the tree and the rock

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

… and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind

                — Wallace Stevens

(Chicago) Imagine a seashore, where a high, wind-sculpted rock is admired for its beauty. Next to it, a pine tree clings to the same cliff, having grown there to a gnarled and twisted shape because of the salty winds. One day, you visit this familiar shoreline and find one of these objects gone, washed away by a storm. Which one’s loss would you regret more?

Perhaps you should miss the rock more, for it is irreplaceable and beautiful. Pine trees are common; new ones grow. But I would miss the tree more, moved by its struggle to survive.

It is not clear this is reasonable. Perhaps I adopt the following argument, which is an example of the “pathetic fallacy“:

  • I will things.
  • When I achieve what I wish, I feel happiness; and when I fail, I suffer.
  • It is right to broaden my concern from my own happiness to others’ happiness or suffering.
  • Therefore, I ought to care about the achievement of others’ wills.
  • Therefore, I ought to care for the tree’s survival and success.

Stevens suggests that it would be a lonely universe if we did not sympathize with nature. But the tree actually feels nothing, and the beauty that we attribute to it because of its struggle is no different (morally) from the beauty we assign to the passive rock.

The tree struggles, and we could call that “will” in the sense of organized striving. But it’s not clear that will without subjective awareness is a matter of concern. An amoeba demonstrates will by engulfing prey, but the amoeba feels nothing more than a drop of water feels as it slides down a window. The amoeba is more complex than the water-drop, but that is not the difference. An elaborate machine is more complex than the amoeba or the tree and yet it makes no claim on us morally.

It’s also not clear that will is a property of organisms alone. I am made up of cells and I belong to several larger entities, such as the Greater Boston area and the United States. My cells seem to want things: consider the blood cells that hunt down and kill bacteria. Greater Boston has operated rather like an organism for three centuries, drawing resources, expanding, absorbing wounds and recovering. I am more complicated than my own leukocytes, but Greater Boston is more complicated than I.

Maybe:

  • Anything that lives has will, and we are right to care morally about life. (But does that include the anthill as well as the ant, the forest as well as the tree, a people as well as a person?)

Or:

  • We should care only about subjective happiness and suffering, which arise when will is connected to inward experience. It is rational to care for the tree in the same way as the rock (both are unusual and attractive), but it is unreasonable to endow the tree with value because it lives.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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