Tag Archives: objections to animal rights

Plant Sentience

Occasionally, vegans encounter the claim that plants are sentient as a kind of objection to going vegan. The uninformed reasoning suggests that since ‘all life’ is sentient, it doesn’t matter what we eat. Vegans have three replies to this: 1) accept the premise that plants are sentient (no matter how offensive to common sense it is) and argue from there; 2) deny that plants are sentient; or 3) reply with both 1) and 2), as I intend to do here.
First Reply: Plants Are Sentient; Therefore, Go Vegan

Let’s put science and common sense on hold for a couple of minutes and assume for argument’s sake that plants are sentient. Not only that, but let’s take it all the way to absurdity and assume that plants are the most sentient life on Earth.Even if it’s true that plants are the most sentient life on Earth, veganism would still be the minimum standard of decency.This follows from the simple fact that animals are reverse protein factories, consuming multiple times the protein in plant food that they produce in protein from their flesh and bodily fluids. Cows consume from 9 to 13 times, and pigs 5 to 7 times, the protein they produce, depending on diet and confinement factors. Chickens consume 2 to 4 times the protein they produce, also depending on diet and confinement factors. So the more we’re concerned about the ‘sentience’ of plants, the less we want to contribute to the staggering inefficiencies of cycling plants through animals, and the more reason we have to go vegan to reduce both animal and plant ‘suffering’.Second Reply: Plants Aren’t Sentient; Therefore, Go Vegan

Let’s now examine the idea that plants are sentient and see why people might believe, contrary to common sense, that plants are sentient, and where they might go wrong.

Equivocation on Sentience

To start with, let’s look at the meaning of the word sentience, because equivocation on the meaning of sentience is often a source of confusion. The definition of sentience in standard usage is an organism’s capacity to experience sensations and emotions. A non-standard definition of sentience, introduced by Robert A. Freitas Jr., and used in the so-called “sentience quotient” (SQ), is the relationship between the estimated information processing rate (measured in bits per second) of each individual processing unit, the weight or size of a single unit, and the total number of processing units. [1]

When a claim is made that plants are ‘sentient’, it is helpful to ask in what sense the claim is being made. Under the SQ definition, plants are ‘sentient’ in that they have an (extremely low) SQ value, but this low SQ value says nothing about sentience under the standard definition. Consciousness sufficient to support experiential sentience almost certainly requires a sufficiently high SQ value in addition to other neuronal properties, neither of which, for example, do computers and plants possess. [2]

Computers have an SQ value that is several orders of magnitude higher than all plants; and animals, including humans, have an SQ value that is up to several orders of magnitude higher than all computers. If computers can’t experience sensations and emotions, then it is almost certainly impossible that plants can, given plants’ extremely low SQ value and a non-neuronal information processing system. As such, it is unreasonable to believe that plants are sentient under the standard (non-SQ) definition.

Plants Are Complex

Another source of confusion regarding plants that leads some people to speculate that they are sentient is that plants are highly evolved and complex organisms that ‘react’ to their environment in surprising ways, especially in larger time scales than we perceive in everyday life. Some plants ‘react’ to insects by releasing deterrent or poisonous chemicals. Some plants release chemicals to deter other plants from growing near them. Some plants are either aggressive or passive in root development depending on whether or not they are around their own species. The Venus Flytrap catches and consumes insects when insects come in contact with tiny hairs that trigger the trap to close.

The confusion arises when the assumption is made that such plant ‘behavior’ is caused by the plants “subjectively experiencing the world through sense data” rather than by insentient hormonal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes.

The scientific principle of parsimony strongly suggests that we shouldn’t postulate a complex explanation for phenomena when a simpler explanation will suffice. When autonomic systems in mammals, such as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the reproductive system at the level of the ‘behavior’ of sperm in the presence of an egg appear to be reacting ‘subjectively, consciously and intentionally’ to perpetuate either themselves or their host organism, we don’t assume that these systems are sentient independently of their host organism and acting volitionally. We recognize that there are insentient hormonal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes that cause various ‘behaviors’ and events to take place. The development of these insentient processes can be explained by tens and hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection, where hundreds of billions of small, genetic mutations and combinations survived or failed to survive based on how adaptive they were. We should apply the principle of parsimony in our assessment of the causes of plant ‘behavior’ similarly.

Sentience and Neurobiology

Neuroscientists have positively confirmed the areas of our neurology (brain stem, limbic system, etc) that serve to provide sentience and complex emotion. All vertebrates and at least some non-vertebrate animals have these nervous system components, providing strong positive, empirical evidence that such beings are sentient, and that most of them have highly subjective, emotional lives. Plants do not have any of these neurological components.

Back to Common Sense

Organisms such as humans, dogs, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep look, behave, and move in ways that highly suggest sentience defined as the experience of sensation and emotion. Organisms such as plants look, behave, and stay still (unless the wind is blowing) in ways that highly suggest absolutely no sentience (again, defined as the experience of sensation and emotion). Absent an excellent reason to reject such strong appearances we ought to accept them.

If there is any room for debate and legitimate questions on sentience, it is in the biological continuum between insects and bacteria. Insects such as spiders certainly behave and move in a manner that highly suggests at least some degree of experiential sentience. How much sentience comes in degrees, and how sentient certain organisms like spiders are, are difficult questions. But we know beyond any reasonable doubt that vertebrates are sentient; and we know with a very high degree of confidence that plants are not sentient.


As unconscious entities, plants have no subjective, conscious interest that would be morally relevant to whether we kill them for food or other sufficient reasons (e.g. removing/killing them to build a shelter). We should respect plants in the same sense in which we respect the beauty, complexity, and wonder of insentient nature and natural phenomena in general, which entails reducing our impact on them as much as is reasonable, and not destroying them gratuitously. Our moral obligations regarding plants, however, do not compare in kind to our direct moral obligations to vertebrates, whose sentience and conscious, intentional striving for life and survival is obvious to us. Given this eager striving for life and survival of sentient vertebrates, veganism is the minimum standard of decency.



[1] The SQ spectrum ranges from -70 to about +50 and is computed by the formula SQ=log10(I/M), where I is measured in bits/second and M is the mass of the entire processing unit. An SQ of -70 is computed by dividing one bit by the age of the Universe in seconds (10E18 seconds), and dividing that result by the mass of the Universe (10E52 kg). The upper limit of +50 is imposed by the laws of quantum mechanics (see the link to the article below for more information).

Humans have an SQ of +13. The mass of a human neuron is about 10E-10 kg and one neuron can process 1000-3000 bit/s, resulting in +13. Nonhuman animals, from insects to mammals, are said to range from +9 to +13. Computers range from +6 to +9. Plants are said to range from -2 to +1 (the Venus Fly Trap being +1). It is important to note that these are logarithmic values, so that a difference of 5 points is 5 orders of magnitude (i.e. vastly) different.

It should be noted that SQ does not equal sentience under the standard definition of sentience. It’s possible, and even likely, that certain non-human beings could be far more sensitive to certain pain (especially in certain body parts) than humans are, even though they have a lower average SQ. SQ measures only informational processing efficiency, not pain sensitivity, which is dependent on many more factors. We need a sufficiently high SQ to feel pain, which all vertebrates have, but once that high SQ is reached, the other factors affecting pain sensitivity (such as number and sensitivity of nerve endings in certain body areas, etc) have as much or substantially more influence. In some ways, many non-human beings may be far more sensitive to physical and psychological pain than humans are, and that’s one more thing that makes what we do to sentient non-humans so tragic.

The information on SQ came from this article, and if you are interested, there is much more elaboration on SQ in it. Most of the factual details in the above calculations are not source-referenced in the article; however, I did verify the magnitude of the age of the Universe in seconds (quick calculation based on the estimated age of the Universe being about 13.7 billion years) and the mass of the Universe. I also verified the calculations of stated SQ values given the facts presented.

If anyone has good source-references on other facts (or corrections of such facts) presented here regarding SQ (such as the average mass of a human neuron), I’d be glad to update this brief essay with them.

[2] Plants process information via hormones, not neurons. Computers process information via integrated electronic circuitry in semiconductors. Neither hormones nor integrated circuits are known to be capable of producing a subjective experience of sensations. When computer touch screens are activated, for example, the ‘behavior’ of the computer results from programs being objectively and unconsciously carried out via the integrated circuits on the semiconductor devices. The computer is not ‘subjectively aware’ of anything.

Comments Off on Plant Sentience

Filed under objections to animal rights, objections to veganism, plant sentience

Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?

Last week’s essay, ”Contrasting Harms”, was dedicated to the issue of contrasting the harms between vegan and animal agriculture populations, and found that 1) in feeding equal populations, any system of animal agriculture would be significantly more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, and 2) the current animal agriculture system is unimaginably more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, particularly in the degree of cruelty involved, but also in the number of deaths involved in each system.This essay will directly address the claim of some animal exploitation advocates that since 1) vegans consume grains, soybeans, corn, and other crops, and 2) crop production causes field animals to die, that 3) vegans cause animal deaths, and 4) are therefore violating the rights of animals.

A Comparative Analogy in Human Rights

On American highways and roads we inadvertently, but predictably kill an average of 38,000 human beings annually. This annual average of approximately 38,000 human deaths is as reliable and predictable as the change of seasons. Although we try to keep this number “as low as reasonably possible” through reasonable measures, such as speed limits, seatbelts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes, we do not take stringent measures to eliminate a majority of those 38,000 highway deaths, such as reducing the speed limit from the range of 55 to 75 miles per hour (88 – 120 kph) to the range of 35 to 50 miles per hour (56 – 80 kph) using either mandatory engine governors and/or extremely heavy fines or jail time for even moderate speeding. Are we violating human rights by only taking reasonable instead of stringent measures to prevent these fatal accidents? Most, if not all of us, would say no, there are no human rights violations inherent in our current highway and motor vehicle system, even if we inadvertently, but predictably kill 38,000 random humans annually, and even if we only take reasonable measures instead of stringent measures to prevent these deaths.

Let’s compare the “inadvertent motor vehicle fatalities” situation (“Situation A”) given above with another situation, which we’ll call the “prisoner execution” situation (“Situation B”). Situation B is as follows: To reduce the financial and economic burden of housing prisoners and to rid the country of its most violent sector, both for short-term relief of the violent burden and as a long-term “social improvement” program, we have adopted a policy of executing 38,000 prisoners annually, with the 38,000 to come from the prisoners with the most jail time left to serve. As the prison population declines due to our new execution program, the policy will eventually be tapered down from “38,000 prisoner executions no-matter-what” to executing anyone convicted of a crime normally garnering a sentence of greater than or equal to 4 years in prison. Of course, many of these prisoners will not have murdered anyone and will be receiving a punishment greater than their crime, but we anticipate that it will have positive deterrent and “social improvement” effects on society. Also, there will come a point when we’re killing far less prisoners than 38,000 per year. In addition to that, we kill 38,000 innocent people on our highways annually because of our lax driving restrictions, so why not kill not-as-innocent prisoners?

What’s the problem with Situation B? The problem is most of us would call this prisoner execution policy a very serious human rights violation.

Why do we come to different conclusions about human rights violations in the above two situations? In both situations, we can clearly foresee, with virtually no doubt, that 38,000 humans will be killed as a result of our policy. In both situations, the economic, social, and/or practical gains are significant.

There are at least a few reasons we come to different conclusions with regard to human rights in these two different situations, and they are as follows:

1) In Situation A, the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation B, the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation A, the bad consequence of 38,000 traffic fatalities is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing higher speed limits” is not “to kill more drivers.” By contrast, in Situation B, the bad consequence of 38,000 prisoner fatalities is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes”. Our intent in our policy of “executing prisoners” is “to kill prisoners.” The dead prisoners will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our executions.

3) In Situation A, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of “speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. The higher speed limits themselves bring about the good consequence. The 38,000 annual traffic fatalities – which we are also taking reasonable measures to prevent from being higher – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation B, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of the 38,000 annual prisoner executions. The prisoner executions themselves bring about the good consequences.

A Parallel Comparative Analogy in Animal Rights

Because of our policy of allowing speeds in excess of 35 to 50 mph on our highways, we inadvertently, but predictably kill thousands of humans. In the same way, because of our policy of allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops, we inadvertently, but predictably kill millions of wild field animals.

We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are willing to incur the crop production fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are willing to incur the traffic fatalities on our highways. We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are unwilling to incur intentional slaughterhouse fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are unwilling to incur the prisoner execution fatalities. The reasons stated above for the human rights case are the exact same reasons stated below in the animal rights case for easy comparison. We’ll call the inadvertent crop production fatalities “Situation C” and the intentional slaughterhouse fatalities “Situation D”.

1) In Situation C, the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation D, the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation C, the bad consequence of millions of crop production fatalities (to feed hundreds of millions of people) is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing crop production using machines” is not “to kill more animals”. By contrast, in Situation D, the bad consequence of billions of animal deaths is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. Our intent in our policy of “slaughtering animals” is “to kill animals.” The dead animals will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our slaughterhouse operations.

3) In Situation C, the good consequence of obtaining economically affordable vegan food for hundreds of millions of people is a direct result of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. The machines themselves bring about the good consequence. The millions of wild field animal fatalities – which we should also take reasonable measures to reduce – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation D, the (so-called) “good” consequence (and perhaps bad health consequence) of obtaining animal products for consumption is a direct result of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. The slaughterhouse operation itself brings about the consequences.

The three reasons why Situations A and C are not rights violations can also be applied (and are applied) to rights questions involving self-defense, just war theory, triage, and health care economics. Crop production deaths are merely another paradigm case among many analogous cases where we accept regrettable consequences due to various other factors, such as intent, direct causation, and significantly worse alternative consequences.

It should be clear by now that if animal exploitation advocates are going to accuse vegans of animal rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen crop production deaths, they certainly ought to lead the way in criticizing our society’s human rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen traffic fatalities. If animal exploitation advocates think vegans should avoid machine-harvested crops, then they should literally ”walk” the talk and avoid modern rapid (and potentially lethal) transportation, not to mention go vegan and grow their own food manually. Of course, if they are reasonable and care about the rights of animals, the only imperative is to be vegan.

Comments Off on Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?

Filed under animal rights, moral philosophy, objections to animal rights, objections to veganism

Understanding the Anti-Animal Rights Viewpoint

Preface added January 25, 2010: This essay is exclusively about the viewpoint of people who actively advocate for animal exploitation. For an essay that explores, among other things, why people exploit animals without necessarily advocating for exploitation, see the more comprehensive (and more interesting) essay entitled Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality.It is often said that we should understand the other side’s viewpoint in disagreements. I think we can agree that this is good advice in all disagreements, regardless of the topic or the participants. In this essay, I explain my general understanding of animal exploitation advocates’ viewpoint. I limit the essay to the viewpoint of advocates of exploitation as opposed to those who exploit, but generally remain silent on the issue of whether we are justified in exploiting, harming, and killing innocent nonhuman beings. There are additional considerations regarding those who exploit, but do not actively advocate exploitation, which I will not address here. Prior to going vegan over 4 years ago, although I never advocated for exploitation, I had many years of experience in participation in animal exploitation through food and other purchases. I believe these years of experience provide me with a reasonable basis for understanding and assessing the exploiters’ viewpoint, whether advocated for or not.

Almost all animal exploitation advocates like to consume and are in the habit of consuming the flesh (i.e. meat) and bodily fluids (e.g. milk, cheese and eggs) of nonhuman beings. Many animal exploitation advocates also like to shoot nonhuman beings for fun, experiment on them for money (ostensibly also for “scientific” reasons), hang on the wall or wear parts of nonhuman beings, use them for entertainment, or make money off the numerous ways we exploit them. These uses, individually and collectively, are doubtlessly the primary, if not the only, motive driving the arguments of animal exploitation advocates. Exploitation advocates all have one thing in common: self-interest and personal gain, no matter how great or trivial.

Animal exploitation advocates start with the notion, “I want to [fill in the blank: hunt, eat meat, consume dairy products, profit from exploitation, etc.]” and work from that self-interested idea to search for premises to support a conclusion “justifying” the desired use. Included in the premises found by exploitation advocates are some of the common cultural prejudices handed down to us from philosophers such as Rene Descartes, who told us that nonhumans are literally “automata” or “God’s machines” and Immanuel Kant, who told us that, because nonhumans are not as “rational” as us, nonhumans are “things” (never mind how irrationally humans often actually think and behave; and not to mention the complete irrelevancy of rational capacity in distinguishing beings from things). The cultural prejudices are even embedded in our language when we refer to nonhumans as “it” (even when we know the gender) instead of he or she and “that” instead of who. Well, obviously if nonhumans are really mere “automata” or “things”, then we certainly have no moral obligations to them. Under this distorted view, nonhuman beings are no different from rocks, tables, and trees. There are other dubious, even absurd, premises selected for their fine fit with the desired self-interested conclusion that nonhuman beings are morally irrelevant, but status as “things” is the most common and popular, both implicitly and explicitly, when animal exploitation advocates are working backwards from the assumed conclusion to the “premises.”

Why do people sometimes hold onto such distortions of reality as the notion that nonhuman beings are “things”? Why do some of us so blatantly ignore the evidence of sentience and moral worth? I think part of the reason can be described by an extreme form of the doctrine of William James called The Will to Believe. “The Will to Believe” is derived from James’ pragmatism whereby the epistemological standard of truth of a belief, when we lack evidence, is measured by how well it benefits us to hold the belief as true. If this is our standard of truth, then according to James’ pragmatism, we can ignore a lack of evidence regarding a self-benefiting belief and “will” ourselves to hold that belief. Animal exploitation advocates take James’ “will to believe” further than James by ignoring contradictory evidence regarding a self-benefiting belief. How much we are willing to ignore contradictory empirical evidence, such as the morally relevant similarities of human and nonhuman beings, or the similarity of dogs to pigs, to hold a belief that personally benefits us is a fairly good measure of how radical our self-interested dishonesty is. [1]

Intellectual honesty is what has led and will lead to greater social justice and moral progress in the world, whether the victims of injustice are human or nonhuman beings. If animal exploitation advocates embraced intellectual honesty by placing themselves in the inevitable and unenviable position of being thrown into the world as a nonhuman being subject to the cruel and exploitive whims of humans through no fault of their own and worked from that premise, applying a fair version of the Golden Rule and letting the conclusions result from the intellectually honest premises instead of letting bogus premises result from preconceived conclusions, then many animal exploitation advocates would change their minds, go vegan, and stand on solid epistemological and moral ground.

So it is not difficult to see the world from the exploitation advocates’ viewpoint, or the violent criminal’s viewpoint, or the tyrant’s viewpoint. All we need to do is place our self-interest at the center of our criteria for “determining” truth and reality to the exclusion of others’ interest, contradictory evidence, and intellectual honesty, and we’ve arrived at the essence of the exploitation advocates’ viewpoint.

[1] I have edited this essay as of Wednesday, November 14, 2007, in light of a misrepresentation of William James’ views in the original essay pointed out by a concerned reader. The edit is explained more fully in the next essay, also dated November 14, 2007. I apologize for the error.

Comments Off on Understanding the Anti-Animal Rights Viewpoint

Filed under advocacy, animal rights, anti-animal rights, objections to animal rights