I'm building a race of plant-like creatures that are pacifists in a pre-industrial age world. Because they live hidden in forests, caves, etc. and often blend in with the natural flora, occasionally one of them is killed either on purpose or by accident.

I want to create an appropriate punishment for the aggressor that:

  • Doesn't kill or maim them
  • Is feared by outsiders
  • Instills a sense of respect for nature, perhaps encouraging vegetarianism/veganism in the victim

This is a punishment for outsiders, not their own kind. I've looked at How can a pacifist country protect itself? and will incorporate some of that to prevent the problem, but naturally people will ignore the defenses at some point.

What kind of punishment would a tree inflict on a human who cut down their friend that doesn't entail death or dismemberment?

  • 50
    $\begingroup$ I find it funny that a plant-based species would favour veganism. In any case, I'd expect them to support fully carnivores. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Sep 2 at 7:00
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ What's wrong with prison? $\endgroup$ – Luis Rico Sep 2 at 7:19
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ If you want to design a pacifist species, you should reevaluate if punishment is the way to go. In our society punishment descends directly from revenge (eye for an eye) and has the primary goal to achieve satisfaction. - A society without a strong drive for revenge might not even use punishment as a means to shape society at all. $\endgroup$ – Falco Sep 2 at 10:37
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Is that supposed to be "encouraging vegetarianism in the victim" or "in the perpetrator"? $\endgroup$ – Richard Sep 2 at 14:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Turning their back on the individual(s), al la youtube.com/watch?v=m8Da7PQE8O8, and before you say "It's a tree, it cannot turn it's back", remember, you have a tree that is capable of punishment. $\endgroup$ – ggdx Sep 3 at 12:34

11 Answers 11


The punished becomes a tree.

It is not punishment so much as sentence; a time away from his familiar world. The punished is not insensate during this time. He experiences the world as a tree - the light and dark, wind and sun, the comings and goings of the forest animals. Trees know suffering - insects chew his leaves, storms and ice crack his branches, he thirsts in summer heat. Trees know pleasure - of rain, of flowering, of putting forth root and setting seed.

When his sentence is done the man returns to the world of men, changed by his time in the forest. The threat of being changed is terrifying because it is change, and the unknown. But sometimes, one who has been so punished returns to the forest later in his life, to ask that he again become a tree.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I really like this. It's completely non-violent (although the change process may be unpleasant), does not physically harm the individual but forces them to "walk" in someone else's shoes for a time. This would also be a great character flaw to play in an RPG as well. Perfect! $\endgroup$ – DWShore Sep 2 at 11:50
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ Naturally, the turning into a tree should also be available to anyone who requests it, otherwise someone who actually liked it would keep on murdering just to experience it again. $\endgroup$ – Blueriver Sep 2 at 19:21
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "*The threat of being changed is terrifying because it is change, and the unknown." In that case, humans would start cutting down the forest, to eliminate the scary unknown. Start at the edges and -- since you wouldn't want houses made of that haunted wood, burn it for firewood. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Sep 3 at 1:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Depending on the time passed, this is a similar punishment to Time Stasis or the time out of a body in the Altered Carbon universe. Your punishment is that the world changes completely - your allies are gone or significantly changed, your family has emotionally moved on, your money was probably taken in other punishments but has certainly dwindled or been stolen while not being managed by you. When you return, you are the least member of a society that doesn't recognize you any more. $\endgroup$ – Christopher Hostage Sep 3 at 20:57

Fungal infection. These can be a real pain to shift even with modern medicine. Make the fungus show up on the skin of the offender as contrasting coloured or textured lines (so it could work regardless of original skin tone). The fungus needn't be dangerous as such or even particularly unpleasant, though it might itch a bit as it grows through the skin. Just something that people can recognise that can't be trivially removed. Up to you whether it might be permanent or not, or whether it could scar. It may or may not be contageous between humans, but they might believe that to be true and someone afflicted with the mark could be treated as a leper.

Now part B, the fun bit.

perhaps encouraging vegetarianism/veganism in the victim

Ever heard of an alpha-gal allergy? In the real world this is spread by tick bites, and causes an unpleasant allergic reaction to the consumption of red meat. You can certainly run with this idea, inducing a more general allergy to a wider variety of meat and fish or other animal proteins (eg. dairy).

You could combine these two punishments together, with the fungus causing the allergy (and effectively making the allergy incurable) or separate them, with the meat allergy fading over time as a real-world alpha-gal allergy can do. That allows multiple options... temporary punishment, permanent punishment, and permanent punishment with effective branding.

Merely possessing a meat allergy might be stigma enough, depending on the society the offender comes from.

Depending on the sources of protein available, this could be anything from a mild irritation (if you've got good access to beans and oily seeds) to an extremely serious problem if you've got too few protein sources, or the ones you do have just don't provide quite all the nutrients you need.


Now I think on it a little more, it is odd that intelligent plants would seek to punish animals by making them less inclined to hunt, kill and eat other animals. Seems like encouraging your enemies to hunt and kill your own pest species instead of eating fruits and grains might be far more useful and perhaps a little better suited to plant pacifism.

The same suggestions I made above would work just fine, but turned around... induced nut allergies, gluten intolerance, etc. Encourage the victims to eat more deer, beavers, bunnies and so on.

(see also: the green pact bosmer of the elder scrolls series, a neat take on wood elves, who are carnivorous and cannibalistic)

  • 13
    $\begingroup$ That said, fruits are specifically designed by plants to get people to eat them (and go poop far, far away: spread my children, please, thanks). $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Sep 2 at 1:46
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @Draco18s In other words, this is an invasion strategy: The Ents trick the meatsacks to spread their immature fruit-bearing offspring far and wide, cultivating them until they are 10 feet tall and finally "wake up" as a fully fledged army standing in lines on a farm... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Sep 2 at 9:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Draco18s the more I think about sentient trees forcing people to eat the literal fruit of their figurative loins to propagate their family, the more squicky it sounds :-/ $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 2 at 12:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Hehe. I hadn't meant it like that (I was speaking in general botanical terms not treants specifically), but I got a good giggle out of it. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Sep 2 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime lots of species have convoluted life cycles that include various hosts. $\endgroup$ – arp Sep 3 at 1:43

Some pacifist communities, such as the Amish, punish criminals by shunning. No one in the community is allowed to speak to them or acknowledge them in any way until they have repented.

In science-fantasy, I’ve read stories where a criminal is punished by being turned into what amounted to a living ghost, until they break down: no one could see or hear them.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I can't picture someone fearing being shunned by trees or hippy elves. $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 1 at 22:03
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Renan: Just wait until those hotty hippy Arwen types turn you away from their free love elf party in the trees. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 1 at 22:22
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ @Renan The Amish are a closed subculture. Someone who’s shunned has three options: beg for forgiveness, exile themselves in a dangerous world of foreigners, or live the rest of their lives as a despised hermit nobody will speak to or even look at. Either of the first two solves the community’s problem. Also, their real punishment is in Hell. They’re pacifists because God told them to leave the vengeance to him. That’s not their punishment for outsiders, who wouldn’t worry about any of those things. $\endgroup$ – Davislor Sep 1 at 22:28
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ And if I’m wrong about the Amish, they’re not going to log on to the Internet to correct me! $\endgroup$ – Davislor Sep 1 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ This was my first thought as well. $\endgroup$ – Doug R. Sep 3 at 19:22

Paralysis would teach a presumably motile predator or herbivore the sort of vulnerability an immobile plant experiences and instill a reliance on communication over wanton destruction to stay alive.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This has the added benefit of being completely harmless to the "victim" while teaching them a life lesson. I can see monks inflicting this sort of "punishment" on someone to change their perspective. $\endgroup$ – DWShore Sep 1 at 13:37
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ One risk is that complete paralysis tends to stop your diaphragm as well, which causes ... ahem ... serious permanent health complications to the victim. Specifically, this falls afoul the "don't kill them" clause. Just tying them to be nibbled on by bugs will do just fine. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Sep 1 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ It might be possible to prevent movement without actually paralysing voluntary muscles (and all the not-breathing issues that entails). Have a read about lathyrism for example. The effect would need to be modified somewhat to suit a pacifist intent, but the basic idea seems like a suitable starting point. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 1 at 19:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure paralysis for any significant length of time would probably count as torture, which, I'd suggest, goes against pacifist ideals $\endgroup$ – mattumotu Sep 3 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak, being eaten by bugs is considered torture, and was even a form of terminal torture in ancient Persia, if we believe the original source. I believe this goes against a pacifistic mindset. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scaphism $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Sep 3 at 23:20


Alcohol, caffeine, coke, opium and ayahuasca all come from plants. They are highly addictive. I may be wrong, but I believe coke and opium are the ones most likely to cause an addiction (specially if the victim has a troublesome life to start with).

So refine that opium into heroin and/or the coke into crack. Tie the offender up for a week and feed them your extracts. Then release the bastard. You will see them come back for more on a regular basis on their own volition. Then you can impose conditions to give them the drugs. "Have you been sparing animal life and planting new trees lately?"

And if they hurt themselves or overdose - you didn't maim or kill them, they did it themselves.

Suggested theme song, if this ever becomes audiovisual: Sober, by Tool.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice. Meaner than my idea ;-) I'm not sure I'd describe ayahuasca as "addictive" though. I think feeding someone deleriants for a week whilst being tied up and berated by talking trees might be a bit much for "pacifists", too. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 1 at 13:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime I've met people who drink ayahuasca cerimonially/religiously. I am quite convinced that a lot of them don't practice what they preach, and I've heard variations of "I can quit whenever I want" many times... $\endgroup$ – Renan Sep 1 at 13:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Huh. You must know some odd people ;-) Seems like the effects can vary, but for quite a lot of people it isn't at all fun (ot at best, "type 2 fun"), or something they'd particularly like to repeat. Of course, that is why plants make deleriants in the first place, and a society that occasionally sees people stagger out of the woods screaming about what the trees made them see might be inclined to use a little less timber and firewood in their lives... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 1 at 13:21
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Harsh, but I really like the image of someone screaming about what the trees made them see! $\endgroup$ – DWShore Sep 1 at 13:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Nicotine is also plant-based, and reportedly harder to quit than heroin. $\endgroup$ – arp Sep 3 at 1:45

Restorative Justice

The offender is forced to do community service for a period of time after conviction. Unless you have the cooperation of the offender's town's law enforcement, they'd have to stay.

This serves multiple functions:

  • Separation from family/etc is a punishment in and of itself (that's a large function of prison).
  • The offender must work alongside the people s/he hurt, which leads to empathy and understanding.
  • The emotional pain of facing her/his evil deeds is also a punishment.
  • Outside labor is helpful for public works. This is especially true if the outsiders are bigger or stronger, but also true even if they are not.
  • The direct victims the offender injured, or the family of those s/he killed, get to choose if they will work with the offender or not. The offender has no say.

Restorative Justice is a real concept that has worked in many situations.

Restorative justice is an approach to justice in which the response to a crime is to organize a meeting between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community. The goal is for them to share their experience of what happened, to discuss who was harmed by the crime and how, and to create a consensus for what the offender can do to repair the harm from the offense. This may include a payment of money given from the offender to the victim, apologies and other amends, and other actions to compensate those affected and to prevent the offender from causing future harm.

In this case I suggest a combination of Restorative Justice with relocation to the harmed community and community service/labor. For whatever period of time is appropriate to the crime and for rehabilitation.

Potential offenders will fear it because it's basically prison and is a complete disruption of their lives. Add on that the emotional side of being confronted every day by those you harmed (if not the victims or their families, then their community) and having to work to help them. Anyone who has gone through this would return to their home completely changed, and possibly traumatized. It's much easier to do your time without any connection to your victims.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Thing is, it's hard to force someone to do anything without violence or credible threat of it. If they say "nah, I don't wanna, I'm going away" and attempt to do so, then it starts to matter what the pacifist society would be willing to do to forcefully restrain them. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Sep 1 at 17:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If the outsider's community cooperates, then it's pretty easy to send them back to prison. You can also have financial repercussions as well. Or have their spouse or kids or parents be next in line if they take off. But I was thinking "chain gang" style of physically preventing them from running off, even when still able to move around to work. There are many possibilities. Being shot isn't the only (or even a major) fear of those escaping from prison. And it's not really a factor for those leaving min security facilities; there are other serious repercussions. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Sep 1 at 17:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I was also thinking about the issue of physically preventing them from running off - which is why it matters why and how pacifistic they are - because the relatively simple act of putting someone in chains, handcuffs, jail cell etc requires some violence if the culprit doesn't cooperate and resists; you have to physically, violently restrain them even if for a short time; which is not a problem for "mostly pacifistic" communities but may be a problem for society that's "totally pacifistic" for some weird reason. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Sep 1 at 17:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ furthermore, this is supposed to be punishment for murder, the question explicitly requires that this is the punishment that "Is feared by outsiders" - it's not suitable to expect that violators would willingly submit to this punishment due to fear of something else, outsiders should fear this punishment sufficiently to deter them from the punishable acts. So the question of enforcing the punishment and making it unavoidable is quite relevant; and you can't rely on outsiders to enforce it because they might want to "protect their own" at the expense of your [tree]people. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Sep 1 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Peteris I explained the fear factor of the punishment in the body of the answer. To the extent that deterrent based on fear of punishment works in the first place, this one should work fine. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Sep 1 at 18:34


The plants use a chemical, neurosurgical, psychological or metaphysical method to remove any aggressive thought from the convict. The convict becomes docile and unable to even think of committing a violent act. The convict is also very likely to become a vegetarian, because they are now repulsed by the thought of causing harm to an animal.

Outsiders would find the prospect of having their whole personality changed permanently into that of a "weak" pacifist to be quite terrifying. But the plants might believe that they are just helping them to live a better life free from anger and hatred.


In Star Trek's Vulcan society, a person who commits a crime, any crime, is isolated from society, to protect society from them, until they've reformed. Mind melds are used to ensure they've rehabilitated. So punishment is mainly the loss of freedom and privacy. (Source: the book "Spocks World" if I recall correctly.)

Are your trees able to read the minds of humans?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ They are not. I think this supports the idea of turning the aggressor into a tree though. It would isolate them and force them to see the world through someone else's eyes. $\endgroup$ – DWShore Sep 4 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ @DWShore Or if trees could read the minds of other trees, perhaps as one big super-organism, it would necessitate turning the person into a tree in order to know when they've reformed. $\endgroup$ – snips-n-snails Sep 4 at 17:05

Mind Control

I don't know if you have magic in your world, or if you use telekinesis or other forms of mind control, but this solution should work either way.

If you do, it's easy. The plant-creatures take control of the perpetrator's mind and (this probably isn't the right terminology) squeeze it, or call up bad memories, or force them to feel guilt and fear. It should be equally easy to force them to want to be vegetarian or vegan, although I don't know if the results would last forever.

If you don't, it's a little trickier. However, there are countless psychological tricks to use. To name a few:

  • Tie them up, surround them with meat and leave them for several days. They'll be sick of the taste, the smell, even the sight of meat!

  • Use propaganda; have plant-creatures constantly talking to them, telling them how horrible it is to eat meat, and how wonderful it is to be vegan. If done for long enough, this could have lasting effects.

  • Make them feel guilty by showing the perpetrator the victim frequently, or if the victim was killed, parade the sorrowing relatives in front of him/her until they're properly remorseful. (This doesn't make them vegetarian, though.)

  • This one might be a little violent for pacifists, but they could use threats. Someone calmly detailing what 'will' or might happen to them, with a couple scary-looking people laying out potential instruments of torture while saying 'This is what happens to carnivores,' or whatever. Of course, they wouldn't actually torture them, but the effect would be nearly the same, and once the perpetrator was released and told everyone about what happened, the tale would probably spread and become worse with each telling. No one will want to mess with plant-creatures after that.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you familiar with the Lone Star Tick? Its bite can cause you to become allergic to alpha-gal, a carbohydrate found in many mammal red meats (although, notably, not in primates - including humans). A toxin that caused a milder version (i.e. nausea and vomiting instead of full-blown anaphylaxis) could cause a learned aversion response to meat. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Sep 2 at 8:57

Extreme case of whatever poison ivy contains. Also, instead of just being contact-based, fine particles are released into the air (when the plant creatures are injured). Think about the chemical a skunk emits. The chemicals of poison ivy and skunk combined!!!

In the case of a tree it's in its bark and on the leaves, and is released on the victim in case of attack.

Unfortunately that only provides 1 & 2.

I think veganism is going too far, but respect on the other hand - people respect skunks!

You move to avoid a skunk at all costs.


We have many punishments that are not designed ot hurt the individual, but encourage better behaviour - one of these is the fine. If you commit an act that is not severe enough to warrant imprisonment (or some torture as practices in less civilised countries) then you'll be fined a penalty that should be sufficent to discourage you from doing it again.

So your plant-based 'fairy folk' do the same - if you cut down a tree or squash one under your hobnail boots, that night they turn up to your house and quietly destroy the contents. You wake up and know you pissed the forest folk off.

No doubt a suggestion that humans will respond with violence towards these creatures, but that often doesn't occur if the loss is only temporary like this (it'd be a different matter if they stole your children for example) - financial loss by someone is a given in human societies, and even though you'll be annoyed (and your neighbours possibly amused, or sympathetic) the response will always be to take more care in future, perhaps with offerings by the forest to placate them in case you offend them in the future.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.