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.


Faust said...

How do we know they are not sentient? What do we know of the phenomenal world of plants? Or of ants? Or of snakes? I've linked to it before I think but I'm at least somewhat sympathetic to Dennet's take on these issues:


In particular his passage noting that:

"It is, in fact, ridiculously easy to induce powerful intuitions of not just sentience but full-blown consciousness (ripe with malevolence or curiosity or friendship) by exposing people to quite simple robots made to move in familiar mammalian ways at mammalian speeds."

We have no idea how our own "experience" works, such that we cannot tell by 3rd person analysis whether or not a comatose patient is "shut in" or completely unconscious.

None of which is to say that we should therefore be cavalier in our treatment of animals. It is simply to suggest that there are an awful lot of assumptions and projections that fly around in the vicinity of these questions. Given the simplicty of insect life, and its distance from ours, I see no reason to think they have a experiential life that is isn't basically on par with that of plants, an effectively "zombie" level phenomenology. Or maybe they BOTH have more of a phenomenology than we realize.

The difficulty of drawing a line though these issues can cut the other way. Some, like David Chalmers, have serious suggested that it may be reasonable to conclude, given the difficulty of analyzing phenomenal properites via "structure and function" that some kind of pansychism might be true.

In any case the notion that "plants feel" can be absurd or reasonable depending on what you think you are measuring and where you draw the line.

I'm very curious to see how you deal with your version of the "respect" category/concept. I hope that it provides and alternative to "sentience" which I think is far too unstable a category given our lack of understanding of how consciousness works.

s. wallerstein said...

The article shows what is fascinating about the whole animal-plant rights debate: there are no set answers to fall back on; you can't look up what the experts say in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; you have to think on your feet.

Wayne said...

I think there is an assumption of intention here that isn't really warranted. Plants don't pursue their own goals, any more than my ipod.

There was this PBS special on Michael Pollan's book the Botany of Desire... The whole thesis of the book and show was that plants are using humans to their evolutionary advantage. Again... assumes intention. Even worse, it assumes evolution with intention behind it, which would lead us back to some kind evolutionary guiding hand.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, No assumption of intention is made by Taylor. The crucial question for him is whether an individual "has a good of its own." A book, for example, really doesn't. It's no better for a book to be read than to be used as a decoration. But plants and animals are both different. It might be that we take sentience so seriously not only because suffering is bad (etc) but because its an indication of this more abstract thing--having a good of one's own. It seems to me there's something to this...

Faust, I try to say when we should say "probably conscious" by borrowing some ideas from Chalmers...but not that stuff about panpsychism. 'Tis a tricky topic. If only I weren't behind in absolutely all holiday-related matters, I'd sit here and think about it some more! Maybe later...

Melissa said...

Interesting article. I recall my hairstylist telling me once about a client who begged to have a vase of flowers brought out from another room in the salon/spa. She said the flowers were "screaming." (The hairstylist thought she was insane.)

But you know, I often think trees are entitled to some kind of moral status. (Julia Butterfly Hill would no doubt state the same.)
In fact, I feel quite guilty for buying a live (now dead)Christmas tree this year.