I have finally found the stupidest thing I’ve ever read: we should not eat peas because they can talk. Or rather, we should not exploit peas for our selfish ends because they have some form of chemically-based communication about weather conditions. Or at least, we should think about whether it’s okay to push peas around just because we want to live, even though they may in some sense also want to live.
The author of this piece asserts as his central thesis that it is worthy of moral consideration whether we should make objects of certain life forms that are found to have “basic learning and communication” abilities. In particular, since in the case of peas this communication is about stress, is it okay in light of our tendency towards sympathy for animals that show stress?
The logic that leads from “they can react as a group to their harsh environment” to “we should leave them in peace to exercise their inalienable right to life and liberty” is obviously suspect. I am not being hyperbolic here: the article refers to plants at one point as “who” and says that they have their own “own intrinsic value or version of the good”. Nor do I believe the article is a joke, since it closes by encouraging the reader to consider this as a single example of how ethics must be constantly examined.
I suppose I’m falling for the trick by analyzing the article, since that would be exactly what the author wants, but I think it is completely wrongheaded and I will analyze it anyway.
My issue is with the specific ethical position he takes: that it is the capacity to think and feel that separates acceptable foods from unacceptable ones. Going back a step further, he places his argument in the context of what is acceptable to do with “living beings”, presumably making reference to a commonly accepted principle that morality (or ethics, though I really think he is talking about morality here) stops at that line. Since it is famously difficult to distinguish the living from the unliving, this is not a firm foundation for anything. Viruses are not really either; a deceased person is dead but subject to a lot of moral conventions; and a decaying corpse is dead as an animal but full of life in another sense.
In addition, since life is partially characterized as being self-sustaining, it would seem that whether or not a “living being” can learn and communicate, it does not “want” to die. Any lifeform of almost any significance has some capacity for communication, or at least for receiving communication in the form of its environment, which it discriminates for the purposes of living better. Through its choices and the changes it wreaks by living, other life in the environment adapts its behavior and the effects of this co-evolution have a suspicious similarity to communication. If this is the line at which ethics enters, then only plants eat ethically.
Presumably it is only conscious communication that is of concern. Or at least intentional. These are again imprecise and fraught concepts, and the article admits that peas and other plants do not actually have a nervous system, as a result of which they cannot have consciousness. So intention is not a valid concept, and their alleged communication is nothing but an automatic, mechanical response to environmental stimuli, one born of exactly the kind of co-evolution described above. What is it, then, that makes peas different from bacteria in this regard? Or, for that matter, from plutonium nuclei undergoing a chain reaction, other than the level of organization?
It’s possible that the true home of this argument is in the conception that peas form a kind of society, and thus that their communication is a kind of altruism, so that it is not just selfish reflex action but in fact a kind of ethical behavior on its own. This might mean, for example, that peas could make it known directly to us that they wish not to be cultivated and eaten; it would presumably be discomforting to be thus addressed by something you are considering sinking your teeth into. However, as I’ve already said, it should be assumed that every activity of living things is directed towards living and living well, so nothing actually wants to die (notwithstanding the suicidal), and learning that directly from the horse’s mouth is not really news. In addition, it is not ethics to restrict your ethical sympathies for those subjects that themselves display ethics. (That is, “he started it” is not a good defense.)
No, as far as ethics are concerned there is, as the article points out, no simple axiomatic solution — to any problem. This is because ethics (or more accurately, morality) is fundamentally about what makes humans feel good about themselves, and any attempt to reduce it to a few abstract principles unrelated to humans is going to end up classifying either everything as ethical, or nothing. Because in the end, not much is related to humans.
In this connection I can’t help but observe that trying to classify “everything” as being either ethical or unethical, and to get a meaningful answer, is mathematically hopeless. You see, we would like the set of all ethical sets of decisions to be closed under unions and under containment; to be free of contradictions, meaning that no set and its complement can be ethical; and for everything to be either ethical or unethical. We call this an “ultrafilter” and if you are trying to classify, say, “kinds of food” as being ethical, well, there are only finitely many kinds of food and every finite ultrafilter is principal, meaning that a kind of food is ethical if and only if it contains one particular piece of food. The result is that you end up trying to decide whether a single piece of food is ethical, and honestly, that decision is completely arbitrary.
So as far as the main point of the article goes, the only thing I really agree with is that people have to decide morality for themselves, because any attempt to be philosophical about it is just bullshit.