Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Alternative Ways to Ground Interests for Nonconscious Entities?

So in my Environmental Ethics class, we discussed whether or not trees can be said to have interests, and I advanced my argument that they can't because they weren't subjects. There were two objections raised in class that I hadn't addressed, and I figured I might as well put my responses to them here.

The first objection was that corporations aren't subjects, but corporations have interests. The methodological individualists out there will cringe at this argument, but I think it still needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. Corporations are abstract entities which, in a certain abstract sense, do have interests of their own. Generally those interests seem to be explainable by reference to the interests of the individuals who make up the corporation (including the owners). But it's perfectly fair to say that sometimes, the interests of a corporation, as an abstract entity, can be thought of as separate, and even contradictory, to the interests of the individuals composing it; that is, the abstraction of the corporation can come to have an identity of its own, and individuals may ascribe qualities to that abstraction which are not directly in line with the feelings of the individuals involved.

Even so, it does seem like we want to say that those interests are solely in the minds of these individuals, and that really there is no corporate entity which actually has interests of its own. If I am on a kickball team, I may begin to talk about the interests of the team, as if they exist apart from any of the members of the team. And perhaps my teammates and I might each grow bored with kickball, but "for the sake of the team," no one quits. It's true that we would end up with what Snell Putney called an "autosystem": the institution we created would cease to align with our interests, and could potentially cause us to subordinate our interests to the perceived interests of the institution. Still, I maintain that it would be ridiculous to say that the team actually has an interest in us staying on the team, and that we would harm those interests if we all quit. The commitment to the team, and the interests that we attribute to the team, exist only in our heads.

But even if we allowed that corporations, or teams, could have interests, it does seem that corporations and teams have interests which at least arise from the interests of their constituent members. Those constituent members, it must be acknowledged, are subjects, who can have interests. Trees are not so composed. No part of a tree is a subject, and so the analogy falls flat.

The second objection relied on the concept of functions as potential ways to ground interests. In my original argument, I wrote:

A tree is constructed in such a way that certain things will preserve or advance its “tree-ness,” while other things will detract from or eliminate its tree-ness. For example, sunshine and water are “good” for a tree, and fire is “bad” for a tree. And if we introduce fire to a tree, we might bring it about that the tree’s ability to continue to exist as a tree will be destroyed. But in the same way, there are certain things which are “good” or “bad” for a wine glass. Soft, cool environments are great for wine glasses, while hard, fast moving objects are really bad for them. If I throw a rock at my wine glass, it will no longer be able to fulfill the functions of a wine glass; it will be reduced to its constituent parts, and its essence will be lost. But the wine glass’ wine glass-ness is not valuable for the wine glass’ own sake; a wine glass is not a subject. The same thing seems to apply to a tree.

It will not help to point out that a tree can repair damage to itself, or move around obstacles to reach the light. The tree does not desire these things, nor does it choose to do them. If I fill my computer’s hard drive with viruses, its functioning will be severely compromised. But my computer does not have an interest in continuing to function. It too falls short of being a subject, and the fact that it does not have such an interest seems like it can be explained by reference to its not being a subject.

In class, an objection was raised that a wine glass' and computer's functions reflect human ends, while trees' functions do not. This is a point worth examining. My computer only has the functions that it does because of human interests. More specifically, my computer's functions reflect its designer's perceptions of what my interests are. Accordingly, it seems somewhat plausible to say that the only interests I can possibly harm when I infect my computer with viruses are my own.

A tree, on the other hand, possesses its functions "naturally." It does not grow because I designed it that way; it grows, in a sense, "on its own accord." Couldn't we then say that I go against the tree's interests by impeding its "natural functions"? I don't think so.

Notice that the idea of a "function" is inherently tied to a way of thinking about processes which takes a means-ends form. When I say, "A function of my hand is to pick things up," I seem to mean something along the lines that if I want to pick something up, my hand possesses certain properties that will allow me to use it for that purpose. That is, I can achieve the ends of picking something up by making use of my hand as a means.

Without the idea of a desired end, it seems somehow incomprehensible to talk about something having a function. Imagine a rock sitting on the surface of a distant asteroid, where no being will ever make use of it, see it, know it exists, etc. What function can the rock have? I would say it can't have any function. It serves no ends whatsoever.

Accepting this, it should become clear that to talk about a plant's function is to presuppose some ends to which those functions are meant to act as means. And if something is an ends, then we unavoidably arrive at the idea of interests. If a plant's properties function as means for the plant's growth, then we say that those properties are means to the ends of the plant's growth. And it seems obvious that what we have in mind is the plant's ends of growth. What I'm working at is that to talk about the plant's natural functions is to presuppose that plants have interests.

So then the question becomes, can plants have ends? I think the answer is clearly no. It is not simply that plants don't use their properties in order to grow. It is not even that plants' growth has nothing to do with their aims. Rather, I'm arguing that plants do not have any ends of their own, and that this fact can be demonstrated by reference to the fact that plants are not subjects. A plant's "functioning" can not be impaired except, and this is a critical distinction, if the function of the plant is to satisfy the ends of some other thing which is a subject. That is, if your pumpkins are functioning as food to you, then I impair their function by filling them with poison. But I do not impair any functions being used to promote the ends of the plant itself, because plants don't have ends.

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