Salad is murder!

So say that your favorite part of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was the Ents. Say that you are huge fan of Veggietales at 40. Say you can't bring yourself to eat baby carrots, and that you have a deeper interest in topiary than is perhaps entirely healthy. You must be frustrated by the lack of people who will speak out for your herbaceous friends. Who out there will be innovative enough, brave enough, and morally frivolous enough to stand up for the rights of vegetation?

Thank God for Europeans.

Via multiple sources, I see that the Swiss — puzzled by a provision in their own constitution requiring "account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms" — convened a the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to produce a report called "The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants." I can honestly say that I have not read a more thoughtful moral inquiry into the question of whether leafy green things are people too.

First of all, I'd like to point out that it is possible that this Swiss committee is proceeding based on information and insights not available to most of us, or at least not without the aid of certain of our photosynthetic colleagues:

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
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.

Anyway, the report is extensive and beautiful. The Committee took great pains to explain its decision-making process, including an elaborate decision tree. (Query: is that appropriate? Is it herbist, like a racial slur? How do the trees feel about being used in a middle management analogy?) Points of agreement and disagreement are noted in great detail.

There was "great agreement" about one thing: no bogarting the salad bar:

The great majority of the ECNH members
holds the opinion that prima facie
we do not possess unrestricted power
over plants. 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. A minority
of the members is of the opinion that
prima facie we may use plants as we
please, as long as the plant community
or the species is not in danger and
we are not acting arbitrarily.

But what are the limits? That's far less clear:

A clear majority understands treating
plants with restraint to mean not damaging
or destroying plants for no rational
reason. For a smaller majority
it also means that we are required to
treat plants carefully and considerately
and to limit their use and exploitation.

The Swiss use as an example the notion that a farmer may plow his field, but not chop down flowers for no reason on the way home. That's irrational. But how much of plant use is rational? Is buying a dozen roses rational? Not in a scientific and objective sense, only in a cultural and subjective sense. How is garnish rational? Are sprigs of parsley grisly trophies of our inhumanity to plant, irrationally decorating our plates?

Read the entire report. I have no doubt that some of the issues they are dancing around — those surrounding biotechnology — are serious. But most of the discussion seems to me transcendentally silly. Note that the majority rejects attributing moral value based on sentience or capacity for reason, choosing to find it based on life alone. By this measure don't we have some moral obligation towards bacteria?

Pardon me, now, I need to go Godwinize my lawn.


Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Astonied says

    Is an eggplant a fruit or vegetable?d Let me know so I can save it from certain death.