The latest example of this worrying trend is a report by the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology declaring that “individual plants have an inherent worth,” meaning that “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily.” (Did you ever think you would see the words “plant” and “community” used together descriptively?) As an example of an immoral action taken against plants, “The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants” (PDF) condemned a hypothetical farmer who casually “decapitates” some wildflowers with his scythe.
The panel’s announcement of plant “dignity” brought to mind a joke I have often told in response to the neo-Darwinist argument that species distinctions between humans and animals are fictional because we have so many genes in common. “Well, if we are going to go reductionist,” I have said, “let’s go all the way: Human beings are made up of carbon molecules. So are carrots. Thus, the moral distinction between us and carrots is irrelevant.”
I thought I was being absurd, but it turns out I was a visionary: The essence of my joke was one of the central arguments made by the panel to support its belief that plants have intrinsic dignity:
This opinion was justified either by arguing that plants strive after something, which should not be blocked without good reason, or that recent findings in natural science, such as the many commonalities between plants, animals, and humans at the molecular and cellular level, remove the reasons for excluding plants in principle from the moral community.
You have to be very big-brained to reach such morally confused conclusions. And indeed, most committee members were so tripped up by their own gray matter that they couldn’t decide whether or not plants are sentient:
The majority of the committee members at least do not rule out the possibility that plants are sentient, and that this is morally relevant. A minority of these members considers it probable that plants are sentient. Another minority assumes that the necessary conditions for the possibility of sentience are present in plants. The presence of these necessary conditions for sentience is considered to be morally relevant. Finally, a minority of the members excludes the possibility of plants having sentience, because in their view there are no good grounds for such an assumption.
All of this would be funny if it did not threaten to cause great human harm and stunt human flourishing. If the Swiss model spreads, for example, it could hobble the development of biotechnology and experimentation to improve crop yields. Indeed, a recent editorial about this in Nature News quoted a Swiss scientist worrying that “plant dignity” provides “another tool for opponents to argue against any form of plant biotechnology” despite the hope it offers to improve crop yields and plant nutrition.
What folly. We live in a time of cornucopian abundance and plenty, yet countless human beings are malnourished, even starving. In the face of this cruel paradox, worry about the purported rights of plants is the true immorality.
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