Respecting the non-human life of our planet

Animal sentience

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. --Henry Beston

This quote says it so well: we judge animals by a prejudicial standard when by a more holistic standard they are "finished and complete". The same applies to plants, fellow journeyers in the way of life. Plants and animals are not lessers, they are "other nations", and they deserve consideration as nations. On the previous page, in describing the harm avoidance principle, I outlined the idea that it is sentience (awareness; the ability to feel) that qualifies a being for ethical consideration, and I ascribed this quality to plants and animals. On this page, I want to offer a few glimpses into the sentience of certain animals and plants, and to convince you if you are not already convinced that these beings deserve the same respect as do other humans.

We can only guess about what it feels like to be a cow, or a sheep, or a pig, but we have good evidence that these beings do feel. It is not a matter of any doubt to anybody who has ever been responsible for a companion animal like a dog or cat, and who has spent serious time with that animal, that these are both feeling and thinking creatures, with their own personalities, wills and, yes, desires to love and be loved. In her wonderful book, The Inner Lives of Farm Animals, Amy Hatkoff quotes Bernard Baars, former senior research fellow at the Neurosciences Institute of San Diego as saying "After more than seven decades of cumulative discoveries about... consciousness, we have not yet found any fundamental differences between humans and mammals". The many relatable qualities that Amy describes in this book include (this book is so full of facts that I'm literally just picking pages at random):

Non-mammalian animals should not be forgotten either: they too are aware and wilful, not to mention intelligent. For powerful proof of this, you can't go past the short (around 3 minutes) video, Are crows the ultimate problem solvers? from BBC Two, which videos a crow solving a complex, multi-step puzzle. The Orion Magazine article, Deep Intellect describes the author's encounter with octopus intelligence and personality.

Consider too what plants and animals accomplish outside of farms: they survive, autonomously, in a world which is not always easy to navigate. That is no mean feat, particularly for plants, who cannot move to avoid inhospitable circumstances. Some plants have larger genomes than do humans, and some scientists hypothesise that this is because of the complexity of the task of surviving in a fixed location.

Plant sentience

The notion that plants are sentient is, however, a controversial one in the mainstream, particularly given the anthropocentric thinking that sentience requires a nervous system, which plants lack - a position that I respond to on the next page. Nevertheless, mainstream science is discovering that the subjects of the plant kingdom are vastly more complex and subtle than ever they had previously been given credit for, and some academics are now willing to speak of plant sentience. The philosopher Michael Marder, in his paper, Plant intentionality and the phenomenological framework of plant intelligence, summarises some of the science, and presents a phenomenological view of plant sentience, emphasising the "plant point of view", from which emerges "the picture of an embodied mind in plant life": this phenomenological view "neither treats plants as passive objects (or quasi-mechanical structures relegated to the background of animal life) nor accepts the Western metaphysical equation of subjectivity with autonomy, unity, individuality, personhood or will".

A few examples of some of the complex behaviours science has (mostly recently) discovered about plants follow. This is not a comprehensive list, but it offers a glimpse into this world of research.

Firstly, consider the mimosa plant, which curls up its leaves upon being touched (which is evidence of sentience alone): when it is exposed to a particular anaesthetic (ether), it no longer curls up its leaves; apparently it is "out for the count" in the same way that an animal with a central nervous system would be. Science has known about this since at least 1853 (see the reference to Le Clerc on the journal's page 232 of this 1931 paper). As a second example, consider that in 2012, Monica Gagliano, Stefano Mancuso and Daniel Robert published a paper (and see also this related news article) demonstrating that plants can both make sounds and hear one another. As a third example: Guillermo P. Murphy and Susan A. Dudley published in a 2009 paper their discovery that at least some plants recognise kin through their roots, and modify their behaviour accordingly, for example by not competing so much for root space with relatives.

In a fourth example, Professor Suzanne Simard and others in their research of mycorrhizal networks (networks of fungi which cooperate with tree roots) have discovered that "mother" trees supply nutrients (carbon in particular) through these networks to younger trees, in effect taking care of the youngsters around them. Professor Simard discusses her research and its implications in the short online video, Do trees communicate.

A brief overview of Stefano Mancuso's argument for plant intelligence can be viewed in his TED talk. A Nature documentary, What Plants Talk About, on this border area of research is available for sale online, and, if you are cheap/impatient, at time of writing it can also be viewed for free on YouTube. I highly recommend this video.

There is much more of this more mainstream science for those interested in tracking it down. More "fringe" scientists have documented even more convincing findings. The late Cleve Backster, for example, discovered quite by accident in 1966 that a plant connected to a lie detector will register emotions merely at a nearby human's thought of harming it. The popular television show, Mythbusters, successfully replicated this experiment in their 61st episode, which aired on September 6, 2006. An extract from that show demonstrating this replication is (at time of writing) available on YouTube. In Mythbuster Grant's words, "If I were to say that it was a random occurrence [there'd be] some pretty amazing coincidences going on". (Note that later in the episode, the Mythbusters attempted to replicate other of Cleve Backster's experiments without success, thus concluding that the "myth" was "busted". Cleve Backster, I have read, made criticisms of those attempts, however I have been unable to track down those criticisms. If you know where I can find them, then please let me know). The late Indian scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose made many similarly intriguing discoveries about plant sentience through experimentation using subtle devices which he constructed.

All of this is not even to draw upon the positive arguments for plant sentience from indigenous spiritual traditions which claim, from antiquity, communication with plant spirits.

The ubiquity of consciousness

Too, Eastern spiritual traditions have investigated the science of Prâna, and declare that "all the phenomena of the universe have evolved out of the one eternal substance which possesses Prâna or cosmic vital force, cosmic mind, cosmic intelligence, and consciousness".

Some Western scientists, such as Anthony J Trewavas and František Baluška, are coming to recognise a compatible truth: what they refer to in their 2011 paper as the ubiquity of consciousness, right down to single-cellular organisms.

Despite all of this, some people might still not accept that plants and animals deserve the same ethical consideration as humans, because they (plants and animals) are "lower order", less intelligent, less culturally advanced and less technologically advanced. I address this objection in my response to the argument from lesser intelligence or "lower order" on the next page.

If plants and animals are other nations, then they deserve the same respect due the citizens of human nations. What follows is an outline of the minimum requirements of that respect.

The implications of the harm avoidance principle as applied to non-human life

The most immediate and obvious ramification of the harm avoidance principle (from the previous page) concerns something close to many of our hearts: our diet, for, given the alternatives on offer, it is generally impossible for us to argue that it is necessary to consume plants and animals in order to prevent the worse harm of death by starvation. In the industrial world, our markets offer an abundance of fruit - both fruit proper and fruit-like vegetables - plus seeds, nuts and beans, none of which entail either death or harm to either animal or plant, and from which we may sustain ourselves in exceptionally good health. Such a diet falls within the broad realm of "fruitarian" diets, and I describe the particular fruitarian variant that I recommend here. There are, though, many other ramifications of this principle. Here, I list as many as I am currently aware of:

We ought not to constrain living beings, neither with chains, nor with cages, nor pools nor fences[1]. Imagine an unfenced land over which all may range freely, unrestrained: no more raising of animals for food, no more "harvesting" of plants for the plate, no more thieving the milk, eggs and honey of others. No more zoos and aquariums, no more circus animals, no more making of animals a spectacle for our ogling amusement, inasmuch as we ourselves would detest being imprisoned or enslaved to that fate. And of our companion animals, the same consideration: the freedom to come and go as they please, after teaching them the basics of road safety.

We ought not to slaughter nor shear[2] living beings so that we can make a convenience of their skin, wool or fur, nor of any other of their other body parts, nor ought we to cage living beings so that we can drain their bile, nor practice any other similarly detestable methods.

We ought not to subject living beings against their will, or at least lacking their consent, to consumer-goods/cosmetics testing, nor to scientific experimentation - no more than we would consider it proper for ourselves to be so forcibly subjected, doubly so given the difficulty of obtaining their consent.

We ought not to hunt nor trap living beings with injurious implements, nor to fish for them, not even to throw them back, knowing the pain of a hook.

We ought not to hijack living beings into the slavery of racing: neither hounds, horses, nor any other creature.

We ought not to keep animals captive and "break" them (even if non-violently) so that for our convenience or pleasure, we can shackle them with saddles and bridles and direct them to move by our wills.

We ought not to hijack living beings into the slavery and violence of a life of fighting.

We ought not to slaughter "pests"; instead we might prefer to trap them with non-harmful methods, and release them in a safe place.

We ought not to cut flowers from living beings, not even to send those flowers as gifts, nor to cut leaves from living beings to use for making teas or smokable objects, nor to flavour our meals. Arguably, we might make an exception for medicinal uses of leaves.

We ought not to pot living beings, knowing the freedom they enjoy in spreading their roots.

We ought not to kill living beings to turn them into paper, nor to build furniture with them, preferring instead - where necessary - to use naturally-fallen trunks and logs for these ends, and/or to use alternative substances that do not require destruction of nor harm to living beings.

Finally, we ought not to mow living beings down with blades, nor to prune nor slash them.

Animals Australia offers a bite-sized, practical guide to compassionate living with respect to the animals, which I recommend.

[1] Noting that out of a sense of duty to animals whom we have bred into domestication, we might in a respectful world take measures to protect those animals from wild predators, which might involve large and spacious fenced off areas of some sort. This would, however, be a matter for discussion and consideration.
[2] Noting the complication that some farmed animals have been bred for human purposes into growing such an excess of non-seasonal fleece that it would be cruel not to shear those particular beings for warmer weather. In a respectful world, animals like that might be bred back into their more natural state or allowed to die out peacefully. As above, though, this would be a matter for discussion and consideration.

The arguments for the ethical treatment of animals and plants

Let's get as explicit as we can here, because you might have read the above list and thought to yourself, "OK, but these are just a bunch of ethical proscriptions and prescriptions, why should I follow them?" If you are in this position, and you have read in full this page so far as well as the preceding page, then it is simply a matter of connecting the dots: you should follow these proscriptions and prescriptions because they are justified by cogent arguments. So, let's see those arguments.

Let's take for a start the first ethical prescription listed above: that for a fruitarian diet. The justification for it then is by the following argument:

Premise 1 is justified through the discussion of the harm avoidance principle on the previous page: it is a summarised version of that principle. Premise 2 is justified by the preceding discussion on the current page, which affirms that animals and plants are sentient beings, and thus are capable of being harmed - the fact that in being consumed animals and plants are harmed is taken as self-evident, as is the harm entailed in the consumption of dairy, eggs and honey. Premise 3 follows inevitably from these two premises. Premise 4 is inserted simply for the convenience of being able to use the term "fruitarian diet", and the conclusion follows inevitably from premises 3 and 4. The dietary prescription which heads up the list of the previous section is then simply a restatement of this conclusion, and is justified by the cogency of this argument.

Note though that in general the definition of a fruitarian diet is somewhat flexible, and so we need to be clear that our definition in that argument stipulates a type of diet that avoids consumption of animals and plants, and of dairy, eggs and honey: I label such a diet more specifically as "ethical botanical fruitarianism", and were it not for the obscureness of this label (I coined it, and, as far as I know, very few other people even know of it, let alone use it), I would have used it in the argument above.

The arguments for each of the listed proscriptions follow a similar form except that premise 3 becomes the conclusion, and premise 4 is omitted, as is the existing conclusion. Here's an example, for the argument justifying the first listed prescription, that against constraining living beings:

Again, premise 1 is justified through the harm avoidance principle, premise 2 is justified by the preceding discussion affirming that animals and plants can be harmed, and the conclusion follows inevitably from these two premises. The ethical prescription which is listed first in the section above is then simply a minor restatement of this conclusion, and is justified by the cogency of this argument.

There are only two quibbles that I think could possibly be raised with respect to this argument. The first is that nowhere on this page is the premise that constraining living beings does harm them justified, even though this page does affirm that living beings are capable of being harmed in general. I do not intend, though, to bloat this page with justifications of premises which are self-evident: as sentient beings ourselves, we know from experience and introspection that the constraint of sentient beings is harmful to them.

The second is that there might be circumstances where constraining living beings is an unavoidable harm, such as placing an animal in a carrying cage in order to take it to the veterinarian when it is injured, which is for its own benefit, and which, presumably, it would consent to were it possible to communicate the situation to it. Whilst it is probably reasonable to accept that they potentially do exist, I also think that we ought to be very cautious about making exceptions such as this - in any case, the upshot of this is simply that we need to stipulate that the argument for brevity avoids acknowledging in premise 2 and the conclusion that there are occasional exceptions to the avoidability of these harms.

Hopefully that establishes sufficiently the general form of the cogent arguments that justify each of the proscriptions in the list above. Feel free to contact me if you do not believe that this is the case.

Other resources

Have I done a poor job of convincing you? Then (or anyway) please check out the following compelling resources, which I share with the caveat that some (all?) of them wrongly in my view reject plant sentience and the ethical compulsion of not just vegetarianism or veganism but of fruitarianism.

Compelling papers:

Compelling talks:

Compelling movies:


Next: Stop mowing: save life

The next page, Stop mowing: save life, is a brief detour (linked to above in the context of not mowing living beings down with blades) prior to the page, Objections and responses to the harm avoidance principle.