A few days ago I came across an article about vegetarianism where the author was complaining about the silly ways that people like to argue with vegetarians in an attempt to get them to eat meat. Despite being an omnivore, I sympathize with the author because I agree that choosing whether or not to eat meat is a personal decision and nobody else’s business. The commentary cited a piece on Askmen.com titled “How To: Argue Against Vegetarians” and out of curiosity I clicked on the link. The arguments were mostly crap like I would expect from asking men but they mentioned something that really got me wondering about the world. Some vegetarians cite a moral argument against killing animals and causing them pain, but there are people out there who believe that just like animals, plants feel pain too and killing them arbitrarily is morally wrong. Some of these people even have the reputable sounding title of being on the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH). My curiosity was sparked and I had to know more.
It turns out that the ECNH is a Swiss advisory committee established in 1998. Just as their name implies, their task is to look at non-human biotechnology from an ethical standpoint and advise the Federal Council. Aside from the obvious issues of GMO’s and the dignity of animals, they also deal with the dignity of plants. So despite my initial reservations, it turns out that this is actually a legitimate group. So legitimate in fact that in 2008 they were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for their publication of “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants – Moral considerations of plants for their own sake”. While the Ig Nobel Prize isn’t the most sought after award, it’s only given for actual scientific, peer-reviewed research that “first make[s] people laugh, and then make[s] them think.”
This publication is a surprisingly interesting read but I’ll sum it up for you. There is a lot of talk about moral responsibilities to plants which lead to a discussion on the interest of plants vs. the interest of other organisms (like us). This brought up the question of if plants had their own interests and if so what moral consideration should we have when handling them for their own sake. As much as I like plants, things were starting to get a little silly…
On page 15 I found what I was looking for. There are animal protection acts because we know that just like us, animals can feel pain, fear, and stress since they have consciousness. Plants on the other hand show no evidence of consciousness or any type of sentience and therefore it is assumed that my spinach feels no pain, fear, or stress as it gets pulverized in my blender. What a relief! It is important to keep in mind that while there is no evidence that plants have sentience, there is also no evidence of lack of sentience. So the case of whether plants do or don’t feel pain isn’t completely closed, but it’s closed enough for me. Also, it’s worth noting that the committee unanimously agreed that causing harm to plants for no reason (e.g. decapitating flowers just for fun) was “morally impermissible” . So to answer the question I posed in the title “Do onions cry when you cut them?,” the answer is no and they likely don’t feel pained by it either, but it wouldn’t hurt to be nice about it.