April 24, 2008

Don't think that they don't have feelings just 'cause a radish can't scream

GrowthOn ethics in the news I blog about the Dignity of the Carrot - Swiss federal law now requires researchers experimenting on plants to consider the dignity of plants. To define this concept the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology has created a set of guidelines that serve to muddle things nicely by refusing to be normative, yet aiming for some kind of vitalist beneficence.

The conclusion seems to be that we should respect plants as they are, we cannot truly own them, we should not hurt them unnecessarily and we shouldn't turn them into tools for our human desires. Tell that to Swiss agrobiotech companies, gardeners and vegans. And what to do about the Geneva flower clock?

The problem seems to be that plant dignity is largely cut loose from most social practice, the use of dignity in other domains and how our culture views human dignity. It hence becomes either an empty term, a moral purification for grant-writers and job-security for ethics experts, or a symbol for a particular romantic view of nature. But what about other views of nature? A garden is an interaction between human desires and designs and plant/animal adaptation, ideally something that enriches both. This kind of man-as-co-creator view does not seem well represented in the dignity guidelines, yet it is a valid position and can be defended using various ethical arguments. Can a proposal be rejected because it uses the wrong kind of plant dignity? Many ethical systems (such as many religious ones) rather clearly says that only humans possess dignity; if a proposal rejects plant dignity on confessional grounds, does rejecting the proposal imply religious discrimination?

I'm all for expanding circles of ethical concern, but that does not mean dignity is a good way of handling the value of nature. By using a concept strongly tied to sacrosanct human rights it also becomes inherently conservative.

But then again, I think we need more posthuman dignity - and if we are using dignity for plants, why not use a similar concept for enhancing plants? Wouldn't a Dyson tree have potential for great dignity?

Posted by Anders3 at April 24, 2008 09:14 PM