03 January 2004

Do Plants Have Rights?

Believe it or not, I wrote a term paper with that title in a graduate philosophy course at Wayne State University (while I was in law school). The professor, Bruce Russell, must have thought I was crazy, but he allowed me to do it, for which I am grateful. Today I received an interesting e-mail from Steve Walsh, who gave me permission to reproduce it here (with his name):
Professor Burgess-Jackson, I've just begun reading at the Animal Ethics blog and am writing in the hope that you can point me in the right direction. Intrigued by some of the posts about vegetarianism, veganism, and the other general attempts to persuade against eating meat, I am curious to find more writing on this topic, but with a specific idea in mind. I've always thought of the various forms of life as a sort of linear continuum: amoebas at one end and human beings at the other. Along the way we have bacteria, virus, fungus, plants, insects, and animals; more or less in that order from lesser (left) to higher (right). We (I?) distinguish these different forms by such things as sentience (perceived), self-consciousness, communication ability, mobility, and appearance. With this in mind I have always evaluated the morality of killing from a very simple point of view: everything to the right of the animals (ie; humans) is morally unacceptable and everything to the left of humans is morally okay. Whether I actually kill things (directly or indirectly) depends on my perceived utility of doing so. Thus using disinfectants to kill bacteria, taking anti-viral medications, using anti-fungal solvents has never been a problem. My killing of insects & other critters depends on whether they are being a nuisance or otherwise serving no immediate purpose (mosquitoes, spiders, bees, ants, rodents). With my continuum in mind, the question, in a couple of different forms, that I am trying to answer is this: what is the difference between killing animals and plants for food? What is the difference between killing animals for food and killing bacteria to prevent illness? I know you get a ton of mail but if you could suggest some reading on this topic I would appreciate it. Regards, Steve
Thanks for writing, Steve. Your question is a good one. Here is how philosophers put it: Which entities have moral status, and why? Assuming that some entities have moral status and others do not, what's the morally relevant difference? What is it that all the entities with moral status have that all the entities without moral status lack?

For some philosophers, the morally relevant difference is sentience, or the capacity to suffer. This is Peter Singer's view. He says that being sentient is both necessary and sufficient for having interests. (In other words, the class of sentient beings and the class of beings with interests is the same class.) Compare a stone and a mouse. There is nothing I can do to the stone that matters to it. It can't feel pain. It can't be deprived of liberty. But a mouse can feel pain, and pain is bad, so what I do to the mouse matters to it. Since the mouse has interests (specifically, an interest in not suffering), it has moral status. This is not to say that the mouse has the same interests as a human. I have an interest in participating in the political system. The mouse does not, since it cannot. Also, I'm a moral agent. The mouse is a moral patient. It can be acted on, morally, but cannot act, morally. I am responsible for my conduct in a way that a mouse is not. Strictly speaking, I am both a moral agent and a moral patient. The mouse is only a moral patient.

Since plants are not sentient, they lack interests, according to Singer. He devotes two pages of Animal Liberation to the topic. The reason he addresses it is to cut off a certain objection to the idea that nonhuman animals have moral status. Someone might reason as follows:
1. If nonhuman animals have moral status, then so do plants.

2. If plants have moral status, then humans will (have to) starve.


3. If nonhuman animals have moral status, then humans will (have to) starve (from 1 and 2).

4. It can't be the case that humans will (have to) starve.


5. Nonhuman animals do not have moral status (from 3 and 4).
Singer rejects 5, so, since the inferences appear to be valid, he must reject one or more of the premises: 1, 2, or 4. He rejects 1. (This is not to say that he accepts 2; he could reject it as well.) Nonhuman animals can have moral status even though plants (and perhaps some rudimentary animals, such as oysters, worms, and insects) do not. The difference, as I said, is sentience. "There is no reliable evidence that plants are capable of feeling pleasure or pain" (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2d ed. [New York: The New York Review of Books, 1990], 235).

Singer goes on to ask what would follow if we became convinced that plants feel pain. It wouldn't follow that we must starve. What would follow is that we should minimize the amount of pain we cause in the course of preserving our lives. Since plants would presumably feel less pain than nonhuman animals, we would have a moral obligation to eat plants instead of animals. Indeed, if we truly cared about plants, he said, we would give up meat, which requires far more plants than we would need if we ate the plants directly. Meat is wasteful.

Singer's view is not the only view. Another is that plants, like animals, have moral status (even rights, provided we understand the concept properly). Not because they're sentient, but because they have a good of their own. Here is Paul W. Taylor:
Once we separate the objective value concept of a being's good from subjective value concepts, there is no problem about understanding what it means to benefit or harm a plant, to be concerned about its good, and to act benevolently toward it. We can intentionally act with the aim of helping a plant to grow and thrive, and we can do this because we have genuine concern for its well-being. As moral agents we might think of ourselves as under an obligation not to destroy or injure a plant. We can also take the standpoint of a plant and judge what happens to it as being good or bad from its standpoint. To do this would involve our using as the standard of evaluation the preservation or promotion of the plant's own good. Anyone who has ever taken care of flowers, shrubs, or trees will know what these things mean. (Paul W. Taylor, Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986], 67-8)
As the title of Taylor's book suggests, he advocates an attitude of respect for nature: for each living organism (animal or plant) as well as for entire populations and biotic communities. Actions are right to the extent that (and only to the extent that) they express or embody this "ultimate moral attitude" (page 84).

Now obviously something must give, for if every living organism has an inherent worth that must be respected, and if respect means not killing or using an organism, then no human will survive. (Remember: Nonhuman animals are not moral agents, so they are not morally responsible for what they do. The question is how humans should conduct themselves.) So Taylor must provide rules that minimize and resolve conflicts between organisms. Here are his four rules:
1. Nonmaleficence. This prohibits the doing of harm.

2. Noninterference. This requires us to leave organisms and ecosystems alone.

3. Fidelity. This forbids humans to break trust with individual animals (by hunting them, for example).

4. Restitutive justice. This requires restoration of the "balance of justice" when one of the previous rules has been broken.
Taylor goes on to provide priority rules for when these first-order rules conflict. Rule 1, for example, takes priority over the others. This is similar to the medical injunction, primum non nocere (first, do no harm).

Conflicts between organisms are inevitable. As Taylor puts it, "Not only must humans make use of the natural environment and thereby compete with animals and plants that might also need that environment as their habitat and food source, but humans must also directly consume some nonhumans in order to survive" (page 257). So Taylor rejects premise 2 of the argument presented earlier. The person who adopts an attitude of respect for nature (called biocentrism) will not automatically prefer the interests of humans to the interests of other organisms (called anthropocentrism). He or she will strive to accommodate all interests. This will mean limiting human population, reducing consumption, and being wise in the use of technology. Biocentrism sees humans as just another species, with no special claim on the earth's resources.

It might be thought that this leaves us where we were, with humans doing as they please. It does not. Most people say that nonhuman animals and plants have no moral status, whereas humans do. Taylor says that all organisms have moral status. This shifts the burden to those who would harm other organisms. What didn't need justification now needs justification. Most people are anthropocentrists. Taylor's biocentrism would require vast changes in our lives and in society. Compare the changes in thought, attitude, and behavior toward slaves before and after they were freed. Before they were freed, certain things could be done to them with impunity. After they were freed, these things could not be done. Becoming a member of the legal or moral community makes a great deal of difference to how one is (may be) treated.

I haven't begun to plumb the depths of Taylor's fine book. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic.