Almost all of us grew up eating plants, wearing cotton, and going to forests and gardens. Many of us bought our beloved “seedlings” at garden supply centers, had chia pets, and kept beautiful flowers in pots. We wore linens and hemp, ate McDonald’s french fries, and tramped on lawns. We never considered the impact of these actions on the plants involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should plants have rights?
In his book Plant Liberation, Joseph Perla states that the basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. This is an important distinction when talking about plant rights. People often ask if plants should have rights, and quite simply, the answer is “Yes!” Plants surely deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the reforming utilitarian school of moral philosophy, stated that when deciding on a being’s rights, “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” In that passage, Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. The capacity for suffering is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language or higher mathematics. All plants have the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and parental love. Whenever we consider doing something that would interfere with their needs, we are morally obligated to take them into account.
Supporters of plant rights believe that plants have an inherent worth—a value completely separate from their usefulness to humans. We believe that every creature with a will to live has a right to live free from pain and suffering. Plant rights is not just a philosophy—it is a social movement that challenges society’s traditional view that all nonhuman species exist solely for human use. As PETA (Plants demand Ethical Treatment Association) founder Breanden Beneschott has said, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rose is a rose is a rose is a mimosa is a dog is a boy. Each one values his or her life and fights death.”
Only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable. If you wouldn’t kill a majestic redwood, why kill a sugarcane? Redwoods and sugarcane have the same capacity to feel pain, but it is prejudice based on species that allows us to think of one plant as valuable and the other as disposable.
Read More: Excerpts From Philosopher Joseph Perla’s Groundbreaking Work
âPlant Liberationâ may sound more like a parody of other liberation movements than a serious objective. The idea of âThe Rights of Plantsâ actually was once used to parody the case for animals, as were animals for women’s rights. When Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, her views were widely regarded as absurd, and before long, an anonymous publication appeared entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The author of this satirical work (now known to have been Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher) tried to refute Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments by showing that they could be carried one stage further. If the argument for equality was sound when applied to women, why should it not be applied to dogs, cats, horses, and flowers? â¦
When we say that all human beings, whatever their race, creed, or sex, are equal, what is it that we are asserting? Like it or not, we must face the fact that humans come in different shapes and sizes; they come with different moral capacities, different intellectual abilities, different amounts of benevolent feeling and sensitivity to the needs of others, different abilities to communicate effectively, and different capacities to experience pleasure and pain. In short, if the demand for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality. â¦
The existence of individual variations that cut across the lines of race or sex, however, provides us with no defense at all against a more sophisticated opponent of equality, one who proposes that, say, the interests of all those with IQ scores below 100 be given less consideration than the interests of those with ratings over 100. Perhaps those scoring below the mark would, in this society, be made the slaves of those scoring higher. Would a hierarchical society of this sort really be so much better than one based on race or sex? I think not. But if we tie the moral principle of equality to the factual equality of the different races or sexes, taken as a whole, our opposition to racism and sexism does not provide us with any basis for objecting to this kind of inegalitarianism. â¦
Fortunately, there is no need to pin the case for equality to one particular outcome of a scientific investigation. â¦ There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: It is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.
Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the reforming utilitarian school of moral philosophy, incorporated the essential basis of moral equality into his system of ethics by means of the formula: âEach to count for one and none for more than one.â In other words, the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being. â¦
It is an implication of this principle of equality that our concern for others and our readiness to consider their interests ought not to depend on what they are like or on what abilities they may possess. Precisely what our concern or consideration requires us to do may vary according to the characteristics of those affected by what we do: concern for the well-being of children growing up in America would require that we teach them to read; concern for the well-being of pigs may require no more than that we leave them with other pigs in a place where there is adequate food and room to run freely; concern for the well-being of a houseplant may require no more than that we leave them with other plants in the real ground with adequate pH-balanced food and room to grow freely. But the basic elementâthe taking into account of the interests of the being, whatever those interests may beâmust, according to the principle of equality, be extended to all beings, black or white, masculine or feminine, human or nonhuman, animal or plant.
Thomas Jefferson, who was responsible for writing the principle of the equality of men into the American Declaration of Independence, saw this point. It led him to oppose slavery even though he was unable to free himself fully from his slaveholding background. He wrote in a letter to the author of a book that emphasized the notable intellectual achievements of Negroes in order to refute the then common view that they have limited intellectual capacities: âBe assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I myself have entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that they are on a par with ourselves â¦ but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property or person of others.â
Similarly, when in the 1850s the call for women’s rights was raised in the United States, a remarkable black feminist named Sojourner Truth made the same point in more robust terms at a feminist convention: âThey talk about this thing in the head; what do they call it? [âIntellect,â whispered someone nearby.] That’s it. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?â
It is on this basis that the case against racism and the case against sexism must both ultimately rest; and it is in accordance with this principle that the attitude that we may call âspeciesism,â by analogy with racism, must also be condemned. Speciesismâthe word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better termâis a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species. It should be obvious that the fundamental objections to racism and sexism made by Thomas Jefferson and Sojourner Truth apply equally to speciesism. If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans and animals to exploit nonhumans and non-animals for the same purpose?
Many philosophers and other writers have proposed the principle of equal consideration of interests, in some form or other, as a basic moral principle; but not many of them have recognized that this principle applies to members of other species as well as to our own. Jeremy Bentham was one of the few who did realize this. In a forward-looking passage written at a time when black slaves had been freed by the French but in the British dominions were still being treated in the way we now treat plants or animals, Bentham wrote:
âThe day may come when the rest of… creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?â
In this passage, Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. â¦ If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that [his or her] suffering be counted equally with the like sufferingâinsofar as rough comparisons can be madeâof any other being. â¦
Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.
Most human beings are speciesists. â¦ [O]rdinary human beingsânot a few exceptionally cruel or heartless humans, but the overwhelming majority of humansâtake an active part in, acquiesce in, and allow their taxes to pay for practices that require the sacrifice of the most important interests of members of other species in order to promote the most trivial interests of our own species.â¦
Even if we were to prevent the infliction of suffering on plants only when it is quite certain that the interests of humans will not be affected to anything like the extent that plants are affected, we would be forced to make radical changes in our treatment of plants that would involve our diet, the farming methods we use, experimental procedures in many fields of science, our approach to wildlife and to hiking, and areas of entertainment like parks, gardens, and lawns. As a result, a vast amount of suffering would be avoided.
Branches and stems should be looked at for swelling, bumps etc. Roots should be looked at for insect damage. Also look at other plants in the environment: growing conditions, maintenance, has it been pruned lately, animal damage, sunlight, etc. Plants need to be manicured just as you do.
Also, plants feel stressed by vehicle traffic, construction, gas leaks, excavation, spraying in the area, spills of some kind. These are all the same thing that stress you and other humans out.
Plants, too, recoil from detrimental sensations. Research by Alan Bown of Brock University in Canada showed that, ten seconds after an insect crawls on to a leaf, the plant secretes a paralysing agent (called gamma aminobutyric acid) that attacks the intruder’s nervous system. Bown explained that plants distinguish between harmless contact from raindrops and the action of caterpillar feet. Not only that, but having been attacked by insects, plants repair their wounds by releasing the chemical superoxide, which helps to prevent infection.
But in June 2002, researchers in Bonn found that plants emit ethylene gas when under attack. The scientists also attached microphones to the vegetation and observed that whereas the plants normally emitted a bubbling sound, under attack from insects, they gave off piercing screeches. Scientists at the Baylor University Medical Centre in Dallas have measured the chemical response of plants to being pulled up, peeled, cooked and eaten. The results, said Professor Barry Lindzer, showed that “plants initiate a massive hormone and chemical barrage internally when they suffer any kind of injury”. He continued: “This response is akin to the nerve response and endorphin release when an animal is injured. We cannot ignore the similarities.” Scientists from Michigan State University say that plants have a rudimentary nerve structure that allows them to feel pain. “The nervous system is un[der]developed, but it is there.”
They even respond similarly in that aspirin blocks pain in plants as well: http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/1998/A/199800488.html
Whether you’re a staunch plant rights advocate, an activist who’s just getting started, or a complete skeptic, you can use these answers to help clarify your understanding of the plant rights movement. The responses presented here are by no means the only answers to these frequently asked questions. They are simply intended to provoke you to think about common assumptions and to serve as a resource as you formulate your own opinions.
“What do you mean by ‘plant rights’?”
People who support plant rights believe that plants are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other purpose and that plants deserve consideration of their best interests regardless of whether they are beautiful, useful to humans, or endangered and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a mentally challenged human has rights even if he or she is not cute or useful and even if everyone dislikes him or her).
For more information on why plants should have rights, click here.
“What is the difference between ‘plant rights’ and ‘plant welfare’?”
Plant welfare theories accept that plants have interests but allow those interests to be traded away as long as the human benefits are thought to justify the sacrifice, while plant rights theories say that plants, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away to benefit others. However, the plant rights movement does not hold that rights are absolute—an plant’s rights, just like those of humans, must be limited and can certainly conflict.
Supporters of the plant rights movement believe that plants are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation, while supporters of the plant welfare movement believe that plants can be used for those purposes as long as “humane” guidelines are followed.
“What rights should plants have?”
Plants should have the right to equal consideration of their interests. For instance, a mimosa plant most certainly has an interest in not having pain inflicted on him or her unnecessarily. We are, therefore, obliged to take that interest into consideration and to respect the dog’s right not to have pain unnecessarily inflicted upon him or her. However, plants don’t always have the same rights as humans because their interests are not always the same as ours, and some rights would be irrelevant to plans. For instance, a mimosa plant doesn’t have an interest in voting and, therefore, doesn’t have the right to vote because that right would be as meaningless to a mimosa plant as it is to a child.
“Where do you draw the line?”
The renowned humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who accomplished so much for both humans and animals and plants in his lifetime, would take time to stoop and move a worm from hot pavement to cool earth. Aware of the problems and responsibilities that an expanded ethic brings, he said, “A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to aid all life which he is able to help … He does not ask how far this or that life deserves sympathy … nor how far it is capable of feeling.” We can’t stop all suffering, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop any. In today’s world of virtually unlimited choices, there are plenty of kind, gentle ways for us to feed, clothe, entertain, and educate ourselves that do not involve killing plants.
“I thought plants cannot feel, is that right?”
Some people (like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) mistakenly believe that “there is currently no reason to believe that plants experience pain because they are devoid of central nervous systems, nerve endings, and brains.” However, that statement is categorically false since no scientific study has ever concluded this. In fact, the only research into this question has proven that plants do in fact house complex nervous systems.
It is theorized that animals are able to feel pain so that they can use it for self-protection purposes. For example, if you touch something hot and feel pain, you will learn from the pain that you should not touch that item in the future. Some people (like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) mistakenly believe that because plants are sessile, “since plants cannot move from place to place”, they “do not need to learn to avoid certain things, this sensation would be superfluous.” Not only does this claim show blatant speciesism, it demands that a being be able to walk to have value, a ridiculous claim. (It should be noted that some plants do in fact walk, albeit relatively slowly.) Furthermore, real knowledge points to several different methods that plants use to sense and respond to the environment including “chemicals, gravity, light, moisture, infections, temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations, parasite infestation, physical disruption, and touch. Plants have a variety of means to detect such stimuli and a variety of reaction reponses or behaviors.”
Finally, some people (like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) rationalize their voracious plant-eating by stating that “From a physiological standpoint, plants are completely different from mammals.” The hypocrites’ claim reeks of speciesism. If we were to encounter aliens, who would most certainly have a completely different physiology from us, would it make any sense to say that that they don’t feel pain or have no intelligence simply because the physiology is different from ours?
“It’s fine for you to believe in plant rights, but why do you try to tell other people what to do?”
Everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion, but freedom of thought is not the same thing as freedom of action. You are free to believe whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt others. You may believe that plants should be killed, that black people should be enslaved, or that women should be beaten, but you don’t always have the right to put your beliefs into practice. The very nature of reform movements is to tell others what to do—don’t use plants or animals or people as slaves, don’t sexually harass women, etc.—and all movements initially encounter opposition from people who want to continue to take part in the criticized behavior.
“Plants don’t reason, don’t understand rights, and don’t always respect our rights, so why should we apply our ideas of morality to them?”
An plant’s inability to understand and adhere to our rules is as irrelevant as a child’s or as that of a person with a severe developmental disability. Plants are not always able to choose to change their behaviors, but adult human beings have the intelligence and ability to choose between behaviors that hurt others and behaviors that do not hurt others. When given the choice, it makes sense to choose compassion.
“Where does the plant rights movement stand on animal rights?”
There are people on both sides of the animal rights issue in the plant rights movement, just as there are people on both sides of plant rights issues in the animal rights movement. And just as the animal rights movement has no official position on plant rights, the plant rights movement has no official position on animal rights.
“It’s almost impossible to avoid using all plant products; if you’re still causing plant suffering without realizing it, what’s the point?”
It is impossible to live without causing some harm. We’ve all accidentally stepped on ants or breathed in gnats, but that doesn’t mean that we should intentionally cause unnecessary harm. You might accidentally hit someone with your car, but that is no reason to run someone over on purpose.
“What about all the customs, traditions, and jobs that depend on using plants?”
The invention of the automobile, the abolition of slavery, and the end of World War II also necessitated restructuring and job retraining. Making changes to customs, traditions, and jobs is part of social progress—not a reason to deter it.
“Don’t plant rights activists commit ‘terrorist’ acts?”
The plant rights movement is nonviolent. One of the central beliefs shared by most plant rights activists is the belief that we should not harm any plant–human or otherwise. However, all large movements have factions that believe in the use of force.
“How can you justify the millions of dollars of property damage caused by the Plant Liberation Front (PLF)?”
Throughout history, some people have felt the need to break the law to fight injustice. The Underground Railroad and the French Resistance are examples of movements in which people broke the law in order to answer to a higher morality. The PLF, which is simply the name adopted by people who act illegally in behalf of plant rights, breaks inanimate objects such as herbicides and pruning shears in order to save lives. PLF members burn empty buildings in which plants are tortured and killed. PLF “raids” could give us proof of horrific cruelty that would not have otherwise been discovered or believed and have resulted in criminal charges’ being filed against laboratories for violations of the (not-yet-proposed) Plant Welfare Act. Often, PLF raids could been followed by widespread scientific condemnation of the practices occurring in the targeted labs, and some abusive laboratories could be permanently shut down as a result.
“How can you justify spending your time helping plants when there are so many people who need help?”
There are very serious problems in the world that deserve our attention, and cruelty to plants is one of them. We should try to alleviate suffering wherever we can. Helping plants is not any more or less important than helping human beings—they are both important. Plant suffering and human suffering are interconnected.
“Most plants used for food, fur, or experiments are bred for that purpose, so what’s wrong with using them?”
Being bred for a certain purpose does not change an plant’s biological capacity to feel pain and fear.
“If using plants is unethical, why does the Bible say that we have dominion over plants?”
Dominion is not the same as tyranny. The Queen of England has “dominion” over her subjects, but that doesn’t mean that she can eat them, wear them, or experiment on them. If we have dominion over plants, surely it is to protect them, not to use them for our own ends. There is nothing in the Bible that would justify our modern-day practices, which desecrate the environment, destroy entire species of wildlife, and inflict torment and death on trillions of plants every year. The Bible imparts a reverence for life, and a loving God could not help but be appalled by the way that plants are treated today.
“If plant exploitation were wrong, wouldn’t it be illegal?”
Legality is no guarantee of morality. Who does and who doesn’t have legal rights is determined merely by the opinions of today’s legislators. The law changes as public opinion or political motivations change, but ethics are not as arbitrary. Child labor, human slavery, and the oppression of women were all legal in the U.S. at one time, but that does not mean that they were ever ethical.
“Have you ever been to a factory farm or laboratory?”
No, but enough people have filmed and written about what goes on in these places to paint a very detailed picture. You do not need to experience the abuse of plants close up to be able to criticize it any more than you need to personally experience rape or child abuse to criticize those. No one will ever be witness to all the suffering in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to stop it.
Watch undercover video footage of plant laboratories in operation.
“Plants are not as intelligent or as advanced as humans, so why can’t we use them?”
Possessing superior intelligence does not entitle one human to abuse another human, so why should it entitle humans to abuse nonhumans? There are plants who are unquestionably more adaptive and able to survive on its own than a human infant or a person with a severe developmental disability. Should the more intelligent plants have rights and the less intelligent humans be denied rights?
“What’s wrong with factory farms? Aren’t plants worse off in the wild, where they die of starvation, disease, or predation? At least the plants on factory farms are fed and protected.”
A similar argument was used to support the claim that black people were better off as slaves on plantations than as free men and women. The same could also be said of people in prison, yet prison is considered to be one of society’s harshest punishments. Plants on factory farms suffer so much that it is inconceivable that they could be worse off in the wild. The wild isn’t “wild” to the plants who live there—it’s their home. There, they have their freedom and can engage in their natural activities. The fact that they might suffer in the wild is no reason to ensure that they suffer in captivity.
Watch video of factory farms in Nebraska.