It still surprises me how many educated, well-intentioned people I come in contact with who still pose the same questions that inevitably come up in almost every discussion about humane food choices. It goes something like this: Where do you draw the line with compassion? Don’t plants feel pain too? What would we eat if we exercised compassion for all living things?
Such questions, even when asked in a purely genuine manner, seem to ignore all that biology and neurology have taught us about sentience and cognition in animals and how these phenomenon determine an animal’s ability to think and feel. The question they are really asking, it seems to me, is Don’t plants have sentience—the ability to think and feel—like animals? And the answer is, No, not based on our current knowledge.
I believe sentience is where you draw the moral line in the sand between living things that can feel pain and fear and therefore can suffer and those that cannot. Sentience is not an esoteric concept coming from some ancient, mystical tradition. While sentience has been defined in many ways and in many disciplines, most scientists agree that sentience is having awareness, possessing emotional intelligence, and having cognitive abilities.
In the study of human and non-human animal brain functions, scientists often point to the limbic system of the brain as the source of sentience. The limbic system is a complex set of brain structures that determine everything from our ability to form memory to expressing a range of emotions, including pleasure, pain and fear. While there is still much debate in the world of science over the definition of what constitutes a sentient being and to what extent different species have sentience, there is a growing number of peer-reviewed studies that have identified complex limbic systems in animals traditionally perceived as “mindless,” such as invertebrates like fish.
Several recent studies of the fish nervous system were identified in our article called “New Scientific Discoveries of Fish Raise Looming Ethical Questions.” What did they discover? Researchers discovered that fish have the same ability to, not only feel pain, but also be conscious of that pain and, therefore, should be considered sentient beings like other mammals and birds.
It seems that the more research is done, the more this research shows how grossly we have underestimated, misunderstood or even ignored sentience in animals, particularly food animals, which are the most impacted by our actions in number and degree of suffering.
In light of all this, I wonder if the question that deliberately blurs the distinction between harm to animals and harm to plants is really a way of inadvertently shifting the focus of attention away from, and defying what we already know about, animal intelligence. In some cases, this line of reasoning develops into the position that argues if we cared about every living thing, we would not have anything to eat, so the solution is not to care about anything other than ourselves.
For me this represents a powerful testament of the extent to which the human mind employs denial, avoidance and selfishness. And as these coping mechanisms set in even deeper, they become a means to relieve us of our obligation to exercise any compassion at all, so that we feel exonerated from the responsibility that comes with being the direct cause of animal suffering.
I have seen numerous online comments that express a similar frustration over the idea of eating humanely, claiming that all farming causes suffering and death to animals (both wildlife and domestic animals), so whether we eat plants or animals, or some combination of both, we cannot avoid causing suffering. Therefore we must just live and let live (or die), so to speak. It is an absolutist logic reminiscent of former President Bush’s infamous mantra, “You’re either with us or against us.”
The anecdote to this black and white view on the subject is Zoe Weil’s notion of MOST GOOD, LEAST HARM. This practical and common sense approach to living a humane life directs us to make daily decisions based on how we can do the least harm and most good—for people, animals and the environment—three inextricably-connected parts of the natural world. We cannot choose to help one and exclude the others.
So for me the answer to the question about where we should draw the line on humane food choices is simple. If we live by the principle of most good, least harm, compassion and respect for all living things will become embedded in our daily lives. And secondly, we must act on what we know and believe in. We know that sentient beings suffer, that there is much we can do to reduce their suffering and that it is our nature to avoid suffering. So when we learn something compelling about how we impact sentient beings like farmed animals, instead of becoming paralyzed by our typical coping mechanisms of denial and avoidance, we should instead step up and demonstrate the real moral courage necessary to find the point of lowest impact—for the good of all.