Debating plant ethics

A pansy, the symbol of the free though movement. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Some people might know that I became a vegetarian a few months ago for ethical reasons. In summary: many animals are sentient and capable of suffering and experiencing harm which means they are objects of ethical concern. It is unethical to cause harm to sentient creatures if it can be avoided. Eating meat is harmful to them, unnecessary for our survival and so ethically unacceptable. There are also health and environmental benefits to a vegetarian diet which are nice but were not the basis for my decision. That is all based on animal ethics. At least one person has now tried to start a debate on plant ethics.

Plant ethics is described like this:

[P]lant ethics is an open invitation to fine-tune our dietary practices in keeping with the philosophical and botanical considerations of what plants are, what they are capable of, and what our relation to them should be.

If you read the debate, I side with Gary Francione, who says:

If plants are not sentient—if they have no subjective awareness—then they have no interests. That is, they cannot desire, or want, or prefer anything. There is simply no reason to believe that plants have any level of perceptual awareness or any sort of mind that prefers, wants, or desires anything.

The discussion of our ethics of eating does not need to include plant ethics, and that is about the only time it ever gets brought up, because plants are not sentient and so do not need ethical consideration. That doesn’t mean that anything you do to plants is ethical, just that the plants themselves are not objects of moral consideration. We don’t smash people’s windows because we think the window is an object of moral concern but because damaging the window violates the rights of the home owner, who is an object of moral consideration. Similarly we don’t think mountains are sentient but we don’t just destroy them because of obligations to the rest of the world, both the human and non-human inhabitants of the present and future.

This is all being brought up because there is plenty of evidence that plants can react to stimuli. In my post on amazing plants I showed examples of plants moving when touched and catching prey. However there is no reason to believe that they are able to think or feel. All those actions can easily be performed unconsciously, and are.

There is also no known way for a plant to have thoughts. They do not have a nervous system, which is the only way we know for conciousness to exist. Animals have the same sort of nervous system as us but, more importantly, we have evidence of them thinking, planning and behaving in ways that mimic us. I’ll be addressing animal intelligence shortly as there have been a few articles around with some nice examples. Plants do not solve problems, they do not react emotionally and there is no reason to suspect that we just haven’t found that part of them yet.

If plants were sentient then they we would need to make sure we treat them ethically. Either we would have to say that as both plants and animals can suffer and we need food to survive we can eat anything or we would have to see how we could survive while causing the least harm to other sentient beings. But while that is an interesting mental exercise it just isn’t a practical concern that anyone needs to worry about. There just isn’t evidence that plants are sentient.


10 thoughts on “Debating plant ethics

  1. I haven’t really read anything on that topic but even if they do react to music or voices it doesn’t mean that they are sentient. To be sentient they have to have a sense of self and be able to suffer. A response to music does not require sentience, it doesn’t even require hearing. For example sounds can cause inanimate objects to vibrate. That’s a reaction with no thought. Similarly a sound could stimulate a plant to improve it’s growth without requiring the plant to have any sort of mind.

  2. How can they suffer if they are not sentient? There isn’t anything there to suffer. They can be physically harmed but there is no conciousness that suffers from it.

  3. Pingback: Animal Intelligence | Evidence & Reason

  4. There was a time when people thought animals were no sentient beings, till it was proven otherwise….Later that prove came: animals have feelings too! Let’ s keep an open mind!! Maybe plants and the earth are sentient beings too!!! It is not proven yet…but than again….in history there was a time when people who thought animals have feelings were laughed at….and now if I tell people I have the feeling the earth and plants are sentient too (although there is no proof yet for that) they laugh at me…let them laugh..the future will maybe proof otherwise.

  5. They may be and it is good to keep an open mind but at current there isn’t evidence that plants or the Earth are sentient or any way in which they might be sentient. We know people’s conciousness resides in the brain and other animals also have brains. Plants do not have brains, and neither do some animals, so those are unlikely to have sentience.

  6. Why is sentience the only reason a living thing deserves our respect? Every aspect of our “consciousness” is a matter of chemical or electrical reaction. Every emotion and thought is merely an electrical impulse triggered by stimuli. Those attributes are present in plants as well. They communicate with other plants and with animals as well through the use of chemicals. They react differently to a gentle touch than a violent swat. There IS information being relayed within that organism and that IS life. To say that some forms of life are worthy of your ethical consideration, and some are not, shows an absolute lack of understanding of what ethics are. And quite frankly it’s rather arrogant as well.

    I don’t condone the mistreatment of animals in any way shape or form. The industrial livestock corporations are absolutely sickening, as is the industrial farming complex. But I don’t think that killing an animal in the most humane way possible for the sole purpose of sustenance is unethical any more than I think that a lion hunting a gazelle is unethical. The only reason you think that is because you’re ABLE to think that, but the truth is that nature has an intended balance and the moment we stopped hunting and gathering and started farming and domesticating we showed that we have no regard for that balance. We don’t respect animals any more than we do plants. We overpopulate and over-consume and domesticate and dominate all that we feel pleased to.

    I wholeheartedly respect and admire your personal choice to do no harm to animals and hope that extends to the common house fly, gnat, and mosquito… after all, I’m sure they feel pain since they all have brains, but I find your disregard for the idea that you might have an ethical obligation to the plants without which no life would exist on this planet most disheartening. However, as an adamant skeptic myself, let me offer you some “food for thought”. If a plant can chemically “scream” at different octaves depending on how violently it is “stressed”, does that not show at least some degree of intentionality? Because you might want to check this out:

  7. Sentience is the aspect that deserves respect because it is what allows a being to suffer or have a sense of self. Without sentience, something, to the best of our knowledge, can’t experience any harm or have desires that could be prevented. Plants also communicate information but there is no evidence that a plant experiences that information like we do.

    As brains become more and more simple it becomes less clear whether or not a creature is sentient. One could perhaps formulate an ethical framework in which plants hold value but if they can’t suffer the value would probably be based more on that destroying the plants might harm those that can suffer. And no, that work does not show any intentionality. It seems to show that a more intense stress produces a more intense chemical reaction.

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