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.