experiment is in any way reputable, I'd modus tollens the whole thing and hand it over it as evidence to the people who think that polygraph lie-detection is unscientific.
posted by painquale at 4:44 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do plants have a consciousness?

No.

... is it okay to eat them?

Yes.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:48 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


See, this quote has the kind of writing I really dislike, because it heavily anthropomorphizes the plant.

I pretty much talk like that about the code I write, and I assure you it's not going to stop me doing horrible, horrible things to it.
posted by Artw at 4:50 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


The point of fearing harm is to prompt the fearful organism to do something about it: run away, attack, form packs and sleep in shifts, pray, whatever. Plants pretty much can do nothing about anything whatsoever as far as we can tell. It makes no sense for them to have a fear response. Possibly a very slow version of a hunger/thirst response, if they had anything analogous to motor control over their direction of growth. Possibly a sexual response, if growing flowers and seeding isn't completely automatic.

I'm no fan of Descartes but "I think, therefore I am" is quite apt, if we allow for non-binary states of thought and therefore being.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:51 PM on December 22, 2009


hamburger.
posted by jepler at 4:51 PM on December 22, 2009


Do plants have a consciousness?

No. Maybe.

... is it okay to eat them?

Yes.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:55 PM on December 22, 2009


This did make me wonder if there is anyone reputable or worth listening to who thinks that plants are conscious, but who doesn't believe in panpsychism (i.e. someone who doesn't think rocks are conscious). I couldn't find anything on a cursory search. Unsurprisingly, the first link in this FPP is just the first thing that comes up when you search for 'plant consciousness'.

More interesting, and actually debated, is a question about whether plants have intentional states. Do plants want water, know where the sun is, etc., or is that a loose way of speaking?

The only other place in philosophy I can think of where plants and animals are considered to be special in some way is in van Inwagen's Material Beings, wherein he argues that organic things and fundamental particles are the only things that exist. So, there are no carrot peelers, but there are carrots. Frickin' metaphysicians....
posted by painquale at 5:01 PM on December 22, 2009


I am pretty confident that a dog feels much like I do when someone large stand on our toes and we both recoil and yelp. The dog is close enough to us that, in terms of suffering caused, I might almost as well eat people as eat dogs. I'm certain that a chimp and you and I feel almost identical suffering.

I don't think a reasonable person would honestly believe that a tomato plant feels something comparable to what the dog and chimp and you and I feel under similar circumstances. A plant's chemical reactions to damage, without higher brain processing (memory, emotions, etc.), are closer to the flipping of a mechanical or electronic switch than to the complex reaction the dog and chimp and you and I have. You can call the plant's reaction suffering if you like, but then you might as well start worrying about whether a row of dominoes suffers when you knock over the first one and it causes the rest to fall in turn.
posted by pracowity at 5:08 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


One thing I love about Arctic Inuit subsistence culture. The traditional diet is as plant-free as a human diet can get, just a few berries and herbs. You can, in fact, live on a diet of raw meat, and virtually only raw meat, and live well.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:10 PM on December 22, 2009


Vegetarians may have to get off their moral high horse

I know an old lady who swallowed a high horse.
She's high, of course.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:10 PM on December 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


When it turns out that time does not exist and that you get reincarnated as every single living thing that ever existed you lot are all going to be sorry.
posted by Artw at 5:11 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Great, now I can't eat dominoes either?
posted by Flunkie at 5:16 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do animals have a consciousness?

Yes.

Is it okay to eat them?

As far as I'm concerned, knock yourself out, champ. Others' mileage may vary.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:20 PM on December 22, 2009


I hate Michael Pollan. I want to punch the guy. I borrowed his books from the library so he wouldn't get a cent from me, and I couldn't get past the first page of any of them, they made me so angry.

There's no ethics of eating. It's a morally neutral activity, like breathing or regulating your body temperature. But when you live in a society that allows you to be so privileged as to never have to concern yourself with the possibility of starvation, your food choices become reflections on your social status. Michael Pollan writes for the upper middle classes, and his conclusions (not surprisingly) benefit that same social group. But part of it is disparaging and, to some extent, exploiting the less advantaged. 'Pay more and eat less' my fucking arse.

I want to leave the guy locked in a room for two weeks and then hand him a burger from a fast food restaurant. See if he still thinks it's unethical. Then I want to bundle him off to a strife-torn third world location and leave him there. That'd just be for my own amusement.
posted by chrisgregory at 5:39 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


For some reason I'm reminded of the sentient, killer sunflowers in Niven's "Ringworld," and feel the need to eat all sorts of things before they eat me, plant and animal.
posted by jbickers at 5:39 PM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Anyway, are we saying that fungi are not part of the plant kingdom consciousness club here?
Fungi are not part of the plant kingdom, period.


However, plants are part of the Mushroom Kingdom.
posted by ignignokt at 5:40 PM on December 22, 2009


When it turns out that time does not exist and that you get reincarnated as every single living thing that ever existed you lot are all going to be sorry.

You too.
posted by qvantamon at 5:42 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


tomatoes "scream when sliced."

In other news, ice cream screams for ice cream.
posted by qvantamon at 5:47 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't kid yourself, Billy. If a plant had the chance, it would eat you and everyone you care about.
posted by HostBryan at 5:58 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


There's no ethics of eating. It's a morally neutral activity, like breathing or regulating your body temperature.

It's not morally neutral if you subscribe to an ethics founded on how you effect other human beings. Food is a limited resource, and the methods used to produce it have social, economic and environmental consequences of varying severity. My impression is that Michael Pollan does wear some fairly opaque blinders when it comes to class, but that doesn't make the dichotomy you've constructed between the idea of ethical eating and class consciousness any less false.
posted by invitapriore at 5:59 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


effect = affect
posted by invitapriore at 5:59 PM on December 22, 2009



I hate Michael Pollan. I want to punch the guy. I borrowed his books from the library so he wouldn't get a cent from me, and I couldn't get past the first page of any of them, they made me so angry.

So let me get this straight. You hate him. But you have no idea of the merit of his ideas becuase you haven't read them in any depth. And then you conclude you want to do violence to him and torture him. Hmmm.

It would appear, and like you I can only go by your own first page here, that you not only willingly and deliberately deny ethics in your food choices but you would seem to deny any sort of consistent principles or judgment at all. Going by just this one page I can't help my self but feeling I'd like to punch you, too.
posted by tkchrist at 6:04 PM on December 22, 2009 [25 favorites]


Do plants pizza have a consciousness?

Huh?

... is it okay to eat them?

NOM NOM NOM NOM.......YUMMY...NOM NOM NOM....
posted by Skygazer at 6:10 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think this is all less of a case for plant consciousness, and more of a case for us being incapable of free will.
posted by davejay at 6:10 PM on December 22, 2009


but who doesn't believe in panpsychism (i.e. someone who doesn't think rocks are conscious)

This is a common misconception about panpsychism. If you read through some of the links I provided in my comment above, you will find that panpsychism (Hartshorne distinguishes synechological, atomistic and monadological varities of panpsychism), considered broadly, can be generalized in various ways such that not every material object has its own mind--but rather that the sum of all matter, taken in aggregate, exhibits something like a systematic mind-like process. Still counterintuitive to most materialist views, but nevertheless not the simple naive position that "rocks can think."
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:13 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


the sum of all matter, taken in aggregate, exhibits something like a systematic mind-like process. Still counterintuitive to most materialist views, but nevertheless not the simple naive position that "rocks can think."

Reality and all the cosmological universe is constantly eating itself and excreting itself in an endless cycle of creation and destruction. The only problem here is man's inability to see life and death as the same thing.
posted by Skygazer at 6:17 PM on December 22, 2009


"There's no ethics of eating. It's a morally neutral activity ..."

Which is why it's considered OK to eat other people, and no one would question the morality of taking a single small bite of an enormous meal and then throwing the rest away in plain sight of a starving family, and when people get hungry and don't want to go to the store they simply eat their pets, and no one ever discusses the environmental dangers of growing food in a nonsustainable way, and there are no vegetarians, and also no nonvegetarians who simply question the morality of deliberately torturing animals to make their meat taste different as in the case of veal or fois gras, and why this thread doesn't even exist in the first place!

It's so simple!
posted by kyrademon at 6:17 PM on December 22, 2009 [11 favorites]


There's no ethics of eating. It's a morally neutral activity, like breathing or regulating your body temperature.

Fair enough, but there are ethics of food. And most people, when eating, tend to eat food.
posted by smoke at 6:17 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's no ethics of eating. It's a morally neutral activity.

One deadly sin down, six to go.
posted by inconsequentialist at 6:27 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


To address chrisgregory's point more directly:

If you are born in a war-torn country where you have to kill to survive, most people do not consider you a terrible person for doing so.

If you don't have to kill to survive, however, you are usually considered a terrible person for shooting your neighbor.

If you have to do whatever you can to get whatever food you can on the table, most people accept that you are doing what you need to do.

If you can afford to make choices about your food, however, there are ethical considerations which then come into play.

Who would Pollan be writing to, if not to such people? It's a given that the people who can't make such choices won't be doing so.

I'm not a huge Pollan fan, but this seems an unfair criticism.
posted by kyrademon at 6:28 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Fair enough, but there are ethics of food. And most people, when eating, tend to eat food.

He could be a Breatharian.

You know. They filter feed, via breathing, organic molecules from out of the ether. I met one once in 1984 while staying at a youth hostel in London. Well. He said he was a Breatharian. Oddly he consumed and got drunk on beer I bought for him just like us regular Alcoholarians.

I'm inspired. From now on I'm going to declare any biological imperative a ethically neutral activity.

At Coffeeshop:

'Hey! What are you do... Ewwww... are you taking a shit in our coffee pot!?!"

"Look. It's an ethically neutral activity to evacuate ones bowels. Like eating. Or breathing. Guuuuh... oooooh filling up here! Hand me that French Press will you. HURRY! Hey, after this I think I'm gonna exercise another ethically neutral activity and fuck that sexy ham croissant over in the pastry case. Hey baby!"
posted by tkchrist at 6:29 PM on December 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


On another note, regarding the New York Times article, it always baffles me that people apparently assume vegans are complete idiots (... yeah, yeah, your obvious jokes have already been anticipated.)

The author points out that plants are in fact Complex Lifeforms as if we're all going to say, "Holy Smokes! That never occurred to me before!" Why, I'm also breathing and destroying millions of bacteria, each one a wonder of nature! And, by golly, if I were starving to death, I might in fact eat a hamburger!

Hint: We know already. You are not performing any great revelations by pointing these things out.
posted by kyrademon at 6:39 PM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Having read Botany of Desire as well as most other Pollan books, I think it's a gross mischaracterization of his positions to say that he argues plants are conscious. If that's what you got out of Botany of Desire, you should read it again.
posted by jckll at 6:46 PM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


He said he was a Breatharian. Oddly he consumed and got drunk on beer I bought for him just like us regular Alcoholarians.

I prefer the terms Oxygenarian and Boozetafarian.
posted by painquale at 7:07 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


People eat meat. So do tomatoes.
posted by neroli at 7:12 PM on December 22, 2009


It's perfectly ethical to eat your pets, or eat a dead person's body, depending upon circumstance. There is no time when eating something to sustain your life is wrong, unless it comes at the direct expense of another human life. In the west, when we talk about the ethics of food, we're not talking about universal principles, we're talking about matters of taste that certain interested parties have a vested interest in propagating and nothing more.

Every person has a right to eat to sustain themselves. There is no way in which doing this can ever be ethically wrong. Which makes it morally neutral. It is unethical to suggest that others must rigorously conform to your own dietary preferences, outside of some form of religious restriction, in which case I guess your chosen creator is going to either reward or punish you.
posted by chrisgregory at 7:29 PM on December 22, 2009


I can't believe that's what passes for a science article in the New York Times. It was several factoids, stripped of most of their context, plunked down in some editorial, and served up on a platter of logical fallacy. Ugh.


Full disclosure: I plan to roast many Brussels sprouts on Christmas and eat the heck out of them.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:35 PM on December 22, 2009


Thank you, chrisgregory, without your commandments of what is right or wrong, I would be hopelessly lost in the morass of modern life, adrift and alienated from what is just.
posted by smoke at 7:42 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


I blame the animal rights movement. Decades of advocacy, and most people don't have the first clue about why eating meat today is wrong.

It isn't because killing animals is wrong. I find it distasteful, but it's so far down the moral ladder that it isn't even visible from the rungs where the modern meat industry operates. No, I respect people who live on that disappearing paradigm of a family farm, where lambs and pigs cavort in pastures of clover, until they've grown and are killed quickly and relatively painlessly to be consumed by the people who cared for them. More power to those people, though theirs is a disappearing way of life, at least here in America.

Eating meat today is wrong, because torturing animals from birth to death in a living hell that would make Dante blush is wrong. Making animals live their entire lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in dark, noxious, shit-filled buildings, with various organs and appendages systematically mutilated or amputated without anesthetic is wrong. Forcing animals to spend their lives in cages so tight they can't lie down or turn around, while pumping them full of pharmaceuticals designed to prolong their miserable existence, or produce an unnaturally large amount of whatever they're producing, or grow to unnatural sizes is wrong. Keeping animals restrained for their entire lives while pumping massive quantities of grain into their stomachs via a plastic tube down their throats in order to engorge their livers is wrong.

These things are obvious to anyone who isn't ignorant of the facts of where meat comes from today - and many, many people are ignorant; the weirder antics of organizations like PETA have made it easy for reasonable people to conclude that the idea of animal rights is silly and baseless, and decide not to waste their time trying to suss out the facts from the sea kittens. Like I said, I blame the animal rights movement for the pervading ignorance.

Eh. I need a drink.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:46 PM on December 22, 2009 [24 favorites]


Every person has a right to eat to sustain themselves. There is no way in which doing this can ever be ethically wrong. Which makes it morally neutral.

Syllogism fails.

What about when we're eating not to sustain ourselves? When we've gone beyond simple sustenance and are now eating for comfort, taste, pleasure, cultural reasons, to ease emotions, to demonstrate status, to stimulate dulled senses?

Of course we need to eat to sustain ourselves. But no one needs to eat a burger, or a candy bar, or in fact anything that represents excess calories in order to sustain themselves. Once you have met the requirements of self-sustenance, any further activities are choices with different moral implications. They are no longer necessities, constrained by circumstance, and so they are no longer morally neutral - because you have chosen amongst many options with differing impacts.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


There's no ethics of eating.

There are ethnics of eating.

Hmmmm... ethnic food...
posted by qvantamon at 8:10 PM on December 22, 2009


any further activities are choices with different moral implications.

Thank you.

Now, I'll have the filet mignon, medium rare ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:23 PM on December 22, 2009


When it turns out that time does not exist and that you get reincarnated as every single living thing that ever existed you lot are all going to be sorry.

wait until i get to be chuck norris - then you lot are REALLY going to be sorry
posted by pyramid termite at 8:24 PM on December 22, 2009


What about when we're eating not to sustain ourselves? When we've gone beyond simple sustenance and are now eating for comfort, taste, pleasure, cultural reasons, to ease emotions, to demonstrate status, to stimulate dulled senses?

I do not think mere subsistence is the limit of the moral imperative of a creature's need for food. Vegetarianism surely is more efficient, but what is the ultimate end? Shall we efficiently pack human beings into the remaining space on this planet until human society stands packed shoulder to should in much the same condition as cattle stand today? Blindly follow our instinct to reproduce, to save human life, until all we are left with is human life, devoid of all pleasure and power for ambition, except for that which can be efficiently provided by television, video games, internet, social networking? If the planet is already so crowded that we must restrict our diet for fear of starving others or committing atrocity, and with no plan for escaping the situation, then we have already crossed the threshold into Malthusian Hell.

But if that is not yet the case... cows and free access birth control for everyone.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:31 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


PontifexPrimus: “See, this quote has the kind of writing I really dislike, because it heavily anthropomorphizes the plant.”

I think you're right about the writing being awful, but it's distinctly not because it anthropomorphizes - the article is bad because it mistakes symbols and metaphors for one-to-one correspondences. There's nothing wrong with anthropomorphizing, with seeing similarities between ourselves and other living things, and in fact anthropomorphization is one of the best starting points we can have when we're examining the world. However, the trap that article falls into is the trap of mistaking a metaphor for the thing itself - it says that a plant "wants to grow" when really all that is observed is a plant growing; it attributes choice to a mechanism which is clearly driven not by choice but by chemical reaction. This is experimentally obvious; a healthy human being (or any other sort of animal) clearly has a choice when, say, faced with a danger; the animal can choose to run away or defend itself, or it can choose a path which might lead to its death. The reaction of a plant to a parallel threat is always the same, with a mechanical regularity. There is nothing we can observe which indicates that choice is involved at any level.

aeschenkarnos: “The point of fearing harm is to prompt the fearful organism to do something about it: run away, attack, form packs and sleep in shifts, pray, whatever. Plants pretty much can do nothing about anything whatsoever as far as we can tell.... I'm no fan of Descartes but "I think, therefore I am" is quite apt, if we allow for non-binary states of thought and therefore being.”

I know what you mean, I think, and I agree to a certain extent. And I know why you bring up Descartes. But I want to say that Descartes is actually the person who got us into this mess - the confusing mess of our ethical and moral standing alongside plants and animals - and therefore he should be strenuously avoided.

Descartes' conclusion following on "I think, therefore I am" was that so far as he knew only he, in all the world, had a thinking, functioning mind, and therefore only he has anything that could be termed a 'soul.' Later it becomes clear that perhaps human beings in general could be said to have a soul, but not animals - to Descartes, animals don't really think (as there's no way to hear them talk about it) and therefore are on the same moral and intellectual level as robots or machines. Plants don't even enter into it.

That wholesale elimination of any connection intellectually between animals and humans at the beginning of the so-called enlightenment had profound consequences. Though this is a simplification of what happened, it suffices to say that to this day animals sort of exist in this no-man's land in the human ethical concern, and it's an instinct to us to see animals as in all ways other and inferior to us. And that's why I think some people - particularly vegans and vegetarians, and those who worry that perhaps plants might feel pain - are somewhat adamant in insisting that otherwise blithely indifferent human beings at least begin to take an interest in the ethical concerns of animals.

Thousands of years ago, one of the greatest biologists and botanists of all time (a fellow by the name of Aristotle) argued for what I believe is a much more rational view of the differences between plants, animals, and humans. Aristotle saw the basis of life to be soul, which he defined as "a being-at-work-staying-itself of... a natural body having life as a potency," or in clearer terms soul is what "a body keeps on being in order to be at all." He seems to mean by this that soul is the inherent thing behind the process of being born, growing to maturity, having the potential to reproduce, and then dying. (This makes a good deal of sense to me.) Aristotle points out that there seem to be various levels of soul possessed in by different kinds of living things, although all possess soul to an equal degree. There is nutritive soul, possessed by those living beings which gather nutrients and thereby live and grow to maturity; plants clearly have this power, this potency. There is perceptive soul, possessed by living beings which can perceive and sense things and which can react variously to those perceptions, sometimes weighing them mentally and considering past impressions; animals clearly possess souls which are both nutritive and perceptive. And there is intellective soul, mind, which seems to be incumbent on speech; humans have souls possessed of all three characteristics, and can therefore consider questions in universal and absolute terms (like, say, the Good). But all these souls are equally soul; they only are different types, different degrees on a spectrum.

So of course plants have souls. There isn't any evidence I've ever seen that plants can perceive, or that they can weigh perceptions. One of the annoying things about the linked NYT article is that it confuses or simplifies perception until it's almost meaningless; when a plant reacts to environmental stimuli, the article says that the plant perceived the stimuli, whereas it's not clear that the plant perceived anything any more than a planet which is held in orbit by the gravitational field of a star perceives that gravitational field and reacts to it.

The fact that plants can't perceive doesn't mean we shouldn't feel some connection to them, or even that we shouldn't see something of ourselves in them. Like plants, we grow, mature, can reproduce, and die; we live like they do. That deserves some respect, I think. But at the same time it seems clear to any rational observer that plants don't perceive, and I can't really think of any evidence I've ever seen to the contrary. To argue that plants perceive would be to argue that plants are in the same state as that man who was in the news recently who was supposed to have been in a false coma for decades, though he could really see and hear everything the whole time but merely lacked the ability to respond; he was said to have claimed that it was like trying to scream, but no sound would come. (It turned out to be a hoax, interestingly enough.) Plants would be in a perpetual state of screaming and crying out, in pleasure and in pain, at the world, but unable to do anything about it. I don't think that makes sense; they have a power of their own, and it's clear they have influence on the world, but it isn't clear to me that they can have any kind of 'inner life' that's similar to the thought-lives of humans. Their 'inner life' might be very interesting and worth considering, but I don't think it's the same, and I don't think it has to do with perceiving.
posted by koeselitz at 8:44 PM on December 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


I read that last article you linked to today. It was the worst example of lazy anthropomorphizing I've ever come across. I couldn't believe the New York Times would run crap like that with a straight face. The fact that a plant reacts to natural stimuli is evidence that's it's, you know, alive. It is not evidence that it has feelings, or experiences pain, or longs to live. It's a fucking plant. I couldn't figure out if the author is a member of the voluntary human extinction movement or just an idiot looking for a "radical" angle to sell an article. Hey, vegan is tapped out, so why not raise ethical objections to eating plants? (This from a woman who happily consumes birds!) Bonus: now we have a new tool to demonize fat people - even if you got fat eating plants, you're still evil!
posted by Dasein at 8:59 PM on December 22, 2009


chrisgregory: “It's perfectly ethical to eat your pets, or eat a dead person's body, depending upon circumstance. There is no time when eating something to sustain your life is wrong, unless it comes at the direct expense of another human life. In the west, when we talk about the ethics of food, we're not talking about universal principles, we're talking about matters of taste that certain interested parties have a vested interest in propagating and nothing more... Every person has a right to eat to sustain themselves. There is no way in which doing this can ever be ethically wrong. Which makes it morally neutral. It is unethical to suggest that others must rigorously conform to your own dietary preferences, outside of some form of religious restriction, in which case I guess your chosen creator is going to either reward or punish you.”

This is a patently ridiculous argument. You restrict it to "the West," apparently to avoid offending anyone in "the East" who might have dietary restrictions; I wonder if you can come up with some magical definition for "the West" and "the East," but it seems to me, first of all, that the distinction between the two is specious at best. Moreover there is indeed a long tradition in what is often termed "the west" of moral and ethical quandaries concerning the ethics of eating animals.

All that aside, I wonder if you've thought about what in the world your argument means at all. You seem to be trying to claim that the simple act of eating substance X isn't wrong, it's the circumstance which makes it wrong - for example, cannibalism isn't wrong because of the simple eating of human flesh, it's wrong because it's wrong to kill another person, and if you're forced to eat another human because of circumstances you're justified. What you appear to have missed is the fact that vegetarians are making precisely this argument; yes, there may be a few vegos who try to say that there's some mystical evil in consuming flesh of any kind, but on the whole vegetarians argue that it's wrong to eat meat not because eating meat is intrinsically bad but because of the circumstances. In the world as it is, eating meat perpetuates the raising, housing, and killing of millions upon millions of animals; you can't ignore the connection this circumstance has to eating.

Take a parallel case. Say, for example, I have two hamburgers sitting in front of me, and I can choose to purchase and eat one. They're exactly the same burger, the same meat and tomato and onion and bun from the same sources. The only difference is that, if I purchase burger A, nothing happens - whereas if I purchase burger B, the guy behind the counter promises that he will slap a puppy. Which burger is morally superior? According to your argument, apparently neither; I have a right to sustain myself, and the two foods are totally morally neutral. Now, I agree that the qualitative assessment of the culinary excellence of one burger or the other is morally neutral. I can't say that the burger would be morally superior if it had ketchup on it, or if you removed the onion. But how can anyone deny that eating a particular food is immoral - regardless of what that food is - if by eating it we consciously cause a puppy to be slapped?

I can agree that matters of taste are simply matters of taste. But it's almost impossible for me to comprehend how you can believe that the circumstances of the provision of our food simply doesn't matter.

Finally: are you really arguing that animals have no moral status, that they deserve no ethical consideration? I understand that you feel a bit indignant at the lack of perspective which you feel leads people to argue over moral concerns which most people on the planet don't have the luxury of arguing over, but that doesn't change the validity of these concerns. I've never read the author you so dislike, so I can't speak to your objections to him, but my own experience at least suggests that human beings all over the world, in every social situation, at every level on the spectrum between poverty and wealth - that every human being lives a more fulfilled, happy, worthwhile life within a mutually respectful relationship with animals than without.
posted by koeselitz at 9:08 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm a vegetarian not because I love animals, but because I hate plants.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:45 PM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I eat meat but think it's immoral. I've noticed the process of rationalization I go through when I notice that I'm ordering meat is utilitarian, and it's something like this: that burger just sitting there on the picnic table is going to get thrown out if I don't eat it... whether or not I eat it will contribute not at all to any animal suffering (except for the fact that my enjoyment of it might make me more likely to buy meat in the future, but let's suppose that's negligible). This is probably true of any burger I buy at McDonald's as well... that one burger will not change the McDonald's beef order, as they buy in bulk. Likewise, whether that individual McDonald's increases its order will probably not change the quantity of beef ordered by the corporation division, etc. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of stages in the process from cow to consumption, and at each stage there is waste. I can always write my burger off as waste.

This is a collective action problem. It's also an argument against voting (one vote will definitely not make a difference). I also get into various problems with collective action problems among time slices of myself rather than among other people... it's an argument for procrastinating (no single minute of internet surfing will cause my work to be worse) and for smoking (no one single cigarette will give me cancer).

Obviously something's gone wrong in these cases, but saying what's gone wrong, and justifying the rational course of action, is really hard. The fact is that you vote to try to affect an outcome, and your individual vote will not affect it. You can try to be a Kantian or a rule utilitarian or something. But let's be real here.

Anyway, each of these collective action problems are slightly different and depend on certain assumptions; given certain empirical facts the responses to them should be different. For example, I think the scientific evidence on the smoking case is actually disputed... a cancer researcher once told me that there's reason to think that single cigarettes do give cancer; every puff is a game of Russian roulette. I used to think that the meat-eating case was a pretty straightforward instance of one of these problems, and not like the cigarette case, but I've recently been fairly persuaded that I was relying on some potentially false assumptions about the way that meat gets ordered. It probably is the case that some single burger order from McDonald's will tip the scales and cause them to order more meat --- it's just unlikely. And it probably is the case that some single order from the butcher will cause a meat farm to expand and sire more cattle -- it's just unlikely. And so on up the chain. (Denying this will probably require some weird theory of vagueness.) What this means is that ordering a burger really is a game of Russian Roulette. Any burger ordered has a low but real possibility of being the one burger that causes the franchise to order more from corporate, that causes corporate to order more from the supplier, that causes the supplier to order more from the farm, that causes the farm to expand and slaughter an additional 10,000 cattle. For the order of a burger, a kingdom was lost. Collective action problems still need to be dealt with, but meat-eating isn't one of those cases... it can be subject to traditional cost-benefit analysis.

Any time you eat meat, you engage in a raffle to which the prize is mass bovicide.
posted by painquale at 9:49 PM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


THESE ARE THE CRIES OF THE CARROTS

I'm reminded of the scene where Captain Olimar coldly dices up the poor little Pikmin (starts at 1:55).
posted by tybeet at 10:05 PM on December 22, 2009


Metafilter: a raffle to which the prize is mass bovicide.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:29 PM on December 22, 2009


I eat meat to stop the animals from eating all the plants.
posted by vapidave at 11:48 PM on December 22, 2009


You need not argue. Stevie Wonder settled the matter of plant consciousness on his album The Secret life of Plants (vid).
posted by benzenedream at 12:13 AM on December 23, 2009


To argue that plants don't have any "consciousness", one really needs to define what consciousness is supposed to be, and what it requires to exist. Do the neural structures found in animal brains possess some special formula for consciousness creation? Can no other type of physical structure undergoing change over time manifest consciousness?

I'm certainly not suggesting a plant is like a locked-in syndrome patient, but I believe it's at least marginally plausible a plant could have some limited and likely very slow form of perception. To say we can deterministically "know" what a plant will "choose" I think is an overstatement

Previously on MeFi, plants do have limited forms of memory, movement and communication
posted by crayz at 4:34 AM on December 23, 2009


I make sure that everything I eat has been killed thoroughly before cooking so that when I bite into it I don't hear any screams at all. I eat dead things!
posted by h00py at 6:15 AM on December 23, 2009


Do plants have consciousness?

I don't know from science, but I've heard it said that even a rock has the Buddha nature. I will not, however, be eating rocks.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:47 AM on December 23, 2009


Let us celebrate the season why eating large amounts of ripe, young plant flesh and then set a whole bunch of their reproductive organs on fire.
posted by The Whelk at 8:09 AM on December 23, 2009


What crazyz said.

I don't think Ill be playing chess against a cucumber anytime soon, but lots of interesting research has come out showing plants have far more "active" lives then we give them credit for.

They might not "recoil" at the destruction of their flesh, but they are able to demonstrate some level of awareness about the world around them.
posted by rosswald at 1:37 PM on December 23, 2009


I can agree that matters of taste are simply matters of taste. But it's almost impossible for me to comprehend how you can believe that the circumstances of the provision of our food simply doesn't matter.

I think he is trying to hang is hate hat on this GRAR! class assumption. IE: Food ethics only matters for middle class people. Poor people get a pass. He seems to claiming food ethics are a form of class bigotry.

But of course the stark reality of our food systems inverts this argument entirely. The entire reason we need to discuss and examine the ethics of eating and food is becuase we have forced poor people to eat shitty food by politicizing (the farm bill and irrational subsidies), commercializing (fast food), industrializing (unsustainable factory farming), and "off-shoring" (long supply chains) our food systems. And in western nations, like the US, it's making the poor increasing unhealthy, obese, and discriminated against. Of COURSE eating in the context is not ethically neutral. Not for those of us in the rich countries that actually drive the decision and policy makers that effect huge swaths of humanity.

His reasons for "hating" Pollan are absurd in light of this. Pollan is attempting to show HOW this is happening and what we can do about it. Pollan's point is rich people SHOULD pay more for their food to reflect the real world costs and consequences of an unhealthy, unsustainable system.

So chrisgregory's entire arguments are, on the surface well intended, but simply ill conceived and ignorant of the positions and details of the facts (and Pollan). And, because chrisgregory has neither read Pollan or understood him, his info is coming from third hand sources that are in turn are likely fed by the vast amount of disinformation and PR put out by the big Ag and fast food corporations.

So. Yeah. Your right. His argument is full of shit.
posted by tkchrist at 1:42 PM on December 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


BTW. Eating meat is in itself not immoral. It's how the meat is raised, sold, slaughtered, and transported where morality comes into play.
posted by tkchrist at 1:45 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's no ethics of eating. It's a morally neutral activity, like breathing or regulating your body temperature. But when you live in a society that allows you to be so privileged as to never have to concern yourself with the possibility of starvation, your food choices become reflections on your social status.

That's a pretty cultural-centric point of view. There are plenty of societies that have questioned the morality of eating other animals long before modern conveniences came into play. Plenty of children naturally go through a period of questioning the killing of animals when they first realize the food on their plate is the same as the animals they play with. To suggest that there is no moral component to killing living things that aren't human beings is in itself a moral position - a valid one, but based on the views of a reason-based version of morality most popular in the West.

A more organic idea of ethics that is grounded in sympathy, avoiding pain, etc, could easily result in taking food choices seriously as ethical decisions. Indian culture has considered these choices so important that the most strict members of the Jains only eat fruits, nuts, outer leaves, but not the roots or stems of plants, so as not to harm them. These are ancient religions, and their followers were not privileged.
posted by mdn at 2:38 PM on December 23, 2009


is it ok to eat?
posted by Morpeth at 3:56 PM on December 23, 2009


is it ok to eat?

For you, no.

Good luck.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:56 PM on December 23, 2009


There's no ethics of eating.

Everything we do has an ethical component. It's what separates us from the plants.
posted by albrecht at 5:18 PM on December 23, 2009


albrecht: “Everything we do has an ethical component. It's what separates us from the plants.”

– And from the animals, too. Animals don't have ethical or moral concerns, although they clearly have highly-developed interactions with each other, and even what could be called customs and traditions, in ways that plants can't be said to. Only beings capable of speech - the faculty of generalizing and making absolute inferences - can have a conception of an act being in an absolute sense right or wrong beyond an impression of its relative benefit. So interactions between animals often seem to be much more pure and immediate, and less confused by the worrying doubt humans always feel about the absolute and the eternal. And while my ultimate conclusion is that I'm glad I'm a human, and I like language and developed rational though, I have to say that there are times when it's hard not to envy the animals. Their immediate intuition of and uncluttered focus on practical and immediate good makes them much more capable of doing good things which we have long, nasty quandaries about; and it makes the really evil and despicable things we manage to convince ourselves to do seem incomprehensibly silly from their perspective. I don't believe any animal except the human would be capable of something like the holocaust, for example, and not only because of basic technological difficulties but also because there is clearly no immediate benefit whatsoever to such deep and senseless evil. An animal would never be able to convince itself to do something like that; but we humans, with the fantastic power of language, convince ourselves routinely to do despicable things which do ourselves and others only harm.

Of course, language and rational thought provide the way out of that trap, as well. It's interesting, because I think the difficulties concerning choosing what is ethical to eat are a good example of this. I understand chrisgregory's point of view, I think, not only because it's true that the hand-wringing about eating choices is a sort of wealthy liberal guilt, a concern about a subject that most people don't have the luxury of worrying about, but also because animals themselves, lacking moral concerns, would never have these difficulties. Id a lion and her mate are hungry, and there's a gazelle there, the lion kills the gazelle and eats it; she doesn't spend an hour debating the ethics of eating other creatures or try to find out more about the gazelle's herd and where it came from. Even though animals are clearly capable of love and affection, they're not bothered by the same concerns that bother us constantly. But the point, I think, is that we can't escape the worries of moral concerns by simply trying to ignore them; we're different from animals, we humans, and unlike them I think we have a real moral duty to decide right from wrong. At the very least, rational thought turns out to be the only practical way to alleviate moral concerns.
posted by koeselitz at 6:05 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your household cat has no difficulties and no qualms whatsoever waging an avian holocaust upon your neighbourhood.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:45 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


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