Plant Morality vs. Plant Ethics

Photograph by Barney Moss


 Michael Marder

October 26, 2016

There is a significant, if half-erased, difference between morality and ethics. The former is comprised of a set of rules and norms for appropriate behavior; the latter is a way of life, a manner of existing. Morality is regulative and prescriptive; ethics is a living text that is neither prescriptive nor descriptive, for it cannot be scripted in advance at all.

When people look for the practical implications of plant-thinking, more often than not they want to distill from it clear and definitive guidelines for our behavior toward the flora. That is what the report on the dignity of plants prepared by the Swiss 2008 Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology tried to accomplish. I do not think that it’s inherently wrongheaded to frame the issue in terms of morality, problematizing gratuitous acts of violence, for instance, or the damage our diets inflict on plant communities cultivated as cash crops, on the environment, and on our very bodies. But I find a moral approach insufficient, by far: it tweaks parts of the systemic arrangement of human behavior without going to the heart of that arrangement in the phenomenological life-world that is not (is never) exclusively human. In other words, without consulting the ontology, the being of human beings and plants alike “vegetal morality” can quickly and easily degenerate to inane and self-righteous moralizing.

As a system of rules, any moral economy emulates and supplements scientific systems of classifications. The moment we project its future outlines, we realize that plant morality is not an exception: it categorizes what can and cannot be eaten in good conscience, where sentience begins and where it ends, what is and what is not respectable in plants… There is always some kind of calculus involved in considerations reliant upon the arrest and, indeed, the entombment of categorized beings within the more or less arbitrary limits of the categories. Morality is inconsistent with the flourishing of plants, or of humans for that matter, because vitality, the aliveness of life, is totally foreign to it.

Ethics, by contrast, is amoral, which is not the same thing as immoral. A way of life, a manner of existing, it is not a matter of application, commencing from immutable principles and proceeding toward their practical ramifications. In the case of plant ethics, two ways of life are at stake: the vegetal and the human. Between (the) two, it doesn’t have anything to do with rules and norms but with an existential intersection, a crossroads, at which each existence, instead of stifling or exterminating, supports the other. Efforts poured into an “ethics of sustainability” have been misplaced not only because such an ethics is going to accrete into a doctrine virtually indistinguishable from a moral one and not only because it lends itself to the advancement of economic interests. These efforts are futile because ethics is sustainability—the desire and the actions aimed, independently of prescription and description, at sustaining the world of the other. Whether as nourishment or as a source of breathable air, plants materially sustain countless worlds. For them to have an ethics, only the desire for the other would be missing, and philosophers ranging from Plato to Avicenna have already imputed even that existential feature to vegetal life.

Morality makes a violent and unjust social, economic, or political order barely tolerable and, therefore, livable to the extent that it either carves out small private niches where one can take refuge from the prevailing barbarity or yields generally valid pronouncements that are incredibly empty. Typically formal and ineffective, moral tenets make us feel good about ourselves while maintaining intact, if not strengthening, the status quo by giving a controlled outlet to our dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of affairs. Progressive moral codes may prescribe respect for plants but the notion will sound like a hollow word, an unattainable ideal at best and useless theoretical handwringing at worst. (Actually, “respect” is a perfect example of moral vacuity with regard to any recipient of that attitude.) For the most part, moral recommendations will be met with dismissive indifference; after all, they do not arise from the thick of existence but are thrust onto life from a feigned space outside it, as a series of abstract desiderata.

Whereas morality is a form of judgment that takes it upon itself to mold raw existence, ethics is a form (I’ve called it a “manner” or a “way”) inseparable from life itself. An ethics of plant life can only come about in the course of living—needless to say, living with plants. We cannot overestimate the importance of the preposition “with” in this context. Besides physical proximity to vegetal habitats and environments, it encodes the complicity of engagement, even in the otherwise unethical shape of instrumentalization that renders absolute the logic and exigencies of use, of making-useful. In fact, what is unethical is not instrumentalization per se but the denial that living on, or living thanks to, something or someone is by the same token living with it, her, or him.

What is unethical, then, is thinking and behaving as though the instrumentalizing agents are not affected (i.e., are not, in turn, instrumentalized) by their own conduct.  We labor under the illusion that we are capable of isolating and protecting ourselves from the violent consequences of our actions, however minimal and necessary for our survival. But, if living “on” plants is unavoidable, so is living with them, including those instances when we make use of them. Plant ethics does not demand that humans stop using plants and vegetal products for our purposes; ironically, such a demand would have been unethical were it to try and expunge, once again, the “with”-character of living. Nor does it ask that our goals be weighed against those of plants, leaving the calculations of the sort to theoretical exercises in morality. Aware that we are fated to live on plants, an adherent to plant ethics would insist that we are equally destined to live with them, transforming that fate into a destiny. Can we somewhat abstrusely define ethics as a place where fate becomes destiny?

Few eyebrows will be raised in response to the admission that we live with plants, for instance, when contemplating a field of sunflowers, from which we are at a considerable (aesthetic) distance despite standing in its midst. But that is not what I have in mind.  Plant ethics hones our awareness that in decapitating a sunflower, removing its seeds, and pressing them to obtain oil, we are still living with it. Or dying with it, which might not be all that different from leading a finite life.

That is where the gap between ethics and morality becomes unbridgeable. As they weigh the interests of plants and humans against one other, moral theorists cover over the “with” that binds these dissimilar ontological styles of existence. In doing so, they replicate the effects of the economic system they purportedly oppose. Plant ethics, however, exposes the “with” and upends the economic, social, and political orders detached from existence. Totally unruly, it is disruption, on the one hand, and the conversion of fate into destiny, on the other. Like it or not, morality may be utilitarian through and through as it relies on intricate calculations to minimize suffering, while implicitly providing a justification for residual misery and anguish. (That is, precisely, what Dostoyevsky found so abhorrent about utilitarianism!) Ethics does not let the victims doubly overwritten by economic and moral ideologies to drift quietly into to the night; instead, ethically, we suffer with them, even if their lives are “only” vegetal.

Perhaps my definition of ethics is becoming less abstruse. Interpreted further it means that to live ethically, to live with others, is to forge out of their and our fates a common destiny. Prior to our intent or consent, we always do just that, namely add our individual fates to a common destiny. But the choice remains: do we industrialize the deaths of animals, plants, and ineludibly our own or do we accept living-dying with the other? Be this other as inconspicuous and ephemeral as a sunflower…

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