Bioethics Discussion Blog: Can a Tree Experience Hurt?: If It Can, Do Ethics and Law Apply?





Thursday, June 12, 2014

Can a Tree Experience Hurt?: If It Can, Do Ethics and Law Apply?

I was visiting a well known botanic garden in Southern California today, taking pictures of all the beautiful flowers when I saw this tree shown above in the pictures I took.  Honestly, what I saw, a tree apparently being pulled by straps out of its normal posture, pained me as I projected myself as if I were that tree.  Of course, I am not that tree but then this got me thinking about the bioethics of what had been done to the tree.  (First of all, I want to admit that I have no idea how long the straps were in place or for what future duration and what the gardeners were intending to accomplish with the straps since I haven't talked to the garden management. Finally, I am not sure that trees experience "hurt".)

Bioethics is not just about the ethics of humans and animals, healthy or with disease but it is also about ethics dealing with the plant kingdom. A current example of ethical concern is genetically modifying plants, including those we eat. And the question that came to me was whether what was done to the tree was unethical, that is, failing to meet the ethical standard for the principles of beneficence (to do good) and non-malificence (avoiding causing harm). But, though what I saw "hurt" me, the questions were whether the tree, a living creature of the plant kingdom was, in its own way, appreciating some "hurt" and with some ethical significance. Was the tree recognizing discomfort? Was the purpose of the straps to benefit the tree (which might be considered ethical) or to re-position the tree for its appearance to the benefit of the viewing public?  The latter might be considered unethical if the tree experienced "hurt".

To try to answer my concerns, as I often do, I go to Wikipedia to get a bit of help.  I found the article on Plant Rights which I have, as is permitted, reproduced below.  I would be most interested in the viewpoints of my visitors and perhaps they have found additional information regarding the science answering the question as to whether trees can "feel" or "express distress" to physical discomfort.  If they can, should they have themselves certain "rights" both legally and ethically? The question is either fascinating or just "dumb".  Tell me what you think...Maurice.

Plant rights
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Not to be confused with Plant breeders' rights.
Plant rights are rights to which plants may be entitled. Such issues are often raised in connection with discussions abouthuman rights, animal rights, biocentrism, or sentiocentrism.
On the question of whether animal rights can be extended to plants, philosopher Tom Regan argues that animals acquire rights due to being aware, what he calls "subjects-of-a-life". He argues that this does not apply to plants, and that even if plants did have rights, abstaining from eating meat would still be moral due to the use of plants to rear animals.[1]According to philosopher Michael Marder, the idea that plants should have rights derives from "plant subjectivity", which is distinct from human personhood.[2][3][4][5][6] Philosopher Paul Taylor holds that all life has inherent worth and argues for respect for plants, but does not assign them rights.[7] Christopher D. Stone, the son of investigative journalist I. F. Stone, proposed in a 1972 paper titled "Should Trees Have Standing?" that if corporations are assigned rights, so should natural objects such as trees.[8][9]
Whilst not appealing directly to "rights", Matthew Hall has argued that plants should be included within the realm of human moral consideration. His "Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany" discusses the moral background of plants in western philosophy and contrasts this with other traditions, including indigenous cultures, which recognise plants as persons—active, intelligent beings that are appropriate recipients of respect and care.[10] Hall backs up his call for the ethical consideration of plants with arguments based on plant neurobiology, which says that plants are autonomous, perceptive organisms capable of complex, adaptive behaviours, including the recognition of self/non-self.
Scientific arguments
In the study of plant physiology, plants are understood to have mechanisms by which they recognize environmental changes. This definition of plant perception differs from the notion that plants are capable of feeling emotions, an idea also called plant perception. The latter concept, along with plant intelligence, can be traced to 1848, when Gustav Theodor Fechner, a German experimental psychologist, suggested that plants are capable of emotions, and that one could promote healthy growth with talk, attention, and affection.[11] The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology analyzed scientific data on plants, and concluded in 2009 that plants are entitled to a certain amount of "dignity", but "dignity of plants is not an absolute value."[12]
Legal arguments
When challenged by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to become vegetarian, Timothy McVeigh argued that "plants are alive too, they react to stimuli (including pain); have circulation systems, etc".[13][14] The Animal Liberation Front argues that there is no evidence that plants can experience pain, and that to the extent they respond to stimuli, it is like a device such as a thermostat responding to sensors.[15]
In his dissent to the 1972 Sierra Club v. Morton decision by the United States Supreme Court, Justice William O. Douglas wrote about whether plants might have legal standing:
Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes... So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life...The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled.
Samuel Butler's Erewhon contains a chapter, "The Views of an Erewhonian Philosopher Concerning the Rights of Vegetables".[16]
The Swiss Constitution contains a provision requiring "account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms", and the Swiss government has conducted ethical studies pertaining to how the dignity of plants is to be protected.[17]The single-issue Party for Plants entered candidates in the 2010 parliamentary election in the Netherlands.[18] Such concerns have been criticized as evidence that modern culture is "causing us to lose the ability to think critically and distinguish serious from frivolous ethical concerns".[19]
In 2012 a river in New Zealand was legally declared a person with standing (via guardians) to bring legal actions to protect its interests.[20]
1.      Regan, Tom (2003). Animal rights, human wrongs: an introduction to moral philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 101. ISBN 0-7425-3354-9.
3.     Marder, Michael (2013). Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-16125-1
4.      Marder, Michael (April 28, 2012). "If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?"The New York Times.
5.      Marder, Michael (May 8, 2012). "Is Plant Liberation on the Menu?"The New York Times.
7.      Vesilind, P. Aarne; Gunn, Alastair S. (1998). Engineering, ethics, and the environment. Cambridge University Press. p. 94. ISBN 0-521-58918-5.
8.      Stone, Christopher D. (2010). Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment (Third ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-973607-3.
9.      Stone, Christopher D. (1972). "Should Trees Have Standing--Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects". Southern California Law Review 45: 450–87.
10.   Hall, Matthew (2011). Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. SUNY Press.ISBN 1-4384-3428-6.
11.   Michael Heidelberger Nature from within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his psychophysical worldview 2004, p. 54

Graphics: Photographs taken by me  June 12 2014


At Friday, June 13, 2014 5:41:00 PM, Blogger Hexanchus said...'re kidding, right?

Guess I can't mow the lawn anymore because it might cause the grass pain - or use fertilizer with weed killer because the weeds have a right to live too. As John Stossel would say, "Give Me a Break!"

Both plants and animals have been used from time immemorial for food any other purposes. I hardly think the opinions of a few clear outliers is going to influence that.

I do agree that there needs to be close attention and proper regulation of genetically modified crops to protect our natural seed crops. Of course many of the newer designer pharmaceuticals fall sort of into that "genetically engineered" category as well.

As to ALF and their ilk, I don't give much weight to the ramblings of an eco-terrorist organization. And while PETA has never been caught directly participating in eco-terrorist acts, they have directly contributed financially to both the organizations (ELF & ALF) and to individuals arrested for committing eco-terrorist acts.

Come to think of it, I do have a PETA t-shirt which I wear proudly - it reads:

Just my $0.02.....


At Friday, June 13, 2014 6:02:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

You know Hex, as we read day after day generation after generation, century after century, in the old books and the news media from today both at home and overseas, there is unrelenting hurt that humans are subjecting other humans so it seems a bit "over the top" to fret about how humans treat animals and the plant kingdom. On the other hand, I felt a bit uncomfortable with what I saw and my blog is a good place for me to ventilate. ..Maurice.

At Friday, June 13, 2014 6:45:00 PM, Blogger Hexanchus said...

Dr. B,

I understand and agree with you on that - I too, do not like to see senseless or meaningless destruction or damage to the environment.

It would be interesting to know why they were doing what they were to that tree.


At Friday, June 13, 2014 8:58:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Hex, unfortunately, I can't answer your "why". But, if one assumes that it was for an intended appearance of the tree, one can consider the issue of topiary art.

One can ask whether the art of topiary (crafting the appearance of trees into art objects;example on YouTube) is ethical. Is this what we would consider as a proper way to interact with nature? Is there more value in letting a tree express itself naturally or to recreate the tree's appearance in order to satisfy a person's artful or other self-interest desires?

Weighing these differences in ethical terms (if not from some biologic aspects) is worthy to understand human's relationship with nature. ..Maurice.

At Thursday, June 19, 2014 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Munchenkin said...


I have never formally studied ethics but I do study plant science so I think I can chip in.

Obviously plant life is of enormous value to humans and thus should be treated with 'respect' insofar as it would be stupid to destroy that which we need, but I don't think that's really an ethical consideration. On the ethical side I think there is a distinction between an ethical consideration for humane treatment, based on the possibility of pain and distress being felt in the recipient, and a general dignity applicable to all 'natural' elements of our environment. This later idea may connect to a sense of property rights - what we do not 'own' is not ours to do with as we please - or it could be more spiritual. I think I can't add anything on the pain front, but not on the dignity issue.

Pain perception has been attributed till now only to animals possessing a sufficiently developed and centrally organised nervous system. This does not include all animals; at least in the UK octopuses are the only non-vertebrates requiring ethical consideration, at least in scientific studies. This is being expanded; at the moment accumulating evidence shows that crustaceans feel pain and recent evidence shows that they even feel anxiety ( However there are some developmentally simpler animals, such as jellyfish and sponges that are unlikely to ever be considered for this as they lack anything like a centralised nervous system.
How much more so then for plants which don't have neurons at all (the specialised cells that transmit stimuli as electrical impulses). There are a few cases where plants use electric signalling, the venus fly trap being one, but this doesn't involve nerves transmitting signals through the body, it happens in the cells immediately around the touched area. Plants to do of course perceive their envinronment (light, heat, nutrient and water availability, pests and herbivores) but only in the same way as each on of our cells are capable of perceiving many things (chemicals in the blood, the physical stimulus of neighbouring cells etc.). This obviously raises the question of how, when each of our individual cells is incapable of 'sensing' things like pain, can it be that humans, composed of unfeeling cells, can. A simplified version of how consciousness arises. I am totally baffled by this but however it works it seems to be an emergent property depending on specific cells that act as processors. Plants lack anything homologous to the central nervous systems of some animals and so would not be able to feel pain.

A final reason to expect that plants do not feel pain is that there is no reason for a plant to be able to feel pain, from an evolutionary perspective. Pain is incredibly useful to animals as it is a signal to move away from a potentially harmful stimulus (heat, predators claws etc.). Plants are sessile organisms, which means they are stuck in one place. It makes sense for them to be able to sense their environment and produce developmental and physiological reposnses but pain would be useless as they cannot simply 'run away'. Pain only makes sense in the world of fight or flight that plants are not part of.

Whether you personally feel it is wrong to damage the spiritual dignity of a tree is really up to you.


At Thursday, June 19, 2014 8:26:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

"Whether you personally feel it is wrong to damage the spiritual dignity of a tree is really up to you."

Orlando, ..and I accept that.

A writer's thoughtful discussion of "Why Anthropomorphism is a Good Thing" can be read at this link.

Assuming that trees look at their lives with ones own eyes is a worthy concept and such anthropomorphic projection I think should help temper our unnecessary and maleficent acts to the world around us. ..Maurice.

At Thursday, July 10, 2014 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous Colm Barry said...

If we granted plants rights against not being strapped down, as in the tree example in the beginning, then we might certainly not allow lumberjacks to chop trees. And eating many plants, if it were not just the fruits, as fruitarians advocate, would equally be unethical. Soon humans would die or freeze or catch a cold and worse because of such policies. Genetically modifying plants is another matter, but one which would immediately stop if those who released these GMOs were liable and had to get insurance. So that GMOs exist is because of government regulation (i.e. regulating non-insurance).

At Thursday, July 10, 2014 3:09:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

I agree that the "ethical" (beneficence and non-maleficence) treatment of plants cannot take precedence over the value of these plants to the lives of our animals and ourselves. However, the value should deal with our health and functioning. I am presenting a consideration that if the goal is to create something artistic for the art value itself and nothing further, that such treatment of plants within their growing environment should not be considered acceptable. ..Maurice.

At Tuesday, July 22, 2014 6:43:00 PM, Blogger A. Banterings said...

Let me start with animals: the Torah and the Old Testament talk about the uses, slaughter, and eating of animals in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Leviticus is the big one. It states the rules given by God how to (ethically) use, slaughter, and eat animals.

Growing up in Pennsylvania I learned to hunt and fish (ethically) by age 6. My wife's sons are big time hunters. I go with her sons to be social. I get a license, take a gun, but I am not going to shoot anything. I can and I have already.

A few years ago, one of her grandsons (of one of her daughters) wanted to go hunting. I volunteered to "post" with him so as not to ruin the other boys' hunting.

He asked me what it is like to kill a deer. I told him the truth; there is a rush at first, but then it becomes a horrible experience. But you realize what it takes to keep you alive. You learn to appreciate life more.

By doing it ethically, the experience is hard, but not traumatic ( for most).

Part of ethics is the basis of your ethical decision making. Most people use the Bible, Torah, Quran, the teachings of Buddha, or "The Golden Rule" (do unto others...).

There are other sources of decision making; Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, or The Prince by Machiavelli.

Most of the western world uses the Bible. The Bible addresses plants too:

The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed.

Out of the ground the LORD God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it. The LORD God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.
Expulsion from Eden.

Now the snake was the most cunning* of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?”

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Make yourself an ark of gopherwood,* equip the ark with various compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

-Genesis 2:8-9,
-Genesis 15-17
-Genesis 3:1, 6-7
-Genesis 6:14

My point is that (ethically) we are "allowed" to use plants, God even commands us to use them. In relationship to animals, there are much fewer "special considerations" than animals (how to slaughter, what not to eat, Kosher rules, etc.).

Leviticus does have some other rules: cleaning out the crumbs (before Passover); these rules are more for hygiene.

There is Leviticus 19:19; do not mix seeds (genetic engineering maybe?) and Leviticus 19:23; do not pick fruit off trees for three years.

We can use them, but it is not without limitations.


At Sunday, February 08, 2015 12:34:00 PM, Anonymous Kristin Chauret said...

When I finished reading the post it made me laugh. Thanks for thinking outside the box. I do understand the concern but would think about it in a different light. I think we need understanding about all things that invlove the survival (the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances.) of human life. What are they doing to that tree? That is a good question. However, there isn't any stupid questions. We need an understanding because that is what makes the world go around isn't it. Good posts and thoughts! Thanks for sharing.

At Saturday, May 09, 2015 9:00:00 AM, Blogger Kyrani99 said...

It was refreshing to read your post. You have an ethical fiber and empathy that is not often seen. I have to say I too felt distress by the picture although I do not consider that the tree feels pain but it still may feel some sort of distress because it is conscious. I don't see consciousness as something that requires a brain and a nervous system. I believe that consciousness is the fundamental nature of everything in creation.

I too would consider the ethics of tying the tree and constraining it in this way if it is not done for good reason. Sometimes we have to cut branches and do things that may distress trees but it may be necessary for safety reasons. So if we were to attribute rights to plants, I think the motives behind an action have to be taken into consideration.

If you go to that place often where the tree is found you might consider talking to the gardeners. It is possible to change the way a tree leans by the use of mental prescriptions.

I had a tree that was regrowing after I had it trimmed and it is growing new branches. Some of the branches are growing over part of my roof. I put forth a request to the tree to grow more branches upwards and less over my roof and it has done that. I know it sounds funny but it has happened.

I have had other requests of other trees too and they also all have worked. One tree was damaged by some people who wanted to do me harm. The tree looked like it was going to fall on my house. It was on the border of my property. I asked the tree to fall in a particular direction onto another tree where it's fall would be broken and hence not damage my house.

If you consider the odds of this happening they would be slim because the other tree next to my house was only about 200cms in diameter and the length of the house on that side is eight meters. Plus it was at least five meters away from the damaged tree. The tree finally fell exactly as I had asked with no damage to my house but had broken the other tree and it took all the brunt of the fall.

At Saturday, May 09, 2015 10:29:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Kyrani, tell us: how do you communicate your wishes and advice to your trees? What is the technique, the mechanism? ..Maurice.

At Monday, May 11, 2015 6:02:00 AM, Blogger Kyrani99 said...

Hello Maurice,
For some background see my posts here
(3 posts read from bottom up). They are about what I, the Universe and the trees did. I have to say here that I do have spiritual guides & allies that help me. All ethical people have spiritual help even if they don’t know it, so you have help too.

I don't know how well I can explain it but I'll try.

The brief answer.
Formulate a mental prescription of directives to the Universe. These require you to have belief, intent, desire and will. Use visual images, a "mental video" for the sequence of events and symbols that represent something or some action. Symbols enable you to recollect the directives easily. You can also make a drawing, painting or computer video to gain sensory perceptions to reinforce your mental perceptions.

The long answer.
Beliefs are critical so I have to explain this. You need evidence to empower an idea and make it a belief. It can be indirect evidence as in the placebo effect. As you know the patient empowers the idea of wellness when they trust the doctor's word. So when they take the drug (real or fake) they cease the reactivity in their body believing that the drug will handle their problem; When they cease reacting, then by homeostasis, their body returns to resting metabolism and regain health.

In the case of a person’s own body it is easy because they have sole authority. In interaction with other forms of life or inanimate objects as well as beliefs, there has to also be authority.

For both belief and authority (power to do something) a person’s view of reality is critical. The reality is a bit different from the view of mainstream science, which considers only the material. Reality has mental/ non-physical and material/ physical "aspects". These are not really two separate qualities, the one giving rise to the other. They are intimately one.

Some scientific evidence: at the sub-atomic level we may observe subatomic particles continually popping into and out of existence. We use physical equipment to observe so see only the physical. Physicists, wanting to explain this theorize that the nothingness that they think “particle disappears into” is also somehow physical, but that is not the case. A subatomic “particle“ (really a unit of energy) is resonance between known and unknown (manifest & un-manifest). There is no “particle” and there is no “popping” or doing anything.

In meditation you can observe an idea arises out of the Void, remain as a perception as long as the idea is entertained and then returns to the Void. Forms (units of energy/ subatomic particles) have been "selected" to become a part of the “known” or creation or what can be called Clarity. So unlike an idea which can be chosen and then discharged, forms are resonance in The Mind (which is Void and Clarity together). We might call this the Mind of God or the Mind of the Universal Observer.

You can think of material objects (animate and inanimate) as defined (including structure and behaviour), as a matrix of parameters, all of which are resonances, i.e., continually created and annihilated. In the enlightened state this matrix can be perceived and then all objects appear ethereal.

Those parameters can all be changed when you can acknowledge them and realize their uncertainty. You only need to make directives to the Universe. If you believe in “material only” and an expanding universe then you have a hindrance to forming beliefs, but you may try taking a leap of faith and trust your spiritual help.

At Monday, May 11, 2015 6:03:00 AM, Blogger Kyrani99 said...

the other consideration is that the tree is not “free” i.e., growing in the forest, which is for all people. The tree is growing in a garden that some people own or are entitled to enjoy and it is under the jurisdiction of the gardener. If you are included in the people, to whom the garden belongs or can enjoy, then you have authority. You can make directives to the Universe either to stop the action of the gardener (which may include a mental threat or directive of harm if their actions are unethical) or to change the tree’s parameters.

You can change the tree’s parameters directly by envisaging a new position for the tree. You can do this by taking a series of photographs and using a PC paint program to tilt the tree and cut and paste so that you end up with a picture that has the tree standing in the desired way. This helps you hold a strong mental image and will influence the tree’s parameters directly so it will move or grow in the desired direction and the gardener will no longer constrain it. The tree can’t stop you because while it has a will, it does not have free will. But if you express love for the tree (as I can see you have because you care for its well-being), the tree will respond more quickly and more completely to your directives because having love is uniting with the tree and hence moving forward as one.

At Monday, May 18, 2015 10:55:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

A visitor to this thread wrote the following today. ..Maurice.

When I finished reading the post it made me laugh. Thanks for thinking outside the box. I do understand the concern but would think about it in a different light. I think we need understanding about all things that invlove the survival (the state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances.) of human life. What are they doing to that tree? That is a good question. However, there isn't any stupid questions. We need an understanding because that is what makes the world go around isn't it. Good posts and thoughts! Thanks for sharing.

At Saturday, December 30, 2017 3:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question at the heart of this ethical dilemma is "can plants feel pain?" Scientifically, a living organism can only feel pain if the organism has a functional nervous system. This is clearly evident when you observe a patient with a severed nerve to a limb. Although the patient may occasionally feel phantom pain to that limb (which is felt in the brain), the patient will not feel any discomfort if the limb is manipulated, punctured, or even amputated without anesthesia. Clearly the limb can no longer "feel", much like the plants shown in the picture.

Another common argument is that electrical impulses/action potentials exist in plants (and all living things) that could be construed as nerve impulses. Consider that these action potentials also exist in the denervated limb prior to amputation because the limb is still alive, but these action potentials are unable to transmit feelings.

Although individuals will continue to assign feelings to plants because of a poetic device called personification, what is most important is that we separate fact from fiction so we can help those who truly feel pain. -- Woodworker


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