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.

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3 Responses to Hyperethicality

  1. Mitch says:

    I think you’re right that all of the principles potentially underlying this don’t-eat-peas business are unsatisfactory. Communication is a highly arbitrary dividing-line between what’s ethical to eat and what’s not. Even more difficult is how to explain why it’s unethical–if indeed it is–to eat something that’s not even alive. But do you escape this problem by saying that the real basis of ethics is what makes humans feel good about themselves? This has a bit of a question-begging quality, since what makes humans feel good about themselves is what they believe to be ethical, and to decide what is ethical they need principles to sort the ethical from the unethical, and then you’re back to where you started. Or, I suppose this could mean that all ethics is relative and subjective, but I think that runs into the problem that under almost plausible system of ethics some conduct has to be unquestionably wrong.

    Still, I think there’s a lot to the idea that expanding any ethics beyond humans leaves us out to sea, because the basis for almost all ethical thinking is by analogy to our own experience. We can analogize a cow’s experience to a human’s, and so think that it’s wrong to make it suffer unnecessarily because we can imagine what that would feel like. But any analogy between a human and a pea just sounds like strained nonsense. Where does that leave us, though? If we can’t come up with an acceptable analogy, does that mean that ethics simply doesn’t apply? It seems possible, alternatively, that destroying non-sentient or nonliving objects is unethical for totally different reasons than killing a human is unethical, and so rather than trying to analogize one to the other, we need a different set of ethical principles to evaluate that sort of behavior. To illustrate, it seems possible to me that it would be wrong to drive a species to extinction or, say, blow up a planet, and for reasons having nothing to do with whether we or anyone else would suffer as a result, but simply because there’s some intrinsic value to these things that merits ethical consideration. No?

    • Ryan Reich says:

      I’m not sure whether it’s a typo that you wrote that it’s unethical to eat something not alive — to me, it is neither ethical nor unethical. (This is one way out of the ultrafilter trap, by the way. Not everything has to be subject to judgment.) Of course, I mean something that was never alive, like salt, rather than a deceased creature.

      My take on the chicken-and-egg problem you describe is that the gut feeling comes first, and the ethical code comes later. That doesn’t mean that the gut feeling always forms the basis of the code: for example, some societies practice(d) some form of ritual cannibalism of the already-dead. It seems both disgusting and disrespectful to us, but presumably, they found a reason that it worked for them. Nor does it mean that the code can’t inform later gut feelings. But before there’s anything formal, there is still human psychology. And when no customs apply, as in the case of talking plants, that’s the first place to go. Perhaps the 22nd century will see a culture of baterianism, the only human-consumable food that is truly without moral or any other complexity. If it does, it’s because those people are bothered by plants that don’t want to die, not because those plants’ rights are a universal moral imperative.

      Ethics (and morality) don’t have to be totally relative under this perspective; for example, if you take the point of view that these codes are in defense of humans and human society, then the destruction of life or dignity is always wrong, deception and coercion are wrong, cruelty and unkindness are wrong to various degrees, and so on. If something that is a priori not a human matter starts to bug people, then it becomes increasingly unethical to ignore it. Thus, raising livestock is (to me) not unethical; packing chickens in cages is, and that’s because there’s a little chicken in all of us, I suppose. If we ate ants, I don’t think I’d be bothered by the thought of overcrowded ant farms. Your argument against extinction or planetary catastrophe is that despite there being not much ability to empathize with these things, they have intrinsic value, which is something that does matter to people — so it becomes unethical to ignore them.

      Here’s a practical analogy. My building has students who throw parties occasionally, and also some people who live next door who practice some kind of music; in both cases, the music is fairly indifferent in quality. Suppose that the building population changed to include a lot more musicians; now I’d be constantly bombarded with noise at all times, but it would be a lot higher quality, at least according to some standard. Is this a destruction of my environment or a worthwhile improvement? Depends whether I like music. I think I’d be okay with it, and Greta would not, since she values quiet. By a similar token, there exist people, many people, who believe that what is natural is less important than what is made by humans for themselves, who find our vast sprawl, our taming of all kinds of natural processes and resources, and our contributions to global warming to be positive (especially the latter, since who likes the cold?). Strange as it may seem, they do not see the intrinsic value in nature, and that’s why this has not succeeded as a moral or ethical issue.

  2. mm2017 says:

    Overall, the morality of food is a community based question. As far as almost universalistic taboos go, cannibalism is out. As far as ‘meat’ ‘dairy’ ‘eggs’ etc, it’s based on how far you as an individual but also as a member of a community want to go with it. If your unique philosophy on life is that you want to harm ‘no living thing.’ Then perhaps you should reconsider eating peas. After all, insects respond to stress and communicate as well, and some priests in India wear nets to avoid accidentally gulping an insect. Most recently, at starbucks they’ve stopped using a crushed insect to flavor and color their strawberry frappucinos due to vegan protest.
    For most people, who engulf themselves in hamburgers and have no hangups about meat or dairy, this news is just strange and non-eventful. For others who genuinely want to and base their lives on heightened levels of response to the ethics of eating, then this is news that is worthy of consideration.

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