It hasn’t been until the last half-of-a-century or so since we have discovered that up until that juncture, the human race had been trapped in moral darkness. With the advent of the 1960’s, though, we gradually began to ascend from this cave, for it was then that we discovered that the institutional arrangements and modes of life to which we had long grown accustomed were nothing less than instruments of racial oppression.
In the ‘60’s, we discovered the evil of “racism.”
Later on in the decade and into the next, as we grew more enlightened, it dawned on us that not only was America founded and sustained upon the backs of non-European minorities; women, too, have been subjugated. In addition to being “racist” to its core,America—and all of Western civilization—is incorrigibly “sexist,” we realized.
In the ‘80’s and beyond, we reckoned with the glaring truth that we were an even more depraved people than these jarring revelations would have had us believe. It was bad enough that we were “racist” and “sexist.” But then we discovered that we are also “homophobic!” It was during this time that homosexuals joined racial minorities and women as victims of “Amerikanism” and Western civilization more generally.
Since then, other heretofore undiscovered evils have been unveiled: “classism”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of socio-economic class; “ageism”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of age; “ableism”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of ability; “Islamophobia”—the differential treatment of people on the basis of their adherence to Islam; and even “specieism”—the differential treatment of animals on the basis of their exclusion from the human species.
Given this rapid rate of moral progress, it is nothing short of a monumental disappointment that there is one evil that has yet to be recognized for the horror that it is.
The evil I refer to is that of what we may call “animalism”: the differential treatment of plant life on the basis of the fact that plants are not animals.
If Americacan be said to have been built upon the proverbial backs of the historically disadvantaged and marginalized, then the planet can be said to have been built upon the proverbial backs of plants. In the absence of plants, we would be without the elements—particularly, oxygen—without which the existence of animals—of the human and non-human varieties—would be impossible. Moreover, plants were around long before any other life forms emerged on the scene.
And yet, to this day, plants remain at the mercy of other living things.
Before the emergence of animals, plants ruled the planet. There were no wars, no bloodshed. For that matter, there wasn’t even any pain.
Since the advent of animals, all of this has changed.
The whole world now is governed according to a scheme that has no place for anything that is not either a predator or a prey. The scary thing about our circumstances is that the ubiquity and comprehensiveness of the systems of animalist domination to which they have given rise continue to blind us to them. How can things not be so? After all, every conceivable mode of thought—from the law, morality, and religion, to literature, science, history, and beyond—is determined by an idiom that is animalist through and through. Our discourses covertly—and not always so covertly—perpetuate animalism.
In other words, those presuppositions and prejudices that have conspired over the span of millennia to generate animal-centric hierarchies—asymmetrical relations of power within which animals are assigned a position of privilege over subjugated plants—are structural. They are embedded within our institutions. Structural or institutional animalism, then, renders us all unconscious animalists.
Although the planet once belonged to plants, we have either claimed ownership of them or corralled many of them into “parks,” “public gardens,” and “wildlife reserves”—i.e. the equivalents of concentration camps, reservations, and slave quarters. And even then, they are still prey to animal predators.
This horror of animalism transcends political parties, religions, cultures, and even species. Yes, that’s right: even non-human animals are implicated in it. Granted, unreasoning animals aren’t as guilty as humans. But this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held somewhat responsible for their animalism. If non-human animals can be said to have “rights”—and this is what anti-specieists and others say about them—then the implication that is most strongly urged on us is that these animals must also be held accountable for what they do.
Doubtless, the more sophisticated animalists among us—academic philosophers particularly—will object either to my position that there is such a thing as animalism or to my claim that it is an evil. Equally doubtless is the line of defense that they will advance.
“Animalism,” if it is a meaningful term at all, they will contend, is no evil, for there is no one or nothing that is harmed by it. Plants, unlike human and non-human animals, are not sentient. A sentient being is a being that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. It is true that not all animals possess the same measure of sentience, and some animals, like lobsters, say, seem to possibly experience very little if any sentience. Still, it is certain that plants have no sentience: they experience no pain.
On its face, this line of argumentation appears plausible as far as it goes. The problem with it, however, is that it doesn’t go far at all. It is easily met.
First, this apology for animalism conflates the concepts of harm and pain. The two are not the same. Even if it is true that there are no plants that experience pain, this does not mean that it is impossible to harm them. A person who is cheated on by his spouse may never find out about his wife’s infidelity. He is, then, not pained by it. But he is harmed by it, because whether he knows it or not, he has been betrayed, deceived, manipulated. It is only on the shallowest conception of harm that the case can be made that only if someone feels pain can they be injured.
Thus, inasmuch as we destroy plants for the sake of animal well being, whether real or perceived, we do indeed harm them. That they cannot experience pain is immaterial.
Second, the utterances and deeds of environmentalists of all sorts suggest that they are well aware of the distinction between pain and harm. This explains why they fight tooth and nail for wildlife reserves and the rest. Yes, they express concern for the animals that will be homeless in the event of deforestation. But there is also no shortage of concern expressed for the plants themselves.
That this is so can be seen from the following thought experiment.
Imagine that you are walking along a tree-lined city street and pause to avail yourself of some shade provided by one of the Dogwoods. About fifty feet or so away, you notice a rowdy group of teenagers that has set its sights upon one of the other Dogwood trees. Unlike you, the teens aren’t interested in seeking relief from the afternoon sun. Rather, they proceed to vandalize the tree by breaking off its branches. Surely, you will be appalled by this. Why?
There is no question that, whether they were beating on a tree or a lamppost, you will find offensive the violent nature of the teens’ activity. But beyond this, that it is a living thing—an innocent tree—that did nothing to provoke their outrageous conduct will also account for no small measure of your own outrage.
Third and finally, the argument from sentience pushes the animalist’s problem back one more step and further exposes his bigotry. The animalist, it is now clear, is a “sentiencist.” In fact, animalism is propped up by sentiencism. The latter is the doctrine that only those beings that can experience pleasure and pain are morally relevant, for only sentient beings can be harmed. Yet sentiencism is objectionable for all of the same reasons that animalism is wrong.
Hence, the counter-objection—the argument from sentience—is question-begging.
If morality demands impartiality for all peoples and all animal species, then it is nothing more or less than sheer arbitrariness that stops us from extending that impartiality to plants as well. If all humans and animals have “rights,” then plants have rights too.
It is high time that we recognize animalism and its sister vice, sentiencism, for the evils that they are.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.
orginally published at The New American