Edelweiss Has Rights, Too

If we’re at all edgy here at Slaw, it’s likely to be at the lip of the technology cliff that we’re writing. But a small piece in today’s Globe and Mail sent me hareing off to the edge of the known world of rights. The article referred to the fact that Switzerland had recently changed its constitution to protect the dignity of plant life, which, if true, would take the already difficult business of rights one step beyond Lemmings’ Leap.

What’s put the Swiss Republic into the news this time is an upcoming popular referendum (March 7) on whether domesticated animals should have legal representation under certain circumstances. I’ve been unable to find the wording of the initiative, but you can read the Swiss federal government arguments against it [PDF]. Laws aimed at bettering the condition of animals are nothing new, of course, though it is said that the current Swiss laws already go beyond what is usual in Western countries. Indeed, the canton of Zurich has appointed an “animal advocate.” Antoine F. Goetschel has a general practice, only part of which consists of looking after the rights of fauna.

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has been arguing for animal rights for decades, his most influential work being Animal Liberation. A utilitarian, Singer maintains that animals should be included with human beings when considering what is the greatest good for the greatest number. Unsurprisingly, his views have been challenged, particularly by those in law, because, although his view of rights is not the same as that used by lawyers, the focus in law on the rights of individual human beings makes his views difficult, certainly at the extremes. It’s well worth it to go back to 2001 and look at the Singer / Richard Posner debates in Slate Magazine, in which Posner had the last word, literally:

I wish to end by recording my high personal and professional regard for you. I admire the clarity of your thought and your intellectual courage in pursuing the logic of your philosophy all the way—to its unacceptable conclusions.

Plants, however, are another matter. After you’ve become a vegetarian, there’s nowhere else to go. Or is there? And what, exactly, does the Swiss constitution say about plants?

Article 120 concerns itself with “Non-human gene technology” (so it turns out to be the techcliff we teeter on, after all), and it says in full:

1 Human beings and their environment shall be protected against the misuse of gene technology.

2 The Confederation shall legislate on the use of reproductive and genetic material from animals, plants and other organisms. In doing so, it shall take account of the dignity of living beings as well as the safety of human beings, animals and the environment, and shall protect the genetic diversity of animal and plant species.

It is the “dignity of living beings” passage, given the rest of the paragraph, that has been interpreted as being inclusive of plants. Me, I’m not so sure that’s the right interpretation, though English is not an official language, so I’m looking at a translation. The original German, French, and Italia of the key phrase are as follows: Würde der Kreatur; l’intégrité des organismes vivants; dignità della creatura (the Rumantsch version appears not to be available online).

But I’m also not as “scandalized” as I might have supposed I would be by the notion that plants have, or should have, “dignity.” (The Swiss federal constitution, by the way, repays reading, particularly the lengthy portion on rights.) To get a sense of where the tree huggers are coming from — or going, I suppose — take a look at The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for their Own Sake [PDF], by the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnics. This is a remarkable document, clear, rational and thought-provoking.

The image below is the “decision tree,” meant, as the document says, to be an aid to understanding the structure of the discussion in the Swiss publication. (Click on it to see an enlarged version.)

Some of the unanimous or majority conclusions reached by The Committee are as follows:

1. Arbitrariness: The Committee members unanimously consider an arbitrary harm caused to plants to be morally impermissible. This kind of treatment would include, e.g. decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason. . . .

3. Ownership of plants: For the majority . . . plants – as a collective,asaspecies, or as individuals – are excluded for moral reasons from absolute ownership. . . .

5. Patenting: For the majority the ethical justification of patenting plants is a qustion of social ethics. It is not one involving the consideration of plants for their own sake and therefeore not the object of this discussion. . . .

7. Proportionality: A majority considers any action with or towards plants that serves the self-preservation of humans to be morally justified, as long as it is appropriate and follows the principle of precaution. . . .

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