The vegan cause faces two not insignificant impediments: commerce and convention. The former is represented by large multinational corporations that sell (relatively) cheap meat and market it as clean. As to the latter, from birth, meat is ubiquitous - government pyramids, school cafeterias, social gatherings, and pop culture. Moreover, parents feed as they were fed, unwittingly stunting the child's innate compassion, at least as applied to farm animals.
But as if not enough, there are now those who would accord moral consideration to plants, further clouding the debate on what constitutes ethical eating. Although not necessarily meant to denigrate veganism, "plant liberation," as espoused by philosophy professor Michael Marder in two New York Times articles from 2012, is a potentially regressive development for animal advocates.
In the first article (4/28), Mr. Marder cites a study that finds pea plants relaying biochemical messages to other pea plants. Easily impressed, Marder asks: "Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?"
And then this: "When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics."
Although "the subjectivity of plants is not centered in a single organ" (of course not, they have no brain), "this dispersion of vitality holds out a promise of its own": Yes, Marder says, we can eat the "renewable gifts" from perennials, but "it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends." Wow.
In the second piece (5/8), Marder expands on this human-plant relationship. While conceding that plants are perhaps not conscious, he, nevertheless, sees them as "intelligent beings." We should not, Marder argues, treat plants as machines because we know what Cartesian evil that can engender - nailing unanesthetized dogs to boards and cutting them open to study their beating hearts. This, apparently, is supposed to give us pause when contemplating combines tearing through wheat fields.
Growing plants from sterile seeds, Marder says, is "especially pernicious," for this "violate[s] the capacity for reproduction at the core of the Aristotelian vegetal soul." And in a particularly offensive allusion to the Kantian precept that mass murderers often start out by abusing animals (which is generally true), Marder claims that "violence against plants backfires, as it leads to violence against humans..."
In fairness, Mr. Marder acknowledges that "plant stress certainly does not reach the same intensity and does not express itself the same way as animal suffering," and he calls attempts to halt using animals as "meat-generating machines" "commendable." But then he says, this "does not justify strategic argumentation in favor of the indiscriminate consumption of plants" (sorry, but that's exactly what it does). And finally: "It follows that the struggles for the emancipation of all instrumentalized living beings should be fought on a common front," and toward that end, "plant liberation" must be added to "our moral menus."
I would call Mr. Marder crazy, but his professorship seems to indicate otherwise. In any event, Professor, perhaps you could descend from your cloistered tower and take a peak in at the real world, a world in which 50 billion animals whom nature has so generously endowed with the requisite hardware for experiencing pain - hardware noticeably lacking in plants - are mercilessly confined and brutally slaughtered each year. Your senses thus bombarded with the same, easily-recognizable signs of suffering - writhing, contorting, moaning, crying, shrieking, squealing, avoiding - we see and hear in ourselves, maybe the proper focus for empathy will begin to emerge.
In Mr. Marder's reconfigured society, the vegan/activist who insists on clinging to an antiquated (early 21st Century) object of compassion risks being tossed from the moral high ground where only those willing to also embrace plant liberation need apply. But worse, Marder's nonsense carries grave consequences for animals: Inspiring plant-eating compunction will confuse and paralyze well-meaning consumers, leading to "why bother" indifference, and the almost unfathomable suffering of livestock will continue unabated.