Tim Maly, of “cyborgs & architects” blog Quiet Babylon, has written a piece as part of the trans-web Food for Thinkers series; it’s title is “The Cyborg Ethics of Eating,” and it has some problems. (It’s not too long, so if you’re going to read this piece, I would absolutely recommend reading that one first.) Starting from the suffering of animals in contemporary, meat-eating food systems, he discusses Jeff McMahan’s idea that predators in nature are immoral and should all be killed, and he uses a quote from Thomas Jefferson that downplays the suffering of the enslaved as merely “transient” in order to suggest that causing suffering in plants may someday be seen as a moral wrong. He then reaches the conclusion that using technological replacements for the eating of food may eventually be required by ethics. This end point is not itself evil, at first glance, but in logical sequence used to reach it ignores the world as itself in favor of extreme abstractions, creating an absurd ethics which defends living beings so vigorously it finds life itself to be morally suspect, an ethical system which condemns those very processes that have lead life on Earth as we know it.
It is also a logical sequence with many flaws of reasoning.
It may be instructive to begin with slavery, which is introduced in quoting Thomas Jefferson’s letters, and compare it to the how animals and plants fare in the contemporary food system. Arguments against killing animals for food are millennia old, but modern factory farms are particularly unethical not because the animals raised in them ultimately die, to be consumed for food, but that the animals are born and live in miserable conditions. Animals on small farms and in the wild will similarly die, perhaps to be eaten for food, just as other members of each species have, since first they evolved. They will move around and eat food they have evolved to eat, instead of being restricted in their movement and force-fed inappropriate meals and antibiotics and growth hormones to compensate for their terribly unhealthy living conditions and to turn them into freakishly modified producers of certain biological goods to be consumed by humans. Similarly, while hard labour could be seen as alien to the basic human condition as a hunter-gatherer, slavery is particularly immoral, and not because those enslaved will work and then will die; most free(r) people also have to work for much of their lives, and all, so far, have died. The moral problem with slavery is that the people enslaved are horribly restricted in their lives, often in conditions far enough from the evolved physical and psychic tolerances and needs of the human organism as to cause great suffering.
Turning now to the idea of “plant suffering,” as supposedly evidenced by chemical distress signals. Animal suffering is not viewed as a moral wrong is not based on the screams of animals, or any other outward signs – otherwise, we might have to think of old, creaky houses as being in pain. Calling the chemical distress signals of plants “screaming” is extravagant and unfounded anthropomorphizing. Maly frames those signals as proof that “plants want to live, too,” but if action taken to sustain biological life is proof of suffering, then plague bacteria must also be considered worthy of ethical consideration, and some thought should be give to a future time when technology may give us both the ability and perhaps the responsibility to wipe out the world’s zooplankton, who have preyed on innocent, photosynthesizing phytoplankton in an aeons-long genocide of simply unimaginable magnitude.
No, in the ethical systems we can actually construct and follow, we are required to consider animal suffering as being to some extent morally comparable to human suffering because we have comparable nervous systems, and, as we know that our sensations, emotions and manifested self-awareness arise from the working of that nervous system, we must be open to the possibility that all of these phenomena are present, at some level of complexity, in animals. (Unless we are to escape to the deus ex machina of, well, a deus.) There is some comparison to be mada between Jefferson’s description of African Americans and the modern view held by many who would dismiss the ethical significance of animal suffering in factory farms. In both cases, the “sensations” of the suffering being are accepted as real but are denied significance on the grounds that they are not part of a larger, meaningful life of the mind. So while I would not, like PETA, suggest that there is an equivalence between human slavery and animal bondage, I would say that there is enough of an analogy to be drawn that I can imagine that at some point in the future, attempts to justify systems of animal exploitation for economic benefit (meat, after all, has never been cheaper) may be seen as offensive just as widely as today attempts to justify slavery are seen to be.
However it is difficult for me to imagine a world in which we could possibly induce that a wheat plant, or a field of wheat plants, has a subjectivity and experiences something that could be understood as suffering when harvested and consumed as food. That’s not to say that plants aren’t fascinatingly active and responsive living beings, but the empathic gap between plant and animal biological systems is simply overwhelming.
Even if this gap was eventually spanned, there is a reason McMahan’s brief dismissal of plant suffering can never be as offensive as Jefferson’s attempt to explain away suffering among enslaved African Americans: recognizing in other human beings the qualities of feeling, thinking and experiencing, is an extremely natural and human thing to do, and was done at Jefferson’s time and, I am willing to assume, at all times before him. Jefferson was rejecting a basic empathic position in order to justify an economic system designed to benefit a few at the expense of many; this is offensive. To empathize, really empathize, with a food crop, however, is a much more complicated mental operation, and with much less precedent. (It is clear that humans evolved to be able to see feelings in other humans, I know of no evidence that we evolved the the ability to see feeling in plants.) McMahan is justifying an economic system that benefits all animal life on the planet Earth at the expense of a very different category of life, it is much harder to take offense at this.
A note, also, on enlightened white males such as Jefferson. While I realize blogs are a place where authors can and should fully inhabit their subjectivity, Maly here is discussing hugely broad ethical issues, and so I think it may be permissible to chide him for universalizing a particular perspective, one that can be attributed to European males, but are not limited to them. Maly declares that
The course of human history is the long slow process of according a greater number of living things status as moral beings owed rights and protections. For the most part, we’ve worked out that women, people of different racial backgrounds, and non-landowners deserve dignity.
To which I have to say – what do you mean WE, white man? “A long slow process of according a greater number of living things status as beings owed rights and protections” might describe, in some loose way, what has been happening, off and on, among many European peoples since the fall of the Roman empire, although it couldn’t be accurately applied to the continent as a whole – the (re)conquest of Muslim Spain by Christian Europeans was a step backwards in this imagined process, and there have been plenty of even more catastrophic revokings of rights and protections in the centuries since, no matter what trend lines we try to draw behind them. Going beyond Europe, the process Maly speaks of might be applied, periodic backsliding forgiven and ignored, to most sedentary, agricultural, ownership-based societies around the world. Each society has made progress in different areas at different speeds, of course – Hindus may be far ahead of many others on the matter of bovine dignity, for example, but in many cases they remain woefully far behind when it comes to the dignity and rights of women. (I don’t mean to make any essentialist statements about the nature of Hindu religion(s), I’m simply saying that rural Hindu culture makes the subcontinent one of the worst places in the world to be born poor and female.)
However I won’t recognize this as a process that describes all of human history. The Arawaks who first met Columbus with open arms had no difficulty recognizing these complete strangers as fellow beings deserving of all the rights and protections they shared amongst themselves. It was the Europeans (who, when history is being drawn as a long slow process from better to worse, are generally considered to be farther along) who had great difficulty discerning that those that they had just met deserved dignity.
It is not only the logic of inevitable progress at work here, but also the logic of inevitable decline. McMahan and Maly both use the environmental damage already done by the human species as a justification for the ideas they present – animal species are going extinct at accelerated rates due to human activity, so why not just selectively eliminate predator species; civilization is increasingly terraforming the planet, so why envision any limit to radical restructurings of Earth’s ecosystem? It’s somewhat odd that, in justifying giving plants ethical consideration as individual organisms, Maly says that plants are “active vigorous participants in the ecosystem,” when he so completely ignores ecology in projecting his post-food cybernetic future. McMahan does the same – when herbivorous animal species no longer have predators, due to hunting, habitat destruction or importation to areas with fewer predators, the results can be so damaging to plant species, other herbivores and the balance of the ecosystem as a whole that people end up having to cull the herbivores, tasking humans with systematic klling that predators had once been doing, free of charge and free from guilt. Maly conceives of an eventual future in which human-cyborgs survive by “converting energy and nutrients directly into sustenance.” Yet the nutrients human bodies require, excepting minerals, are produced by plants; exactly where else should these nutrients come from? Many modern processed foods may appear to never have had anything to do with plant life, but even the most dazzlingly unnatural food products were reassembled from the carbon harvested from food crops, and generally a lot more environmental damage is done by turning food crops into abstracted future nutrients than would occur in the process of growing and consuming a crop. Perhaps organic material could be gathered from dead plants that had lived out their full life spans, but to take this for processing in nutrients for human consumption might simultaneously cause some detritivores to starve to death – also, by these standards, an ethical dilemna.
It should also be pointed out that our civilization is “terraforming” the planet (de-terraforming? terradeforming?) largely because of our energy consumption, and agriculture is a very effective solar energy collection technology. While today this is often combined with fossil fuel inputs, in the form of fertilizers and fuel for machinery and transportation, at a basic level, agriculture is a wonderful way to cover large swaths of land with self-constructing biological machines that collect solar energy and convert it into nutrients that can be directly and efficiently consumed by human beings. To replace such a low-impact energy technology would hardly seem to be doing the Earth a favor. The only scenario I can imagine in which post-food human beings cause less harm to other forms of life than do food-consuming human beings is one in which near-limitless electrical energy produced by fusion power is either used to process inert materials into consumable nutrients, or plugged directly into a newly battery-powered human body.
So, in a future where humans become alchemists with almost infinite sources of power, the idea of going beyond food could become practical, but until then it really remains outside the discussion. Being theoretically feasible, however, does not necessarily make it desirable. One of the principles of contemporary first-world ethical food consumption – eating locally – hopes not just to reduce fossil fuel use in the transportation of food and give economic support to small regional farmers, it also seeks to deepen consumers’ understanding of, and emotional connection to, the production of the food they eat and the ecological systems that make it possible. The provided ethical justification for turning human beings into post-food supermen is to protect both plants and animals from being killed and eaten by people. Yet if purchasing food from a supermarket instead of buying it from a farmer (or being a farmer) leads people to not take into consideration how the plants are grown and the animals live, if it is easier to buy a hamburger every day than to raise and slaughter animals to produce enough meat to eat a hamburger every day, how likely is it that human beings who have removed themselves from the food chain entirely will maintain a higher ethical concern for other life forms? Environmentally destructive practices are already facilitated by an ideology that considers our species to be separate and superior to nature and not dependent on its operations for survival. If that were to actually become true, I find it likely that an involved, stakeholding participant is likely to be more benign than an aloof god. The occupants of the halls of Olympus are rather notorious for their disregard of the rights and dignities of beings below them, and it wasn’t because they ate and drank, but that they didn’t truly require other life forms for survival.
Maly is always an interesting writer to follow, precisely because he allows his speculation and imagination to roam far from conventional present day ideas. Here, however, the ideas fall short both in the scrutiny of their practical basis and the consideration of their ultimate ethical ramifications; the end solution is in many ways more troubling than the original problem. I would offer two explanations for this. As many interesting insights as it produces, the cyborg discourse is born of a teleological view of history in which human enlightenment steadily expands the purview of ethics and technology inevitably solves all problems. The second reason has more to do with emotional motivation. Maly is right when he says that generally, we don’t like being confronted with the realities of how our food is produced, and that most consumers in industrial/post-industrial nations cope through “squeamishly avoidant ignorance.” I don’t know what Maly’s own dietary habits are; this article didn’t give me the impression that he is a practicing vegetarian, but he may well be. Even if he is, his plant-only diet would likely still be unsustainable and destructive in many ways, as my diet is, and the diets of most anyone reading this. Squeamishly avoidant ignorance is not available to Maly, and so he deals with the stresses of being a part of an ethically troubling food system in a different way. He shifts the focus from difficulties in the system as it actually exists, such as the suffering of animals living and dying in factory farms, to hyperbolic concerns with the “chemical screams” of plants, and answers them with presently impossible solutions, thereby excusing the humanity of today with following through with them. This allows us all to get back to speculation and new media, much more and fun and a good deal easier to face.