Flora, Fauna and Ethics

Having spent many hours hacking away at vines and thorn bushes recently, I was especially interested in a recent TV program called What Plants Talk About. It turns out that plants behave like animals in many respects. For example, they hunt for food, although much more slowly than most animals. They also respond to injuries, sometimes by summoning assistance (for example, by releasing chemicals that attract predators who eat the bugs who are eating the plant). They even nurture their offspring in some cases.

This doesn’t mean that the plants do these things “on purpose”. They behave in ways that have been beneficial to their species. Of course, we believe that we do things “on purpose”.  But we‘re products of evolution too. We might not be so very different from plants and other animals.

Coincidentally, after watching What Plants Talk About, I came across a review of a book called Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. The author of the book apparently believes that plants have suffered from “ethical neglect” at the hands of us humans. The reviewer congratulates the author for “forcefully inserting the question of vegetable life into the mix of contemporary ethical discourse in philosophy”.

The idea that plants deserve ethical consideration sounds odd. Some philosophers would say that plants don’t need to be treated ethically, since they aren’t conscious. They don’t have nervous systems like us and presumably don’t feel pain. Yet they are living things. Should we avoid cutting down redwood trees or rose bushes simply because we appreciate their beauty or because they are part of the ecosystem? Or do they have the right to be left alone?

Nobody, even the author of Plant-Thinking, thinks that we shouldn’t eat plants. But perhaps we are obliged to treat them with respect. Maybe I shouldn’t have cut down all those vines and thorn bushes. I certainly don’t like the idea that they were calling for help as I cut them to pieces.

What Plants Talk About is here:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/what-plants-talk-about/preview/8228/

The book review is here (although I don’t recommend reading it — there is too much philosophical jargon): 

http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/39002-plant-thinking-a-philosophy-of-vegetal-life/

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