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Plants and interests

[Joel] Feinberg suggested having interests “presupposes at least rudimentary cognitive equipment” and that plants and trees have “no conscious wants or goals of their own.” So, “there is no possibility of kind or cruel treatment of trees.” [“The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations”]

The exclusion of plants from the realm of interest-capable entities is (perhaps necessarily) animal kingdom-centric. We have some qualifications for judging what would count as conation in animals but what are our credentials for doing the same regarding plants? Don’t plants engage in perfectly rational behavior—albeit at slower than a snail’s pace? (But what does speed have to do with it?) Branches grow toward the sun, roots toward moisture; recent research seems to indicate some trees even seem to communicate danger (in the form of disease or infestation) to other trees through the release of chemicals into the air (which apparently causes relatively rapid defensive metabolistic changes). Is this communication? you ask. Well, how would we know? Through some objectively observable functionality. Isn’t that how we know that speakers of human languages that we don’t ourselves understand are, in fact, speaking? The problem of other minds gets even messier as we explore not just manifestations of rudimentary though familiar mentality but differences in the kinds of possible mentalities.

(Feinberg, as he does in many of his essays, seems in the business of articulating a certain classical liberal consensus—the idea that certain parameters are ossified so that a preferred kind of being be free to operate within them. An apology for now static convention. See, for example, his vapid discussions of psychological egoism or pornography… He must do it very well to gauge from the frequency of his work in anthologies.)

Posted by luno in other minds, Moral Consciousness, General (Tuesday March 1, 2005 at 10:05 pm)

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