Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As we consumed our turkey and various veggie dishes, the subject of furs came up. Fur coats seem to be coming back into fashion a bit, but fashions have changed. After we old folks discussed whether it is economic to re-tailor old floor-length furs into shorter coats or stoles, I happened to ask my daughter whether she might want a fur trimmed coat for the upcoming gift-giving season. We have yet to come up with a “big holiday gift” for her and I’d seen some fur-trimmed leather vests at the mall that looked great. “No way”, was her response. Not even with fake fur? (I would probably be too cheap to get her the real thing in any case.) No, it’s just too politically incorrect for her and I can understand that. Popularity is important to our society, so important that it creates its own rational. So forget that we were consuming a murdered bird, that we all had no objection to wearing leather, and that the “fur” would probably come out of an oil well.
I’m not going to argue that killing animals for their fur should be moral. My daughter distinguishes killing for food from killing for more frivolous reasons and she has a point. My point, made at the table yesterday and the the assembled throngs of you reading this today, is that killing plants should be even less moral than killing animals for whatever reason. So maybe the real sin was that we had just murdered a wide assortment vegetables for our dinner.
Ticks and Fruitarians
My argument is that plants are the real life on earth and we animals are all just parasites evolved to steal from them. When you think about it, all animals on earth are not much more than ticks, sucking the life out of plants for our own living.
Like many people, I am pretty squeamish about killing. However, we live in a rural area and often find ticks on our dog. I always kill them immediately and without question. Killing parasites seems moral because it is either them or us. A tick’s “profession” (blood sucking) is so immoral that they don’t deserve to live.
But in a way, all animals are tick-like. We animals cannot produce our own food. Only plants can do that. Photosynthesis is the energy source that drives almost all life on our planet, and without it all animal life would quickly die of starvation. So it seems to me that plants are the more noble form of life. They are earth’s creative force, the producers of our livelihood. Plant life is the only self-sufficient life and the rest of us are far less deserving parasites. So isn’t killing plants even less moral than killing animals?
Q. If killing plants is murder, what can we do?
A. Have Congress declare war on our harvest, since war legalizes murder.
The idea that killing plants might be murder is not new. Beyond Vegetarians and beyond even Vegans (who consume no animal products at all), there are Fruitarians who eat only what has already dropped from the plant. So Fruitarians are not killing plants for their food. That’s a pretty unpopular idea, but not mine. After all, by stealing their fruit we are effectively killing plants’ offspring. Seeds are alive too and we might even claim they are the most important phase of life.
The Moral High Ground
You can argue that plants are dependent on us just as we depend on them. That neither holds the moral high ground on the great circle of life. Photosynthesis requires carbon dioxide to manufacture food. Plus it pollutes the air with oxygen. Without animals evolved to burn the oxygen and recycle it into more carbon dioxide for the plants, most photosynthesis would stop and the plants that depend on it would die. But I think that is just a detail. Animals long ago evolved as parasites of earlier solar-powered life. Without doubt, both plants and animals then evolved further to cope with each other and with the other’s by products. But that does not change the fact plants are ultimately the producers in nature’s society. They came first and could probably have survived nicely without animal life. Yet even after billions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human invention, we utterly depend on plant life and would quickly die without it. Maybe we could make food from petroleum in a pinch, but of course even petroleum was ultimately created by plant life. Animals and even humans are ultimately just non-productive parasites.
But ticks are worse, right? They don’t even have the courtesy to wait until something is dead before eating it. Yet in another way, ticks might be a more moral form of parasite than vegetarians. They are only stealing life from other animals. But maybe animal life is already stolen life. Stealing from a thief is usually considered more moral than regular theft. If you accept that killing plants is another kind of murder, then ticks are morally the Fruitarians of the world. They only consume the “dropped fruit” that animals have already killed. And they don’t even kill seeds.
Plus unlike meat, most vegetables are almost as fully alive when eaten as they were before being picked. Plants may be superior to us in that way too, since they are harder to kill. Most people would just claim that they are less alive in the first place. Maybe so if you just value blood and brains. But maybe all life has an equal claim to go on living.
What Is Murder?
So should we all just give up and die, leaving plant life to reign supreme and unmolested? No, the purpose of life is to live (and also to come up with the occasional new but unpopular idea). Life is in competition with other life and plants kill too. We must all come to grips with that necessity and decide what is murder and what is not.
We tend to want to label killing of beings like ourselves as murder. We identify with animals and especially fellow mammals a lot more than our more distant relatives in the plant kingdom. Animals must feel and think much like we do, and killing them seems much like killing ourselves. But that is just our parochial viewpoint and not a moral absolute. Plants may not be nearly as smart as us, but I bet that they don’t want to die either.
Plus our automobiles are powered by long-dead plants in the form of oil. What could be nobler than that?
Maybe you claim that I am just trying to rationalize eating meat (and possibly buying furs). But I am arguing that there are no fine moral lines to be drawn. Killing may seem wrong, but unfortunately it cannot be absolutely wrong unless we believe that our own existence is absolutely wrong. To exist is to kill, at least if you are an animal. So the line we draw for murder is somewhat arbitrary. I believe we might as well stick with the time-tested definition. Killing is only murder within our own species.