Pioneer Cabin tree, a tree that was tunneled through in the name of tourism, recently fell. I found out on social media, and people really seemed to be bummed out about it. I had never heard of it, and didn’t even know tunneled trees were a thing. My first thought, when looking at a picture, was one of revulsion. My second thought was people are the fucking worst.
But is it really so bad, ethically-speaking? In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer argues that we don’t owe any special consideration to the interests of plants because they lack the capacity for sentience/consciousness, however one defines these terms. A human or nonhuman animal with adequate mental capacities has preferences, but the desire for tolerable conditions and the ability to do something about it is not thought to be present in plants:
Once we stop to reflect on the fact that plants are not conscious and cannot engage in any intentional behavior…it is clear that all this language is metaphorical; one might just as well say that a river is pursuing its own good and striving to reach the sea. 
Thus, the Pioneer Cabin tree was incapable of having an opinion as to whether or not its mutilation was good and, in terms of ethical consideration is little different than a stalactite.
That just strikes me as intuitively wrong. However, I’m mindful that one’s intuition, without good evidence to support it, is meaningless. Ideally I believe humans should give consideration to the interests of all life, and not just the section that comprises the animal kingdom . Every living organism – sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious – is an entity comprised of molecules that resist entropy. An entity that continually incorporates, changes and discharges molecules, all in an ultimately futile attempt to rage against the dying of the light. A stalactite has no such internal chemistry that resists the inevitable, with no mechanisms to alter its surrounding physical conditions and maintain homeostasis. It’s that struggle that is sufficient for me to grant that all living entities have an interest in existing, whether an organism is sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious.
That certainlydoesn’t mean it’s never wrong to take a life, be it animal, plant, fungi, or bacteria. Generally speaking, it’s acceptable to eat plants and animals, regardless of their desires to continue existing. I also have no problem with, in a vacuum, purposefully or mistakenly killing plants and animals for agricultural purposes  or if they pose a health threat to oneself. Taking antibiotics to kill harmful bacteria is fine. A deer tick in my navel drinking my blood for 3 days that I inexplicably and foolishly didn’t notice? Fuck you, I’ll kill you.  Basically, one should have a good reason for killing or harming another living being.
Humans, ever willing to take on the mantle of God, frequently make decisions that mean life or death to countless organisms. This is from the smallest of scales – killing a spider in your bedroom – to the level of whole ecosystems. It would be nice if such alterations were divorced from anthropocentric desires that do not deal with our health or survival. Obviously, if the tree was left alone and people were unable to drive or walk through it, our health or survival would have been unaffected. So hollowing out a tree for tourism purposes is bad, as the National Park Service admits.
Even if it wasn’t the reason the tree fell, I don’t see how hollowing out a tree can be seen to, at best, have no detrimental effects to the tree itself. Perhaps, though, the experience people had with this tree caused a shift in general viewpoint in terms of the necessity of conservation. If so, I would argue that this is based on a grotesque display of human domination, and wonder how one could quantify any positive real-world consequences (as opposed to mere changes in one’s perspective).
All of this leads to the question of human assigned value: there is no intrinsic difference between a thousand year sequoia, and a ten day old garlic mustard plant. We assign value to the sequoia due to the sense of majesty we feel when we’re in its presence; knowledge of the significant role it plays in its ecological relationships; or, if you suck, the amount of money you can make off its wood. Garlic mustard, on the other hand, is non-native to North America, makes our lawns look like shit, and outcompetes native vegetation. These are human assigned values that are extrinsic to individual organisms – we love well manicured landscapes devoid of unsightly weeds and prefer more visually appealing native flora.
And yet, I feel no sense of grief as I pull individual garlic mustard plants out my yard. This means I’m a dick for doing so, because intrinsically a garlic mustard plant is no better or worse than any other plant in the vicinity. I make a value judgment, and my reasoning does not take into consideration the plant continuing to have the ability to do plant things (regardless of whether or not it can be said to have preferences). Basically, I’m a hypocrite if I prefer a yard that myself and other humans arbitrarily regard as “nice,” because that’s a pretty shitty reason to end a life. Oh well. But fuck putting tunnels in trees.
 Practical Ethics, p. 249. The Oxford Dictionary website defines intentional as “Done on purpose.” Left unstated is whether or not doing something on purpose requires a conscious component, though it’s probably implied. David Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, states that while he doesn’t grant plants the ability to think, they “exhibit elements of anoetic consciousness [“the rudimentary state of affective, homeostatic, and sensory-perceptual mental experiences”].” This, coupled with the pretty amazing things plants can do is, to me, enough to differentiate them from a river flowing to its mouth.
 Not viruses, which aren’t technically alive. Viruses can fuck right off
 Outside of this vacuum, factory farming is cruel and abhorrent.
 The thought of getting Lyme Disease again is terrifying.
I like discussing these types of ethical questions.
That’s pretty much the same conclusion I came to a few years ago. But it then led me to a further question, which I wonder what you think of. The question was “Is ‘Because they taste yummy’ a good enough reason to justify continuing to eat animals, in an age when perfectly good substitutes are readily available?” And my conclusion was that it wasn’t justifiable.
Suppose, in a couple of years, it becomes possible to grow meat tissue in a lab that that is indistinguishable in taste and texture (and cost) from the real thing. If that was readily available, would there be any justification at all for people who still preferred to know that their meat came from living, semi-sentient creatures rather than vats? I don’t think so.
Well, I’d submit that we’re pretty close to that point already, if you’ve tried some of the substitutes on the shelves. Mind you, I’m not arguing that eating meat is unjustifiable in any or all situations. If I was a castaway on a desert island and starved for protein, I’d do my best to kill the local pigs and enjoy eating them. It’s just that, given the fact that we live in a society that makes it pretty simple to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, and also given the fact that animals really DO suffer, and also given the fact that, as you say, factory farms suck, it’s very hard to justify consuming them on an ethical basis. I wonder how or if you’d do so.
It seems to me that the best arguments one could give would be social — being a vegetarian, especially in certain parts of the country, can lead to one being ostracized. I’m just not sure if that qualifies as a “good reason.”
If you’ve ever been to a limestone cavern, they will certainly tell you that it is wrong to damage the stalactites. And if you have any doubts about the value of stalactite conservation, you can see for yourself the difference between a cave that has been treated poorly and one that has been treated well.
I Have Forgiven Jesus says
“The question was “Is ‘Because they taste yummy’ a good enough reason to justify continuing to eat animals, in an age when perfectly good substitutes are readily available?” And my conclusion was that it wasn’t justifiable.”
I totally agree. I love the taste of animals and very much wish that wasn’t the case – I envy vegetarians/vegans that just don’t like the taste. I do eat animals once in awhile, probably once per month. Almost all of the time it is at a work or family function (the other day I couldn’t resist having a rice krispie treat, which almost certainly contained gelatin). The fact that I’m not actually buying it is a flimsy rationale for it being okay, and it’s not an argument I make. I do occasionally eat fish purchased from a sushi place or fish fry. The bottom line is – I find it ethically indefensible that I eat meat, and yet I still do because I’m selfish. I’m not particularly proud of this.
“If that was readily available, would there be any justification at all for people who still preferred to know that their meat came from living, semi-sentient creatures rather than vats? ”
I agree. In that scenario, there wouldn’t be a good justification for anyone to continue eating meat, especially if it tastes the same. But I do find it hard to imagine people admitting that Science Meat is as good as the real thing. If you haven’t already, check out Beastly Burgers: http://beyondmeat.com/products/view/the-beast-burger
I Have Forgiven Jesus says
“And if you have any doubts about the value of stalactite conservation…”
Eric O says
Seeing that tunnel in the 1000 year old sequoia gives me a sense of revulsion too, but it’s not out of a sense of sympathy for the tree. It’s seeing a natural wonder that fills me with a sense of awe being turned into a gaudy tourist trap. Although it’s hard to formulate an ethical argument against tunneling through a tree, I can still say that I’m offended on an aesthetic level.
Jessie Harban says
I’d argue in the opposite direction— not only does a tree not count as a moral agent, most animals don’t either.
Being alive isn’t enough to hold moral weight in your own right. Neither is being conscious. In order to be considered under a moral system, you must participate in that moral system— ie, you must be minimally capable of understanding and reciprocating moral gestures. All humans qualify, and I’d accept evidence that some animals can but a tree definitely can’t.
So when it comes to plants, what humans regard as nice is kind of the deciding factor. I suspect a majority of people would find it tacky to turn an amazing tree into a tourist trap, and since the tree belongs to all of us that’s as good a reason as any not to do it. That it destroys the tree probably convinces people who like it that it’s a bad idea in the long run, and that’s another good reason not to do it. The message it sends regarding conservation is another good reason not to do it— the planet has no intrinsic moral weight, but we kind of need to live on it and that makes its affairs inseparable from our own.
I Have Forgiven Jesus says
“Being alive isn’t enough to hold moral weight in your own right. Neither is being conscious. In order to be considered under a moral system, you must participate in that moral system”
Basically fuck everything that isn’t human, and a few animal species that have a rudimentary sense of morality (but even those animals can’t really be said to participate in any human moral system). Unless we think a specific non-moral entity is pretty or nice.
“In order to be considered under a moral system, you must participate in that moral system”
Would this also extend to the many humans who are unable to comprehend or participate in the “moral system?” Also, there are countless moral systems spread across space and time – if someone doesn’t participate in your moral system, your logic seems to indicate they should not be considered, since participation is mandatory. Not sure if it was ever used, but that point of view would fit right in with the justifications for European imperialism in bringing the light of civilization to their inferiors.
Marcus Ranum says
In order to be considered under a moral system, you must participate in that moral system
I see your assertion. But why is that the case?
ie, you must be minimally capable of understanding and reciprocating moral gestures. All humans qualify, and I’d accept evidence that some animals can but a tree definitely can’t.
So a human in a coma is “participating” in a moral system by virtue of being a piece of human-meat, while a pig, which is much smarter and more self-aware than the comatose human, is not?
Also, what about a sociopathic human? One who deliberately and knowingly rejects social mores?
I would argue that Wastefulness can rightfully carry moral condemnation. If I purchase a Picasso painting, and then choose to toss it in the in my fireplace for fuel, most people would condemn me for being both selfish and wasteful, and they would be right. On a planet with limited resources and questionable long-term sustainability, wasting things is bad, with a level of badness that increases with the rarity of the thing destroyed — so for instance, destroying a tree that is a thousand years old is worse than destroying garlic mustard because the garlic mustard is common and (easily) replaceable, whereas the tree is not.
You could even argue that wasting is akin to robbery. If I burn the painting or chop down the ancient tree or kill the last of an endangered species or wreck the stalactite, I am robbing all future humans of the opportunity to see the thing that I destroyed.
I would also argue that, from a galactic perspective, life itself is probably the rarest and most valuable thing on the planet. Science fiction stories where aliens come to earth and want to mine the gold or oil or diamonds seem silly to me — those things are going to be all over the place. I wrote a story once where the humans realized that the thing the aliens found that was most valuable on our entire planet was beetle DNA, because chitin is amazing stuff.
I Have Forgiven Jesus says
“If I purchase a Picasso painting, and then choose to toss it in the in my fireplace for fuel, most people would condemn me for being both selfish and wasteful, and they would be right.”
To be an annoying devil’s advocate, what if burning the painting was the only means you had to keep warm and survive a cold night 🙂
“destroying a tree that is a thousand years old is worse than destroying garlic mustard because the garlic mustard is common and (easily) replaceable, whereas the tree is not.”
That’s a good point. I would just say that from a plant to plant comparison standpoint, each has an interest in continuing to live. So as humans we are assigning value to a plant that is more rare. I’m definitely not saying this is a bad thing and I agree in this scenario, but I’m interested in being able to objectively make a case for it. Ease of replaceability might do it, but I’m not sure.
I found that I missed meat quite a bit for the first year or so, but less and less with each passing year. After fifteen years now, it just looks greasy and yucky to me. Give it time.
Yeah, the social exclusion, like the company dinner where you realize you’re going to have to eat salad and rolls, is definitely the worst part.
Tell me about it. There are sources for vegan marshmallows, but the Smores just aren’t the same. Also, vegan belts look ok, but they last about a fifth the duration of leather ones.
Hey, everything counts. If everyone would just give up meat for one day a week, it would make a huge difference — not just animal welfare but the planet as well. I’m not about to accuse anyone — I still eat cheese and eggs.
Animals and plants often harm other forms to further their own needs. Being aware of what we doing we can choose to minimise harm but will still have some level at which we must act to preserve ourselves. Sometimes self preservation long term means caring for other forms of life in the short term. The concern about thinking beings over unthinking is a built in bias. Thinking creatures can learn to retaliate or defend themselves and so that bias probably helped us learn to domesticate animals.