On Respect for Plants

By Gregory L. Bock

Flourish Magazine Fall 2009

In “The Silent Scream of the Asparagus: Get Ready for ‘Plant Rights,’” (The Weekly Standard, 5/12/2008), Wesley J. Smith ridicules the Swiss government for advocating the dignity of plants. The Swiss constitution explicitly gives moral consideration to creation—animals, plants, and other organisms—and  the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology recently adopted the view that “living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive.” According to the committee, plants have inherent worth, which means that “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger.”

For illustration, the committee gave the example of a farmer who, while walking home after a long day in the field, “casually ‘decapitates’ some wildflowers with his scythe.” The committee contends that such actions are immoral because they either indicate a lack of virtuous character on the part of the farmer or a violation of the dignity of the flowers themselves.

In his article, Smith argues that such a view is “folly.” He says, “Switzerland’s enshrining of ‘plant dignity’ is a symptom of a cultural disease that has infected Western civilization, causing us to lose the ability to think critically and distinguish serious from frivolous ethical concerns.” The disease started, he thinks, with the rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview, which advocates the unique dignity of human beings.

On the contrary, Switzerland’s policy might be closer to the biblical worldview than Smith realizes, and if so, the spirit behind this part of their constitution ought to be praised, not mocked.

Is there such a thing as a biblical respect for plants? The Bible teaches that God’s redemptive work is for all creation, not just human beings. His covenant (post-flood) is with human beings and all living creatures (Genesis 9:12-13). God’s love is for the whole world, not just human beings. (In John 3:16, the word “world” in Greek is better translated “cosmos.”)

In addition, Paul writes the following: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation [even the asparagus] groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:20-22, NAS). All of creation tells of the glory of God, and our role is to be stewards of it and to care for it in a way that shows deep respect and gratitude to the One who created it (Genesis 2:15).

Gratitude is expressed to the Creator by the way we care for His creation, just as managers show respect to company owners in the way they manage company assets. Wasteful, careless, and destructive managers do not honor their employers, and individuals who arbitrarily decapitate wildflowers do not honor the Lord of creation.

In his 1970 book Pollution and the Death of Man, Francis Schaeffer writes the following:

“Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers. We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect. We may cut down a tree to build a house, or to make a fire to keep the family warm. But we should not cut down the tree just to cut down the tree. We may, if necessary, bark the cork tree in order to have the use of the bark. But what we should not do is to bark the tree simply for the sake of doing so, and let it dry and stand there a dead skeleton in the wind. To do so is not to treat the tree with integrity. We have the right to rid our houses of ants; but what we have not the right to do is to forget to honor the ant as God made it, in its rightful place in nature. When we meet the ant on the sidewalk, we step over him. He is a creature, like ourselves; not made in the image of God, but equal with man as far as creation is concerned. The ant and the man are both creatures.”

The Swiss government is not saying that a single wildflower matters more or as much as a single human person; rather, it is condemning the wanton destruction of nature—a stance that is in keeping with Christian virtues.

If there is anything ridiculous about the Swiss constitution, it would not be the recognition of the dignity of creation. Rather, it would be the attempt to mandate virtuous behavior toward plants in law. There are many things that are immoral that should not be made illegal either because the consequences of such actions do not significantly affect the state (such as when someone lacks the virtue of hospitality) or because such behavior would be too difficult to prosecute. A proper respect for plants should not be legislated for both reasons. Instead, such a virtue ought to be cultivated in families and faith communities.

Christians ought to treat nature with respect because life is sacred. The sanctity of life principle is not a new Christian principle, and Wesley J. Smith—a voice of the pro-life movement—should understand it better than others. All life has intrinsic value (not mere instrumental value) because life comes from God. Hence, the arbitrary destruction of nature is wrong. What Smith gets right is that human beings have special value, being created in the image of God. The problem lies in treating human beings as if they are the only members of creation with intrinsic value. This needs to change.

Greg Bock teaches philosophy at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee.


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