The New York Times—of course!—ran a piece in its Sunday opinion section (originally a blog) by a university professor—of course!—claiming that we are unethical in our eating of plants. Apparently, Michael Marder agrees with the Swiss, which a few years ago accorded legal ” intrinsic dignity” to individual plants. From, “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?”:
Imagine a being capable of processing, remembering and sharing information a being with potentialities proper to it and inhabiting a world of its own. Given this brief description, most of us will think of a human person, some will associate it with an animal, and virtually no one’s imagination will conjure up a plant.
Since Nov. 2, however, one possible answer to the riddle is Pisumsativum, a species colloquially known as the common pea. On that day, a team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.
So what? It was merely a mere chemical reaction. It has no moral relevance.
Marder says that science is showing that plants are far more complex than we originally thought. I have no doubt that is true, nor would my friends at the Discovery Institute be surprised. But again, that doesn’t matter morally. Marder disagrees:
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?
Good grief, they are plants. Then Marder really goes off the rails: Plant personhood!
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.
No, plants are not “whos.” Only we are whos. And now, we can’t eat plants unless they are perennials!
The “renewable” aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets. 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, ethically inspired decisions cannot postulate the abstract conceptual unity of all plants; they must, rather, take into account the singularity of each species.
People are starving in the world and this guy worries about the ethics of eating peas and carrots! A poor woman just died trying to live off the sun, for goodness sake. It can’t be done. And it runs with all due respect in the Paper of Record! (Yes, I’m yelling.)
I keep telling anyone who will listen: Give up on human exceptionalism and you go flat out nuts. (Oops. Sorry. I insulted a whole family of plants. But it’s probably okay. Peanuts and almonds are perennials.)