A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood KolischIt is time for humanity to ascend from our primitive condition as omnivores, carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans. We must take the inevitable next step to Oganism — the Way of the Aerovore — leading away from obesity, allergy, and cruelty towards blameless purity. Our motto must be, All we need is O.

Many people troubled by the suffering of animals — animals who would scarcely exist outside zoos, if we did not breed them for their meat, milk, and eggs — remain strangely indifferent to the endless, enormous ordeal of the vegetables we keep in captivity or capture wild. Consider, for one moment, what plants undergo at our hands. We breed them with ruthless selectivity, harass, torment, and poison them, crowd them into vast monocultures, caring for their wellbeing only as it affects our desires, raising many merely for their by-products such as seed, flower, or fruit. And we slaughter them without a thought of their suffering when “harvested,” uprooted, torn living from their earth or branch, slashed, chopped, mown, ripped to pieces – or when “cooked,” dropped to die in boiling water or oil or an oven — or, worst of all, eaten raw, stuffed into a human mouth and masticated by human teeth and swallowed, often while alive.

Do you think a bean is dead because you bought it at the store in a plastic bag? That a carrot is dead because it’s been in the refrigerator for a while? Have you ever planted a few of those beans in damp earth and waited a week or two, put the carrot top in a saucer of fresh water and waited a week or two?

The life in a plant may be less visible but far more intense and durable than the life in an animal. If you put an oyster in a saucer of fresh water and keep it for a week, the result will be quite different.

Why then, if it is immoral to subject an oyster to the degradation of becoming food, is it blameless, even virtuous, to do the same thing to a carrot or a piece of tofu?

“Because the carrot doesn’t suffer,” says the vegan. “Soybeans have no nervous system. They don’t feel pain. Plants have no feelings.”

That is exactly what many people said about animals for millennia, and what many still say about fish. As science has brought us – some of us – back to an awareness of our animality, we have been forced to acknowledge that all higher animals suffer pain and fear at least as intensely as we do. But, just as we once misused science to support the claim that animals are mindless machines, so now we misuse science to support the claim of knowing that non-animal living things – plants — have no feelings.

We know nothing of the sort.

Science has only just begun to investigate plant sensitivity and plant communication. The results are still meager, but positive, fascinating, and strange. The mechanisms and processes, being so very different from the senses and nervous systems of animals, are barely understood,. But so far what science has to say on the subject fails to justify the convenient belief that plants are insensate. We don’t know what the carrot feels.

In fact, we don’t know what the oyster feels. We don’t know the cow’s opinion on being milked, although we can hypothesize that if her udder was full she might feel relief. The assumptions we make about all other living creatures are mostly self-serving. And perhaps the most deeply entrenched of them is that plants are insensate, irrational, and dumb: thus “inferior to” animals, “here for our use.” This snap judgment allows even the most tender-hearted of us to disrespect plants, to kill vegetables without mercy, to congratulate ourselves on the purity of our conscience while in the very act of callously devouring a young kale stalk or a tender, delicate, curling, living, infant pea tendril.

I believe the only way to avoid such cruel hypocrisy and achieve true clarity of conscience is by becoming an Ogan.

It is a pity that the Ogan movement by its nature and principles is fated to be, in each individual case, rather short-lived. But surely the first martyrs of the cause will inspire multitudes to follow them in forswearing the grossly unnatural practice of supporting life by eating other living beings or their by-products. Ogans, ingesting only the unsullied purity of the O in the atmosphere and in H2O, will live in true amity with all animals and all vegetables, and will proudly preach their creed for as long as they possibly can. It could be for several weeks, sometimes.



A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy — 45 Comments

  1. And so, when we’re saints, we’ll eat air. Until then, we’re still animals and must do what animals do. Rabbits eat vegetables. Wolves eat meat. At least we can choose which animal we want to be.

  2. I am not sure how to take this post. Is it a sincere encouragement to ponder plant feelings & awareness? Or a dig at vegetarians? It could be both, I suppose. In any case, you might be interested to know that there are people who claim to be able to live on air and light alone. Some of them call themselves “breatharians”. (Wikipedia has an article about them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inedia.) Seems like they are all either 1) dead, or 2) frauds. Ah, humanity.

      • @Estara: It was obvious to me that Ursula was not being entirely serious, but even with that established, I have to wonder: satire of what? If that seems too humorless a question, oh well.

        • Surely, UKL is making a dig at the earnest, even militant, vegetarians and vegans for being, in her opinion, silly. I may be revolted by many aspects of factory farming, clearcutting rainforest for beef cattle pastures, etc. but those issues are entirely different scruples that eating meat – which I enjoy. I am not about to apologize for enjoying bacon. Nor should I be expected to.

  3. Well, I do think the feelings of animals matter and mean something. I don’t call for an immediate end to meat eating but I think it’s a good thing when we limit the suffering we impose on other creatures, though not by starving ourselves, obviously. Especially in cases where good health, good stewardship of the earth, and good taste all agree, it can be a very good choice people make to limit their meat eating. I don’t call for meat eating to be outlawed or even made socially unacceptable. I just choose to use fewer animal products when other good options are available. It’s true we don’t know for absolute certain what vegetables feel, if anything.

    But we do know what mammals feel. They feel in ways that are pretty similar to what we feel; fear, terror, pain, love or attachment, etc. The extent to which we notice and pay attention to their suffering or comfort being highly correlated with how much we care about them as individuals.

    It’s not a different thing in *kind* to ask men to notice women’s feelings, or conquerers to notice the feelings of the conquered, masters those of slaves, just in degree. Obviously women, slaves, and the conquered are fully human, and so their experience of being corresponds most closely to our own, yet other primates, mammals, and animals are our relatives in close or distant degree. We can ask ourselves whether evolution would favor similar responses in them as it does in us. Is pain and suffering a larger phenomenon than merely the human? I do believe that biology is pretty convincing that it is. So do I personally feel fine about causing them grievous suffering? I really don’t. But I’m confused enough about it all to be unsure what is the best thing to do about it. Contempt for meat eaters isn’t it, though. Nor contempt for vegetarians, or for anyone, really.

    • Tatiana, I have no idea who you are but I’m so very grateful to you for every word you wrote here. I just want to thank you. I’d looked up to Le Guin for about as long as I can remember but this post confounded me. I wanted to say something–I wasn’t sure what–but you said it all for me. Thank you!

      I should take to heart your words about not feeling contempt. I have slowly come to terms with what I think of as the “circle-of-lifeness” of meat eating, but can’t accept the prevalence of animal suffering in factory farms. Callousness towards suffering just… I don’t know how to say it… I guess the very idea just pierces me to the core in a way I don’t know how to handle. That callousness does make me feel contempt, and anger, and more–and that callousness seems to be everywhere and taken for granted. I guess the contempt I feel is at least somewhat directed at my own self. I grew up eating meat in what was originally pure innocence of what those animals had experienced, but after awhile, I knew–but I denied that knowledge. I’m anguished that it took me as long as it did to admit what I was doing and to step out and act on my deepest values and most deeply felt feelings. I don’t know how to get sufficient protein without eating meat–I’m slowly learning–but back then I didn’t know how to even start changing my eating.

      Our society seems in denial about what it’s doing–dogs and cats deserve kindness and safety but not anything else? If it’s hidden it isn’t happening?

      I know that no one needs to hear any of this–we come to awareness as we come to it, we make the compromises we need to make, or feel that we need to make, to survive–and we stop short of continuing on a terrible path when we realize, in our bones, where we are going.

      AH! But, I’m realizing, if no one needs to hear what I’m saying, other people’s words have brought me to awareness, back to my heart, back to the truth, back to the knowledge of the need to make a change, possibly a difficult or truly inconvenient one, and go another way. And Le Guin started all of this for me! (I apologize, Ursula, for referring to you in the third person and by your last name on your own blog! Also I apologize if addressing you as “Ursula” is impertinent. I guess I backed myself into this corner by addressing Tatiana and Tatiana alone. But I think everything to follow makes more sense if I continue as I began.) I read Le Guin’s story–what was it–the Road to Omelas?–long long ago and never forgot it. I could look up the details, but, I want to speak from where it touched me, and that goes deeper than short-term memory. A story of a town of perfect bounty and happiness and ease for everyone in every way–with the exception of one bechained, tortured child, hidden away and made to suffer for others to continue their lives of ease and plenty. And I think I took that story quite literally–it’s only know that I’m seeing the basement could be a basement of the mind! But it worked, taken half-literally, anyway. The story is short and comes to a deafeningly quite end–it ends with the day you walk away from that town! God, Buddha, that is what I am trying to do, in my attention to what I eat and the misery that my mouth and my money do or do not endorse and support. I’m trying to walk away from Omelas. And I’m trying not to spend too much energy talking and thinking and angering myself about the terrible horrible things that happen there.

      And, lastly, Le Guin’s words of awakening were followed by The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert, in a New Yorker review of Johathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” which discusses the ways we justify, because of our food needs and wants, doing what we generally consider wrong–causing suffering to animals–and what the alternatives might be. Although I’m paraphrasing, Kolbert said something I haven’t been able to stop hearing since I first read it: “None of this is new–we all know by now that the lives of factory-farmed animals are lives of near-constant misery.” That haunts me still. And in my own mind I heard another comment, that followed immediately upon the heels of that initial admission: SO WHY don’t I do something?–Why don’t I do ANYTHING? And I couldn’t make an immediate switch but I started trying, started slowing making a change here and a change there–only eating free range at home, except for a few exceptions. Then cutting those out. Then cutting out non-free-range meat when eating out. So I did SOMETHING, but it’s still not enough. But it’s something. And yet–all of our collective “somethings” when gathered up–they collectively SUCK. Our world is not. doing. good. enough. It’s not.

      This is turning out to be a very long-winded comment–sorry, but thank you, to anyone who reads it. I’ve traveled far from my emotional starting-place, but, this began as my heartfelt attempt to thank you, Tatiana, for saying so clearly what I would not have been able to find the words to say, and I still feel that gratitude, strongly. (Your comment was written quite awhile ago–I wish I knew that my thank-you might reach you. I guess I will have to satisfy my heart by just internally thanking people out there like you, and trying to remember I’m not alone, there are people whose steps I can seek to follow.)

      How not to have contempt for all of humanity, self included? How to forgive? I tried once, when I was really young, asking this question of Le Guin herself and she wrote to me compassionately: “Look in my books. My answers are there.” I listened and I tried and the answers eluded me. And my mentor of the time–a social activist pastor who reads every word Le Guin has ever written–told me, when I discussed this with her: “I think Le Guin doesn’t have the answers. I think, there in the texts, she’s continually grappling with the questions.”

      That’s not good enough!

      Even if it has to be, for all of us.

      I can’t help but want answers. The longer I live, the harder it is to not be angry at all of us for the horrific unfixable unending pain we cause each other and to innocent beings. It gets harder and harder not to be disgusted–harder and harder not to despair. If there’s no heaven and we’re not reincarnated–then there are souls who existed only to experience pain. That sort of thing makes me want to be reborn in a kinder universe. Perhaps one that Le Guin would create. I don’t whether to be glad or sad that there is a part of me that half-believes that this maybe possibly could come true: waking up in a benign place, Le Guin-created. Delusion, or hope?


      p.s. Ursula–I guess this is my way of telling you that Heidi, from Boise, did hear you and has been trying to find you in your books. Luckily for me, with my struggles–I seem to have married the identical twin of George Orr, from Lathe of Heaven. If you know what I mean? A peace-loving person, in balance.

      Another commenter on another post told you that your books have been some of their best friends and teachers. I felt that way when I was younger and still do. I remember, in college, I sent you an essay I had written about your books, in H.S., and at that time I could clearly state that you as an author had affected my intellectual outlook and my bone-deep intuitive sense of the moral universe more than any and all other authors. All these years later, I’m amazed that there was a time when I could see my own influences so clearly, that there was that direct line. I was lucky that it was you.

      • I wish I could edit this, the few misspellings–but especially the part about whether it’s deluded or hopeful that a part of me believes in the possibility of waking up in a Le Guin-created place.

        I didn’t mean that quite the way it came out–I meant, I wonder if it’s good or bad for me that I still fantasize about waking up some place different, a place similar to some of the places I’ve read about in Le Guin’s books, somewhere fundamentally kinder or more in balance.

        Oh well. I guess it was worth trying to say what was in my heart, even if I didn’t get the non-dualistic implications etc. that Marcus explains below, and didn’t understand that I was supposed to find this humorous.

        Instead, I just got the idea that the piece was ridiculing sincere efforts to take ethical action. And suggesting that the only truly ethical thing to do is to just refuse to eat, to let ourselves die, because all other efforts fall short and don’t matter.

        Sadly the satire was completely lost on me. Perhaps because I started reading Le Guin so very seriously, so very young, I still read her with that very earnest girl in me still present.

        But I’m still clear on these things: I’m grateful to Tatiana, for what she shared, and for Marcus for what he clarified, and to Elizabeth Kolbert for her words, and to you, Ursula, for yours.

  4. then let us drink once a day (and more often on foggy nights) — allowing moisture to condense in our mouths so as not to ingest hapless bacteria that cruel stomach acids and martial antibodies would destroy.

    • You think clouds have no feelings? Why, just this evening I watched a BBC TV programme in which a scientist collected microbes from the clouds at the summit of the Kitzbuehel Alps, Austria. She took them back to her lab and they replicated! (The bugs with each other, that is.)

      Now, should I kill off those pesky bacteria thriving in my stomach acid, and deprive them of the locally-sourced, free-range and organically reared casserole steak I plan to cook one night this week?

  5. Pingback: Dialogue revisited – cussing | M.H. Lee

  6. And where does this precious O come from – never thought about it? It is a product of a never-ending quiet labour of plants. Do we really want to call such a ruthless exploitation of these defenseless beings MODEST?

  7. This post reminds me of the crime I commit every time I crack open the pristine and intricate head of a cauliflower and watch its individual florets roast away under hundreds of degrees of elemental heat. It conjures the the satisfaction I feel wilting down proud and defiant spinach leaves down to a intoxicating mess of soft yielding mush. The horror! The delight!


    I am a very bad man.

  8. Thank you, dear Ursula, for this fine bit of satire, laced as all good satire is with elements of sincerity and truth. I don’t recall which of your stories (I’m bad with titles) included a future scientist’s incredulity that humanity existed for so long a time without the ability to read/speak eggplant, but it caught my notice. This piece is just yet more evidence of your seemingly universal empathy.

    I’ll watch carefully this summer and see if I notice any dialectical variation in the language of the Ping Tung Long vs. Listada de Gandia eggplants growing in my garden.

  9. Oganism is rather widespread although in most cases not practiced voluntarily. To be precise, Homo aerovorus is a clandestine bi-product of various non-scientific projects carried out by a number of national and multinational companies in various countries, especially in Africa. Due to the short life span of their members these unfortunate groups have no chance to develop as a subspecies of Homo sapiens. But, unfortunately, this does not mean that they are not growing in numbers; on the contrary, they will continue to do so in the future.

    I am sure we all agree that there are better ways than oganism “leading away from obesity, allergy, and cruelty towards blameless purity”. Might it be that this was one of the points dear Ursula wanted to make by her excellent satirical Modeset proposal?

    Nota bene: The Aerovores mentioned above are not to be confused with aerovores, the goo replicators constructed almost solely of CHON (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen); q.v. on the web at orionsarm.com/eg-article/45e4eccb7c7b7 and Freitas at foresight.org/nano/Ecophagy.html.

  10. Did anybody ask what’s Ursula eating these days? She definitely shakes up our thoughts on this matter with her writing.

  11. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, but I found this satire to be rather weak tea. That it is the product of one of my all-time favorite writers, someone I sincerely admire, made it doubly painful to read. And yes, full disclosure: I’m a vegan.

    But what I found to be objectionable was not the dig at my more militant compatriots; live and let live, lead by example, and don’t give yourself airs, I always say. Militancy really isn’t my thing, and I think it tends to harm the movement for more decent treatment for animals, as many of the comments on this blog illustrate. No, what bothered me was UKL’s claim that plants are sophisticated organisms on par with animals, capable of feeling pain. This little bit of pseudoscience has been around for a long while, and to see a respected, thoughtful person like UKL perpetuate it—even in the interest of satire—is very unfortunate.

    That recent scientific studies have taught us much about the complexity of plant life is true, of course. These studies have provided fascinating results about the way plants react and are sensitive to their environment. But do these studies prove that plants, like animals, feel pain? Not hardly.

    Let’s back up. How do we know non-human animals feel pain? Well, three reasons. First: their behavior. Stick a puppy with a pin and the puppy yelps and runs away. Second: the presence of a central nervous system and neural tissue capable of transmitting pain impulses to the brain. And third: Evolution. Pain is a positive adaptation (though it may not seem that way sitting in the dentist’s chair). Organisms capable of feeling pain are able to flee in the hopes of escaping potentially harmful or deadly stimuli, thus preserving their existence.

    None of these three reasons apply to plants. First, come near the azalea bush in your backyard with a lit cigarette lighter, and it will not uproot itself and run away. Second, plants do not have anything resembling a central nervous system or tissues that are in any way comparable to nerve endings like those found in even the most primitive animals. And finally, there are no evolutionarily useful reasons for organisms incapable of avoidance movement to develop the capacity to feel painful sensations, the way animals do.

    At this point, many (including UKL) will say: but how do you know they don’t feel pain? All I can answer is that our knowledge claims rest on our best inferences given our current state of understanding. I’ve given you my reasons for my claim to knowledge. While I accept that I might be wrong about that, I also realize that I have some good reasons to think I’m not. If that isn’t enough, then the question about how I know is really some kind of epistemological puzzle, on par with the question of how do I know other humans have minds. In that case, I recommend reading a little Ludwig Wittgenstein to clear out the intellectual cobwebs.

    As for the claim that in the past, some believed that animals and fish did not feel pain, and were wrong, so we could thus be wrong about plants not feeling pain, this kind of pessimistic induction is hardly support for anything. For millennia, people were wrong about the Sun orbiting the Earth; is this a reason to think that despite Copernicus and Galileo, we’re wrong today about heliocentric astronomy? As for the claim that animals do not feel pain, that was an unfortunate consequence of René Descartes’ dualism involving mental substance and physical substance, and the need to claim that every non-human animal was merely a mechanistic device lacking free will. Anyone observing animal behavior could see Descartes was wrong. That they ignored the evidence of their senses is because the philosophical theory behind the claim gave a ready justification for the mistreatment of, and dominion over, non-human animals.

    And in the end, that’s all this silly nonsense about “plants feeling pain” is about. It’s not about consideration for plants. It’s just about justifying the continued slaughter of our fellow beings. If you love your steaks, fried chicken and shrimp scampi, just say so. Don’t spread junk science in a muddled attempt to justify yourself, or satirize those of us who see things a bit differently. There’s enough pseudo-science out there already for us to deal with.

    • Leaving aside the question of whether plants feel as we might understand, we must still acknowledge that, like us animals, they are living beings possessing no less will to live than we possess, having no more or less right to be alive than we have. It would be wrong-headed for us to attempt to sustain the belief that plants are merely, as you’ve pointed out with relation to Descartes and non-human animals, biological machines. With this kind of reductive logic, all living things, not excluding ourselves, could just as well be classified as such. I’d also point out that plants are neither simply stationary nor insensate: they sense and respond to their environs. Sagebrush recognises self from non-self and practises kin selection. Tomato-plants communicate with their neighbouring plants, warning them of herbivore attacks; the surrounding plants will subsequently produce substances within their foliage aimed at warding off the attacker. Other studies have shown that plants are capable of adaptive learning. You might well argue that these are merely chemical processes, having developed as evolutionary adaptations. You might well argue the same thing about the human mind.

      If you eat a potato you end the life of that potato. We don’t know what the potato feels, or indeed if it even feels in ways that we might understand. Yet it is a signature of our supreme narcissism that we can sustain the belief that simply because the potato doesn’t resemble us, or perhaps feel as we feel, that therefore the life of that potato has less meaning than our lives have. It’s not really killing, we seem to say; the potato is a biological machine, a living dead-thing, ‘there for our use’, as Le Guin says. Those vegans who claim that all killing to eat is morally perverse are applying a selective empathy when they eat potatoes. If the aim of eschewing the eating of animals is to achieve a sense of purity or blamelessness then I would think that purity to be essentially misplaced. It stems from a selective blindness, a desire to remove humanity from the deep ecological processes of which we are necessarily part, to place us above the world. Industrial societies seem preoccupied with pretending that we live above the world, while at the same time destroying it, the others with whom we share it, and, in the long term, ourselves. It’s that same attitude that has allowed us to treat non-human animals with the most appalling cruelty, denying that their suffering matters. Of course their suffering matters. Ethical eating must consider that neither non-human animals nor plants exist merely for our consumption. We are all part of the same life-support system; we share the same intrinsic value.

      Is the vegetarian who eats tofu grown as a pesticide-soaked monoculture-crop more ethical than the omnivore who eats vegetables, fruits, and some free-range animals, from an organic farm? Conventional, high-input agriculture of the former kind destroys otherwise renewable resources: it successively impoverishes the soil and poisons waterways, drastically reducing biodiversity. If you remove the artificial fertilisers and pesticides, then you must also accept that animals play a vital role in the success of organic farming. We should be supporting those systems that support the life of the whole system. In this way our own self-interest and the interests of other living beings can come into alignment.

    • @JS

      As mentioned above, plants display more patterns of active reactions than most people would believe (and most likely we are to learn more about it in the years to come). I would add that there are also some plant species which feed on animals – some on insects, some even on small entrapped mammals.

      But I do not think it was UKL’s intent to belittle the horror of nature perceived as a Great Slaughterhouse. In fact, I believe she joins a long list of renowned writers who meditate on the issue, trying to balance its inevitable seriousness with humour (and almost every aspect of humour has its dark flip side) – J. M. Coetzee and W. Szymorska are among those who circled around this theme. One of the lessons we may learn from them is that the horror is in the eye of human, concious beholder at least as much as in the pain felt by the devoured ones.

      But this is not the only scandal we must live with (or die trying to escape it). The inevitability of death is perhaps even a greater horror and still you cannot become a full person without acquiring this knowledge. Yet me must learn our ways to keep living by ignoring the fear of death to some extent, lest it make life we want to protect unbearable. Humour is one of them, and displacement is another.

      Perhaps one day the Earth’s population will be able to synthetise all nutrients without any need to feed on plants or animals, and without inducing any health problems. Unfortunately, we are not in this position yet. It makes a lot of sense to prevent or minimize all the torment related to the meat production. It does not help much to outdo one another in our moral behaviour in that respect: I am better than you because I do not eat fish/egg/dairy/insects/embryophytes… This line always ends with a More-than-Holy One who photosynthetises himself and feeds on light and water alone. 😉

      • @Marcus and K-k:

        Both your replies, while thoughtful and well written, suffer from misconceptions and misunderstandings. I cannot address them all in the limited space available, so I’ll confine my reply to the ones I find to be most serious.

        The biggest error I see in both your replies is a failure to appreciate the moral and philosophical basis for vegetarianism. The vegetarian is not saying it is morally wrong to eat meat because by doing so one ends the life of an animal. Killing, in and of itself, is not morally impermissible. Taking antibiotics, for example is morally permissible, even though it results in the death of thousands, perhaps millions, of living things (infectious bacteria). Shooting a rabid dog to save a five-year-old child is not morally impermissible (quite the contrary, in fact). So when Marcus laments that eating a potato kills the potato, he states a fact, but a morally irrelevant one.

        What makes eating an animal morally wrong, as opposed to eating a potato, is the suffering and pain inflicted on the former (and not the latter) in order to provide it as food for humans. It is the suffering of the animal that makes meat eating wrong, not merely the loss of its life. The central issue is: do animals suffer? If they do, then their interests require equal consideration with ours. And because they do, we must refrain from inflicting suffering on them for something as trivial as gastronomic pleasure.

        That is the why the question of plants feeling pain, dismissed in Marcus’ first sentence, is in fact the crucial point. That plants are aware of their surroundings is a given; indeed, we knew this before the much-ballyhooed latest research findings. (All these new researches are giving us is a deeper appreciation for the level and extent of this awareness.) But mere awareness does not equate with the ability to suffer, to feel pain. The thermostat in your homes and in mine is aware of its environment; it senses changes in temperature, to which it responds by turning the heat or the air conditioning on or off. Does the thermostat therefore also feel pain?

        I’ll leave aide the question of whether it is moral to eat animals that have been killed painlessly, as that leads to a much bigger philosophical question, namely, personhood. Clearly, if we cannot reach understanding and consensus on something as simple as the ethical foundations of vegetarianism, and the simple scientific fact that plants do not feel pain (neither of your replies addresses the arguments I present in my reply to UKL), then I hold out little hope of our being able to successfully tackle that thorny topic together!

        I will end on this note, and leave to you the final word, if you wish to have it. K-k speaks very movingly of the desire to live in harmony with the physical world, and poses the question: “Is the vegetarian who eats tofu grown as a pesticide-soaked monoculture-crop more ethical than the omnivore who eats vegetables, fruits, and some free-range animals, from an organic farm?” Again, this question, thoughtful though it may be, misses the key point. The organically grown vegetables do not suffer when they are harvested, while the free-range animals do, when the latter’s lives are ended. But in addition, note that vegetarians come in all shapes and sizes and varieties. We’re not all “Beverly Hills” vegetarians, who see this as a “lifestyle” or a fad. Eating less meat means less clear-cutting of rainforests for cattle grazing, less water used to raise beef and other livestock, less farm run-off, more arable land available to grow organic, sustainable plant food for humans instead of for cattle, pigs, and other food animals… in short, the environmental benefits of vegetarianism are legion. Many of us embraced vegetarianism not only because of concerns for animal welfare, but also because we believe that as along as the human species continues to exploit the animal kingdom for selfish ends, we will be unable to find a way to live in true harmony with our environment. The same mentality that uses pesticides and engages in the destruction of precious resources in the name of profit is the same one that fuels the continued slaughter in the factory farms, the very slaughter both Marcus and K-k claim to stand against. In short, to assert that vegetarianism is somehow oblivious to environmental concerns is as erroneous and poorly-reasoned a conclusion as the claim that pants, because of their awareness and their status as living beings, are somehow also able to feel, just as animals, and you and I, do.

        • @JS

          With all understanding and respect for the moral reasons you gave, I must notice that your perspective would make killing a human being better (or, say, less wrong) morally than killing an animal, as long as the former is done without inflicting any physical or mental pain on the victim while the latter is done in a cruel way.

          Also, you do not seem to take into account the fact that the very Nature in its most natural state, long before hominids enetered it, already was a Great Slaughterhouse, pain and fear included.

          I guess that one day people consuming plants may be considered awful barbarians, following their low animal instincts; almost as horrible as slave owners or meat-eaters of the ancient times. But we do not live in this beautiful future, we do live here and now with our limited resources and understanding. It is possible that your moral position is superior to the average morality of our times (though it is not clear to me what criteria could be used for the comparison). It is also possible, however, that it is not. Note that people who do not share your convictions may still honestly respect your personal choice, and their disagreement with your moral arguments does not, per se, constitute any form of attack against your way of life.

          • P.S. Just to make my point clear: if you think that there is some other reason besides pain against killing animals (be it animal personality or any other form of being that would make them subjects, not only: objects, of morality) then the same arguments that apply to human abstinence from meat consumption should, at least to some extent, apply to our animal brothers. Do you plan to prevent chimpanzee intra-species wars, for example, and do you plan to persuade lions to abstein from consumption of antilopes? If your moral position is correct, would not it be moral to propagate it also among animals? I am pretty sure that voluntarily vegan lions would make many people follow their example. (This is not to say that I share Cartesian view of animals. Also, I am not teasing you – well, maybe just a little bit 😉 – but I try to demonstrate where the consequent use of pure logic might take us if we tried to perceive our world as a more ideal place than it actually is. I guess that it might have been also UKL’s or Coetzee’s attitude in their writings on the subject.)

        • @JS:

          You might be interested in reading the new book by Australian academic Matthew Hall titled ‘Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany’. Here Hall argues for reincorporation of plants within the realm of moral consideration. The book has come out of a new academic field termed the ‘ecological humanities’, based at the Australian National University, Canberra. Hall points out that many hunter-gatherer societies have long had the fully-integrated understanding of both animal, and plant, personhood. Anthropologist Nurit Bird David has called this animist world-view a ‘relational epistemology’, where the self is know ‘in and through relationships’ with others. This way of thinking recognises that non-human animals, and plants, are sentient and volitional and communicative; their volitionality and communicativeness are different from those of human persons, but no less real. This way of thinking also recognises inter-species sociality through bonds of kinship. Acknowledging the personhood of other beings does not, however, mean that one does not kill to eat. Participation in the ecological process is celebrated; no being is merely food, though we are all edible. There is an emphasis, rather, on what Hall has termed ‘respectful action’, where the violence of killing, whether the killed be animal or plant, is openly recognised, and actions are taken that aim to minimise harm.

          Seeing plants as persons does not constitute an anthropomorphism. As Hall says, ‘it is important to be clear that this recognition of plant personhood is not anthropomorphic. A worldview that relates to other-than-humans as persons is not concerned with projecting human-like qualities where they do not exist. Nor is it a case of “confusion between persons and objects”. As Harvey states, “To be a person is to want to continue living”. As persons, plants are not naively thought to have human faculties. They are understood to be living beings with their own perspective, and with the ability to communicate in their own way. Personhood thus emerges from a focus on relating and the recognition of shared volition and intentionality in natural beings’.

          (You may well be familiar with this ‘relational epistemology’ from Le Guin’s writing – it is the mode of thought that best characterises the people of the Valley in ‘Always Coming Home’.)

          Now, you have argued that the moral shibboleth separating the eating of animals from the eating of plants is whether the eaten possesses the ability to experience fear and pain. Consider this from the animist perspective: if plants and animals equally possess personhood and a will to live, but express their being alive differently, then the standard you are applying is by its very nature unfair and inconsistent. The plant may not feel fear and pain as you understand it, but what matters to the plant is that it wants to live. If the experiences of the plant are radically different from your own, then applying a standard modelled on your own animal nature will be meaningless; it will always result in the privileging of animality.

          • Thanks for your interesting description of Hall’s views (I must admit that the dispute here brought to my mind rather another Australian moral philiospher, Peter Singer, whose many views I find quite repulsive). As for Le Guin’s writings, she definitely does not advocate cruelty or indifference towards animals – as certified by “Buffalo Gals”, “Cheek by Jowl”, or her thoughts on the Cordwainer Smith stories.

            • Hey K-k,

              I was not at all suggesting that Le Guin advocates cruelty to animals. I was referring to the mode of thought that characterises the people of the Valley in ‘Always Coming Home’, where personhood is recognised within other-than-human beings. This animist world-view does not advocate cruelty to animals, either.

              • Sure, Marcus – I was just trying to support your answer to JS by other examples since he seemed to suggest that UKL was playing an advocate of plants just to hide her indifference with regard to the sufferings of animals. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

                Actually, among the titles mentioned by me “Buffalo Gals” also involves an animist world-view. Perhaps all children are born (sort of) animists.

        • @ JS

          Just as an aside: if you haven’t already seen them, you might also be interested in having a read of some of the (fairly) recent scientific articles on plant intelligence by Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh –

          Trewavas, ‘Mindless Mastery’ in Nature, Vol. 415 , February 2002

          Trewavas, ‘Aspects of Plant Intelligence’ in Annals of Botany 92: 1-20, 2003

          Trewavas, ‘Aspects of Plant Intelligence: an Answer to Firn’ in Annals of Botany, 93: 353-357, 2004

  12. I find myself in a difficult position; Ursula Le Guin has been my favorite author since I was 10 years old, and I find much of the basis for my thought and philosophy and feeling and morality reflected in her work, and I’ve taken much comfort from it.

    It seems unfortunate, then, to find her trivializing a precept I’ve come to hold dear, with the same satirical defense that industrially-farmed bacon addicts use: vegetables have feelings too!

    While it is obvious that the cycle of life involves both living and dying, and that the death of a plant should not be, karmically, all that different from the death of a pig, to dismiss in such flippant manner the idea that there is an inherent morality in how we treat life similar to ourselves, with nerve nets and brains and offspring and the capacity to love, is disappointing to me.

    I thought you knew right from wrong, Ms. Le Guin. Killing a deer for food may not be wrong, any more than killing a sweet pea is wrong; but taking a baby calf from its mother 2 days after birth, killing it if it is male, and taking the milk intended for that baby cow – that is wrong. It’s not complicated, really. Just a matter of seeing the proper place of things.

    • Sara, but think about it another way: assuming that from now on people stop interfering with cows and let them go back to nature (leaving aside a non-trivial question where “in nature” there would be space for such number of animals), would their population increase or decrease? I bet it would decrease, simply because the protection we offer to cows hugely exceeds the pressure which we put on them in terms of killing and restricting their freedom. It is perhaps even worse – as soon as we stop to draw benefits from cows they will share the fate of other big mammals, meaning: they will be threatened with extinction due to destruction of habitats.

      Sure, many people would prefer short and miserable life in freedom to safety and comfort in captivity. But cows are not human. If they suffer, they suffer from bad feeding (for example when they are forced to consume corn which they do not digest well), from being stuffed with antibiotics and hormones, from being kept in bad conditions or killed in a cruel way. It is definitely does no harm and deserves respect if you refrain from eating meat for moral reasons. It is much less clear to me whether it is still OK when you become judgemental based on your personal convictions. But to be clear: Ursula K. Le Guin also is unfair, prejudiced and judgemental, sometimes. This happens to every human being:

    • Hey Sara, If I may offer an alternative perspective on what Le Guin has argued here to the perspective which you have presented: the people to whom you refer, those people who use flippantly and for comic effect the statement that ‘vegetables have feelings’, do not genuinely believe that plants have feelings. Neither do they believe that non-human animals have any feelings that matter. The desired effect of their statement rests upon the premise that any consideration of non-human sentience must, by definition, be ridiculous. As I understand it, Le Guin does not say this: she argues the exact opposite. She criticises BOTH the position that non-human animals lack sentience, and ALSO the vegan position that extends sentience to some beings – those animals most like humans – but not to other beings. In both of these two positions which Le Guin criticises, predation represents an essential evil; both positions claim it to be degrading for any sentient being to become food for another being. For vegans, holding this position thus hinges on an ideology of exclusion; the belief that plants have no sentience or moral standing, that they are beneath us, and therefore that we can do as we wish with them. This replicates the same dualism that once placed non-human animals beneath our consideration. Central to this remains the conviction that human-beings are themselves outside of the food-chain. We live within culture; the brutality of nature lies somewhere over there. The West winces at the supposed indignity of the worm-eaten corpse. And so Western history has been preoccupied with attempts to escape the material ‘condition’, whether that be through the salvation of an objective and otherworldly God, or through the ‘liberating’ Scientific Revolution of Reason and Progress.

      I understand Le Guin to be saying that we must reject the dualism and recognise that we human-beings are also ecologically emplaced beings; persons among persons, both eater and eaten. This demands ethical relationships, and does not by any means countenance the sado-dispassionate reduction of, and horrendous cruelty to, animal lives, which industrial factory farming relies upon.

      • Marcus! I thanked Tatiana above, I now have to thank you. I no longer feel confounded–the point of this post is now clear to me. I am a bit in awe of you that you got it, and were able to explain it so clearly. It took your explaining it, especially in the comment I am replying to, for me to get it–emotionally it wasn’t clear to me.

        It is an interesting think piece. And I read what you had to say about the practical implications of seeing plants as participants in an ecosystem we are a part of, of the implications of non-dualism and the need, I guess, to respect the ecosystem above all.

        But I don’t think the humor-as-displacement worked for me. I guess I’m not ready to joke about this. But then, I guess I didn’t get the joke.

        I didn’t have the intended reaction–I think–but I did have a reaction!

    • @Sara:

      I read the essay much as you did, although I did recognize it as satire, albeit of a fairly vapid kind, which is rare for UKL. (I do feel compelled to add that I found Marcus’ claim that UKL is not seriously proposing the thesis that plants feel pain somewhat bizarre, given the defense he himself offers above of just that position. But that is another matter not worth pursuing further.)

      So I was doubly pained: not only was one of my favorite writers and moral exemplars denigrating an ethical position I (and many of her fans) hold dear, she was also engaging in some fairly shallow reasoning, uncharacteristically.

      For what it’s worth, I share your viewpoint on animal suffering, and UKL’s essay did not change that, nor will the claim that plants have feelings and can sense pain, for the reasons I make plain in my rebuttal to UKL. My critique of the essay and the reasoning it contains are above, as are the replies and counters from Marcus and K-k, so if you’re inclined to peruse those, go ahead.

      As you can see from that exchange, smart people can disagree about these things. And as K-k points out, even someone as smart and compassionate and insightful as UKL can be unfair and mean-spirited on occasion. We’re all human. I’ll forgive her, and you should, too. Anyone who writes books as amazing as hers deserves plenty of slack.

      Hang in there.

      • Hey, JS–Are you the JS who’s vegan, and found this post to be “rather weak tea”? I wanted to say something to you but didn’t, because I’d already written what felt like an embarrassingly lengthy amount. I really related to what Tatiana, and you, and Sara wrote. (I was momentarily also quite affected by what Marcus had to say, because his “take” on LeGuin’s position in this blog post seemed so
        strikingly consistent with her outlook as represented in her novels. But in the end I think his insights aren’t actually supported by this particular text.)

        Anyway, this may seem lame–I hope not–but I just wanted to thank you for your sincere comments, and, also, for being vegan. It’s not a step I’ve taken, but it’s a commitment I deeply admire. I can understand what you’re saying about militancy being counterproductive. Luckily, the vegans and vegetarians I’ve encountered have all been quite down-to-earth and non-confrontational. You and they have been examples for me of how to live a life based on compassion. That feels to me to be a very moving and compelling ongoing commitment. Perhaps there are other paths with integrity–I hope so–but yours seems like a position that requires effort and sacrifice and an unwillingness to ignore animal suffering. And, although the issues related to plants and their experiences raised by this post and the commenters strike me as both interesting and important, it also seems to me a bit dangerous or self-indulgent to engage in debates that allow us to minimize our knowledge that factory-farmed animals (especially) do suffer. It’s so easy for all of us to go on taking no action and making no new choices. A post by a talented, compassionate writer that encourages us to humorously congratulate ourselves for complacency seems… mildly unfortunate.

        I guess I’m saying that before I even made it to bed the day I read this, it was quite clear to me that this post IS, as you described it, “weak tea”! I asked a friend who (whom?) I respect what they thought–they said, “It sounds like Le Guin had an annoying encounter with a vegetarian recently.” I want to hasten to say that I have no idea if that is true or not–I just am quoting that reaction because it resonated with me. The idea of this being a snarky rebuttal feels right–it does accurately represents to me, after reflection, where the emotional and intellectual level of this piece is at. And, as you say–everyone’s allowed to be human, even mean-spirited, upon occasion. I guess I wasn’t quite prepared for an idol to act snarkily–it’s healthy for me to allow my idols to step off their pedestals and join us in our smelly, messy humanity.

        Although ultimately I feel rather disappointed in the piece I’m not sorry I spent time reflecting on it, or on the comments it inspired–I feel like I (re)realized how deeply I have been affected, and my actions altered, by others’ words. I’ve read several of Le Guin’s posts before and have never been stopped in my tracks and forced to comment. I am glad my attention was grabbed and I found myself motivated to thank her… and to read what you and others said, and to have those words stay with me for a few days. Thank you for your sincerity!

        And, even if it’s lame–your veganism. 😀

        I think you’re right and that smart people can disagree. I like reading what smart, caring people have to say. But I am most deeply affected when I’m in a position to witness those people DOING
        something to make the world better.

        I follow a few blogs, but none of the commenters are as deeply engaged and as thorough as the commenters here. I appreciate that, as well.

        I hope you “hang in there”, too, and keep commenting!


        • Crap–rereading what I wrote, I realized, it sounds like I was saying veganism is lame, rather than what I meant–that perhaps I’m lame for thanking you for it.

          Oops. Hopefully my overall meaning and intentions were clear.

      • @ JS,

        Just to clarify: I did NOT say that Le Guin was insincere about plant sentience. From what I understand, she’s quite sincere, and what she has to say on the topic seems to me to be connected to recent developments within the plant sciences (especially, for example, with the work of Anthony Trewavas, Frantisek Baluska, Daniel Chamovitz, and others) as well as within the fields of philosophy and ecological and biological ethics (The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology; Michael Marder; Matthew Hall; Val Plumwood, et al).

        While not directly about plants, Val Plumwood’s article ‘Animals and Ecology: Towards a Better Integration’ makes stimulating reading for those concerned with ecology and the ethics of food: https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CCcQFjAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fdigitalcollections.anu.edu.au%2Fbitstream%2F1885%2F41767%2F3%2FVegpap6%2520%2520.pdf&ei=EZc9UKHYLeeViAf9pIG4Cg&usg=AFQjCNFck8yUgqXWAGKinzuZ_2Q8nTVF3A

  13. I’ve read this blog post a couple of times, and the comments; as someone who’s been both vegetarian and not, and will probably occupy both spaces off and on again if I live long enough, this is something I’ve wrestled with a long time, and will longer. Is tofu created from soybeans preferable to local grass-fed beef, if the tofu involves corporate farming practices, maybe including exploitative labor and exposure to poisons for humans? But when Marcus writes, “I understand Le Guin to be saying that we must reject the dualism and recognise that we human-beings are also ecologically emplaced beings; persons among persons, both eater and eaten. This demands ethical relationships, and does not by any means countenance the sado-dispassionate reduction of, and horrendous cruelty to, animal lives, which industrial factory farming relies upon,” that comes as close as anything to expressing what I take away from the blog posting, and the wider debate. Adopting a diet based on avoiding death seems to me, as Ms. LeGuin’s blog entry implies, not worth worrying about: we all die, we all eat, we are all eaten (and one has to wonder even about the plants subsisting on the byproducts of the warm death of stars.) But adopting a diet based on reducing pointless, gratuitous suffering and/or the objectification of what we eat, that makes sense to me. Avoiding factory-farmed food as much as we can in favor of food whose sufferings we have some chance of overseeing: worth doing. Reducing (or, as the case allows and the conscience dictates, eliminating) our meat consumption because of the environmental repercussions of meat, or the difficulties of identifying and avoiding the more-tortured variety: worth doing. Following our individual consciences as far as and by what means we may: worth doing. Kidding ourselves that there’s life without death, or that death is a total violation of living things’ lives, or that if we can only identify some category of living things without feeling, we can eat without guilt: there, if you like, is some pointless suffering, for us. It’s the understanding that we are living on other life which, maybe, gives a point to such customs as saying grace, giving thanks. The guilt and the gratitude, the regret and the delight, they’re the same; neither requires treating what feeds us as object rather than subject. It’s a bittersweet green world.

  14. To be decent satire the central idea needs to be original. But most people have already heard this argument many times. Just not from someone they had had a high opinion. 🙁

  15. As emphryio notes, this is an old saw that vegetarians have heard many times. My usual response to what amounts to taking the idea of empathy to its most logical extreme is to take the idea of callousness to its most logical extreme: Vegetarianism is ridiculous and there is no reason not to kill and eat everything we want to. I got tired of my neighbors dog barking and I was hungry so I decided to kill two birds with one stone, why not? By the way, Ursula, Pard is looking pretty tasty these days. And really if you want to be environmentally aware shouldn’t you eat the animals who have obviously overpopulated and degraded their environment. It seems like Johnathon Swift wrote some kind of satirical essay about that, what did he call it again?

    • You seem to be suffering from reductionism, John. Acknowledging the edibility and the ethical considerability of both animals and plants has never justified indiscriminate eating. The problem lies with associating edibility with degradation, and the concomitant need to locate an outclass of beings beneath consideration. I find Shagbark Hickory enlightening on this point:

      ‘For most or all American Indians food (plant as well as animal) is kin. Relationships to plants and animals as, on the one hand, food and, on the other hand, kin creates a tension which is dealt with mythically, ritually, and ceremonially, but which is never denied. It is this refusal to deny the dilemma in which we are implicated in this life, a refusal to take the way of bad faith, moral supremacy, or self-deception which constitutes a radical challenge to our relationships to our food. The American Indian view that considerability goes “all the way down” requires a response considerably more sophisticated than those we have seen in the West, which consist either in drawing lines of moral considerability in order to create an out-group, or in constructing hierarchies of considerability creating de facto out-groups in particular cases’.

  16. Seriously? Ursula Le Guin, who wrote She Unnames Them, makes fun of vegetarians? Ursula Le Guin, whom I admired for over thirty years, is not the saint who writes about strange creatures and loves them, but she makes fun of people who feel compassion for them? It actually hurts me.