Tuesday, December 22, 2009
This column by Natalie Angier may seem like a silly attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but actually raises interesting questions. What Angier shows is that plants pursue their own good in something like the way that animals do. No, they're not sentient, but why do we think sentience is necessary for moral status? It's at least conceivable that the more basic thing is "having a good of one's own," as the philosopher Paul Taylor puts it in his book Respect for Nature. Higher animals pursue their good with the help of sentience, but it's having a good of one's own that marks our a special class of entities deserving of respect, not sentience per se. If that's right, then we seriously need to allow that respect comes in degrees (as I think it does), or we won't be able to explain why brussels sprouts are a better choice for dinner than cats or kids.