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Welcome To The Age
Of Preposterous Reasoning:
Defending The Dignity Of Plants

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 17, 2008

One of the reasons the world is in such terrible shape is that we have lost the capacity as a civilization to make distinctions. We owe a hat tip to Lorri Koster, Co-Chairman, Board of Directors, Vice President, Marketing at Mann Packing, for passing on this incredible piece from The Wall Street Journal:

SWITZERLAND’S GREEN POWER REVOLUTION:
ETHICISTS PONDER PLANTS’ RIGHTS

Who Is to Say Flora Don’t Have Feelings? Figuring Out What Wheat Would Want

ZURICH — For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?

That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity. …

Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light.

The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.

“We couldn’t start laughing and tell the government we’re not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”

In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on “the moral consideration of plants for their own sake.” It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.”…

Many scientists interpret the dignity rule as applying mainly to field trials like Dr. Keller’s, but some worry it may one day apply to lab studies as well. Another gripe: While Switzerland’s stern laws defend lab animals and now plants from genetic tweaking, similar protections haven’t been granted to snails and drosophila flies, which are commonly used in genetic experiments.

It also begs an obvious, if unrelated question: For a carrot, is there a more mortifying fate than being peeled, chopped and dropped into boiling water?

“Where does it stop?” asks Yves Poirier, a molecular biologist at the laboratory of plant biotechnology at the University of Lausanne. “Should we now defend the dignity of microbes and viruses?”

Seeking clarity, Dr. Poirier recently invited the head of the Swiss ethics panel to his university. In their public discussion, Dr. Poirier said the new rules are flawed because decades of traditional plant breeding had led to widely available sterile fruit, such as seedless grapes. Things took a surreal turn when it was disclosed that some panel members believe plants have feelings, Dr. Poirier says. …

Crazy Talk?

Several years ago, when Christof Sautter, a botanist at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology, failed to get permission to do a local field trial on transgenic wheat, he moved the experiment to the U.S. He’s too embarrassed to mention the new dignity rule to his American colleagues. “They’ll think Swiss people are crazy,” he says….

New Constitution

In another unusual move, the people of Ecuador last month voted for a new constitution that is the first to recognize ecosystem rights enforceable in a court of law. Thus, the nation’s rivers, forests and air are no longer mere property, but right-bearing entities with “the right to exist, persist and…regenerate.”

Dr. Keller in Zurich has more mundane concerns. …

One morning recently, he stood by a field near Zurich where the three-year trial with transgenic wheat is under way. His observations suggest that the transgenic wheat does well in the wild. Yet Dr. Keller’s troubles aren’t over.

In June, about 35 members of a group opposed to the genetic modification of crops, invaded the test field. Clad in white overalls and masks, they scythed and trampled the plants, causing plenty of damage.

“They just cut them,” says Dr. Keller, gesturing to wheat stumps left in the field. “Where’s the dignity in that?”

It is easy to make fun of the lunacy here. Yet it is not half as crazy as it is a logical outgrowth of decisions made long ago.

When western civilization became uncomfortable with religion… when it became unwilling to see the world through a traditional Judeo/Christian lens… when it no longer believed that there was such a thing as a soul… it was left to look for alternative explanations.

Initially the argument was that value comes from possessing intellectual abilities that make one a rational being — a person. It was just a small step from this to a belief that profoundly mentally retarded people, for example, have no rights as a person. Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton, has made the case that killing an infant is nowhere near as serious a moral issue as killing an adult. Singer argues that infants simply lack all theessential characteristics to be deemed "persons" — “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness” — and as such “simply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person.”

Even this claim, though, is a thin reed to lean on. After all, on what basis do we exalt cognitive abilities? Why are these traits more important or valued than physical strength? This is the soil in which the animal rights movement grows. When initially passed, our many laws preventing cruelty to animals were not focused on concerns about animal well-being, they were focused on the notion that it is dehumanizing to be cruel to animals, and if we inure ourselves with such cruelty, surely we will be cruel to men next.

The animal rights movement changed this around. Animals now have rights of their own and human beings have no right to transgress them.

Yet, once again, this is not a distinction likely to hold. Why should it matter that one is an animal as opposed to a vegetable? Why is sentience a morally significant factor? Aren’t we just valuing it because we possess it?

So as night follows day we find people thinking as this Swiss law reflects. Not so much because sensible people actually believe that plants have rights, but because these same sophisticated people would feel ridiculous saying that God ordained something else, they would think themselves brutish if they said that humans get to rule because humans can… in effect they have lost the ability to defend their own civilization.

The irony is that these exquisitely sensitive and morally aware people will one day be crushed by barbarians who will care not a whit for these values. There is something profoundly troubling about a culture that so values tolerance that it allows itself to be destroyed by the intolerant.

You can read the report, The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake right here.

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