September 25, 2007

Plants Feel Pain: The Psychopath Test

Posted in debate, veganism at 3:27 pm by nevavegan

I was apparently born loving plants. My parents said I had a green thumb from about age two. I loved to garden. I loved to start my seedlings for vegetables and flowers in flats every February, an activity I shared with my dad.

There are pictures of me as a baby grinning stupidly over flowers in the garden, and as a young child sitting on my Dad’s shoulders showing off a sunflower I grew. Although my home is more animal sanctuary than designers’ showcase, much of my art which decorates the place and any objects like bed spreads, etc that I’ve brought in are green, reflecting my love of verdant plant life.

I love plants. I don’t know what kinds of consciousness if any plants have, but I’ve read that they react to noxious stimuli by growing in other directions or producing chemicals that deter pests. They’re pretty amazing really.

So I don’t think I’d like the idea of someone needless torturing plants and people cutting down trees upsets me.

Still, there is the omnivore argument that vegans focus too much on alleviating animal suffering and this is wrong because “plants feel pain too.”

I’m not sure that we can necessarily draw the conclusion that what plants feel is really close to the kind of pain vertebrate and maybe even invertebrate animals experience. Many plants have developed symbiotic relationships with the animals who eat them. For example, anyone who has ever tried to garden without doing any pruning knows that this is not always to the benefit of the plant. Further, animals serve a reproductive function for plants when they eat the fruits and berries and later distribute the seeds through their droppings into new prime areas to grow.

Secondly, if one is actually concerned about plant exploitation, then we use more plants when we feed them first to animals, and later eat the flesh of the animals.

Still I have the following question for the “plants feel pain” crowd, and I urge a secondary usage of this as a psychopath test.

If you were running at full tilt down a narrow path and realized when it’s too late to stop that a tiny helpless kitten and a very nice potted plant were both directly in your path and you could not avoid stepping on one or the other (and lets assume at your weight and rate of speed the impact would be fatal to both), which do you step on and which do you avoid? I see only one reasonable answer to such an annoying hypothetical question.

Still, should you ask this question and get any of the following answers, please consider avoiding that person in the future.
*”I’d step on the kitten because the potted plant would get my brand new shoes dirty.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because she would make a funny sound.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because she’s weak and helpless and doesn’t deserve to live.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because she’s stray and helpless and what kind of life would she have anyway.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because I want to take the plant home with me and put it in my apartment.”

None of those answers is acceptable obviously. But in this scenario, hopefully your “plants feel pain” antagonist must admit placing a higher value on animals. And if so, how does he justify not acting on that in terms of his diet?



  1. Canaduck said,

    I always just say that plants don’t have a nervous system.

    They COULD feel pain in some way, of course, but that’s a pretty good indicator that they don’t.

    Also, if plants feel pain, then it is our duty to hurt as few of them as possible, right? A pound of beef requires something like 8 to 20 pounds of grain (depending on who you ask), and pork requires almost as much. Chicken is, I think, 2.5 pounds of grain per pound of meat, still a lousy conversion rate. The point is that by being vegan, you are causing as little harm to plants as possible without going fruitarian or just plain starving to death.

  2. Annabel said,

    I also get annoyed with the whole ‘plant killer’ charge. People think they are SO funny, that they are so unique and that you have never heard that one before.

    I like how Bob and Jenna of the vegan freaks deal with it in their book. If you take a hot poker and jab it into a broccoli, or a pig, one will scream…. thus apparently feeling pain.

    I remember reading way back in Philosophy class that animals cannot be proven to feel pain….. they ‘just are demonstrating a response to stimuli’. Um, you think?

  3. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks Canaduck, yes I didn’t know the exact amounts, but I did know that we grow crops to feed farmed animals.

    Annabel, definitely people think that when they spend 5 seconds thinking about an issue they’re going to floor someone who has been vegan for over a decade. We also get a lot of stuff about “top of the food chain.” and so on.

    Weirdly enough people make stupid insensitive jokes about other things too. People often ask me if I’m able to eat out as a vegan and when I say my favorite is Ethiopian food they’ll say “I didn’t think Ethiopians had food.” Wow, way to be insensitive, dismiss an entire culture, older than our own, and make fun of people starving to death.

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