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half-finished, need input, due Tuesday 11am CST - love like me ・ 日記
non solum memento mori, memento vivere sed etiam
half-finished, need input, due Tuesday 11am CST
The Interests and Rights of Plants: What Sentience Implies

Do plants have rights? Conventional Western thinking dictates that they do not—that because plants are not sentient and cannot feel pain or pleasure, that it follows that they have no moral status, and therefore no rights. I intend to show that there are serious flaws with this means of deducing whether or not a being1 has moral status, thus inferring that plants indeed have rights.

According to accepted conventional wisdom, whether or not a being has moral status depends on its sentience, understood as a capacity to feel pleasure and pain. What it means to say that a being has moral status is to say that we as moral agents (as all humans are) have a moral obligation to respect its interests and not to violate any rights that it may have. I will come back to the issue of rights later, and for now focus on interests.

I. Interests. We have a moral obligation to respect the interests of sentient beings, specifically by not harming them or causing them undue pain. Clearly there is no controversy here in the case of humans: anyone would agree that humans are the types of beings whose interests must be respected, and it is also generally accepted that non-living objects do not have a moral status of their own. But the moral status of living beings other than humans is less clear, and anthropocentrist Western traditional thinking holds that it is only a charitable nature that would afford moral status to any non-human being. An argument of this form is stated in Peter Singer's Animal Liberation2:
1. If non-human animals have moral status, then all living beings (including plants) must have moral status.
2. If plants have moral status, then humans will be morally obligated to starve (in order to avoid harming them).
3. If non-human animals have moral status, then humans will be morally obligated to starve (from 1 and 2).
4. It cannot be the case that humans are morally obligated to starve.
5. Therefore, non-human animals do not have moral status (from 3 and 4).
But for Singer, as well as for many others, this conclusion is unacceptable despite the argument’s apparent validity. So he rejects the first proposition, citing that there is no reason to believe that plants have the capacity to feel pleasure or pain, thus are not sentient and therefore we have no moral obligations toward them, assuming that we only have moral obligations toward sentient beings.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that non-sentience implies that a being has no interests. Sentience implies the capacity to feel pain, which entails a subjective interest in avoiding pain. Thus it can be said that an identifying characteristic of sentient beings is the possession of at least this one crucial subjective interest. That is, having this one subjective interest in avoiding pain is both necessary and sufficient for sentience. Although sentient beings may have more subjective interests than this, I take this as the basic subjective interest upon which all other subjective interests must be based. Non-sentient beings do not have any subjective interests whatsoever, precisely because of this lack of capacity to feel pain3, but this does not lead to the conclusion that they do not have any interests at all.

On the contrary, I would put forth the bold claim that it is not even necessary to be living in order to have interests of an objective nature, insofar as every material object has a trivial interest in remaining whole and undamaged4. Living beings have an additional objective interest in sustaining their own life. To respect this objective interest means the same thing as it means to respect the subjective interest of sentient beings: namely, not to cause harm.

The question, then, becomes one of whether a being’s having interests entails a moral obligation on our part to respect those interests. My intuition is that it does, and I suspect that most people would agree with me.

II. Rights. In order to establish the necessary connection between interests and moral obligation, we must also ask whether having interests implies having rights. I assume here that it is uncontroversial to say that a being’s having rights entails a moral obligation on the part of moral agents to avoid violation and infringement of these rights whenever possible5, so that all it is necessary to establish is the elusive connection between interests and rights.

At this point it will be expedient to make explicit the hierarchy of physical things I have been referring to all along. Beings, which have life, are separate and distinct from objects, which do not. Non-sentient beings have life but not subjectivity, and sentient beings have both life and subjectivity6. Moral agents (humans) have not only life and subjectivity, but also responsibility for their actions that cannot be accounted for by mere sentience.

So when we ask what difference sentience makes in what rights an organism has, we are really asking what difference subjectivity makes. In higher animals, such as the mammals most people are familiar with, this subjectivity comes out in self-expression. Animals such as dogs, cats, horses, and cows have the ability to communicate their subjective interests to us, in at least a rudimentary fashion. However, most people do not assume that simply because fish, birds, and insects do not communicate with us as effectively that they do not have these same sorts of subjective interests, and the same sorts of rights that we afford to animals whose communication we can understand better. But plants do not communicate, at least in any deliberate way, and moreover they lack the subjectivity that makes up such a large part of human experience, thus we feel that we have nothing in common with plants, and therefore no moral obligations towards them. But this theory about human psychology, if it is valid at all, does not address the question of whether we actually do have a moral obligation not to infringe or violate the rights of plants, or whether plants have rights at all, nor does it excuse us if it turns out that they do.

1 For the purposes of this essay, “being” will mean any physical object that also has life.
2 I'd really like to be able to cite this, but the book has gone completely AWOL from the library, despite the fact that it's "checked in"... [footnote for me--if I can't cite it, this footnote will be deleted.]
3 Here we must operate under the assumption that a being that cannot feel pain cannot feel anything at all.
4 Whether or not this interest makes sense apart from the interests, subjective or objective, of living or sentient beings is another matter entirely.
5 This is where it becomes increasingly apparent that any interests of non-living objects are solely dependent on the interests of living beings.
6 It can be difficult to discern, biologically, whether sentience is present or not, especially in simpler organisms; nevertheless, the distinction is still a relevant and important one. I take it as a given that plants do not have sentience.

Notes on philosophical essays:
Yes, first person is okay. Yes, it's supposed to be repetitive. They call it "precision"--using the same terms over and over again ensures that you're not mixing things up or skewing logic by your word choices (or at least if you are, it's consistent).

Notes in general: This is supposed to be 2500 words long. It is currently *checks* 1170 words long. and quite honestly, I'm not quite sure what else to write. I mean, I've got a nifty little essay here that explains the biological theory of interests, so explains fully the interests of non-sentient organisms, and the paper says it proves that we have a moral obligation to plants, but damned if I can make the connection. I can explain the biological theory of interests later if somebody with stronger logic-fu than I would like to offer some help... Mainly what I want at this stage is for somebody to tell me if there's something in there that I haven't adequately explained.
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heyjana From: heyjana Date: Monday 22nd March 2004 06.45 (UTC) (Link)

Hey, this is really good! If I weren't so hungry, I'd be convinced, hehe.

typo? "..so that all it is necessary to establish is the elusive connection between interests and rights."
Wish I could help more, but you're obviously way better at this than I am.