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Back You are here: Home Social Justice Animals Yes, killing animals is worse than killing plants

Yes, killing animals is worse than killing plants

PlantAnimalThere is nothing so likely to evoke a sudden passionate concern for plants than a proposal that someone not eat animal products or a desire to return to eating them. But there is a vast difference between plants and animals – that of sentience, writes Gary L. Francione.

10 April 2011

Once again, we are told that there really is no significant or qualitative difference between plants and animals. In No Face but Plants Like Life Too, Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes that although she gave up eating meat:

My entry into what seemed the moral high ground, though, was surprisingly unpleasant. I felt embattled not only by a bizarrely intense lust for chicken but nightmares in which I would be eating a gorgeous, rare steak — I could distinctly taste the savory drippings — from which I awoke in a panic, until I realized that I had been carnivorous only in my imagination.

Temptations and trials were everywhere. The most surprising turned out to be the realization that I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.

She found that:

formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.

She states:

Plants don’t seem to mind being killed, at least as far as we can see. But that may be exactly the difficulty.

Unlike a lowing, running cow, a plant’s reactions to attack are much harder for us to detect. But just like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.

What is troubling about this essay is that it is in the science section of the New York Times. But there is no science here.

First, no one doubts that plants are alive and they conduct all sorts of complicated processes. But there is a crucial difference between plants and animals.

The difference between the animal and the plant involves sentience. That is, nonhumans—or at least the ones we routinely exploit—are clearly conscious of sense perceptions.

Sentient beings have minds; they have preferences, desires, or wants. This is not to say that animal minds are like human minds. For example, the minds of humans, who use symbolic language to navigate their world, may be very different from the minds of bats, who use echolocation to navigate theirs. It is difficult to know.

But it is irrelevant; the human and the bat are both sentient. They are both the sorts of beings who have interests; they both have preferences, desires, or wants. The human and the bat may think differently about those interests, but there can be no serious doubt that both have interests, including an interest in avoiding pain and suffering and an interest in continued existence.

Plants are qualitatively different from humans and sentient nonhumans in that plants are certainly alive but they are not sentient. Plants do not have interests. There is nothing that a plant desires, or wants, or prefers because there is no mind there to engage in these cognitive activities.

When we say that a plant “needs” or “wants” water, we are no more making a statement about the mental status of the plant than we are when we say that a car engine “needs” or “wants” oil. It may be in my interest to put oil in my car. But it is not in my car’s interest; my car has no interests.

A plant may respond to sunlight and other stimuli but that does not mean the plant is sentient.

If I run an electrical current through a wire attached to a bell, the bell rings. But that does not mean that the bell is sentient.

Plants do not have nervous systems, benzodiazepine receptors, or any of the characteristics that we identify with sentience. And this all makes scientific sense. Why would plants evolve the ability to be sentient when they cannot do anything in response to an act that damages them?

If you touch a flame to a plant, the plant cannot run away; it stays right where it is and burns. If you touch a flame to a dog, the dog does exactly what you would do—cries in pain and tries to get away from the flame.

Sentience is a characteristic that has evolved in certain beings to enable them to survive by escaping from a noxious stimulus. Sentience would serve no purpose for a plant; plants cannot “escape.”

Even the Jains, who regard plants has having one sense (touch) recognize that plants and animals (including insects) are qualitatively different and forbid the eating of animals but not the eating of plants.

Second, if Ms. Yoon were really concerned about exploiting plants, then she should recognize that in eating animal products, she is actually consuming more plants than she would consume were she eating the plants directly. It takes many pounds of plants to produce one pound of flesh. So when Ms. Yoon sits down to eat that “gorgeous, rare steak,” she is consuming about 12 pounds of plants.

So if plants matter morally and Ms. Yoon cares about morality, then, unless she is going to fast to death, she still is morally obligated to eat plants because she will eat fewer plants if she consumes them directly, and she will avoid the suffering and death of the mammal, bird, or fish, all of whom are clearly sentient in the way that humans are sentient (despite any cognitive differences between humans and other animals).

Ms. Yoon argues that we can doubt that some animals, such as sponges, lack sensitivity. Although it is true that there are always gray areas, I am sure that Ms. Yoon does not eat many sponges. The animals we do routinely consume–cows, chickens, pigs, fish–are all, without question, sentient.

So what is this essay all about?

The answer is in the last paragraph, which begins:

My efforts to forgo meat didn’t last more than a couple of years.

Ms. Yoon did not want to be a vegetarian any longer. She was longing for that “gorgeous, rare steak”. She had to tell herself that there’s really no difference between plants and animals so it’s really all the same so she can eat the steak that she was dreaming about.

But it really has nothing to do with science.

There is nothing so likely to evoke a sudden passionate concern for plants than a proposal that someone not eat animal products or a desire to return to eating them. Nothing.

Gary L. Francione is Distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark. He is the author of several books on animal rights and blogs here.

His latest book is The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, which he co-authored with Professor Robert Garner.




+1 #3 Lia 2011-05-08 02:23
The fact that it's framed solely as an argument against veganism undermines its intellectual legitimacy. But as Susan said, writing off plant sentience entirely is also unfair. Obviously we can see that a bat responds to stimuli very differently to a carrot. But you know, coral is also animal. There are certain organisms where the differences are a little less obvious, or more technical, and where sentience becomes a more contentious concept.
0 #2 Susan Cho 2011-04-13 15:22
I'm staunchly vegan and always will be. However, I think it's irresponsible of us not to accept scientific research that shows the amazing sophistication of plant behavior. The following statement, for instance, is completely ill-founded. "Why would plants evolve the ability to be sentient when they cannot do anything in response to an act that damages them?" Plants react in a variety of ways, on the scale of minutes, to harm. They even prepare themselves when they sense that a neighbor is being harmed. They may begin to manufacture a new chemical that deters the herbivore, distributing it preferentially to the side being harmed. They begin to release volatile chemicals to attract natural predators of the herbivore. Neighboring plants, sensing these chemicals, begin to manufacture their own defensive toxins.

Notice that these are not simply adaptations that exist in the normal state, such as thorns; they are responses to acute episodes of harm. They begin to manufacture a chemical that they ordinarily would not bother to make. Scientists are even finding possible analogs to nociceptors. What does this mean for the dividing line of sentience? I'm not sure. There is certainly an intuitively obvious difference, one that is relevant to consumption. But it may not be as stark as animal rights apologists represent. Plants are not simply sophisticated computers.

Let's stop conflating Cleve Backster's work with the genuine research that plant physiologists are performing. It makes us look hysterical and irrational, unable to hear anything that challenges our view. There is nothing here that challenges veganism, so let's stop attacking it wholesale.
0 #1 Clair 2011-04-10 08:13
Thank you for such a well-reasoned and quite beautiful response. I also found it rather ridiculous that such a piece could be published in the NYT science section without anyone being aware that far more plants are consumed to produce meat than are required for a vegan diet. This is an incontrovertibl e fact that is so frequently overlooked by those looking to congratulate their own callous decisions, and easily renders Ms. Yoon's entire article moot. Perhaps I am naive in expecting better from the Times, but what a lame attempt at justifying her own cowardly self-satisfying bullshit.

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