Philosopher Michael Marder, with a platform in the New York Times, takes the next step, after summarizing some research as to how peas “communicate” their condition to other peas:
The research findings of the team at the Blaustein Institute form yet another building block in the growing fields of plant intelligence studies and neurobotany that, at the very least, ought to prompt us to rethink our relation to plants. 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?
Evidently, empathy might not be the most appropriate ground for an ethics of vegetal life. But the novel indications concerning the responsiveness of plants, their interactions with the environment and with one another, are sufficient to undermine all simple, axiomatic solutions to eating in good conscience. 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.
Recent findings in cellular and molecular botany mean that eating preferences, too, must practically differentiate between vegetal what-ness and who-ness, while striving to keep the latter intact. The work of such differentiation is incredibly difficult because the subjectivity of plants is not centered in a single organ or function but is dispersed throughout their bodies, from the roots to the leaves and shoots. Nevertheless, this dispersion of vitality holds out a promise of its own: the plasticity of plants and their wondrous capacity for regeneration, their growth by increments, quantitative additions or reiterations of already existing parts does little to change the form of living beings that are neither parts nor wholes because they are not hierarchically structured organisms. 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.
With no God, there is no Image of God. And so nothing qualitatively to differentiate human beings from animals. And once we have arrived at that point, there is really little to distinguish animal life from plant life.
Also at work is a squeamishness at the necessity of sacrifice, that all life depends on the sacrifice of other life to sustain it. This is a physical fact as well as a spiritual fact.
And yet, I see some hope in this earnestly scrupulous moralizing. Not a single member of the cat family or the dog family feels the slightest qualm about killing and eating meat. And it would never occur to cattle and other plant-eaters to feel guilty about grazing on vegetation. Professor Marder is demonstrating that, for better and for worse, human beings are different after all.
HT: Wesley J. Smith