It's always surprising to me that we need to debate whether to value the lives of animals more highly than plants. But I suppose what we're really asking is, what makes a plant different from an animal? Are animals like us? Are they capable of experiencing life, complete with thoughts, feelings, and awareness? Or do they feel no more than a trampled blade of grass?
I think it's pretty evident that they do have a higher capacity for feeling, as the folks from Free From Harm pointed out in a recent Facebook post.
Someone asked us today, "where should we draw the line with what living things we eat? What if we find that plants are intelligent too?" I responded that SENTIENCE is the moral baseline by which we should base our food choices. The easiest way to understand sentience is this: If you step on a blade of grass, you probably won't feel to bad about it, but if you step on a chicken's toe and he squeals, or if you step on your dog's paw and she squeals, then you're going to feel pretty bad about it. Either of these animals might not get too close to you for while until they regain their trust and confidence in you and realize you made a mistake. That reaction is sentience.
So why is this a question? At least part of it can be explained by examining the carnistic culture. Recent studies indicate that the intelligence of animals used for food is down-played, indicating that people do not wish to think of their food as sharing a common capacity for awareness.
But how we value animals versus plants is closely related to another common question that's pertinent to Christians and Jews, one that was indirectly raised in the recent article 14 Stories that Prove Animals Have Souls. Is there a moral difference in status between plants and animals? What does the Bible say about plants, animals, and souls?
Interestingly, the very first "souls" mentioned in the Bible are animal souls. The Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, first appears at Genesis 1:20 in reference to fish, and again at 1:24 in reference to "beasts of the earth" -- what we would refer to today as land animals.
Genesis 1:20 And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarms of living souls, and let fowl fly above the earth in the expanse of the heavens. (Darby version)
Genesis 1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth living souls after their kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth, after their kind. And it was so. (Darby version)
But wait! you may say, my translation says "living creature" or "moving creature that hath life." Some versions do translate it that way, presumably to distinguish animal from man, but note the familiar scripture at Genesis 2:7.
Genesis 2:7 And Jehovah Elohim formed Man, dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Man became a living soul. (Darby version)The same word, nephesh, is used in all three of these scriptures. There are no modifiers that would indicate a nuance of meaning. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the word routinely refers to both animals and men.
Notably though, the word is never used to refer to plant life. If the word actually did have a second meaning which indicated a living thing that was not a soul, wouldn't it also apply to plants?
So, what exactly is the distinction between plants and these "souls" (nephesh)? The scholarly Bible commentary Barnes' Notes has this to say about the full meaning of the term:
nephesh, "breath, soul, self." This noun is derived from a root signifying to breathe. Its concrete meaning is, therefore, "that which breathes," and consequently has a body, without which there can be no breathing; hence, "a breathing body," and even a body that once had breath... As breath is the accompaniment and sign of life, it comes to denote "life," and hence, a living body, "an animal." And as life properly signifies animal life, and is therefore essentially connected with feeling, appetite, thought, nephesh denotes also these qualities, and what possesses them. It is obvious that it denotes the vital principle not only in man but in the brute. It is therefore a more comprehensive word than our soul, as commonly understood.
(Underlined for emphasis by me.)
In the original Hebrew, the word that is used signifies not only "a living creature," but feeling, appetite, and thought. Essentially, the word signifies sentience. That plants are excluded indicates they are not sentient; that animals are included indicates that they are.
The Holy Scriptures, the authoritative guide for those of the Judeo-Christian faith, applies this meaningful word to both man and beast. If we speak of the human "soul" with its full original meaning -- a living, breathing creation of God capable of a feeling, thought, and desire -- then we must therefore allow that animals have these same capabilities. We are all, as the first man and the first beasts were described in the account of our creation, living souls.