The Ethics Of Plant-Killing
The Flesh-Eater's Solicitude
By HENRY S. SALT
The Soul or animate being has the care of the inanimate, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing; when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and is the ruler of the universe.-Plato
Although not all of our readers and students adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet, most of them have heard --or even been expected to answer--the question: If plants suffer too, why avoid killing animals? These extracts from an article which appeared in The Vegetarian News London give a satisfactory answer--in substance the same one given so often by Yoganandaji.
It is rather surprising to learn, and on good authority, that the discoveries made by the great botanist, Sir J. C. Bose, showing that plants in their due degree have a heart, are capable of an undreamtOf sensitivity, and can give vocal, though to us inaudible, expression to their "feelings"-that these discoveries are producing doubt and hesitation in some quarters, and even causing the question to be asked whether they do not upset the foundation on which our vegetarian creed is based. If we cannot escape the necessity of killing plants, plants thus highly organized, why, it is asked, should we restrict ourselves even to a vegetable diet-why not kill and eat animals also? It seems to me that a little consideration will show this solicitude, if it really is felt, to be entirely needless, and to be due, in fact, to a complete misunderstanding of the relation in which we vegetarians stand toward the whole problem of diet.
First, it is worth observing that there is nothing new in the idea that plants are thus endowed with hearts and feelings; the novelty lies in the scientific confirmation of what has hitherto been only a surmise of poets and sages . . . . . What the poet instinctively divined, the sage has dimly apprehended; as when Edward Carpenter wrote that the cabbage "may inaudibly scream" when pulled from the ground. The notion, indeed, has been not infrequently used by opponents of diet reform in the hope of thereby making non-flesh eating appear ridiculous. . . .
Now if vegetarians were really thus aiming at perfection, and if they believed it to be an immediate possibility to "take no life" whatsoever, even the lowliest forms, as in the tissues of plants, then certainly they would have cause to be disturbed by Sir J. C. Bose's discoveries; but when did vegetarianism ever involve the holding of such a creed? The aim of a vegetarian has always been, not some distant and at present unattainable ideal, but the actual avoidance of the very gross cruelties associated with the orthodox diet. To be consistent" does not mean that we must attain to perfection; it means that we must do all we can. In diet, as in other matters, the question of degree is all-important; it is not the absolutely best--the ideal, perhaps, of a far future that is demanded of us, but loyalty to the humane ethic which is possible here and now.
For think in what a plight a food reformer would find himself, if he ignored this inevitable limitation--this question of degree. . . . There would be no end of it, at that rate. The immunity of plants being granted, might not some future scientist discover sensibility in still lower forms?* * Sir J. C. Bose also experimented with the response of metals to stimuli. When chloroformed, tin will cease sending out characteristic waves until it recovers; when poisoned, the waves cease entirely and it "dies. "-Editor.
Has not Mr. G. K. Chesterton, a real humorist, already proposed a society for the protection of minerals, and asked the question (for which I personally am grateful to him): "Why should Salt suffer?" It is in fact, a theme for humorous rather than serious treatment, and the most fitting answer to those who put forward the "spare-the-cabbage" argument is to ask them what is their moral objection to cannibalism? If the question of greater or lesser sensibility is to be discarded, the Man may as justly be cooked and eaten as the Ox. If the fact that plants have some sensation justifies the killing of animals who have much more, flesh-eating in its turn might excuse cannibalism.
Conquer Barbarism First
Obviously a recognition of degrees in morals is essential to any right conclusions. There is for us, at present no possibility of avoiding, in some form or other, the taking of life; it is the avoidance of taking life unnecessarily that is our aim; and not of any and all life, but of the higher, the more sensitive, and the more developed. The grosser sorts of barbarism must be the first to be removed. Can that land be deemed a civilized one, in which thousands of persons watch the roasting of an ox in the main street of a town, and compete for "the first slice"? And would it not be absurd for vegetarians who live in an age when such filthy scenes are possible to trouble themselves greatly about the minor sensibilities of plants?
The sum of the whole matter is expressed in a letter of Sir J. C. Bose himself, from which I am permitted to quote. It is a reply to a correspondent who had questioned him about our use of plants for human food. "The cause of humanitarianism," he wrote, "can only be advanced by change of spirit, and not by making fun of people who feel compassion for the suffering of animals, greatly accentuated by terror when they are being done to death. Obviously, plants do not suffer from this terror, their nervous structure, where present, being far more rudimentary." No statement could be more authoritative or more conclusive.
But the fact of our present imperfection does not at all preclude us from looking forward to the future, and to the possibilities of still further humanizing the diet of mankind. It is likely, even certain, that a fruit diet will come more and more into favor; and who can doubt that invention will be busy in foods as in other things?
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