Michael Marder and Gary Francione Debate Plant Ethics, Part Two

Michael Marder, Gary Francione

Gary Francione and Michael Marder continue their debate around Marder’s op-eds for the New York Times and the notion of plant ethics. You can read part 1 of the debate here.

Question: What would it mean for ethical eating if plants were shown to suffer pain and have feelings, even intentionality?

Michael Marder: We run the risk of caricaturizing plant intelligence studies and experiments in neurobotany when we directly translate animal and human sensorium into the sentience of plants (such as tomatoes) that, when attacked by insects, biochemically signal the danger to other specimen nearby and render their leaves unpalatable. It is, however, more productive to think about what in Plant-Thinking I termed “the nonconscious intentionality” of plants—their extended and dispersed striving, expressed in growth and reproduction. What is the moral claim of this intentionality upon us?

Ancient Greeks thought that every living being tends toward the Good, in each case appropriate to its kind of existence. It is clear that, although they might not cognitively know it, plants are and act in ways consistent with what is good for them. We must at the very least take this “vegetal good” into account in our ethical treatment of plants.

At the same time, their intentionality cannot be easily integrated into a coherent unity or a totality we usually associate with an organism. Plants are remarkable in how they may shed almost any part and still germinate from whatever remains in the loose assemblage that they are. The dispersion of vegetal intentionality shifts the moral focus onto communities of plants that disrupt all our anthropocentric distinctions between the individual and the collective.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would suggest that ethical eating demands that we respect plant communities, paying attention to both the methods of their cultivation and their reproductive possibilities.

Gary Francione: To answer the question, if plants were able to suffer, or had intentionality, we would be under an obligation to accord plant interests moral consideration. I have not yet seen your book but I suspect that, at best, you have provided more information about the reactions of plants. But no one would deny that plants react to stimuli. There is, however, not one shred of evidence about which I am aware that plants suffer or have any intentional states.

Let me say that even if, contrary to all that we know, plants are sentient, how would that change our moral behavior? It takes many pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of flesh. Assuming that we concluded we were not obligated to commit suicide, we would still be morally obligated to consume plants rather than consume flesh or animal products that required more plants than if we consumed those plants directly, and that also involved animal deaths.

As a general matter, you appear to be confusing being alive and having reactions to stimuli with having responses that require moral consideration. You are arguing that every life form has a “nonconscious intentionality” that requires our moral consideration. So, in addition to plants, we would have to consider moral obligations to bacteria. After all, they are alive. They have “nonconscious intentionality.” Every time we wash our faces, or brush our teeth, we are engaging in violence because we “instrumentalize” bacteria. We need to respect communities of bacteria.

Do you really believe that?

Professor Marder: You presuppose that plant reactions are automatic and quasi-mechanical, as opposed to the freedom of animal and human responses. But, just as humans and animals often act on reflex, so plants engage in nonconscious determination of the course of their growth, above and below the ground.

You ask where to draw the line of moral considerability. We should certainly not reject the possibility of respecting communities of bacteria without considering the issue seriously. But my research has to do with the life of plants, not bacteria. It is counterproductive to recreate hierarchies of beings, instead of giving each kind of being its due.

Professor Francione: Again, you are confusing reaction or reflex with a response and your framework would necessarily apply to bacteria and anything alive that reacts in any way. There is no way to distinguish among beings all of whom have what you call “nonconscious determination” And to the extent that you exclude the bell from the moral community, you create a hierarchy among things that react.

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