Along the same lines as my "On Sentimentality" post a few days ago, we have this news from Switzerland. Because I hate to have posts without pictures (yesterday's bothered me, but I'm not a good enough artist to draw imaginary plants, or most of the real plants either, for that matter, though I can handle kind of cartoonish Gasterias in a pinch), the pictures in the post aren't really related to anything. Though they are all bluish, because I can be at least that organized, I guess.
Late last April, the Ethics Committee of the Swiss government decided that not only must all scientific grant proposals include "a statement about the project’s impact on the dignity of the research subjects," a condition which had been going on for some time already, but that this condition would henceforth also apply to experimentation on plants as well as animals and humans. (Quote from here.)
I found out about this through IO9's recent post on the 2008 Ig Nobel Prizes. The Swiss ethics group was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize as a result of this change.
The trouble is that nobody can articulate quite what "plant dignity" would mean, practically speaking. A few brave souls have suggested that "plant dignity" might be mostly related to technologies that change the plant's relationship to the world in general, in a long-term kind of way, as for example by engineering a plant to be unable to set seed. Which sounds good for just as long as you can avoid thinking of seedless bananas and grapes, and then loses a lot of its appeal. When you eat a banana, do you really stop to think about whether you're respecting the banana, as you eat it? And even if you did think about the dignity of the banana, would it occur to you to consider seedlessness as being in any way relevant to the question?
The actual report released by the committee is not particularly helpful about what this means either. Vague, nice-sounding assertions were produced ("living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive."), and the "inherent worth" of individual plants asserted. The panel opined that no one can claim "absolute ownership" over plants, either individually or collectively, and then concluded with a steaming pile of "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." None of which is really all that useful on a practical level. Are they suggesting that the right of a corn plant (Zea mays, not Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana') to live supercedes the right of a human being to eat the seeds? If yes, then they seem to be suggesting that all of humanity should either starve to death or learn to subsist on petroleum products.1 Moral or not, this is at the very minimum going to be an unpopular position. If no, then how is one to consider the corn "morally for its own sake?"
But so okay.
Now, I'm not opposed to considerations of dignity in and of themselves. Certainly it's worth taking a little time, when designing an experiment with human subjects, to make sure that they aren't going to be embarrassed, disrespected or demeaned by it. Animals may not get embarrassed or feel disrespected, but we have pretty good reasons to believe that they feel emotions like fear, and sensations like pain.2 And we know that these are sucky feelings, so it makes sense to try to minimize them, when possible, even in creatures which aren't going to be able to say thank-you or reciprocate. So I'm fine with that, too. But what negative emotions or sensations do plants feel, that we could minimize? How would you be able to tell?3
I mean, dignity was already a problematic concept as applied to humans. The dictionary definitions I've run across, though kinda vague, seem to revolve a general concept of respect; one is dignified when one holds oneself in a way indicating self-respect, self-control. To be undignified is to be, mostly, powerless: one has to beg the more powerful for basic necessities or to escape punishment; one is embarrassed, one is humiliated, one is degraded. Dignity is when one refuses to beg, refuses to be embarrassed, refuses to be degraded. Which of these are options for plants? If you wanted to, how would you go about humiliating a Philodendron? What embarrasses a Hoya? How do you make a Nematanthus beg? How do you know?
So the Swiss are not helping.
Some of your more knee-jerk . . . er, jerks are decrying this as yet another example of woolly-headed liberal thinking run amok. And, you know, I'm a woolly-headed liberal from way back, and involuntarily feel bad for pretty much anybody from one-legged war orphans to wealthy closeted homosexual Republicans. And I admit there's an element of that that looks like Liberalism Unchained. But I don't think that's what the actual issue here is.
This all reads to me more like a power play by a really bored bureaucracy, to me. As best as I can tell, the only effect of this ruling is going to be to force researchers who never had to worry about such things before to make up shit they don't mean about how much they respect plants. Since this is more or less a meaningless thing to say, it amounts to little more than an unnecessary hoop in an already overly complex funding bureaucracy, and gives the bureaucrats maybe another excuse to decline to fund projects they don't like but can't come up with good reasons to reject. It won't lead to greater respect for plants, or greater dignity accorded to plants, until society reaches some kind of agreement about what this means on a physical, observable level.
Unless readers would like to suggest some criteria? Please. Tell me how to [dis-]respect plants in a way that would be provable to grant committees.
Photo credits: My own.
1 Some people, of course, have something of a head start on the subsistence-from-petroleum business. You know somebody is eating all those gummi bears and Twinkies.
2 The main reason to believe this is because we know that we do, and animals act the same way we act when hurt or frightened -- they make noise (often), try to get away from whatever causes the pain, avoid it thereafter, etc. Our closest relatives may well feel some of the more complex, social emotions we feel, too: shame, schadenfreude, suspicion, whatever.
3 (A good place to check might be ploops.com. As best as I can tell, it is the blog of a houseplant, though the plant in question is never identified. Judging by the attitude, I think there's a good chance the plant is/was an Agave.
BONUS ORPHANED FOOTNOTE from an earlier draft that I thought was too cool to delete but too tangential to be able to work into the main text:
4 Interesting but true: some of our machinery strikes us as easier to empathize with than plants and animals are. Sherry Turkle reports that she finds, in her research, that children who are thoroughly versed in the difference between things which are alive and things which are not, are reluctant to classify toys like the Furby or Tickle Me Elmo as being firmly in either category. They instead spontaneously create a new category, "kinda-alive," for life-like inanimate objects. Which actually strikes me as being perfectly sensible. It's not just kids: adults also do this when confronted with objects that are programmed to imitate living organisms; see this post at Boing Boing, or the comments thread at this Metafilter post about a video someone took of setting a Tickle Me Elmo on fire. The commenters call it "disturbing" and "really sad," and one of the early commenters says s/he feels "there should be a law against this, but I'm not sure why." Which would seem to indicate some latent feelings about robot dignity, which to me still makes more sense than plant dignity. Discuss among yourselves.