Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Plant-Thinking and Plant-Eating

I'm working this week on a talk and paper about animal welfare and genetic engineering--specifically, on the idea that perhaps we ought to "disenhance" livestock so as to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering--that I will be presenting next week at EKU's Animal Studies conference, Living with Animals.

In the process, I've been thinking and reading about the range of sentience among the animals that people eat, particularly at the "lower" end--shrimp, molluscs, and so forth. Then I receive an e-mail ad promoting Michael Marder's recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. There's plenty to read on Marder's website, and I just had to see what "Is it ethical to eat plants?" was all about. It's a (willfully?) odd title, given that most readers will think that the answer had better be "yes!" (or what's left?). And although I like the spirit of what Marder is doing--fundamentally, he's reminding us that plants are more than a mass of tissue to eat--I found myself at times wondering who exactly he's reminding of this. Perhaps vegans and vegetarians, insofar as he wants to appeal to recent studies on plant intelligence to get us into a sense of wonder about plants, a sense of wonder which may lead to some discomfort with the idea that we will now rip from the ground and ingest this wonderful being. Marder's main idea is that the ethics of eating must take into account not only what we eat, but also how:
If there were a single recipe for respectful eating practices, it would have prescribed the following: to remember at all times that the beings we eat or experience are much more than storehouses of calories or of information and that they have a whole range of other potentialities irreducible to providing us with nourishment, including everything that falls under the category of ‘food for thought’. (33)
I am reminded here of the discussion of dietary prohibitions in Romans 14, in which Paul suggests that although in his view "all food is clean" (contra, presumably, Jewish law), we should respect the dietary restrictions others impose on themselves, and more importantly, that we must not "destroy the work of God for the sake of food." Again, how we eat is as important--if not more important--than what. Animal rights advocates may bristle at this, and argue that "Eating animals the nice way" is still less nice than Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin want to believe it is. But I'm not so sure I agree, and I'm certainly less inclined to make trouble for people who try to live close to the land and to eat locally, etc.

Marder wants to leave the "is it...?" question open. It is to stand as a never-wholly-resolved point of "food for thought":
Ethical concerns are never problems to be resolved once and for all; they make us uncomfortable and sometimes, when the sting of conscience is overwhelming, prevent us from sleeping. Being disconcerted by a single pea to the point of unrest is a metonymy for ethics as such, for the obsession that it is, inexpressible in the language of moral axioms and principles of righteousness. (36)
I agree with the implicit idea that we should be suspicious of the idea that we have sorted everything out, have solved all of our ethical problems, and may now rest. But I wonder about "obsession." To be "obsessed" with ethics, or the pea, seems problematic, unhealthy, unless what one has in mind is the kind of "obsession" Socrates exhibits in always wanting to discuss piety, courage, justice, and so forth. I guess what I'm thinking is that it would be bad if this ethical sensitivity caused one to be unable ever to feel at home and to enjoy a meal. We see, I think, where this can lead in Coetzee's The Lives of Animals.


  1. 'how' seems awfully suspicious—like it's designed expressly to excuse one's behavior by shifting the focus to imponderables. one of those 'fruits of virtue' reservable only for those who have otherwise got the rudiments under control and in line with non-weaselly standards.

    i don't really imagine an aristotelian wise man (or someone looking to become one) being obsessed.

  2. Right, I agree about that worry, regarding 'how.' (I should have said that more clearly.) Though I imagine that 'how' isn't totally imponderable or unobservable.

  3. meaningfully gazing at one's plate. savoring the cut of meat instead of just wolfing it down. 'knowing where your food came from'.

    ach, those people.

  4. I take it these are examples that don't necessarily achieve what counts--if I were reading Marder charitably. (Of course, one doesn't have to read him charitably, and if I'd been in a worse mood when I wrote my post, there are many little irritants in Marder's paper that I might have shredded.) That is, I agree with your, "ach." It's easy to poke fun at the sort of person who makes a spectacle of the kind of thing you describe. (A certain kind of hipster would act this way.)

    But then there's the unpretentious farmer who says a quiet and humble prayer to his god, who is thankful for his food, ecologically mindful...etc...and it doesn't seem that it matters whether he savors it or wolfs it. Maybe it's been a long, hard day, and he's very hungry...

    Can we just as easily say, "ach, those people," in the second case? (Or what would that say about us?)

  5. i don't think so, at least not ordinarily. i suppose you're imagining the example somewhat like i am, as one where his life is basically good, decent, even exhibits something like virtues favorable to the more ethically (environmentally / animal-rightsy) radical.

    the spectacular kind of self-exemption needn't be very hipstery, i think i've heard tell of (established, later-career) philosophers who justify backsliding toward meat-eating that way.

    what is it that seems to make the possibility of mitigation or excuse ridiculous in the one case, but sensibly available to the farmer? (does it matter that he's a farmer?) because from the perspective of the hardline vegan (supplied with some kind of singer-style argument, let's say), the farmer can be pressed for justifications just as much as the self-congratulatory cosmopolitan grass-fed-consumer. i kind of imagine the farmer being able to say, 'look, i'm living how i'm living, i don't see where i'm going terribly wrong with my life', whereas 'those people' seem in a certain light to be doing nothing but making (lame) excuses. if they say 'this is just how i'm living', we have the idea that they're thoughtless, or dogmatic, or self-serving.

    i have the sense that we might think of the farmer as 'having the right', 'having earned the right', 'being entitled' to his sort of response. somehow by his being a farmer? or by what we could imagine to be the goodness of his life? whereas the other case hasn't been described so as to grant that a person could have an otherwise commendable life - instead the focus is on what sounds like a self-serving excuse.

    perhaps the thing is this: there's the possibility of responding to a challenge to one's diet, 'that's just not what's important to me'. the sort of vegan challenge i'm thinking of basically insists, 'that has to be important to you', or suggests that if it's not, you're implicated in an evil, you're a morally blameworthy person, etc. now, i can imagine people who are, say, committed community activists, or otherwise really vigorously ethically active, somehow getting away with a response like 'that's just not what's important to me'. along the lines of the farmer, but without any relevant connection to 'food life'. but the lame excuse-maker seems to want to say 'i'm making it important in my own way', a way that basically involves a different consumption profile, reading habits, dinner-table conversations about 'oh we visited our local meat source farm today and saw where the cows live'. or even less actively than that. with, one suspects, a lot less compensatory ethical action elsewhere in their lives. bourgeois progressive, basically.

    none of this seems like it would satisfy one stripe of vegan challenger, but perhaps that's because the vegan challenger keeps the focus on one's eating. and the move from 'what you eat' to 'how you eat' could in some cases really be meant as a move to 'how you live', which IS a ground where ethically defensible differences of position make sense. whereas it's easy to read the lame excuse-maker as offering an apology for how they live which simply avers that so long as one stylizes the activity, 'does it' a different way (a different manner, a 'how'), then that makes an important difference on the level of 'how they live'.

  6. Whether it's being a farmer that makes the difference is a question that occurred to me, too. (Or a poet-farmer...Wendell Berry?) I don't think so...but I agree with your point about 'oh we visited our local meat source...'--to my ear, the 'oh' says a lot.

    The distinction between 'how you eat' and 'how you live' seems helpful, although perhaps the latter is also open to lame excuse-making, as you put it, and the substitution of style for ethical concern.

    But I think veganism can fall into this too insofar as it's sometimes put out there as a kind of lifestyle...(are you a vegan? or?)

  7. I didn't mean to imply that being a farmer makes no difference, but I don't think it makes all the difference, since one, I think, could buy from such a farmer without being a lame excuse-maker...

    I've sometimes questioned by own turn to (semi-)vegetarianism (still eat seafood occasionally) insofar as I could buy MORE locally if I bought meat from one of the local beef farmers. And there are good ecological reasons to do that rather than eat some Asian farm-raised shrimp...but I've gone long enough without land-animal meat that I don't find it particularly appetizing. (Sometimes in the food court at school I smell ham or something else toasting in the oven at Subway and actually find the smell a bit revolting...)

  8. in any case, wouldn't the lifestyle vegan (?) be able to point to really effectual reductions in suffering that kind of moot the 'style' criticism? or are you thinking of like environmentally bad vegans who just chow down on pre-packaged carbs? (that example would work better with the kind of vegetarian who lives on frozen cheese pizzas and morningstar farms.)

    yeah, i had wendell berry in mind (couldn't remember his name).

    i'm wont to think of the 'how you eat' excuse-maker as basically insisting that this is a spiritual thing for them. and the responses we've been discussing as coming from the side of saying that this is an ersatz spirituality (not as rooted and integrated and committed etc. as it could be), and from the other side of saying, be spiritual all you want, you're still complicit in needless suffering, perhaps a little less 'spirituality' would make you see that. so another way of getting at the 'how you live' question would be to set demands for ethical concern against the possibility of 'personal spirituality' (at least: i suppose that wouldn't exclude deriving its materials from public sources, traditions, etc.) and see to what extent the latter can ever stand its ground against ethical demands when doing so appears to be incompatible with the demands.

  9. "wouldn't the lifestyle vegan (?) be able to point to really effectual reductions in suffering that kind of moot the 'style' criticism?"

    I think that's possible, but then there's also this angle on food production to consider. I've used in class an article that makes a similar point about the U.S., although in that case the numbers seemed speculative to me and not to take into account just how high of a % of grain is used as livestock feed. I haven't given a hard look at the Australian #'s.

    The last point/challenge you suggest makes sense.