Saturday, January 25th, 2020

Sorry Natalie, Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right.

Published on December 23, 2009 by   ·   38 Comments Pin It

The New York Times recently ran a piece by Natalie Angier called “Sorry Vegans, Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too“. It was categorized under the “Science” section, with the further distinction of “basics“. In other words, the author wants to let us know that making an ethical argument to curtail the science-fiction and horror-movie-like indignities and atrocities that animals endure in exchange for a plant-based diet is flawed because plants want to live – and duh, that’s just basic science.

“…plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.”

That may be true, if it’s aspirations we’re talking about. And following this line of logic, we may as well throw in that lightning does not aspire to illuminate a bulb, a mountain does not aspire to be a car-frame, an island does not aspire to be a tourist destination, or a child does not aspire to get heart disease.

Can you imagine if Angier said “plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a woman aspires to be raped”? It is consistent with this line of logic where no one is safe, and one wrong justifies another. When I was four, I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Eating plants doesn’t make eating animals okay (if eating plants were even an equal “wrong” as Angier suggests). The optimal inner-dialogue she wants us to have upon reading her article goes something like this: “well, if plants are that hell-bent on surviving, what’s the point of trying to spare animals when clearly they are just as deserving of consideration – and we have to eat something, so we may as well just eat what we want because it’s such a big gray area“.

“It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.”

So let’s humor Angier, even though plants are lacking a brain, and even though we know that while someone who is brain-dead (a vegetable), though bio-chemical reactions still persist, does not respond to bodily injury that would typically cause the type of pain most animal advocates seek to alleviate. Let’s say that plants can suffer in a similar way as do people and animals. Let’s just say that ripping a carrot out of the dirt is along the lines of forcibly impregnating (raping?) dairy cows, then tearing the baby away (which is met by hours and days of a howling, distraught mother), sentencing the calf to a veal crate (where he can not even turn around or lie down) and stealing the milk for ourselves. Does the former justify the latter? I don’t want to live in Angier’s world where potentially causing pain justifies certainly causing pain. Mustn’t that also justify inflicting pain upon people? This is a messy, messy road to go down.

I wonder if Natalie Angier is aware of what farmed animals eat? I also wonder if she knows what the ratio of plant-based animal feed converted to meat and dairy is. Or how much land is used to meet the demands of producing animal products? If she did know these things, and she were a vehement “plants’ rights activist” she would still be making the most ethical choice by going vegan because the most plants would be spared, instead of being converted into animal protein and graze-land at a losing ratio.

How about some clarity? Most animal advocates are talking about actively avoiding causing incredible amounts of suffering, ecological devastation, and health and social problems in relation to using animals for food, clothing, research, and entertainment. This can result in legislation, direct action, grassroots activism, lifestyle changes, and other advocacy with the aim of alleviating preventable suffering, decreasing environmental impact, and improving health and human welfare. Natalie needs a lesson in “basics”, herself. Far from the recent, trendy food discourse she invokes exists the response to her confusion, as laid out by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

To frame the moral dilemma in “Killing animals for human food and finery” as being about aspirations is to fail in understanding the agenda of many animal activists. The intention of many vegans I know is not moral purity – yet this consistent misconception isn’t responded to as clearly by animal advocates as it should. It is more often a social justice issue involving individual animals who actively dissent by vocalizing and struggling to escape sources of pain and suffering, defending their young, mourning the death of and separation from family and friends, maintaining a preference for complex and communicative social structures, and seeking out comfort when faced with pain.

Like many critics who consider animal advocates self-righteous cow-huggers, and whose first response to finding out that someone is vegan is typically “well, what’s your belt made out of?“, the author of this article exemplifies this misconception about the purpose of veganism. Is it political? Yes. Is it about moral puritanism? Not usually. Nor is it about preventing death. Of course plants strive to live, but everything living eventually dies. It is about preventing preventable suffering. It is about not choosing the duck or the lamb because they have brains and bodies that register suffering in a way with which we can empathize.

Angier blabs, as if her audience were the confessional:

“I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer.”

If the title itself didn’t make it obvious enough that the purpose of the article was to rationalize her whimsical diet and piss off vegetarians who live in the “moral penthouse”, as Angier refers to it, then the content itself does the job. Angier neither offers insight into her inability to exert self-control in face of cheese and duck, nor does her artless and callow argument to consider the will-to-live of vegetation on same playing field as the suffering endured by animals with consciousness, brains, and nervous systems have any defensible logic. It is riddled with the anthropomorphizing of plants (something of which animal advocates are commonly accused), and it is creepily reminiscent of the joke website VRMM.

“Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl.”

Is it valid to point out that plants fight, cooperate, and evolve to optimize survival, like any other living organism? Sure. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and all living organisms are amazing, complex, and have spent billions of years evolving into performing delicate and not-so-delicate dances with everything around them. Whether homeostasis is the Earth’s aspiration (as proposed by James Lovelock‘s Gaia Hypothesis) or the destruction of everything is the Earth’s Aspiration (as proposed by Peter Ward‘s Medea Hypothesis), or if the Earth or universe even has aspirations are not the issues at hand when we talk about veganism or animal advocacy.

Angier claims “This is not meant as a trite argument“, yet her purpose in writing the article seems as trite as rationalizing her own, flimsy food choices.

Joshua Katcher is the brains and brawn behind The Discerning Brute. He lives in Brooklyn where he is a writer, artist, vegan chef, and television producer.

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Readers Comments (38)

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by GirlieGirlArmy: The NYT can suck it. A response to the ‘plants feel pain’ argument:

  2. beforewidsom says:


    30 years since I went vegetarian and I am still reading moronic points like that.

    Did you hear about the vegan dominatrix?
    She likes to whip potatoes and bust a few nuts.

    Ha. Ha.

    Dumb joke, but much more intelligent than the editorial.

  3. elaine says:

    After reading both articles (this and the one it criticizes), I think both are guilty of language and arguments designed to incite as much as, if not more, to inform. Unfortunately, people are all too often prone to listening more to the stuff that gets all our panties in a proverbial twist than to the stuff that simply gives us more information.

    Natalie’s reporting of the science behind plant adaptability and response to environmental change and even things like touch and sound IS eye-opening; we usually think of plants as well, “just” plants and not particularly prone to things equivalent to “feelings”. (The fact that they respond to touch, as one scientist discussed in her article, gives me pause — it’s a new way of looking at plants, if nothing else.) Her title to her article is, however, totally unfortunate and takes a needless stab at veganism. The point is really in the last sentence: all animals kill something in order to survive. I don’t think we need to get all bent out of shape about that; it’s just true. I think she could have enlightened us all about plant life without making it seem that this information is bound to change vegans’ collective beliefs. It’s not. And I don’t actually think she thinks it should/would. It’s the title of her article, more than the contents, that are inflammatory.

    This article seems to want to make Natalie’s article more offensive than it really was. That, too, is a shame.

  4. Elaine, with all due respect, you clearly didn’t read my article because I make the same points you just did, and respond to specific quotes from the article that are full of misconceptions about veganism.

  5. WELL DONE JOSHUA!! Thanks for posting GG!! I agree w/you wholeheartedly!! After more than a decade of receiving odd & argumentative objections to my vegan lifestyle including arguments such as this, I STILL scratch my head when confronted w/this line of thinking! Clearly our lifestyle choice is about choosing the LEAST AMOUNT OF HARM possible. Clearly there are negative environmental, social & physical impacts imposed on all by the unthinkably inhumane factory farming system. However in addition, it blows my mind that someone such as said author fails to realize the fact that eating a diet complete with a healthy array of vegetables is NECESSARY & vital to our survival! Our bodies are not designed to thrive sans the nutrients and especially complex carbohydrates (broken down into energy which our BRAIN runs on!) found in vegetables. Not to mention that animal meat is teaming w/saturated fat & cholesterol but totally devoid of fiber… & missing many of the phytonutrients, vitamins & antioxidants found readily in plant foods that help our bodies to combat disease! Clearly plants & vegetables are our natural food!! Clearly we perform the least harm by partaking of them & clearly no vegan or animal rights activist I know of would ever cause more harm in consuming one than is necessary! No vegan would chop down a cherry tree to eat a cherry. We don’t alter the natural life cycle of, torture, abuse, & maim an orange!
    Obviously, this argument could go on for days. However yours was so well thought & worded that not much needs to be added to it!
    Thanks & I hope that you continue to be greatly blessed for your work & your compassion!
    :) Candy at Vegan Bride &
    Your Holistic Agent :)

  6. Suasoria says:

    I love this well-sounded article as a response to an attack on veganism based on the nebulous concept of plant sentience. Like elaine, I didn’t regard the original NYT piece as such. It had some unfortunate barbs directed at a convenient scapegoat, but hey, attacking vegans is the new black, and she had to tie it into something topical to get the NYT to run it.

    What would be interesting is to study the differences in, say, root vegetables that must be killed in order to be consumed; avocados, apples, berries, nuts, and other plant-based foods that don’t; and tomatoes, squash, and other plants that live only one season before they die natural deaths. Not all plants are created equal.

  7. Absolutely FANTASTIC. To begin, your writing is exceptional. That alone makes your blog always so great to read.

    I have not read the Angler article and am not a vegan, however I eat VERY LITTLE meat (once every year or so) for the same “intention of many vegans”. It is the directly inhumane and the calculated cruel manner in which nature’s beautiful animals are treated and the babies… the suffering… I will not allow myself to participate in that hell. That malignancy. Eating baby animals. I can’t believe civilized people do. On the very rare occasion that I allow myself a steak , you better be damn sure that it is the cleanest meat imaginable. It is meat from a cow that was happy, fed beautiful grass off the land and allowed to roam independently, living with their community and family as cows naturally do (I think all animals do honestly). Any cow I eat lived a life free of stress on a SMALL LOCAL farm whose practices I am very familiar with. The day I buy my meat from a supermarket is the day that I have lost my mind! It would never happen. EVER!

    Without reading her article, and trusting your expression of it, if this woman is actually wasting all of our “readership” on some immature notion that fruits and veggies are worth, on the same level, saving because they too are alive? or at most are “screaming but we can’t hear them” and the NY Times Science section published it on the premise that this is a valid theory worth debating, than my dear, our society is more stupified (that’s my made up word) than I thought, and maybe someone needs to write an article about that.

    You are right however to also put some responsibility on your vegan community. Perhaps they do need to be more vocal and clear about the true intention of veganism. Like you say so straight from the heart, vegans choose this lifestyle because of the suffering and the cruelty that is involved. If this were more apparent to non-vegans, then this article would not be written. It would serve no purpose and would be part of no existing argument or discussion.

    Reading your writing was inspiring though because it was fearless, passionate and because it’s foundation so humane and heartfelt making it 100% valid! Your response to Angler by saying so precisely, “…nor does her artless and callow argument to consider the will-to-live of vegetation on same playing field as the suffering endured by animals with consciousness, brains, and nervous systems have any defensible logic.” “artless” is so powerful (so is callow but artless, true art. Perfectly said.) Oh how I love syntax. Touche!

    Again, I didn’t read the article and perhaps I should not underestimate Angler’s intellect or depth of logic until I do, but I’ll take the risk and trust you for now. I’ll read the article online manana! Merry Christmas.

  8. Jenni says:

    YES YES YES! I was hoping to see a response to the NYT article here. The bottom line for me is preventing unnecessary suffering and equating the death of plants to that of animals is preposterous. I refuse to take part in the pain, suffering, abuse and agony of sentient beings. While I respect the scientific research on plants and am not familiar with the literature on this topic (other than that presented in the NYT article), I cannot accept the conclusion that plants are howling in pain while we eat them. I think we need MUCH more research then what was presented in the NYT article before jumping to such conclusions. Sorry Natalie, but your arguments only make me more proud to be vegan.

  9. Chastity says:

    I second everyone’s comment on how ludicrous Natalie’s piece is. It’s as if she and other non vegans try to find ways to corner vegans. Vegans go out of their way to avoid something yet the people who fail to comprehend are the ones who are being lazy and who shrug their shoulders. Where do they have the audacity to be nitpicky? In fact, I believe we are facing the second stage of Truth at the moment: violent opposition.

    Secondly, thank you Joshua for writing what you wrote! I have been following some of your blogs and I suspect you may be an abolitionist but haven’t been aware of the movement? I also suspect some of you fellow vegans are as well. I am.

    Anyway, I have been reading the accompanying comments…Everyone means well but I do suspect that there is a confusion in the language–I wouldn’t have picked it up either until I have read Prof. Gary Francione’s material so I completely understand everyone’s upcoming reactions to what I am about to write.

    Elisha: I know you mean well but please understand that there is no such thing as humanely produced animal products. All of the nonhuman individuals are disrespected, exploited, tortured and murdered in the same slaughterhouses. Those terms “grass fed”, “free range”, humane etc etc etc are marketing gimmicks produced by animal abusing industries so that they can continue banking on well meaning consumers and making a mockery of their nonhuman victims. . I invite you and everyone else, to check out:

    This site is especially special because it is written by ex-agribusiness workers who now dedicate their lives to abolition (this word has now replaced “animal rights”).
    This site also talks about the myth behind free-range, cage-free, all of that shabang.

    A lot of you mention “unnecessary suffering” and I know exactly what all of you mean but I think it generates confusion for those who are new to veganism or the animal advocacy movement. (Once again, I don’t blame anyone for their choice of words) There is no such thing as “unnecessary” suffering for these nonhuman individuals because they are suffering the moment they are born up until their death. They cannot “unnecessarily” suffer if they are grazing around on a large green field with their sole purpose of being artificially inseminated, having their calves stolen from them and their calves’ nourishment being taken away from them to provide for a human being. It’s still exploitation. Or take the example of a reputable dog breeder. They may not “mistreat” their dogs but they are still mistreating them and exploiting them because they are using them for economic purposes. If it’s not economic, it’s still for human pleasure–which is still wrong because it reinforces the idea that nonhuman individuals are here to serve us. Animal rights is no longer animal rights because it is more about their welfare (wellbeing), as opposed to the elimination of their property status. In plain English, animals will continue to have the same amount of rights as a chair if we continue fighting for their “wellbeing” prior to their murder rather than their being born into a lifetime of enslavement, exploitation, death and their sheer purpose of serving human beings for either pleasure, convenience or amusement.

    I also invite everyone to have a look at this site as well:

  10. Rachel says:

    Thank you Chloe Jo for such a great response! My local vegan meetup group is discussing the NYT article. Vegans rock the planet!

  11. Krysta says:

    How could the NYT publish such trash? I’m totally fascinated by the science behind plant adaptation and the idea they react to touch, but to have it be inserted in the context that vegans are therefore stupid and feel like they’re in the “moral penthouse” is void….well thats plain stupid. I think Elaine has a point…instead of publishing the article for its intelligent and scientific worth, its published because it will stir people up for its sensationalism.

    Who is editing the NYT these days? Is there no reliable source for information anymore?

    Thanks Josh for this excellent rebuttal.

  12. Craig says:

    They (plants) respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk

    I wonder if she would offer the same consideration to a pot of water that boils on the stove, that it’s consciously and carefully calculating the correct temperature to talk to her about when it’s time
    to drink tea?

  13. Josh and GGA – great writing. Equating plants with mammals is indeed one of the more ridiculous arguments I’ve yet to hear. Though – to be fair, this isn’t quite the main argument. In fact, the article seems to really support the fact that plants are amazing. And by my watch, we should be eating more of them.

    The truth is, the fact that plants have feelings isn’t news – in 1966 Cleve Backster discovered that plants have high level emotional activities (and quite possibly even earlier when you consider energy research). Not a good reason to have a moral breakdown. What IS a good reason for a moral breakdown is the suggestion that by going Vegan people are foolish. Silly Vegans – just when you thought animals where the only ones to have feelings – HA. It’s like Schadenfreude – one feels better about their lack of ethics around food by theoretically poking holes in the beliefs of another. Remember, the editor of the Times’ main goal is to sell more advertising. Thus, he needs to incite people to get them to read.

    The real crime here is the attempt to set back a movement where people are being kinder to animals, the earth, and their fellow humans.

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