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.