What About the Plants?

Interesting essay in the Times pointing out the ways in which plants demonstrate that they "want" to live just as much as pigs or chickens or we do.

But before we concede the entire moral penthouse to "committed vegetarians" or "strong ethical vegans," we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.

Defensive carnivores always trot out the "what about the plants?" argument when they want to catch vegetarians in an inconsistency. Don't plants have a right to live out their lives and die peacefully of old age instead of being dismembered and thrown into boiling water or roasted alive? The argument often works because so many vegetarians base their choice of diet on the idea that non-human animals have just as much right to live their lives unmolested as humans do. Such a justification for not eating animals leaves you open to a barrage of attacks: "What about all the insects that die when you harvest crops that were their homes and food source? or the microorgamisms that die when you wash your lettuce? What about all the grubs and small mammals that are killed when you till the soil?," etc. etc. etc.

The problem with asking whether plants (or cows, or monkeys, or bacteria, etc.) aspire to live is that it takes too short a view. Of course they aspire to live. Everything living aspires to live; that's sort of the point. I'm not particularly looking forward to being food for worms, but that's what my carcass will end up being. I aspire to live and in order to live I need to eat other living or formerly living things. And worms need to eat too.

It's just a fact that organisms will die so that other organisms can eat. But the world is larger than me, larger than a feedlot of cows, larger than the spinach plant whose leaves I amputate to make a salad. When I decide what to eat, I can't be controlled by any individual organism's aspirations. If I'm thinking about aspirations at all, I try to keep in mind what the world (of which I am a tiny part) wants, what the world needs, in order to survive and stay healthy.