“If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” No, that’s not a joke or a trick question. It’s a serious question, seriously asked in a recent article in the New York Times. And it’s being asked by a serious thinker: Michael Marder, the Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz (Northern Spain). This article no doubt reflects some of his ideas in his forthcoming book: Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life.
Here are some choice excerpts from Marder’s opinion piece:
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.
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? . . .
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. . . .
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.
The emphasis on the unique qualities of each species means that ethical worries will not go away after normative philosophers and bioethicists have delineated their sets of definitive guidelines for human conduct. More specifically, concerns regarding the treatment of plants will come up again and again, every time we deal with a distinct species or communities of plants. [I added the bold highlights.]
Marder’s column will not be upsetting to those who find it morally permissible to eat meat (including fish). This practice involves the killing of something that is capable of basic learning and communication. But Marder’s argument will be deeply disturbing to vegetarians (including vegans) if they reject meat eating on the basis of cruelty to animals. If it turns out that vegetables have feelings too, then this creates a serious crisis for vegetarians, unless they too are willing to engage in egregious speciesism.
As a meat eater, I’m not particularly troubled by the possibility that the peas on my plate once sent signals to others peas. In fact, I only wish Marder had written his book about fifty years ago, because, as a child, I hated peas. Peas were probably my least favorite food, owing largely to their texture. How I wish I could have told my parents that I couldn’t eat peas because they have feelings! Then again, I’m not sure the feelings of my parents would have been especially moved by this argument.