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.
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:
the universe without people: would it be better or worse if it had rocks,
trees, butterflies in it?
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.
you did not exist: in that case would you prefer to not exist in a world
with rocks, trees, butterflies, or in one without?
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.