All posts by mess1955

The Philosophy of Vegetarianism

I recently read, “Plants can see, hear and smell—and respond,” on the BBC earth site. The article reports on new research which shows that “plants perceive the world without eyes, ears or brains.”

As Jack C. Schultz puts it, plants “are just very slow animals.” Schultz is a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and he has spent four decades investigating the interactions between plants and insects. “Plants fight for territory, seek out food, evade predators and trap prey. They are as alive as any animal, and – like animals – they exhibit behaviour,” says Schultz.

“To see this, you just need to make a fast movie of a growing plant – then it will behave like an animal,” adds Olivier Hamant, a plant scientist at the University of Lyon, France. Time-lapse camera reveal much of this, “as anyone who has seen the famous woodland sequence from David Attenborough’s Life series,” can attest.

So what is plant sense? Daniel Chamovitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel found that it isn’t all that different from our own. Chamovitz is the author of the 2012 book, What a Plant Knows, which “explores how plants experience the world by way of the most rigorous and up-to-date scientific research …” He distinguishes his book from earlier works like, The Secret Life of Plants, “a popular book published in 1973 that appealed to a generation raised on flower power, but contained little in the way of facts.” That work is now noted for supporting “the thoroughly discredited idea that plants respond positively to the sound of classical music.” But Chamovitz wasn’t trying to demonstrate that plants had feelings, instead he was using contemporary scientific methods to ask “why, and indeed how, a plant senses its surroundings.”

And other researches like Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft are investigating plant hearing. They want to know why plants are affected by sound—not by classical music but by a predators approach. “In their experiments, Appel and Cocroft found that recordings of the munching noises produced by caterpillars caused plants to flood their leaves with chemical defences designed to ward off attackers.” Plants respond to some sound with an ecologically relevant response.

Moreover Consuelo De Moraes, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, “has shown that as well as being able to hear approaching insects, some plants can either smell them, or else smell volatile signals released by neighbouring plants in response to them.” Like us plants “smell or hear something and then act accordingly …” Of course plants don’t have easily identifiable sense organs like human beings, and more research is needed to learn how they sense. Still, “the photoreceptors that plants use to “see” … are fairly well-studied.


The nutruitional and environmental arguments for vegetarianism are quite strong. Vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters, and the negative environmental impact of eating meat boggles the mind. (These claims are so uncontroversial that I won’t even footnote them, but they can be verified by a small amount of conscientious research.) If you want to be healthier don’t take vitamins, but forego animal products; if you want to help the environment, better to not eat meat than drive a Prius. (Driving a Pruis will help too.)

But the moral argument traditionally rests on tremendous suffering animals experience when held captive under appalling conditions ameliorated only by their eventual slaughter, which itself we can assume is unpleasant. Animals suffer. But if plants also suffer what are we to eat? Must vegetarianism be rejected like meat-eating?

The first thing we might say is that if the choice is either plants or animals we still maintain that plants are less developed or organized forms of being and consciousness compared to what we usually call animals. Most importantly, plants don’t have brains, and their sense experiences are more rudimentary—thus they probably suffer less. So, given the choice between eating either plants and animals, we should choose plants.

We also have the choice of eating food substitutes. Eventually science should be able to mimic the nutritional benefits of so-called natural foods. Theoretically we should be able to make even more nutritious food than was available in previous eras, or we may be able to redesign our bodies to run best on some nutritional goo! In fact, if we had robotic bodies, perhaps we could power them with our own solar panels.

For now though I don’t think the fact that plants have sensory experiences changes that we should strongly prefer eating them to eating animal products. Eating plants is healthier, causes exponentially less environmental damage, and the sensory experiences of plants are not as rich as those of animals and thus plants suffer less. The argument for moral vegetarian therefore remains intact.

Bertrand Russell’s Grandmother: Anti-Metaphysician

In, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914,  Russell tells an amusing story about his grandmother, the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot), who was the dominant family figure for most of Russell’s childhood and youth.[69][73] As an adolescent Russell had adopted utilitarianism, much to his grandmother’s dismay. In response she ridiculed him, and proceeded to pose ethical conundrums that she believed the young Russell couldn’t resolve using utilitarian principles.

But here disagreeableness didn’t stop there. Here is how Russell describes her antipathy to his philosophical interests: “When she discovered that I was interested in metaphysics, she told me that the whole subject could be summed up in the saying: ‘What is mind? no matter; what is matter? never mind.’ At the fifteenth or sixteenth repetition of this remark, it ceased to amuse me, but my grandmother’s animus against metaphysics continued to the end of her life.” Here is a poem the Countess penned to express those feelings:

O Science metaphysical,
And very very quizzical,
You only make this maze of life the mazier;
For boasting to illuminate
Such riddles dark as Will and Fate
You muddle them to hazier and hazier.

The cause of every action,
You expound with satisfaction;
Through the mind in all its corners and recesses
You say that you have travelled,
And all problems unravelled
And axioms you call your learned guesses.

Right and wrong you’ve so dissected,
And their fragments so connected,
That which we follow doesn’t seem to matter;
But the cobwebs you have wrought
And the silly flies they have caught,
It needs no broom miraculous to shatter.

You know no more than I,
What is laughter, tear, or sigh,
Or love, or hate, or anger, or compassion;
Metaphysics, then, adieu,
Without you I can do,
And I think you’ll very soon be out of fashion.

Russell subsequently states that some years later his grandmother said to him, ” ‘I hear you are writing another book,’ in the tone of voice in which one might say: ‘I hear you are having another illegitimate child.’ ”

As for me, I can’t imagine discussing utilitarianism or metaphysics with my grandmothers. Yet it doesn’t sound like discussing anything with Russell’s grandmother was much fun.


The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (London, Allen & Unwin: 1967), 56-7.

My Mom’s Birthday


My mother was born 98 years ago today. In her memory, I reprint this letter which I sent to her 17 years ago.

April 29, 2000


This letter should arrive on your 81st birthday—a time of rejoicing for a life well-lived. Emerging from the stable background of loving parents, a young woman with girlish charm, an ear and talent for music, a fluent reader of Latin, and pursued by a plethora of west St. Louis beaus, in 1935 you met a bicycle delivery boy, in whom, despite his relatively low economic status, you saw something good. His honesty and gentleness shone through beneath the rough exterior; you would marry him when you were just nineteen. A hard-working man who would be a devoted father—somehow you knew.

You courageously endured through an economic depression and a world war in which your husband was absent for two long years, forcing you to raise your first son without him. Your parents lived with you through the war and, as they prepared to leave at its conclusion, you and Ben told them they could stay with you for the rest of their lives. They had helped you during the war, and now you would care for them—they both lived with you for the rest of their lives and died in your home. In the post-war era you gave birth to three more children, all of whom you showered with the deep love and affection. With them you shared warmth and comfort—you were mother to them all. Like a chameleon you changed to meet their differing needs, always putting others before yourself. 

Your firstborn was typical of firstborns, independent and forceful like his father. He left home at an early age for college, and went on to travel the world and settle far from home, where he became the head of his own household. Your daughter was more like you—gentle, nurturing and cautious—an only daughter must have a special place in a mother’s heart. For your sickly third child you shed more tears than you deserved. You nursed him back from the edge of death, and even now you play an indispensable role in his life. And the baby was inspired by his father’s mandate to be inquisitive. This intellectual wanderlust caused much unintended heartache, but he’s still the same young man who talked of life’s search so long ago.

With your children raised, your husband’s love for you deepened, as did your love for him. The young boy on the bicycle—in whom you saw so much more than fifty years ago—had aged. No longer did he participate in the virile games of youth. The arms that once hit golf balls long distances, the coordination that nestled many a wedge shot close to the hole, and the shoulders that carried large sides of beef—did so no longer. As Thorton Wilder said, he was being “weaned away” from life. But his love for you was deeper than any that emanates from youthful vigor alone.

As his own physical vitality faded, his main concern was Mary Jane Hurley, the beautiful young woman on whose door he had knock so long ago. In his eyes that is who you still were. After fifty years of sleeping in the same bed, separated by war, struggling to make your payments, and watching children to whom you had cared for leave your loving home, after all that … you still had each other. A love so strong that all the cynics could not or would not ever understand. Yet, tragically, it ended after just fifty years.  But be assured that when Ben’s very last breath was taken, it was your name on his lips, your face in his eyes, your presence in his heart. The wind still murmurs outside your window, and its sound is his sound calling you. Now … wait.

For living this well lived life, one of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, you are to be praised. In the times since your husband left you—not of his own choice—you have endured and survived and re-created yourself. While the body deteriorates, your heart is still strong. You are the hero of your own life—my dearest mother.

With my deepest love and affection,
With my most gracious appreciation,

With yours and my father’s spirit always within me,
I remain, your devoted son, John Gerard

(Postscript – Mary Jane Hurley Messerly died in of a stroke on Sunday, September 18, 2005. She was 86 years old and had taken her usual walk the day before.)


What Is The Point of Money?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 1 2017.)

Wealth is necessary in order to live well, but it is not sufficient. You may have lots of money but live terribly if you have no friends or wisdom. You may have mistaken part of a good life—sufficient wealth to live—with the whole of the good life. For money isn’t an end in itself, it is merely a means to an end.

But let’s suppose that you realize all this. Let’s suppose further that you aren’t materialistic and you want to do good things for the world. Now imagine that you’ve been offered a well-paid position with a good company. We’ll assume your job doesn’t entail you doing anything immoral in the usual sense of the term. (We won’t consider participating in the world’s economic system to be intrinsically immoral.) Let’s further assume that the job isn’t your dream job, so you won’t be “doing what you love.”1 Finally, let’s suppose you are the kind of person who worries that money might corrupt you, or that the job isn’t exactly what you want. What should you do?

My advice would be to take the job. Obviously the job and its benefits—medical and dental insurance, retirement, etc.—help you to live well. But even more importantly for the idealistic, having some modicum of wealth allows you to help others. So while many people aren’t wise and think money is just a means to buy trinkets, the wise realize wealth can also buy freedom and the ability to do good. Money is power that can be used to benefit people—as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet do—or it can hurt people—as Donald Trump and the Koch brothers do.

So when offered a modicum of wealth you are essentially being offered a key that unlocks a door that gives you the chance to effect on the world, to having some power. That power can be used for buying frivolous possessions or for hurting others, but it can also be used for good. And with more power comes the ability to do more good. On the other hand, if you have nothing, you have nothing to give.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the only kind of power is financial. There’s moral and intellectual power too. But the way our world is set up, sometimes that’s just not enough. So I say be adventurous and accept a key if offered it. Go thru the door and you may find more keys that open more doors and perhaps, in some distant time, you will help unlock doors for others.


  1. I have written previously about whether you should only do what you love.

The Stoics on the Emotions or Passions

A common criticism of Stoicism is that is doesn’t leave proper room for the emotions or passions (EorP), and thus that it advocate a passionless, unemotional and apathetic life. Let’s investigate this claim.

The Stoics Don’t Reject Emotions, They Reject Passions

Let us begin by quoting John Sellars, a Research Fellow at King’s College London: “the Stoics never spoke about the emotions in the way we do.” Today the word emotion refers to almost any mental feeling that we contrast with reason. Understood in this sense, “the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.”

The Stoics believe we should feel affinity, care and concern for our friends and family. They also acknowledge that we are affected by external events, that we have natural reactions like being scared or shocked. So jumping behind a wall after hearing an explosion isn’t a passion. But hearing that you might lose your job, and then becoming anxious and fearful is a passion. In this case the Stoics counsel that we defeat these negative responses by thinking about whether they’re called for. Perhaps we won’t lose our job, or perhaps it won’t be so bad if we do. This suggests that our fear may result of poor thinking.

As for good passions, the Stoics say the only thing that is always good for us is virtue, basically a healthy state of mind. “This is the only genuine good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, the only thing the absence of which guarantees misery.” Good or proper passions follow from mental states produced by good reasoning. As Sellars puts it:

The ideal Stoic life is thus far from unemotional in the English sense of the word. Indeed, what the Stoics propose we reject are not emotions in the English sense of the word at all, if emotions are defined as feelings that contrast with reasoning. Instead what the Stoics propose we reject is faulty reasoning based on confused value judgments and the unpleasant consequences that this generates.

What Do The Stoics Mean By Passions (or Emotions)?

For those who feel more comfortable using the contemporary word emotion, we’ll continue our analysis using the phrase “emotions or passions” (EorP), as long as we remember that the older idea of passions is more what the Stoics have in mind.

Now the four most common accounts or definitions of EorP provided by the Stoics include:

  1. An excessive impulse.
  2. An impulse that ignores reason.
  3. A false judgment or opinion.
  4. A fluttering of the soul.

The first two definitions tell us that EorP are a kind of impulse or force. They are things that happen to us, as contrasted with actions or things that we do. EorP can be compared to running downhill but being unable to stop; they propel you forward. EorP also have a temporal dimension. Typically they are strongest in the present, and weaken over time.

The second and third definitions emphasize that EorP disrupt and contradict reason. EorP misrepresent a thing’s value, and then misdirect our impulses toward achieving it. For example, if we exaggerate the importance of wealth and then pursue it excessively, we may live poorly. Or if we want revenge and act on that angry impulse, we may end up in jail. In such cases EorP are either based on or produce bad reasoning.

The fourth definition of EorP as “a fluttering in the soul” derives from the Stoics sense that EorP have a physical basis and physical consequences—just think of the effect of EorP on heart rate and blood pressure.

The main passions the Stoics identify are appetite and fear. If we think something is good, we have an appetite for it; if we think something is bad, we fear it. These passions are related to two others: pleasure and distress. If we satisfy our appetites, we may experience pleasure, whereas if we fail to satisfy them, we may experience distress. Similarly, if we fear something we experience distress, whereas if our fears don’t materialize we may experience pleasure.

Why Excessive Emotions (or Passions) Are Bad For Us 

When we (too strongly) experience EorP we make errors in judgment concerning the good and bad, and the present and the future. The idea is that something may be pleasurable in the present that is actually bad for us, or we may have an appetite for something in the future, which is also bad for us. Likewise, we might think some action is bad in the present and experience distress, even though the thing is really good for us, or we might fear something in the future that either won’t happen, or won’t that bad even if it does happen.

So excessive EorP result in mistaken judgments and emotional disquietude. For example, the satisfaction of appetites for food, drink, sex may give us less pleasure than we thought. So it isn’t rational to risk more important things like health in their pursuit, or to suffer from their absence. Likewise things we fear—humiliation, betrayal, pain, anxiety—may not be as bad as we thought. So it isn’t rational to undermine our lives paralyzed by fear.

The Proper Role of Emotions (or Passions)

So the goal isn’t to  reject EorP altogether, but to have a balanced emotional life. Think joy rather than pleasure, caution rather than fear, or reasonable hope rather than appetite. As for distress, we should reject it completely.

Therefore the Stoics oppose EorP that psychologically manipulate us, thereby undermining our reason and volition, not that we shouldn’t care about anything. Rather, you should act as a result of rational deliberation. Consider an analogy. We may want to run or lift weights, but don’t run down too steep of an incline or lift too much weight—that would be excessive.

It is hard to know where to draw the line between restrained and excessive EorP, but clearly we will live better when reason prevents us from being slaves to our passions. EorP should follow from, not lead, rational reflection. This seems like good advice.