Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vegetable Intentionality

Oh dear. The NYT is arguing against veganism on the grounds that 'Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too':
plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot... When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities...

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

Don't get me wrong, there's lots of interesting science in the article, which serves to correct common misconceptions about the 'passivity' of plant life. But the ethical relevance of this is questionable. After all, the standard animal welfare arguments appeal not to mere behavioural complexity, but to animals' mental lives (e.g. their capacity to feel pain).

Biologists may "use active verbs and vivid images" when convenient, but I trust that they don't mean to imply that plants are conscious, or possess any kind of genuine mental life. (We may similarly attribute 'aims' of a kind to evolution, but this is clearly just a metaphorical shorthand for various non-mentalistic facts.)

Now, I suppose one could try to argue that really we should care about any kind of behavioural complexity -- even that which merely gives rise to metaphorical rather than genuine intentionality. But that would require significant argument. You can't just say that plants "howl" in some sense, in hopes of confusing readers into thinking that this is relevantly similar to the kind of "howling" that we ordinarily take to be morally significant.

1 comment:

  1. What a bizarre article! Not a very good attempt at a reductio if that's even what it is. (The last paragraph gives away that the author, whose name I didn't bother to note, hasn't thought very seriously about what is and isn't to be thought of as "small tragedy.")


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