MELBOURNE – “Every day, thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians. Help end the violence. Eat meat.” These words, written last month by an Edinburgh butcher on a blackboard outside his shop and shared on a vegan Facebook group, led to a heated online discussion. Some condemned the butcher for seeking to blur an important line between beings capable of suffering and those that are not. Others took it as a joke, as the butcher said he had intended it. But jokes can make serious points.
“How do you know that plants can’t feel pain?” I was often asked when I stopped eating meat. In 1975, in the first edition of Animal Liberation, I offered two distinct responses. First, I argued, we have three strong reasons for believing that many nonhuman animals, especially vertebrates, can feel pain: they have nervous systems similar to our own; when subjected to stimuli that cause pain to us, they react in ways similar to how we react when in pain; and a capacity to feel pain confers an obvious evolutionary advantage on beings able to move away from the source of the pain. None of these reasons applies to plants, I claimed, so the belief that they can feel pain is unjustified.
My second response was that if plants could feel pain, even if they were as sensitive to it as animals, it would still be better to eat plants. The inefficiency of meat production means that by eating it we would be responsible not only for the suffering of the animals bred and raised for that purpose but also for that of the vastly larger number of plants they eat.
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