Tag Archives: sentience

Animals, plants, and interests

This week’s NYT Science Times is devoted to animals (and it ran this image as a near-full-page cover). In addition to some stories about the human-animal bond and what it means to be both a human and a primate, they ran a piece by Carol Kaesuk Yoon called “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too.” Unsurprisingly, Erik Marcus and Gary Francione weren’t big fans, and with good reason: the argument that plants “like life” and should therefore be afforded interest consideration is beyond weak.

This is not to deny the normative coherence of deep ecological frameworks. Instead, this kind of argument relies on the utilitarian ‘equal consideration of interests’ model, extending the concept of interests beyond its useful limits. I generally eschew Francione’s moral absolutism (I’m not even wholly vegetarian…), but he’s right to point out that plants are not sentient in the way that many (but not necessarily all) animals are.

I think the crux of the ambiguity here concerns what count as “interests”. Francione flatly says that “plants do not have interests”, but this can only be accepted if our definition of interests excludes some key characteristics. In a strictly Darwinian sense, all living organisms have interests (see, for example, Pollan’s argument in Botany of Desire that tulips, marijuana, and apples colonized us, and not the other way around). This is how descent with variation by natural selection works, and it works whether you’re an animal or a plant.

In the other sense that we intend when we say “interests”, however, plants do not–indeed, cannot–have interests. It’s not ‘just’ that we tend to think of the cute cow’s eyes and anthropomorphize its suffering; the underlying capacity for suffering is built into the animal’s nervous system and brain wiring in a way that’s simply absent from plants. One can get into Dennett-like critiques that most nonhuman animals don’t have a complex enough sense of self to distinguish their ‘mere pain’ from morally significant suffering, but it’s important to separate this point from Yoon’s argument, which is really reducible to a facile truism: that living organisms seek to go on living. This applies as much to the single-celled organism, even to the virus, as it does to the tulip, the chimp, or the human.