Thursday, June 12, 2008


Tom McGuire attempts to answer a hardy perennial question for vegetarians, "How can you justify killing plants?"

At one time or another, vegetarians must confront the inevitable: defending what we eat against an onslaught of detractors, pessimists, naysayers and staunch advocates of the dietary status quo. George Bernard Shaw referred to these unrepentant legions as "the outside anti-vegetarian world." When questioned about his standard fare of fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and assorted plants, Shaw fired back, "Why do you call me to account for eating decently?"

For the most part the debate rages in the spirit of enlightenment and sharing information, and the questions are reasonable, if a bit naive: do you get enough protein? What else do you eat besides tofu? Don’t you miss turkey at Thanksgiving? Why are you a vegetarian, after all? The feistier, more entrenched flesh-eaters, upon hearing of the ethical considerations, scoff and trivialize the issue. Lately, I’ve had to fend off variations of a seriously-posed question: if I am so opposed to killing animals, how can I justify "killing" plants? Flesh-eaters, it seems, are trying to turn the moral tables on vegetarians by guilt-tripping with their "plants have feelings, too" line. How can vegetarians tread the moral high ground when we too, kill and destroy living things: plants? Up against such sophist deception, how many vegetarians have felt taken to the philosophical cleaners?

The most common objection vegetarians must defend against is "plants feel pain, too, and if all things feel pain, what difference does it make which thing we inflict pain on?" — as though harvesting garden vegetables or picking ripe cherries is tantamount to enslaving, torturing and slaughtering animals! As Gabriel Cousens, MD, author of Conscious Eating, says, "Our very existence causes some sort of pain on the planet, but there is a relativity to it."

No reliable scientific evidence has ever been presented which documents plants being able to feel or perceive pain. Plants do not have central nervous systems, the only bio-physiological mechanism or indicator known which would enable them to suffer a discomforting, joyless existence or experience agonizing sensations of pain. Although many point to The Secret Life of Plants as proof positive that plants are indeed sentient, their ability to sense and take cues from their environment, to stimulate growth, and ensure the survival of their species through strategies of natural selection are not in question here. It’s their ability to sense and experience pain that we’re talking about, and even if plants can feel pain in the same way that animals can, Cousens notes, "to even the most callous observer, the experiences are magnitudes different in pain and violence."

The idea that one can be cruel to plants is ludicrous. You can’t torture or inflict cruelty on a plant, nor deprive it of a fulfilling life. The only duty we have towards plants in using them as food resources is to water them regularly and let them grow healthily without toxifying them with chemicals and pesticides. (On this count, we fail morally.) Unlike animals, plants are naturally immobile, rooted to one small space in the earth for their entire life’s duration, "to draw nutrition, propagate and rot," as Alexander Pope observed.

Plants are not forced to conform to cages or pens, but confining animals, immobilizing them, is in opposition to their natural free-roaming nature. Furthermore, animals are social beings: they raise and nurture offspring, mate and bond for life in some cases, perform collective activities, travel and move about in groups, flocks, herds and even schools. They have personalities, we give them names, we commune with them — not true with plants, unless you happen to be one of the extremely rare individuals with psychically-attuned frequencies to plant’s modalities.

Finally, plants, unlike animals forced into unnatural aggregations, do not pollute and defile the earth in great numbers; rather, they sustain and revitalize the earth in great numbers. Plants, it must be concluded, do not enjoy the sort of communicative interaction that animals do. It’s therefore absurd to compare the unethical and unnecessary exploitation of animals with the harvesting and eating of plants.

Peter Singer, author of the seminal Animal Liberation, long ago pointed out the ridiculous logic of those who accuse vegetarians of ethical breaches by killing and eating plants. He makes the point that we must eat something, so if there is even a shred of reason to this argument, then we must perforce choose the lesser of two evils. Hands down, that is eating plants. In a meat-based diet, 10 times as many plants are "killed" as in a vegetarian-based diet. Again, the plant-eaters win!

Undeniably, plants are living entities. They play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of Gaia’s ecosystem. But do they feel pain and emotional trauma? Do they merit the special ethical consideration that vegetarian activists and advocates extend to animals?

Theoretically, our very existence causes pain to the earth at every level. Given, once again, that we live in the modern world where alternate food choices are available, must we carry the same burden of guilt when we take a plant’s life as we presumably would in killing an animal? Only to the extent that all life, all of the earth and "the-spirit-that-moves-through-all-things," is sacred. By recognizing this and acknowledging the dilemma and contradictions of this life, we can venture forth into this imperfect world with compassion, and begin to make choices that bring us back into a state of harmony and grace with the earth, ourselves, and all living beings. Once we begin to base our food choices on the principle of least harm and destruction, then we will know, as Tolstoy knew, that we are on the right path, that the vegetarian ethic is the genuine and sincere pursuit of moral perfection on the part of our species.

This piece was selected by Satya as one of the (now defunct) magazine's TOP 50 essays and published in The Way of Compassion.


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