The Intrinsic Value of Plants

May 7, 2017 – 10:20 pm

The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology has issued a report, “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants,” which declares that the ‘dignity’ of plants must be considered in our handling of them. Apparently “living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive” and plants are living organisms. Since according to this argument their moral relevance doesn’t derive from their being able to think or even to feel pain or pleasure, it seems that we have to understand that what makes them relevant is that, as living things, they have per ipso facto solo intrinsic moral value.

But why should this be so? I can only assume that the Swiss Committee is under the influence of a very poor argument that the Deep Greens use to justify their claim that non-sentient, non-human, even inanimate things can have intrinsic value. The ‘argument’ they offer is just some variation on a simple thought experiment, which goes like this:

Imagine the universe without people: would it be better or worse if it had rocks, trees, butterflies in it?

Stated this way you might think, yes, it’d be nicer if there were rocks, or trees, or butterflies. And if you’re prepared to admit this then, since the world is better with those things, and there are no humans, then there can be higher and lower values in a world without humans. So those values can’t derive from the intrinsic value of humans. So the values must be intrinsic to the things in the world without humans. So there is an intrinsic value rocks, and trees, and butterflies, and to anything else you might name. But beware! In expressing your preference for a world in which there were those things, you are just expressing your preference between two possible worlds if you were there to make the judgement, whereas the experiment in its setup says you are not there. So, let’s rephrase the experiment.

Imagine you did not exist: in that case would you prefer to not exist in a world with rocks, trees, butterflies, or in one without?

Here the idea of a preference is obviously incoherent. Like many philosophical thought experiments the ‘Last Man Argument’ (the name comes from an earlier version) trades upon an impossibility or an illusion to convince you of its point (e.g. ‘imagine you are a bat,’ ‘suppose you know all there is to know about colour vision,’ ‘suppose you’ve memorized a program that is some human’s Turing Machine,’ etc.) Until a better argument is provided we should resist accepting a claim of universal intrinsic value that has the effect of giving the same moral status to humans and rocks – which is to say, no status at all.


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