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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Killing Plants


Question

Derek, some of the people who study the Tao are vegetarians and some are not. When I ask those who are about their dietary practice, they tell me they prefer to avoid killing. I respect that, but I also think they contradict themselves, because eating plants is killing, too. You are taking life every time you eat something, whether it is meats or plants, so what's the difference? If you say the difference is suffering, well there are experiments that demonstrate plants also feel pain. Doesn't this prove that life is just life, and in the Tao there really is no distinction whatsoever?

Answer

This idea, that there is no difference, has become a popular meme. It is likely to come up whenever people discuss vegetarianism, whether online or in person.

The authentic Tao is not so much about mystical vagueness as it is about practical, everyday reality, so the first point to consider is whether the idea can survive the real-world test. Compare using a machete to hack away at vines versus puppies. Is it really the same to kill a plant as it is to kill an animal? Can you really convince yourself that there is no difference between the two?

Another angle is to ask if little kids can tell the difference. Children have not yet learned the many methods of rationalization that sophisticated adults employ on a regular basis. If they can tell the difference between killing plants and killing animals while we cannot, then chances are pretty good that we may be using philosophical sophistry to fool ourselves.

Yet another angle is to test the implications of an assertion. If there is no difference between eating plants and animals, then what about the difference between eating animals and humans? We are animals too, so whatever makes us different from cattle would be nothing compared to the difference between beef and broccoli. If everything really is the same, then can you honestly support eating meat but not give cannibalism the same enthusiastic support? Why apply different standards if life is just life and there is no distinction whatsoever?

Also, take a look at the consumption of fruits. Plants use fruits to recruit animal assistance in the hopes of spreading their seeds more widely. Can one really claim that the eating fruits hurts fruit trees? Where is the killing there, exactly? And what about the consumption of leaves?

Lastly, let us address the assertion that plants feel pain. What the experiments actually show is that plants have reactions to external stimuli that are imperceptible to our senses but can be measured by our instruments. Thus, we cannot say that the plants are completely oblivious to being cut down just because we don't hear any screaming. At the same time, we also cannot say that the reactions of plants are the same as the physical pain of animals. It is a stretch to equate the two, and the more one understands the central nervous system and the lack thereof in plants, the more of a stretch it becomes.

The foundation of the Tao paradigm is learning from the patterns we observe. Therefore, we should be wary of accepting assertions blindly, no matter how commonplace such assertions may be. Instead, we should engage the mind in making our own observations, extracting wisdom from the lessons we learn, and remaining truthful to ourselves in the Tao.

18 comments:

David said...
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Bao Pu said...

Hi Derek,

I'd like to share my (provisional) view on this. While I agree with you that the "pain" that plants are said to feel cannot be said to be the same as animals feel, I still think we are involved in a kind of self-deception.

You say "Compare using a machete to hack away at vines versus puppies. Is it really the same to kill a plant as it is to kill an animal? Can you really convince yourself that there is no difference between the two? Another angle is to ask if little kids can tell the difference. Children have not yet learned the many methods of rationalization that sophisticated adults employ on a regular basis. If they can tell the difference between killing plants and killing animals while we cannot, then chances are pretty good that we may be using philosophical sophistry to fool ourselves."


Whether we feel there is a difference or not might just depend on our upbringing. I've seen small children manhandle cats and dogs as if they were picking up lego blocks.

You say: "Yet another angle is to test the implications of an assertion. If there is no difference between eating plants and animals, then what about the difference between eating animals and humans? We are animals too, so whatever makes us different from cattle would be nothing compared to the difference between beef and broccoli. If everything really is the same, then can you honestly support eating meat but not give cannibalism the same enthusiastic support? Why apply different standards if life is just life and there is no distinction whatsoever?"

I strongly believe this to be a fallacious argument. There can be numerous reasons why we refrain from doing these things that have nothing to do with whether they are really the same. It's like saying that because I don't believe in objective moral facts that I will kill, steal, lie, etc.

You write, "take a look at the consumption of fruits. Plants use fruits to recruit animal assistance in the hopes of spreading their seeds more widely. Can one really claim that the eating fruits hurts fruit trees? Where is the killing there, exactly? And what about the consumption of leaves?"

Yes, there are a number of plant parts we eat without killing the whole plant. Though I am reminded of things Zhuangzi has said about fruit trees in chapter 4: "The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs - as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don't get to finish out the years Heaven gave them, but are cut off in mid-journey."

And finally, you say, "The foundation of the Tao paradigm is learning from the patterns we observe. Therefore, we should be wary of accepting assertions blindly, no matter how commonplace such assertions may be. Instead, we should engage the mind in making our own observations, extracting wisdom from the lessons we learn, and remaining truthful to ourselves in the Tao."

No argument from me there!

Bao Pu said...

I forgot to mention a book review that has some relation to this topic:
http://www.australianreview.net/digest/2004/05/west.html

Chronos said...

Hey Bao,

Manhandling animals and killing them are quite different. Find me some children who can hack apart cats and dogs like they do vegetation and I think you may have a point. Otherwise, nice try. :)

Bao Pu said...

Hi Chronos,

re: "Manhandling animals and killing them are quite different. Find me some children who can hack apart cats and dogs like they do vegetation and I think you may have a point."

Well, I'll assume by hacking apart vegetation you mean pulling branches off trees or grass from the ground. Maybe they don't do thins to animals, but why is that? because animals fight back? because animals are more difficult to tear apart than vegetation? A good test would be to provide an unconscious, very fragile animal to a small child for awhile. I wouldn't be surprised if the legs are torn off or eyes gouged out or head bitten off.

Chronos said...

Bao, the topic is killing plants versus killing animals. I say they are indeed quite different, as Derek says. You seem to be saying they are the same. Then, you seem to be saying they may be the same to kids provided that the animals are unconscious and very fragile. Uh...... Can you clarify? You seem like a fairly intelligent young man so I am pretty sure you did not mean for your comment to come across that way.

Bao Pu said...

Hi Chronos,

re: "the topic is killing plants versus killing animals. I say they are indeed quite different, as Derek says. You seem to be saying they are the same."

I don't think they are exactly the same. I just didn't find Derek's reasoning convincing. I agree with Derek that plants don't feel pain like animals do, (though I'm no expert). However, we are still ending the life (except as Derek says with plants which we don't kill) of an organism that does, I presume, "want" to continue living and reproducing. But so be it. C'est la vie.

re: "Then, you seem to be saying they may be the same to kids provided that the animals are unconscious and very fragile. Uh...... Can you clarify?"

I'm not sure. What isn't clear?

Nancy said...

I am a vegan. I became vegan for many reasons. It keeps me healthy - I am not on the many medications that people of my age are taking. It is better for the environment since it takes more resources to raise meat than vegetables - each step up the food chain results in an energy loss. And it is better for animals. The enormity of animal slaughter each year is heartbreaking knowing that meat consumption is not necessary for health. Given all that, I do kill plants to eat. Perhaps they have "feelings" at some level. I do not know. I do have to eat something though, or I will die. It is a choice. What causes the least pain? Which causes the least damage to the planet? How can I respect my body? I try to learn humility on this path. It is impossible to be 100% vegan. So many everyday things are made with animal products that we do not even realize. Computers, cars, the roads we drive on. Even walking destroys microscopic creatures unseen below our feet. But this does not mean I should stop trying.

Lupo Lobato said...

Hi everybody,

First I beg you to forgive me for my errors in writing, I'm a brazillian, not an english speaker. I'm a student of taoism and for a long time I'v been visiting the truetao site, and I like very much Derek Lin's work and the insights he share with us here.

I just like to add something to the discussion, I don't have an definitive answer for this. But I tend to agree with many of Bao Pu arguments.

I have indeed seen children burn or stick things to cat's eyes (with the cat still alive).

I just say that in order to stress that the belief that we can naturally distinguish this things is, maybe, untrue. I descend from a canibalistic people myself, and I can assure you they were no more "bad persons" or "barbarous" than anyone. Is just culture. They believe what they did to be right. And they had a big respect for life, all life.

Anyway, I'm not a vegan, but I do agree that eating mostly vegetables is the most healthy way of eating.

But it has nothing to do with causing or not causing suffering. I avoid, of course, causing suffering to anyone or anything. But I think, in the end, eating is suffering.

I have written a poem about the senses in wich I state (something like this): The flavours, with wich life makes bearable the sad act of eating.

I'm not advocatig a pessimistic view. Is just that sometimes people put vegetarianism as a more "moral", a superior moral choice (as I can say in my poor english), and I think that it is a big illusion.

Instead of being a vegan, I try to be a compassionate person, and I do feel compassion about plants, I wish I could not eat at all, I could live out of sun, like plants.

But "trying to be something" is just so untaoistic to me. I feel I'm not ready to be a vegan because it would make my life (at least while I still live in a big city) too unatural.

Well, I end here to release my confused thinking. Thank you!

Mike said...

To argue this point is useless. Most Veggies come to that point via a feeling of revulsion at eating meat. They consider their choice as a step up the evolutionary ladder. Be that as it may, we evolved as omnivors.
(however its spelled)We can eat either or both and our gut is designed to handle either even meat dead several days in the hot sun. Think about that the next time you see a bloated road killed deer in July.
Re children, Some folks apparently missed the report on serial killers and violent criminals. A large percentage of them have a history of killing small animals. On the other hand, hunters, whose houses are full of guns have a low level of violence against other folks. I don't think the tao cares. This discussion falls into the realm of human pride.

what i was said...

I was really glad when I saw this brought up, because as a follower of the Tao philosophy and having many vegan/vegetarian friends for years, the thought always crossed me.

Here is my point of view.

I understand the Tao to respect "natural", to flow with the stream not go against it. Animal consumption is Tao, it's the reason we have the teeth we do, the enzymes, and other evolutionary features. Within nature is this understanding of our place and that drives the relationships amongst animals, plants, and other living things.

To say it is Tao to consume animals is what I believe, but I don't believe it to be Tao to farm, pump with drugs, and ultimately torture animals for our own "well" being. In nature, outside of the walls of civilization, lie the chance for many counterparts to take my life; bacteria, larger animals, and so on. When animals are deprived of this "chance" that is not Tao. For these reasons I abstain from the consumption of all meat (poultry, meat, and fish, so on).

For a few years I followed this but I didn't think it was wrong for me to go fishing and hunting, because that chance was apparent and by nature I consumed what I hunted in the wild. But I came to realize that if the whole world decided adopt my philosophy that we would exhaust our animal and fish population, considering the amount of people who inhabit this planet. It didn't seem fair for me to justify my actions if they wouldn't work for everyone else. I always think of a famous quote by Ghandi, "we must become the change we want to see in the world."

I have not been able to steer myself away from dairy products, as in become vegan. Which in some forms seem to facilitate more torture to the animal, being kept alive using unnatural means. I also consider based around the Tao that the milk of a cow is suited for the calf, not for me, so why should I rob it?

Growing plants, for me is not Tao, but what other solution is there right now? The less suffering indeed is growing planets for food. But as it seems we might have doomed ourselves with the discovery of agriculture, as our population has grown too large to sustain ourselves on this planet.

To sum this up, when it comes to the discussion of vegetarianism/veganism and most every other decision, I look to nature, for me the pure Tao for answers and guidance.

what i was said...
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what i was said...
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what i was said...
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Jill Jepson said...

There is actually a great deal of biological evidence to suggest plants do not experience suffering--certainly not in the way animals do.

First, plants lack nervous systems--the mechanisms by which animals experience pain, fear, and other psychic states.

Second, there is nothing to drive the biological evolution of suffering in plants. In order for a phenomenon to evolve in a population, it must have survival value. Physical and emotional suffering evolved in animals because animals could act to avoid the phenomena causing the suffering. To offer a greatly simplified example: If you have two populations, one that avoids being cut, burned, or hit because it experiences suffering and another that doesn't, the one that experiences suffering will have a much greater chance of survival--but only if it can do something to stop or avoid the suffering. Animals can move, fight, and hide. Plants cannot. Since they have no way to avoid injury, there is simply no mechanism that would lead to the evolution of suffering in plant populations.

Yes, there is a great deal of self-deception going on with respect to this topic. It is among people who refuse to acknowledge the suffering of animals such as through the false comparison of animals and plants in the face of obvious biological facts about their differences.

Christian J McCormack said...

I have to say that I agree most with What I Was's comments.

The argument that forms the greater part of this thread while also being slightly off the topic of Derek's post is, in my view, failing to address the important point that it is not the consumption of animals that is out of harmony with the natural order of things. As has been stated we have evolved biologically as omnivores and are perfectly capable of eating and gaining nutrition from meat. So there is nothing "unnatural" about meat consumption.

What seems to be out of harmony is how the majority of people in Western society obtain their meat.

For my own part I follow simple rule: The only meat I eat is that which I have either killed myself or that I can be sure has been hunted.

For me, eating meat is something that is a privilege. One that we as Humans (or any animal that eats another animal) must pay tribute for by setting our wits against the animal that is to be our prey.

My objection comes from the idea of an animal being corralled in such a way that it cannot possibly escape being slaughtered and therefore there is no skill or danger involved for the person doing the killing or ultimately the consumption.

It is this lack of respect for the animal's life, not the taking of it that is at the heart of the disharmony in this issue.

Newton Mukuka Mbazima said...

Well this is an interesting topic and the comments from everyone has contributed to various concepts.

I didn't eat any type of meat or its by-products for 16 years. And when people asked why, i was like "Respect for life".

I had a terrible accident in DEC 2006 and the orthopedic surgeons where like you need to eat some dairy products otherwise you bones are too brittle.

So since 2010, i started eating eggs and drinking milk.

But i still call myself a vegetarian.

In simple words when someone asks why did you become a "Vegetarian" i simple say "because i wanted to"

Many people differ its this world we live in. So what ever we do it still boils down to the same thing we eat to survive that's natural...

McKinley said...

Why does it matter if you are vegan,vegetarian,fruitarian or breathetarian. Does either of this choices bring you to some higher state of consciousness? Various different culture have survived on all kinds of diets. I think it's about balance in any case. It's not what you eat but what you think about what you eat.