Considering the Lilies of the Field

Switzerland loses its dignity by dignifying plants

It’s sustainability week, and if you have been occupied with carbon-footprints, recycling, organic food, cage-free eggs, farmers’ markets, alternative energy, and global warming, then you should get off your high Prius because the Swiss have put you to shame. Last April, the Swiss government advanced the Green Movement light-years beyond the realm of sound judgment by establishing protection for the dignity of plants. Yes, that’s right, Switzerland—a country run by adults—has granted the right of dignity to plants.

The Monty-Pythonesque task of defining plants’ dignity was given, of course, to a twelve-person committee of scholars—the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH). The committee rose to the occasion by producing a 22-page report entitled: “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants. Moral consideration of plants for their own sake,” which went on to win the 2008 Ig Nobel Peace prize earlier this month.

As expected, the report’s findings range from the silly to the surreal. The committee concludes that individual plants are excluded from “absolute ownership” because “no one may handle plants according to his/her own desires,” and that genetic modification of plants is acceptable only if their reproductive ability is not affected—apparently, neutering of dogs is fine, but tearing the stamens off of flowers crosses the ethical line that binds all living beings together. Yet the most bizarre ruling is a unanimous decision by the committee that inflicting “arbitrary harm” on plants is “morally impermissible.” The report goes on to determine that “This treatment would include, e.g. decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason,” which means that in the eyes of the Swiss government, playing “she loves me, she loves me not” is roughly equivalent to torturing a small dog with a car battery.

Perhaps this should be expected. Switzerland already has animal protection laws ad absurdum. Last month, a set of laws went into effect that require canine owners to take a four-hour course before buying a dog, anglers to take a course on how to catch fish humanely, and pet owners to protect goldfish privacy by not having tanks be transparent on all sides. Only in a country that has discussions on goldfish privacy can the inherent dignity of plants be seriously considered.

Nonetheless, how can a group of well-educated individuals produce an ethical stance as silly as giving dignity to plants? Explanation can partly be attributed to the revelation in the report that “a minority of [committee] members considers it probable that plants are sentient.” Plants, for those of you who have forgotten, have no brains and no neurons. If they feel pain or experience some sort of consciousness, it is through a mechanism completely unknown to science. Yet the majority of the committee ruled that sentience is “morally relevant” because we cannot rule out the possibility of sentience. This is an utter bastardization of the skepticism that forms the foundation of modern science. We cannot prove that plants are not sentient. Similarly, we cannot prove that bacteria do not have opinions on the Iraq War or that algae don’t love. However, the traditional role of skepticism is to seek truth by discarding assumptions. The ECNH has reversed this practice by creating policy based on the implied existence of the unproven.

Besides this bad science, there is a fundamental absurdity in giving plants dignity while plenty of humans live without any. The United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that in 2002 nearly 1.1 billion people lived without sanitary water. Similarly, according to the WHO, 881,000 people died from malaria in 2006, 85 percent being children under five years of age. UNICEF also approximates the number of child soldiers to be nearly 300,000 worldwide. In light of these dangers facing people, who we empirically know to be sentient, defining dignity for plants and privacy for goldfish is a waste of time and utterly senseless.

Paradoxically, the ECNH was not unaware of the inherent silliness of its mission. One of ECNH’s members, Markus Schefer, a professor of constitutional and administrative law at the University of Basel, lamented to the Wall Street Journal, “We couldn’t start laughing and tell the government we’re not going to do anything about it.” Similarly, the report itself acknowledges, “The moral consideration of plants is considered to be senseless. Some people have warned that simply having this discussion at all is risible.”

Dear Switzerland: Yes, yes it is.

Steven T. Cupps ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.