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The Swiss must be crazy!

Tuesday, 15 April, 2008

I know arguments about human genetic modification usually use the theme of ‘dignity’ , but I didn’t expect it to appear in plant biotechnology debates. But, it has!

In Switzerland, the federal Ethics Committee on non-human Gene Technology (ECNH) have a report titled “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants. Moral consideration of plants for their own sake“. The conclusions of this report are:

“[T]he Committee members unanimously consider an arbitrary harmcaused to plants to be morally impermissible. This kind of treatment would include, e.g. decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason.”

And, with respect to biotechnology:

“According to the majority position, there is nothing to contradict the idea of dignity of living beings in the genetic modification of plants, as long as their independence, i.e. reproductive ability and adaptive ability are ensured. Social-ethical limits on the genetic modification of plants may exist, but are not the object of this discussion.”

This isn’t really a new conclusion. Apparently, the Swiss constitution gives dignity to all living organisms and discussions in constitutional law use the term “Würde der Kreatur” (dignity of living beings) to apply to both plants and animals.

On page 13, the report summarises the group’s position as follows:

“Answers to the question of whether and to what extent a being itself can be harmed:
Sentientism: Only if a being consciously experiences something as harm is it being harmed.
Non-sentientism: Even if an organism is not able to experience anything consciously, it can be harmed. An intervention may be harmful even if it is not experienced as such.
A clear majority takes the position of non-sentientism. A minority takes a sentientist position.”

Well that’s your problem right there! Most of your members think that you can hurt a tree, despite the clearly obvious fact that they don’t have a brain with which feel pain much less any nociceptors to sense it in the first place. Harm, after all, is only wrong when it causes (a net increase in) pain, suffering or loss of freedom to a sentient being. Harming an anesthetized patient during surgery, for example, is not wrong because is causes no pain (because the pain signals, or the ability for the brain to perceive them, have been stopped) and that harm is a net benefit once the surgery is over.

But wait, there’s more!

“The majority of the committee members at least do not rule out the possibility that plants are sentient, and that this is morally relevant. A minority of these members considers it probable that plants are sentient. Another minority assumes that the necessary conditions for the possibility of sentience are present in plants. The presence of these necessary conditions for sentience is considered to be morally relevant.

Finally, a minority of the members excludes the possibility of plants having sentience, because in their view there are no good grounds for such an assumption.”

Here is another problem – only a minority of members appear to be sentient themselves, because the majority are obviously as thick as a plank of wood. Again, plants do not have a nervous system, and rely entirely on chemical signalling. It is certain (as much as you can be), that without a nervous system (or some other effective information transmission system), sentience cannot exist. You’d have to believe in magic (like the Treant/Ent picture above) to think plants could possibly be sentient.

The report also says that no member took the position of theocentricism – “the idea of a God who is creator, and therefore the creative ground of all living organisms. What counts for its own sake is God. All organisms count because of their relationship to God.” Which is proof that future objections to human biotechnology will not necessarily come from the fundamentalist religions of the right, but also the tree-hugging left.

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