The Dignity of the Carrot

What are you allowed to do to plants? At least in Switzerland you are not allowed to do research that deeply offend the dignity of plants. The Swiss federal Gene Technology Law stipulates that any scientific research should respect the "dignity of creation". All plant biotechnology grant applications must now state how they take plant dignity into consideration, confusing researchers.  The Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) have issued some guidelines (pdf) which make the situation even more confusing. Neither humans nor plants are likely to be helped.

The guidelines give a fine overview of ethical considerations related to the value of plants in themselves (rather than to humans or in relation to anything else). It contains a "decision tree" of issues  that should more properly be called a "consideration tree". Unfortunately this branching tree of possibilities is open for a wide choice of opinions, some of which are clearly contrary to the conclusions of the committee (which anyway did not settle for any particular normative "right" position) yet plausibly could be valid and well-argued ethical positions. Many ethical theories do not accept that plants have any rights in themselves – should grant bodies refuse an otherwise fine proposal because it uses the wrong ethical system? It could become a very interesting freedom of belief legal case.

The main problem is the lack of clear examples of plants being handled in undignified ways. Such examples would have given the guidelines more normative heft. One of the few examples given is "terminator technology", modifying plants so that their offspring are sterile. Does this imply that seedless grapes or any of the other commonly used agricultural plants that do not reproduce sexually are an affront to the dignity of creation? Should researchers try to help naturally asexually reproducing species to reproduce in a more dignified manner?

It is interesting that the majority of the committee thought plants both as species and individuals were excluded from absolute ownership. This would suggest that bio-piracy and maybe stealing fruit is morally acceptable, something which other Swiss laws likely do not accept as right.

This respect for plant dignity does not extend much outside science (or rather, the ethics committee). While most rules about handling animals apply regardless on whether they are in a lab or are someone’s pet, it seems that Swiss gardeners are allowed to do whatever they want to their plants. They can treat plants as instruments, create new ecological relationships or arbitrarily harm or destroy them (for example when weeding) with no legal repercussions. It is also hard to come up with a less dignified treatment than being cooked and eaten, yet this is the fate of many vegetables.

Overall, this is a clear example of a law extending outside its intended borders and forcing the introduction of ethical regulations that have no anchoring in social reality. The concept of dignity has a long and rich history but it is often used merely as a profound-sounding stand-in for more everyday ethical concepts such as respect. In most actual usage dignity (human or otherwise) is defined in terms of cultural connotations, case law and historical associations. A construction of "plant dignity" with no such defined usage and unclear intent beyond general beneficence will not have much meaning. Forcing researchers to respect the dignity of plants in proposals is more of a purification ritual than a real ethical concern. Unfortunately this kind of ethics for ethics sake undermines real moral consideration.

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