“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 [plants’] swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?”
On Sunday, the New York Times published an editorial by Professor Michael Marder on the ethical problems raised by new plant science: “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?“. Marder is the Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country in northern Spain, and is the author of the forthcoming CUP book Plant Thinking: Toward a Philosophy of Vegetative Life, in which he addresses many of the same issues he raises in his article.
In his editorial, Marder introduces and discusses new research that shows that “a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants.” Moreover, this research indicates that plants are able to create “memories” of stressful conditions and of the best ways to react to these conditions. Marder thinks that the discovery that plants have the ability to not only react to environmental pressures and stresses but to remember the most successful reactions and to communicate these reactions to plants around them raises potentially thorny ethical questions about the way we treat plants, just as discoveries about the complex mental states of animals raise questions about the way we treat animals.
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.
Marder claims that it is too early to make any definite claims about the ethical implications of discoveries about the ways that plants “think.” We are still in the early stages of the necessary research. However, he also believes that it is not too early to begin thinking about the potential moral ramifications of our inquiries into plant “thinking.”
Ethical concerns are never problems to be resolved once and for all; they make us uncomfortable and sometimes, when the sting of conscience is too strong, prevent us from sleeping. Being disconcerted by a single pea to the point of unrest is analogous to the ethical obsession, untranslatable into the language of moral axioms and principles of righteousness. Such ethics do not dictate how to treat the specimen of Pisumsativum, or any other plant, but they do urge us to respond, each time anew, to the question of how, in thinking and eating, to say “yes” to plants.
Edit: Professor Marder responds to criticism of his piece here.