‘Plants rights’? The latest evolutionary absurdity
Published: 30 April 2009 (GMT+10)
Have you mowed your lawn lately? If so, you may have committed a grave ‘plants rights’ crime, according to the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Biotechnology. In what reads like a clever parody, their twenty-four page report argues that plants may well be deserving of nearly the same reverence a human life is due (of course, in practice, these hypocrites would treat plants with greater reverence than human lives, see below).
This panel had considerable difficulty coming to a conclusion about where exactly plants stood on the moral spectrum. Some argued that plants are outside the moral community, and others argued that the implications of treating plants with the same ethical status as animals would make life very inconvenient. But some argued with self-righteous passion that plants should not be harmed without ‘justification’ (whatever that means), on the grounds that they ‘strive for something’ (e.g. to develop, to reproduce), and that they are a lot like us on the molecular level.
By page 5 of the report, everyone eventually came to the agreement that plants should not be arbitrarily harmed. The committee argued that plants have interests, and so decisions involving the harming or killing of plants should consider the plant’s own inherent value. In addition, the entire committee agreed that “plant communities always have an instrumental and a relational value” (p. 8), but somewhat confusingly say that plant collectives have no inherent worth.
Of course, the issue of the sentience of plants had to be raised. Almost half of the panel doubted that plants know what is going on around them. However, the majority either thought that plants might very well be sentient or they considered the question fundamentally unanswerable.
The panel eventually concluded that we may not treat plants just as we please (rutabagas have feelings too!) This is the case ‘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’ (p. 10). The basis for this belief is biocentric for most of the members, meaning that an organism has inherent value because it is alive (p. 13). No one took the ‘theocentric’ view, which holds that individuals have value because of their relationship to God. This means that there can be no absolute ownership of plants, among other things (p. 20). This may very well mean that the houseplant by your window is suffering the equivalent of slavery.
The Hypocrisy of Plant (and Animal) Rights
If Europe had a stellar record when it came to human rights, perhaps all this debating about whether picking flowers constitutes decapitation (and people criticize the Bible for using anthropomorphisms!) could be dismissed as a sort of political senility. But this is a continent which faces rampant anti-Semitism in France and throughout Europe, the immigration of Middle-Eastern people who have vastly different conceptions of women s rights, and the modern slave trade in Europe, among other human rights issues. For all the hype about ‘human rights’ from this same ‘intelligentsia’ (see When will Europe wake up?, and The Christian foundations of the rule of law in the West), isn’t it both absurd and hypocritical to spend time and resources debating whether plants can suffer pain like humans do, when there are real human rights issues which need to be addressed? And most of these people who are supposedly ‘biocentric’ probably would allow unborn humans to be killed, although they are undeniably alive and human, and are even capable of feeling pain. In Switzerland, one in eight pregnancies ends in abortion.
G.K. Chesterton: “plants rights”—reductio ad absurdum of evolutionary morality
Ironically, the great apologist G.K. Chesterton predicted a century ago the move toward plant rights when he discussed animal rights (although he can hardly have been serious when he did), and he connected it to the belief in evolution:
I use the word humanitarian in the ordinary sense, as meaning one who upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity. They suggest that through the ages we have been growing more and more humane, that is to say, that one after another, groups or sections of beings, slaves, children, women, cows, or what not, have been gradually admitted to mercy or to justice … I am here only following the outlines of their argument, which consists in maintaining that man has been progressively more lenient, first to citizens, then to slaves, then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants. I think it wrong to sit on a man. Soon, I shall think it wrong to sit on a horse. Eventually (I suppose) I shall think it wrong to sit on a chair. That is the drive of the argument. And for this argument it can be said that it is possible to talk of it in terms of evolution or inevitable progress. A perpetual tendency to touch fewer and fewer things might–one feels, be a mere brute unconscious tendency, like that of a species to produce fewer and fewer children. This drift may be really evolutionary, because it is stupid.1
Chesterton goes on to argue that one can use an evolutionary view to be insanely humane to everything, because you are related to everything, or that it can be used to be insanely cruel to everything else. Either all life is as sacred as human life, or all life is as worthless as grass. In practice, the grass is often held in higher esteem than human life (and this may soon cease to be hyperbole!). But to hold a proper view of nature, one must go back to the Garden of Eden, because any starting point other than Creation leads to either Nazis or nature-worshippers (there is always the possibility for ‘blessed inconsistency’, but we are speaking of those who are consistent).
Indeed, Chesterton could see the funny side of the logic of the materialist:
There was Mr. Edward Carpenter, who thought we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do. And Edward Carpenter was followed by James Pickie, D.D. (of Pocohontas College), who said that men were immensely improved by grazing, or taking their food slowly and continuously, after the manner of cows. And he said that he had, with the most encouraging results, turned city men out on all fours in a field covered with veal cutlets. Then Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr. Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed (“shedding,” as he called it finely, “the green blood of the silent animals”), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called “Why should Salt suffer?” and there was more trouble.2
In essence, the ‘biocentric’ view is just nature worship dressed up in modern scientific and philosophical language (and that not even very well). But the elevation of nature in practice means the demotion of the importance of human life.
The Absurdity of Plant Rights
Christians can agree that animals should not be mistreated gratuitously, so in that sense there can be some common ground with animal rights activists, though all instances of commonality with animal rights occur within the sphere of animal welfare, which means that though we oppose the gratuitous mistreatment of animals, we do realize that humankind has authority over animals, and that animals can permissibly be used in ways which cause their illness (such as in medical research), pain, or death in order to advance human interests. But there can be no commonality between Christians who hold a biblical view of creation and that of plant rights, simply because the question is so absurd. Plants have no sentience and cannot feel pain; they show no evidence of actual or potential consciousness.
The Biblical Account
God created all plants on Day 3, on the same day as dry land. Then He explicitly gave them as the diet of both humans and animals in Genesis 1:29–30. (God defined the pre-Fall human diet more specifically in Genesis 2:16–17, where He gives Adam and Eve permission to eat from everything in the Garden of Eden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2:16–17.) So, in the pre-Fall world, before there was death of any living thing, Adam and Eve and the animals were permitted to eat plants, which on a strictly biological level could mean that some plants ‘died’. This must mean that plants are alive in a different sense than humans; and indeed, the Bible never refers to them by the Hebrew phrase נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (nephesh chayyāh) “living souls” or “living creatures”. See also The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe—Hugh Ross’s blunders on plant death in the Bible.
In the Fall, plants were affected as was the rest of creation, so that now people cannot get food as easily from plants as they could before the Fall, making it necessary for us to work harder to feed ourselves. Plants seem to be the only sanctioned food source until after the global Flood in Noah’s day. When God gave the promise that He would never flood the earth again, He also gave humans permission to eat meat in the same way that He had given permission to eat plants before the Fall (Genesis 9:3).
Yet in the quasi-Edenic prophecy in Isaiah 11 and 65, plants will be the food of lions and wolves as well—see The carnivorous nature and suffering of animals for more detailed exegesis. Indeed, we see hints of that today (something that occurs sometimes now—see the articles under Is it possible for animals that are carnivorous in our world today to have survived in a pre-sin world without eating meat?).
Christians do not need to worry about whether picking fruit constitutes stealing from the tree it grew on, or whether their children are involved in decapitation when they pick wildflowers. Plants are a fundamentally different form of life than animals, and have no consciousness or ability to feel pain. They only ‘strive after something’, to use the language of the committee (p. 5, see also p. 17), in the sense that they automatically follow the biological processes they are created to perform. Christians should rather be concerned about the welfare of human beings, who are created in God’s image.
- Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy, Ch. 7, “The Eternal Revolution“, 1908. Return to text.
- Chesterton, G.K., The Napoleon of Notting Hill, ch. 1, Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy, 1904. Return to text.