Sunday, May 04, 2008

Respect for Nature: The Moral Consideration of Plants

At The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh posts a snippet from the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology’s report, The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake.

Perhaps predictably, this set off a slew of often virulent, reactionary comments, most of which strained to be clever and humorous but struck me rather as exemplifying the converse. And it appears only a few of the more thoughtful comments were by those who took the trouble to read the report (one of the ‘thoughtless’ below confesses to not having read it). Here is a (non-statistical) sample by way of illustration (of the dark side of blogging):

* I welcome this brand of thinking. I consider this as taking some of the extremist thinking in the animal rights movement to its logical conclusion.
* I didn't read the article, but based just on what was provided, my thought was, ‘What absolutely idiotic pablum [sic].’
* I suppose using bug spray in your home is beyond the pale.
* ‘I, for one, welcome our new vegetable overlords.’ Funniest thing I've read on VC in ... maybe ever! On a more serious note, I am a firm believer that humans owe no moral consideration to other species. That being said, I support animal cruelty laws not because the animal suffers, but because of what engaging in cruelty says about a person. Anyone who deliberately mistreats a living thing in order to see it suffer is perverse. But plants can't suffer, and don't appear to suffer. A person who tortures a dog is a sick, terrible person because he wants to see a living thing suffer. A person who ‘decapitates’ (whatever) flowers is ... I'm not sure, but certainly not a monster.
* These people loons are insane.
* Would someone who has read the report please explain what is so objectionable about it?
* Aren't amoebas plant life? Get rid of your Clorox and Lysol, murderers!
* I guess this means the liberals don't want us to mow our grass anymore?
* Larry, The following two statements are non-contradictory: (1) Babies are punishments to be terminated at will. (2) Plants are people too. It's just that their [sic] both stupid and evil.
* Wow!! Are there any grown-ups left in Switzerland?
* Dignity of Plants while children die from hunger in Africa and N. Korea?
* While I agree that the article is truly silly, I really need an excuse -- any excuse will do, even a really lame one -- to stop mowing my lawn. If they can get my neighbors (and the City Code people) off of my back if I just let the lawn go "back to the wild", then I'm on board!

Several self-described conservatives were quite sympathetic to the report’s conclusions, and “Latinist” ably responded to the weaker arguments and diatribes of a few commentators.

Now that you’re on the edge of your seat, here is the comment I posted to the blog:

The Committee did an excellent job. First, it cites the legislative context: "The Federal Constitution has three forms of protection for plants: the protection of biodiversity, species protection, and the duty to take the dignity of living beings into consideration when handling plants. The constitutional term 'living beings' encompasses animals, plants and other organisms. At legislative level, the Gene Technology Act limits the scope of the term to animals and plants. Previous discussion within constitutional law relates the term Würde der Kreatur (‘dignity of living beings’) to the value of the individual organism for its own sake."

Second, it consults an impressive list of experts in various fields in the natural sciences as well as those with philosophical (which of course includes ethics) and theological backgrounds. In fact, by way of preparation, it commissioned a review of the relevant literature, a copy of which is made available.

Third, it makes explicit the ethical values and principles it relied on in the decision making process. Indeed, it goes so far as to formulate a 'decision tree' whereby one can better assess the overall philosophical and ethical coherence of the arguments that lead to the report's conclusion.

In brief, it appears they more or less followed a "coherence model of [ethical] justification" that avoids foundationalism on the one hand and moral scepticism on the other, relying in the main on the method of "reflective equilibrium." (For a brief discussion and defense of this model, please see David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge, UK: CUP: 1996). In philosophy, there is one work in particular that provides a great deal of the ethical argument that supports the views of the majority in the report of this Federal Ethics Committee, and that is Paul W. Taylor's Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986). Agree or disagree in the main with its arguments, I would think they would be central to assessing the philosophical and ethical cogency of the reasoning relied upon here by committee members. If it's not apparent by now, I'm in sympathy if not complete agreement (the latter contingent upon a closer scrutiny of the decision tree and the specific reasons proffered) with the report's conclusion. Incidentally, the Jain and Buddhist worldviews are religio-philosophical traditions most compatible with the spirit, when not the letter, of this report. [This last remark was made in response to a query in the comments section.]

Further Reading:
For one sophisticated elaboration and defense of the “coherence (or ‘coherentist’) model” of philosophical and ethical justification, please see the following by Nicholas Rescher:
  • A System of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. III: Metaphilosophical Inquiries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994): 36-58.
  • Philosophical Reasoning: A Study in the Methodology of Philosophizing (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001).
  • Epistemology: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003).
The literature on “reflective equilibrium” is now enormous, a small portion of which is cited in several footnotes to DeGrazia (1996) above. One could do worse than begin with what Rawls had to say on the subject, and then consult Samuel Freeman’s work by way of clarification and explanation (note his webpage is not up-to-date and thus is missing some of his best work on Rawls).
See too, from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Daniels, Norman, "Reflective Equilibrium," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Dickson, Julie, "Interpretation and Coherence in Legal Reasoning," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Kvanvig, Jonathan, "Coherentist Theories of Epistemic Justification," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Young, James O., "The Coherence Theory of Truth," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[Just for the record, I don't think a preference for the coherence model of ethical justification need necessarily commit one to the coherence theory of truth, indeed, I think the former is perfectly compatible with a correspondence theory of truth, in part, given a belief about what ethical theories as such can accomplish, although I have neither the time nor stamina to defend that viewpoint here.]


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