“I talk to the trees”

What do you see when you look at the picture above? How would you describe it? What’s going on here?

If you’re like me, and I suspect the majority of people, you’d start to talk about the dinosaurs, perhaps asking whether they were fighting or playing.

But as Laura Ruggles asks in this article, what about all the vegetation, the plant life?

We’ll notice it easily enough if it’s called to our attention, but it’s as though we’re immediately disposed to screen it out, to see animal life as the active and compelling element in any landscape.

Ruggles’ interest turns around a conceptual question for science: what do we mean when we speak of cognition, and can we sensibly extend an attribute we’ve always reserved for certain forms of animal life to plants? It’s an important question and if you’d like to know more you should read the article.

I wanted to pick up on a further implication, which is partly epistemological, partly ethical, partly practical.

Ethics and cognition

If Ruggles is right, and if we have barely scratched the surface in our understanding of the sophistication of plant behaviour, then maybe we need to think again about how we place ourselves in the natural world, and how we give the perception of cognition an ethical weight.

It’s a scaled weight. We generally, readily accede to the notion of “higher” mammals, for instance dolphins or primates, which seem capable of behaviour to which we can ascribe human meanings. Even non-vegetarians mostly baulk at the thought of eating dolphins or monkeys, not to mention dogs and cats, the animals we’ve made part of our domestic lives.

Vegetarians and vegans see this distinction as nonsensical, and consequently, depending on their outlook, will in varying degrees extend the language of human rights to sentient animals.

This seems understandable, but it’s not exactly rigorous, and that’s not just because Ruggles’ article asks us to think again about what we mean by cognition (and its relation to sentience). We need to be asking ourselves too why sentience (and degrees of sentience) should matter to us ethically.

If you’re a moral absolutist (perhaps because you think ethics are hardwired into us whether by a god or some innate sense of justice, or by some form of utilitarian calculation) then sentience is probably irrelevant to your sense of right and wrong. That absolutist view might be comforting but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

I’m more convinced by the idea that our ethical judgements are essentially emotional. That doesn’t mean they’re optional (any more than our emotions are somehow optional). It doesn’t mean that we can pick and choose our values from day to day to suit the pressure of the moment; a general consistency in the values we live by seems to be fundamental to any notion of ourselves as a single consciousness. It does seem to mean our ethical judgements are contingent on the possibility of reciprocity.

Diminishing returns

I’m trying to describe how we experience ethical pressures (not to lay down the law about what should and should not be allowed). If an adult hurts us physically, or hurts someone we care about, we’re likely to feel angry, and look at least for contrition from the offender, an acceptance of blame. If a child hurts us we may feel some of these things but the blame will be tempered by the sense the child is not fully responsible for his or her actions, because s/he hasn’t yet entered the world of ethical reciprocity where we expect to be treated with the same care or respect we’d give to others. We rightly don’t expect this much of our children, because we perceive a lesser level of sentience.

This particular law of diminishing returns is even truer of our relationship to the non-human world. If an animal hurts us, perhaps gives us a bite or a kick, again we’re likely to be angered and might even lash back at the creature, but the feeling of anger or blame won’t usually last, because it would be insane to expect contrition or some kind of deeper understanding of the wrong that’s been done to us. Animals do not occupy the same moral universe as humans, because we have different expectations of animals. Although we project our feelings onto them all the time, we cannot rationally hold them to the same standards of behaviour we expect of each other.

There may be a few factors at work here, but the expectation of reciprocity, rooted itself in the reasonable expectation of mutual empathy, must be prominent among them.

I am not suggesting that other animals don’t feel pleasure or pain, or that they are somehow not sentient, because it’s quite apparent that in one way or another they do feel these things, and this sentience plays as strong a part in the way they react to their environments as it does for the human animal.

I am suggesting that we need to be careful about how we regard sentience and its role in our understanding of the natural world. As a matter of respect for non-human life we should be vigilant about our anthropomorphic tendencies. We should not be so self-indulgent that we’re forever projecting our feelings onto the unresistant slate of animal behaviour. As Wittgenstein remarked (more or less) we have absolutely no way of knowing what another species’ experience of life is like, of what it is to be that animal.

I’m not suggesting that we have no ethical responsibilities to other species, but we should acknowledge that those responsibilities are complicated, not simple, and arguments which depend on a very selective attribution of equivalence are not going to bear rational scrutiny.

Beyond the anthopomorphic: the challenge of cognition

Which brings me back to plant life. It seems we do need to find some way of talking about cognition in plant systems, aware that even in using the term we’re in danger of a distorting anthropomorphism; this should serve as a reminder that the perception of cognition outside the human species is always too easily distorted by anthropomorphism.

But could this realisation of some form of cognition change how we feel about our ethical relationship to the plant world?

It would be crazy to suggest we should stop cultivating or harvesting plants, but perhaps we need to work harder on the idea of respect for the whole natural world.

Of course this is not a new idea, and nor should it be an excuse for further sentimentality (nature is not our “mother” − it’s just stuff going on regardless of our attention). It demands an account of ourselves in nature which can acknowledge both our exceptional status and our continuing participation in and dependence on natural cycles.

We are exceptional in the sense that humans alone have the power to manipulate the environment to their advantage, up to a point, the point being we are still part of the natural world and subject to it: as our power has increased so too has the long term damage we’ve been doing.

And so it’s become clear that we cannot afford to regard the natural world simply as a field for exploitation; cultivation yes, because we can, but not exploitation because it’s biting us back.

Attending to this balance, staying the right side of the cultivation/exploitation divide has become critical to the shape of human survival. At the same time, in terms of environmental responsiveness and dependence, there’s an increasingly evident continuum from plant life to human life. Ironically a simplistic focus on perceived sentience can only emphasise our separation from the natural world (we hold ourselves apart from other animals because we’re capable of thinking about animal sentience); we need to acknowledge and accept our dual nature as predators and curators, fundamentally and inextricably part of that world, if only because with that clarity we stand a better chance of managing the tougher responsibilities of curation.

Neither animals nor plants exist to serve us, but equally neither do we exist to serve them, because the notion of “service” itself is anthropomorphic. The implicit emphasis on sentience falsifies or at least confuses our relationship with the rest of the natural world and that confusion won’t help us stay the right side of the exploitation/curation divide.

To put this in both ethical and practical terms, it’s not clear to me why it’s okay for other animals to kill and eat other animals but not for humans to do so; on the other hand pursuing industrial farming is evidently and increasingly placing us on the wrong side of the balance. We need to attend to the immediate problem.

In doing so we also need to be more rigorous about what we mean when we speak of “nature” (a word that significantly carries more than one meaning) and along the road find a better way of feeding ourselves, a way that can put us back within a sustainable natural system.

I imagine the plant world would agree.


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