Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Some thoughts on a phenomenology of vegetal life

The second unit of our Environmental Philosophy class covers "Nature's Value and Moral Standing" where our current section of reading discusses "the case of the individual and the whole" with respect to the birth of ecology and subsequently deep ecology.  In order to determine who or what has moral standing and to what degree (moral significance) we began by discussing the continuum of consciousness and feeling (by looking at the work of C.S. Peirce), first in bacteria and amoeba but then also questioning whether and to what extent plants may warrant moral considerability The debate between biocentrism and ecocentrism in part centers on who or what exactly counts as a subject-of-a-life so as to be included in the "whole" (and whether anything really ought to be excluded from the moral circle simply because it supposedly lacks "sentience" or interests).  The question therefore arises whether it is a moral tragedy to cut the grass or fail to water one's houseplant if plants, too, are sentient.

Given this discussion I've been thinking about the philosophy of deep ecologists and ecocentrists (whether Arne Naess or Aldo Leopold) for whom value is intrinsic but for whom also there is value for species, ecosystems, or "wholes" which are not just the individual alone.  If advocating a rights theory (for example such as Regan does), would the value of one plant be equal to many if a plant is meaningfully sentient and feeling, perhaps even "conscious"?  Is killing one tree as morally impermissible as destroying a forest? Why?

Anthropocentric value sees the wrongness in destroying a forest as it relates to the effects produced affecting human beings.  Destroying a forest is wrong because humans think it an eyesore, or it affects what humans require to breathe. However both bio and ecocentrists locate value in specifically non-human terms as the bearers of value are the creatures, systems, and individuals themselves that possess the value - whether alone or in groups. Thus the wrongness of destroying the forest or tree is because those things are value-bearers and are to some degree sentient, or at the very least possess interests.  A side question may be: if the interests of non-humans are always related to other beings' interests (whether human or not), should we attempt to consider those interests alone or as they relate to others?  Is it possible to consider both?  Two titles come to mind: Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s Think. See THIS post at angelaroothaan blog, for example.  Part of my argument during discussion was that perhaps the interests of the individual, the whole, but also how the individual relates to the whole (and vice versa) is important.  Tree to forest, forest to tree, and relationship between.

And so given the above, I must ask: are plants sentient and do we have a moral duty to plants? Are they worthy of moral consideration, and if so why?

An interesting article which offers some clues "Can Plants Think?", HERE. See also the After Nature post "Phenomenology of Vegetal Life" HERE. Also the After Nature post, "Can Plants Really Communicate with Each Other?" HERE.

Phenomenology often is dismissed these days for referencing always the human observer or assuming a transcendental plane of human consciousness - or of imputing consciousness and life upon a material nature that is itself devoid of it, and hence a so-called "hippie vitalism."  Rather than phenomenological plenitude or abundance we are told speculative philosophy requires the all embracing and devoid-of-the-living concept (the Hegelian Notion)  However, speculating non-human forms of consciousness and life that may be entirely different than our own may have positive ethical benefits and need not necessarily be or require anthropocentric valuation. There is still much work to be done in phenomenology and speculative, realist philosophy that does not assume a Husserlian idealism or Bergsonian vitalism but nevertheless is capable of exploring questions concerning non-human forms of consciousness and experience.