Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Plants and other marginal cases

This is an animal rights/militant vegan pamphlet, written by Perry Phillips with input from Marjorie Spiegel. It's undated, but on internal evidence, I'd say it was published during the first half of the 1980's. The publisher, People for Animals, was an activist group based in Seattle. Other titles from this group include “Meat is Murder” and “Feminism and Animals' Rights”. Perry Phillips is a good writer, and does summarize the animal rights position relatively well. He is more into Peter Singer than Tom Regan, while mentioning both. He also references Jeremy Rifkin's book “Entropy”, reviewed by me elsewhere.

Of course, I don't believe in Phillips' arguments. I was a militant anti-vegan during the 1990's (when I encountered this pamphlet). I even proudly referred to myself as a speciecist! Still today, I consider Phillips' little work problematic. Above all, it's contradictory.

On the one hand, Phillips is forced to concede that for a long time, humans had to eat meat, drink milk and use animal hides to survive. “Some” humans are still forced to do so. However, denizens of modern Western civilization can afford to become vegans, since they have access to nutrient supplements produced in modern industrial plants. Besides, there are many other alternatives to using animals, including soya-derived products for consumption and various forms of tissue or bacterial cultures in medicine (instead of tests on live animal subjects). Thus, Phillips' argument for animal rights is predicated upon the Western myth of progress, the same myth he attacks in another part of his pamphlet, where he instead argues that the whole world is winding down because of entropy, making de-industrialization imperative. But if the world is de-industrialized, more than “some” people will need to use animals for survival!

Another contradiction: Phillips argues that the Third World should forego cash crops and beef cows in favor of local self-sufficiency in food. But if so, who is going to grow the soya necessary to feed the billions of Western, Chinese and Japanese vegans? And what if some Third World nation reaches the conclusion that filet mignon is more profitable? That the author lives in a middle class bubble can also be seen on his argument that a vegan lifestyle is cheap and that activists will therefore have more money left for other worthy causes – as if an unlimited supply of paper money would exist in a Green society with no international trade…

Many of the refutations are based on the “argument from marginal cases”, which states that there are some humans who don't possess those abilities which supposedly distinguish us from animals. Infants and the mentally handicapped are two examples. Yet, they enjoy the same rights as other humans. Meanwhile animals with higher abilities than the human “marginal cases” can be freely mistreated or killed. But Singer, the philosopher Phillips mostly draws from, argues that the marginal humans therefore *shouldn't* have rights, while some animals should have *more* rights than infants or the mentally handicapped! Singer is notorious for advocating infanticide, something Phillips never mentions in his pamphlet, despite accepting Singer's utilitarian argument that the only relevant criterion for having rights is the ability to suffer (presumably, beef cows can suffer more than human infants). This blind spot towards Singer's fascistic traits was common in the animal rights' movement during the 1990's. At other times, Phillips seems to be suggesting that mere sentience is the criterion for having rights, which would give all animals (including insects and worms) rights. Presumably, the huge soya plantations in Africa can't use insecticides…

One of the arguments against animal rights discussed in the pamphlet is that plants can feel pain, but since we can eat them, we can therefore eat animals, too. Phillips is right that this argument is usually empty rhetoric, with the purpose of reducing the question to mere absurdity. But what if somebody *does* make the case quite seriously? The author answers that even if plants could feel pain, we shouldn't eat meat anyway. Instead, we should become “fruitarians”, i.e. people who exclusively eat fruit, seeds, nuts, and so on. (Such extremists do exist. For how long, is another matter.) But this is absurd. Fruits are the “wombs” of plants. If plants are sentient and can feel pain, why are we entitled to rip their wombs out? And why are we not entitled to cannibalize a human who is a “vegetable”? He is not sentient in the strict sense, he cannot feel pain, and so on. My prediction is that non-fruitarian vegans will be forced to dogmatically deny all future scientific evidence for the sentience of plants in general, and their ability to feel pain in particular, since they're entire case stands and falls with plants being numb. Perhaps we could call this “animalism” or “animal kingdom-ism” (compare “speciecism”)?

That being said, I don't think a purely philosophical case against animal rights is likely to succeed. Unless you argue that humans are unique in having divinely-created souls, it *is* difficult to explain why we should give rights to human “marginal cases”, but not to some animals. My argument 20 years ago was a version of the slippery slope: if we cancel the rights of feeble-minded humans, we'll end up killing Gypsies, Jews, Russians… In other words: Nazism. However, if we continue eating the tender flesh of cows, nothing similar will happen. While this is certainly true, it doesn't explain why a speciecist human society is desirable in the first place! Today, I think the “best” argument for eating meat, drinking milk or ingesting honey is a pragmatic one. The world is imperfect, and evolution (or God? Or the Fall?) has made us omnivores. The best we can do is to live in a precarious balance with our environment, including its beastly inhabitants. In fact, “Ten Common Arguments against Animal Rights Refuted” makes most sense when it calls for such a balance to be established. And no, a more eco-friendly lifestyle probably doesn't include forcing rabbits to smoke tobacco. But then, it probably doesn't include soybean cultivation on 15 space colonies, either.

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