NEW YORK--Ruben Bolling, who does the comic strip "Tom the Dancing Bug," once drew a chart describing various life-forms next to the question "Can you eat it?" Eating humans--cannibalism--is taboo. Chimpanzees and other great apes with genetic similarities to humans? Not in the West. Fellow mammals? It depends. Bugs? You probably wouldn't want to, but no one cares if you pop a couple of chapulines while waiting out an Oaxaca traffic jam. Plants? Even vegans, most of whom limit their diets because they're horrified by the truism that for one thing to live another must die, make an exception for a juicy beefsteak tomato.
In other words, the less a creature resembles us, the more morally acceptable it is to kill and consume it. It follows, therefore, that people who seek to minimize their impact on other living beings--and, we are frequently reminded, the environment--opt to become vegetarians or full-fledged vegans.
Rabbi Marc Gellman sums up the moral case for vegetarianism. "There is simply no spiritual defense in either the Western or Eastern religious traditions for eating meat," he wrote in Newsweek last year. "The problem is that animals, though obviously not people, are also obviously not things. Animals are sentient beings, and their deaths, particularly in the grotesquery of what is euphemistically called food processing causes them great pain and suffering. That is the nub of the spiritual problem. Animals are God's creations that, unlike plants, suffer when they die just to become food for us."
Secular vegetarians make the same argument, minus the God stuff. Plants don't have emotions, so it's OK to kill them. On the other hand, the discovery that the brains of humpback whale (and some other whale species) contain spindle neurons, which process speech and emotional response, is being used to increase pressure on Japan to ban commercial whaling. You have to have feelings in order to suffer; you must suffer to merit pity.
Do plants have feelings? Since the mid-19th century, some scientists have claimed, for example, that plants respond to music and speech. The Secret Life of Plants was a bestseller in the 1970s. The truth is, no one knows.
Ancient Greeks classified love into categories. Some major ones include agape (Platonic, or "pure love"), eros (passionate love), patria (love of country), philia (friendship), storge (affectionate, like that of a parent for a child), and xenia (the love of strangers). Possibly because they lived in a tribal society where the hospitality granted to travelers made civilization possible, they believed this last form, xenia, to be the purest, noblest and most necessary kind of love.
There's a simple reason that Google coughs up 40 times more references to "xenophobia" than "xenophilia." (Microsoft Word doesn't even recognize the latter as a word.) It's easy to cherish your close relatives and countrymen--people who look like you. Finding value in and respect for the alien and (to us) incomprehensible is hard--but certainly more admirable.
Just as it's incumbent upon us to treat an object that we borrow from a friend with greater care than something we own, it's incumbent upon us to strive to protect living things with which we don't seem to have much in common. An ethical being is wary of those who use difference--of race, citizenship status, etc.--as justification for mistreatment or abuse. She should be similarly suspicious of the facile might-makes-right logic of human superiority.
Who's to say, for example, that sentience--reasoning, feeling, emotion--is a fair barometer of whether a life-form deserves to be eaten? If the vegetable kingdom ruled the world, its members might question whether creatures incapable of photosynthesis were worth a damn. One phylum's obvious is another's arbitrary.
What if we were to honestly embrace the concept of xenia, the love of that which is foreign? Should we slaughter and eat our parents and children while bending over backwards to let viruses and slime molds prosper? Perhaps, in theory. But you can count me out. Like you, I'm a xenophobe. I care about Americans more than Albanians, cats more than catfish, Ralls more than Bushes.
The point, of course, is that people contrive convoluted rationales to justify what they want to do in the first place. The argument that killing plants matters less--much less!--than killing animals defies logic but validates the eating habits of human omnivores. As for me, I've been thinking of going vegetarian, though for a purely selfish reason: it's healthier.