The Ethics of Human-Plant Interaction

New Theories on the Right Treatment of Vegetal Life

One way of categorising recent works on plant ethics is with the help of four concepts that have played and continue to play a prominent role in the contemporary debate, viz. dignityflourishingintegrity, and naturalness.


Since 1992, the Swiss Constitution famously contains an article that protects the dignity of creatures, including plants. The legislative process that made this possible also caused a surge of ethical theorising about the concept of dignity.

Here is a brochure published by the ECNH - an ethics committee that has been assigned the task of spelling out what the notion of plant dignity, in the sense in which it is protected by the Swiss Constitution, entails:

Three further ethical discussions directly relating to the Swiss legislation can be found here:

  • Balzer, Philipp, Klaus Peter Rippe, and Peter Schaber. 1997. "Was heißt Würde der Kreatur?" In Schriftenreihe Umwelt Nr. 294, edited by Bundesamt für Umwelt, Wald und Landschaft (BUWAL). Bern.
  • Brom, Frans W.A. 2000. "The Good Life of Creatures with Dignity. Some Comments on the Swiss Expert Opinion." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 13 (1): 53–63.
  • Arz de Falco, Andrea and Denis Müller. 2001. Wert und Würde von "niederen" Tieren und Pflanzen: Ethische Überlegungen zum Verfassungsprinzip "Würde der Kreatur". Freiburg: Universitätsverlag Freiburg Schweiz.

Monographs on the concept of dignity in ethics are due to Heike Baranzke, who takes a Kantian approach, and Sabine Odparlik, who explores plant dignity with an eye to the issue of green genetics:

  • Baranzke, Heike. 2002. Würde der Kreatur? Die Idee der Würde im Horizont der Bioethik. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.
  • Odparlik, Sabine. 2010. Die Würde Der Pflanze: Ein sinnvolles ethisches Prinzip im Kontext der Grünen Gentechnik? Freiburg/Münschen: Karl Alber.

For an array of further takes on the concept by different authors in the field, see the following two anthologies:

  • Odparlik, Sabine, Peter Kunzmann, eds. 2007. Eine Würde für alle Lebewesen? München: UTZ.
  • Odparlik, Sabine, Peter Kunzmann, Nikolaus Knoepffler, eds. 2008. Wie die Würde gedeiht. Pflanzen in der Bioethik. München: UTZ.

Good Life

The notion of a good life has played a crucial role in ethical thinking, with advocates as prominent as Aristotle. In the 20th century, Paul Taylor and his successors used the concept to make a case for their biocentric approaches to environmental ethics, according to which all living things deserve direct moral consideration qua being alive.

Robin Attfield applies this biocentric strategy to trees and thereby puts it into a distinctly plant ethical context:

  • Attfield, Robin. 1981. "The Good of Trees." Journal of Value Inquiry 15 (1): 35-54.

Under the new and partly empirical label "flourishing", the notion of a good life also lies at the heart of Angela Kallhoff's contributions to the field:

  • Kallhoff, Angela. 2002. Prinzipien der Pflanzenethik: die Bewertung pflanzlichen Lebens in Biologie und Philosophie. New York, NY: Campus Verlag.
  • Kallhoff, Angela. 2014. "Plants in ethics: why flourishing deserves moral respect." Environmental values 23: 685-700.


The notion of integrity is sometimes used quite similiarly to dignity or flourishing. Bueren and Struik (2005, 489) even seem to regard the concepts of integrity and dignity as almost coextensive. That said, arguments from the integrity of plants have shown to be capable of opening up new perspectives that can exert quite an influence on issues of public interest.

For a take on organic plant breeding based on the notion of integrity, see:

  • Bueren, Edith T. Lammerts van, and Paul C. Struik. 2005. "Integrity and Rights of Plants: Ethical Notions in Organic Plant Breeding and Propagation." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (5): 479–493.


The strategy of grounding normative claims in what is thought of as natural has been subjected to legitimate criticism over the past decades. Nevertheless, the method continues to play a prominent role in public discourse about plant-related affairs such as green genetics.

This article examines popular arguments from naturalness and explains why they should be heard:

  • Myskja, Bjørn K. 2006. "The Moral Difference between Intragenic and Transgenic Modification of Plants." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 19 (3): 225–238.