Michael Marder and Gary Francione Debate Plant Ethics, Part Three

Michael Marder, Gary Francione
(Photo credit: PINE FOR DESIGN)

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, and part 2 here.

What, at bottom, is the nature of the dispute between you?

Professor Marder: It is still somewhat early to offer exhaustive commentary on the nature of the dispute between us. I will limit myself to three basic points.

First, it seems that the “food chain,” at the top of which we, humans, presumably are, is the contemporary reflection of the metaphysical Great Chain of Being. In my view it is not enough to meddle with only one aspect of this structure (the relation between humans and animals), while leaving the rest intact. I would think that we need to question such hierarchical formations in all respects, and I am yet to hear my vegan friends endorse this position.

Second, Western philosophers have thought about plants at best as deficient animals, and therefore the violence against animals was magnified manifold when it came to plants. If vegans subscribe to this position, they appear still to operate in the spirit of the very philosophical tradition that has devalued animal lives.

Last is the question of strategy and of principles. It does not make sense to me to advocate something clearly unethical—a total instrumentalization of certain living beings, or plants—in the name of ethics—a complete de-instrumentalization of other kinds of living beings, or animals. In such advocacy, the end does not justify the means, but the means annul the end.

Professor Francione: It may be too early to offer an “exhaustive commentary” about our dispute but I think a simple commentary is in order: I reject completely the notion that we can have direct moral obligations to plants. I reject completely that plants have any interests whatsoever.

You disagree. What else is there to say?

In my own work on animal ethics, I have rejected anthropocentrism completely in maintaining that all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of having the moral right not to be treated exclusively as a human resource. But to say that by drawing a line between the sentient and the non-sentient, I am invoking the Great Chain of Being or operating “in the spirit of the very philosophical tradition that devalued animal lives,” assumes that there is someone here to devalue. There isn’t.

I should note in the 30 years I have been doing this work, when I discuss this issue with people who are not vegans, the conversation almost invariably turns to a sudden solicitude for the “interests” of the vegetables on our plates.

We both know that the primary audience for your book will not be vegans who want to ponder whether they are under-inclusive ethically, but those who claim that we should skip over the interests of the cow and worry about whether the carrot had a tough harvesting season.

Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that a scholar should not pursue a topic because his or her theory or work may be used in a particular way. I am, however, saying that in a world in which we kill 56 billion sentient beings a year for food (not counting fish), the idea that we need to think about plants or risk being accused of “self-righteous moralizing” is, on many levels, disturbing.

Professor Marder: Before considering whether or not we have any obligations toward plants, it is crucial to ask what (or who) they are, instead of acting upon a preconceived notion. This question is at the core of my book. Any non-dogmatic acceptance or rejection of the moral considerability of plants must rely on ontological foundations.

Professor Francione: I am at the disadvantage of not having yet read your book but you acknowledge that plants are not sentient. In my view, that is all the “ontological foundation” that is needed.

I assume that you are vegan, or, at least, that you see veganism as a baseline requirement of justice toward sentient animals. If, as you say, plant ethics involves a commitment to justice just as veganism does, and that the former does not undermine the latter, you would, it seems be committed to veganism as a non-controversial position, even if you think it remains perfectible. If, however, this enterprise is really about putting cows and corn in the same group, then it would most certainly be an attempt to undermine veganism.

Thank you for this most interesting exchange.

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