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Do Insects Matter?

close-up photograph of grasshopper

A few years ago I told my mom about a paper I’d written about insect suffering. She said: “Insect suffering? Like if I step on an ant?” I said: “Yes.” She said: “People talk about that?” I changed the subject because I was too embarrassed to explain that, no, they usually don’t, but I think they should.

But whether insects suffer, and whether this matters morally, is increasingly important. Many people now promote replacing meat from cows, pigs, chickens, etc. with protein from farmed insects. They think eating insects, and insect products, would be environmentally friendlier. Others, such as Brian Tomasik and Jeff Sebo and Jason Schukraft, are not convinced. Some are not convinced by the environmental claims, but they mostly worry about the implications for animal welfare. The animals that produce your meat, eggs, and dairy are almost always raised on factory farms where they are treated extremely inhumanely. Many philosophers, including me, think this is a good argument for getting your protein from vegan sources, like beans, lentils, nuts, seitan, and Beyond Burgers. (If that sounds too hard, you might start by cutting out chicken and eggs, since chickens are treated the worst.) Unfortunately, as Sebo and Schukraft describe, insect farms aren’t exceptions on the inhumane treatment front. If insects matter morally, this could be extremely bad: farming insects for human or animal consumption is increasingly popular, and we may soon be farming tens of trillions of insects every year.

I think that whether insects matter morally depends on at least two questions: (1) are insects sentient?, and (2) is being sentient enough for insects to matter morally? I answer these questions: (1) maybe, and (2) yes. Since insects might matter morally, it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when we can do so without sacrificing anything too important. After saying more about all this, at the end, I’ll say some things about what it means to care morally about insects.

Are insects sentient?

Being sentient means that you are capable of having conscious experiences. Something is a conscious experience if there is something it is like to have it. Think about what you experience when you look at the black letters on this page. There is something it is like for you to see the color black, just as there is something it is like for you when you feel sad, or hear a song on the radio, or think about your plans for the future. There is also something it is like when a bat uses echolocation, even though we humans, who can’t echolocate, can’t imagine what it’s like. The experiences of seeing black, being sad, echolocating, etc. are all conscious experiences.

Can insects have conscious experiences? Is there something it’s like to be a fly or an ant, or are they “dark inside”? The short answer is that we’re not completely sure either way. I won’t try to review the evidence here; it’s reviewed in some of the pieces I linked above. What matters now is this: if it’s realistically possible that insects are sentient, and if sentience is enough for them to matter morally (as I argue next), then it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when possible. If they matter morally and we unnecessarily harm them, we’ve done something bad.

Do all sentient beings matter morally?

Some individuals matter morally for their own sake. Others don’t. It’s wrong to hurt you, or a dog, without a good reason. It might be wrong for me to destroy a chair for no reason: maybe it’s your favorite chair. But that would be different. I would wrong you if I destroyed the chair. But I wouldn’t wrong the chair. The chair doesn’t matter for its own sake; only how it affects others matters. If I were on a distant planet with a chair no one cared about, it wouldn’t be wrong to destroy the chair. But if I were on a distant planet with a person or a dog no one cared about, it would still be wrong to hurt the person or the dog. They matter for their own sakes, not just because others care about them.

The question is whether insects matter for their own sakes. I think that if they are sentient, they do matter for their own sakes. Think about dogs. It is extremely wrong to light a dog on fire. It is usually okay to light a picture of a dog on fire. Why is that? Surely the answer has to be something like: the dog has a mind, feelings, an inner life, the dog is someone and not just something, and doing this terrible thing means the dog will feel horrible pain and lose out on valuable future experiences. In other words, the reasons not to hurt a dog have to do with the fact that dogs are sentient. But none of this is true of the picture of the dog; it really is just a thing that you can treat however you want.

So it seems to me that sentience is enough for an individual to matter morally: nothing with a mind, with the capacity for consciousness, is a mere thing. There is a further question about whether it might be possible for an individual that isn’t sentient to matter morally. But we don’t need to answer that here. What matters is that, if insects are sentient, they do matter morally.

What does this mean?

Suppose you and a fly are both drowning. I can only save one. Obviously, I should save you. That’s true even if you both matter morally. For one thing, I know you matter morally whereas I only know the fly might matter morally. But also: you have many desires and hopes about the future which will be foiled by death; you have relationships which will be cut short and loved ones who will miss you; death would make you miss out on a long life full of rich experiences as opposed to, for the fly, a much shorter life full of simpler experiences; the terror and pain you feel while drowning would be much worse than that felt by the fly; etc. These and other reasons mean your death would be much worse than the death of the fly. Some philosophers also think the mere fact that you are human also matters, whereas others think that belief is mere prejudice. But we can ignore that for now. After all, some of the factors I mentioned also apply to dogs, and so mean you should also save a dog over an insect. So I do kill insects sometimes, both by accident (which is unavoidable) and intentionally. For instance, when my cats got fleas, I gave them flea treatment.

But in that case, you might wonder, why worry about insects at all? If the suffering of humans (and dogs, and all those factory-farmed mammals and birds and fish) is so much worse, why not focus on that, and ignore the insects? Well, you should care about all that other stuff, too. But, first, it’s not always a competition. You can take various small steps that won’t detract from addressing these other things. By attuning us to the moral importance of sentience, concern for insects might even make us more concerned about other, more sophisticated beings. And, second, humans have the ability to affect very many insects, and the death and suffering of tens of trillions of farmed insects may be extremely bad when added up, even if each insect’s treatment is only a little bit bad. (In the future, it may even be possible for us to intervene in nature to improve the condition of the quintillions of insects that live in the wild.)

So: live your life and be concerned about everyone, but be concerned about insects, too, and try to avoid hurting them when you can. And let others know you’re doing this. Whether moral concern for insects spreads will affect whether we make the right decisions on big-picture issues, like whether to farm them. And it will also affect how embarrassed I get when I talk to my mom.

Is It Time to Show the Lobster a Bit of Respect?

photograph of lobsters in water tank at market

The United Kingdom is currently in the process of revising what the law says about sentience and the ethical treatment of animals. This week news broke that the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation has called for greater protections for non-vertebrates such as octopi and crustaceans. As a consequence, debate is emerging about whether practices such as boiling lobsters alive should be banned. Much of this debate seems to be centered on scientific facts regarding the nervous system of such animals and whether they are capable of feeling pain at all. But, perhaps this is the wrong mindset to have when considering this issue. Perhaps it is more important to consider our own feelings about how we treat lobsters rather than how the lobsters feel about it.

The ethical debate about the treatment of lobsters has mostly focused on the practice of boiling them alive when being prepared for eating. Lobsters are known to struggle for up to two minutes after being placed in boiling water and emit a noise caused by escaping air that many interpret as screaming. In response to such concerns, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, and New Zealand have all banned the practice of boiling lobsters alive and require that they be transported in saltwater rather than being kept in/on ice. But the debate always seems to hinge on the question of sentience. Can a lobster feel pain when being boiled alive? To answer that, questions of sentience become questions of science.

There is no clear consensus among scientists about whether the lobster nervous system permits it to feel pain. But how do you measure pain? To many the reaction to being in boiling water is taken as a sign that the lobster is in pain. Some studies have shown that lobsters will avoid shocks, a process called nociception where the nervous system responds to noxious stimuli by producing a reflex response. This explains why the lobster thrashes in the boiling water. However, other scientists have questioned whether the nervous system of the lobster is sophisticated enough to allow for any actual sense of suffering, arguing that a lobster’s brain is more similar to an insect. They suggest that the sensory response to stimuli is different than that to pain which involves an experience of discomfort, despair and other emotional states.

Indeed as invertebrates, lobsters do not have a central brain, but rather groups of chain ganglia connected by nerves. This can make killing them challenging as simply giving it a blow to the head will not do; a lobster must have its central nervous system destroyed with a complicated cut on the underside. It is recommended that they be stunned electronically. Because of this very different brain structure, it is suggested that lobsters lack the capacity to suffer. As Robert Bayer of the Lobster Institute describes the issue, “Cooking a lobster is like cooking a big bug…Do you have the same concern when you kill a fly or mosquito?”

Nevertheless, critics charge that this thinking is only a form of discrimination against animals with neurological architecture different from our own. Indeed, beyond nervous system reflex responses, because pain is difficult to directly measure, other markers of pain are often driven by using arguments by analogy comparing animals to humans. But creatures who are fundamentally different from humans may make such analogies suspect. In other words, because we don’t know what it is like to be a lobster, it is difficult to say if lobsters feel pain at all or if pain and suffering may fundamentally mean something different for lobsters than they do for humans and other vertebrates. This makes addressing the ethics of how we treat lobster by looking to the science of lobster anatomy difficult. But perhaps there is another way to consider this issue that doesn’t require answering such complex questions.

After all, if we return to Bayer’s remarks comparing lobsters to bugs, there are some important considerations: Is it wrong to roast ants with a magnifying glass? Is it wrong to pull the wings off flies? Typically, people take issue with such practices not merely because we worry about how the ant or the fly feels, but because it reveals something problematic about the person doing it. Even if the ant or the fly doesn’t feel pain (they might), it seems unnecessarily brutal to effectively torture such animals by interfering in their lives in such seemingly thoughtless ways, particularly if not for food. But would it all suddenly be okay if we decide to eat them afterwards? Perhaps such antics reveal an ethical character flaw on our part.

In his work on environmental ethics, Ronald L. Sandler leans on other environmental ethicists such as Paul Taylor to articulate an account of what kind of character we should have in our relationships with the environment. Taylor advocates that actions be understood as morally right or wrong in so far as they embody a respect for nature. Having such a respect for nature entails a “biocentric outlook” where we regard all living things on Earth as possessing inherent moral worth. This is because each living thing has “a good of its own.” That is, such an outlook involves recognizing that all living organisms are teleological centers of life in the same way as humans and that we have no non-question begging justification for maintaining the superiority of humans over other species. In other words, all living things are internally organized towards their own ends or goods which secure their biological functioning and form of life and respecting nature means respecting that biological functioning and the attainment of such ends.

Taylor’s outlook is problematic because it puts all life on the same ethical level. You are no more morally important than the potato you had for dinner (and how morally wrong it was for you to eat that poor potato!) However, Sandler believes that much of Taylor’s insights can be incorporated in a coherent account of multiple environmental virtues, with respect for nature being one of them. As he puts it, “The virtues of respect for nature are informed by their conduciveness to enabling other living things to flourish as well as their conduciveness to promoting the eudemonistic ends.” While multiple virtues may be relevant to how we should act — such that, for example, eating lobster may be ethical — how we treat those lobsters before that point may demonstrate a fundamental lack of respect for a living organism.

Consider the lobster tanks one finds at a local grocery store, where multiple lobsters may be stacked on top of each other in a barren tank with their claws stuck together. Many have complained about such tanks, and some stores have abandoned them as critics charge that they are stressful for the lobster. It is difficult to say that such “live” lobsters are really living any kind of life consistent with the kind of thing a lobster is. Does keeping lobsters in such conditions demonstrate a lack of respect for the lobster as a living organism with a good of its own? As one person who launched a petition over the matter puts it “I’m in no way looking to eliminate the industry, or challenge the industry, I’m just looking to have the entire process reviewed so that we can ensure that if we do choose to eat lobsters, that we’re doing it in a respectful manner.”

So perhaps the ethical issue is not whether lobsters can feel pain as we understand it. Clearly lobsters have nervous systems that detect noxious stimuli, and perhaps that should be enough to not create such stimuli for their system if we don’t have to. We know it doesn’t contribute to the lobster’s own good. So perhaps the ethical treatment of lobsters should focus less on what suffering is created and focus more on our own respect for the food that we eat.

Legal Personhood and Nonhuman Rights

photograph of two elephants on marshy plains

In July 2019, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh granted all of the country’s rivers status as legal persons. Doing so makes it possible for the newly created National River Conservation Commission to bring legal action against anyone whose activity is deemed “harmful” to the country’s rivers. Other countries, and states within the US, have enacted similar rules (see Meredith McFadden’s “Who and What Is a Person: Chilean Rivers” on this site). There have also been extensive efforts on the behalf of non-human animals to establish for them legal personhood. For example the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2018 sued the Bronx Zoo to obtain a writ of habeas corpus for Happy, an Asian elephant housed at the zoo since 1977. In short, they got a court to compel the zoo to justify the lawfulness of their captivity of the elephant. 

The reasoning in each case has been distinct and so no consistent framework has yet emerged to ground the efforts to extend (the recognition of) rights beyond human beings to non-human animals and non-organisms. The Nonhuman Rights Project has focused on arguing that long-standing legal definitions in the Anglophone tradition already recognize the rights of animals—and that humans largely fail to act consistently on our own legal principles. The Bangladeshi ruling leverages a cultural belief that the river is a mother figure to the country. A broad ruling on the rights of nature made in 2011 by Bolivia’s government appeals to existence of conditions on the integrity and balance of natural systems—in short, nature’s wellbeing. This raises the question of what consistent basis, if any, can be articulated for such cases going forward. As attempts to abate climate change and eliminate animal cruelty increase, there will be a need for a powerful and consistent legal-philosophical framework to undergird these types of claim. 

One possible framework relies on an anthropocentric and social utility view of rights: that is, one which determines when, and to what, rights should be extended by calculating the benefit to humanity the rights would yield. Under such a framework the ability of current and future humans to secure food, water, and shelter gives sufficient reason to treat non-human animals and non-organisms as bearers of legal rights. Most of the arguments geared toward motivating people to deal with climate change fall under the auspices of the anthropocentric framework. However anthropocentric accounts of rights only extend rights to non-human animals and non-organisms on a provisional basis: these entities are considered as bearers of rights for only as long as it benefits humans. This framework does not make sense of the language found in measures like those taken by Bangladesh and the Nonhuman Rights Project. In these cases it is for the sake of the animals and the rivers themselves that rights are being recognized—not for the sake of the humans who benefit from them.

The Nonhuman Rights Project highlights the following definition from Black’s Law Dictionary: “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights or duties.” To this they add, in the case of Happy, that she is cognitively sophisticated enough to pass the mirror test—a psychological exam argued by some to demonstrate the existence of a sense of self (see McFadden’s “Passing the Mirror Test” for discussion). Hence they offer cognitive sophistication as a criterion for being capable of rights or duties. Other defenses of animal rights appeal to sentience—the ability to feel pain and pleasure—as the relevant criterion establishing animals as bearers of rights. Peter Singer wrote in his 1979 Practical Ethics, explaining the views of John Stuart Mill, “[t]he capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way.” However neither of these lines of reasoning extend to non-organisms, like rivers and lakes. These entities do not have cognition at all, much less sophisticated cognition. Moreover Singer, continuing on after the passage quoted above, forecloses upon the possibility of non-organisms having interests: “It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer.” This directly contradicts the language of the measures taken in Bolivia and Toledo, Ohio which discuss the rights of nature “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

Taking the idea of the rights of non-organisms like lakes and rivers seriously may require a significant departure from mainstream moral philosophy, according to philosophers of so-called “radical ecology” frameworks. Proponents of radical ecology contend that the project of extending rights of personhood to non-humans can never fully account for the moral standing of non-humans, viewing the project as a thinly-disguised version of anthropocentrism. Instead they argue for a fundamental revision of how human’s view the natural world. For instance the very division of the world into the categories of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ is a misstep according to radical ecology—one which is at the root of problems like those addressed by Bangladesh, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Toledo, Bolivia, and others. Hence while the radical ecology framework gives full breath to language about nature’s rights to flourish, it objects to the method of extending legal personhood to non-human entities. 

Meeting the challenges of climate change and generally reforming humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world is no simple task. The steps taken by various jurisdictions and organizations to extend legal personhood to nonhuman animals and organisms represent a strategy that is in its first iteration. The strategy has so far met both with mixed reception and mixed results. Regardless of their success, similar measures and strategies are likely to arise as jurisdictions grapple with environmental and animal rights issues. Likewise, scholars will continue trying to develop powerful and consistent philosophical frameworks to undergird the legal work.

Passing the Mirror Test and the Wrong of Pain

Photograph of a striped fish called a cleaner wrasse in front of coral with another different species of fish in view behind

In mid-February, scientists announced progress in developing an understanding of consciousness. An international team collaborating in four countries discovered patterns of brain activity that coincide with awareness. Consciousness has long been a mystery, and there are many reasons to explore and figure it out. It seems like creatures who have some form of consciousness make up a special club, experiencing the world with more layers, perhaps with more complex agency, perhaps uniquely making up the moral community.

These potential steps forward in understanding our brain-based and embodied consciousness come alongside a purported broadening of the group of animals that scientists claim pass the mirror-test for self-awareness. As we try to put our fingers on what it means to be conscious, in the last century Western philosophers have become open to the idea that there is a rich arena of animal perspectives alongside our own. The variety of ways that we can imagine experiencing the world has grown with our study of human and non-human animal experiences. This has interesting implications for who we include in our understanding of our moral community and how we understand the ways we can harm these members.

Though it is pretty intuitive that causing harm is bad, explaining why can be notoriously difficult. One route is appealing to the negative experience of harm – primarily how bad experiencing pain is. This focus unites human and non-human animals that can feel pain into one morally relevant domain. If what is bad about causing harm is that it brings about this negative experience of pain, then we need to identify the sorts of creatures that experience pain and avoid bringing about those states without outweighing reasons. Thus, consciousness will be morally relevant insofar as it delineates those creatures that are in some way aware of their experiences.

There are two responses to this line of thinking. One direction argues that this grounding of the badness of causing harm is too narrow: there are harms that we don’t experience, so this understanding misses morally relevant behaviors. Another direction claims that this line of thinking is too broad: not all pain is morally relevant.

Consider the (false) common conception of the perspective of a goldfish, where their understanding of the world resets every 10 seconds. Would causing pain to a creature who would very quickly have no memory of it have the same moral relevance as causing pain to something that would incorporate it into its understanding of the world indefinitely? Take the faux-goldfish example to its conceptual extreme and imagine a creature that has the experience of pleasure and pain, but only has instantaneous experiences – it lacks memory. Presumably, it wouldn’t matter to the creature a moment after it felt pain that it felt pain a moment ago because it had no residual impact from the experience (unless prolonged damage was done). If you share this intuition, then something more than the mere experience of pain is involved in the morality of causing harm.  

The way to make pain morally relevant is to focus on the perspective of the creature experiencing the pain – that there is such a perspective extended in time that experiencing the pain will impact. We can imagine the fear of a non-human animal in unfamiliar circumstances and consider the anxiety that may develop over time if it is continuously exposed to such circumstances. Such creatures have a sort of “self,” in the sense that their experience of the world develops their mode of interacting with the world and understanding of the world over time.

There is an even more advanced way of being a creature in the world beyond stringing experiences together in order to have a perspective extended in time: a creature can be aware that it has such a perspective by being aware that it is a self.

A key experiment to check the development of a self-concept is the mirror-test, where an animal has a mark placed on their body that they cannot see by moving their eyes. If, when they see the mark on a body in a mirror, they come to the conclusion that their own body has the mark, then they “pass” the mirror test because in order to come to such a conclusion the animal must use an implicit premise that they are a creature that could be so marked. The mirror-test is thus meant to indicate that an animal has self-awareness. It relies on a variety of competencies (vision and figuring out how mirrors work, for instance), but has long been thought to be sufficient for indicating that a creature is aware that it exists in the world.

Humans don’t pass the mirror test until they are toddlers, and only some primates also are able to pass the test, along with sundry birds and other mammals. However, this past year a tiny fish – the cleaner wrasse – seemed to pass the test. It is a social animal, considered to be relatively cognitively advanced, but the scientists who advocated for the results of the mirror-test suggest that while yes, this is a smart and advanced fish, this may not mean that it is self-aware. The success of the small fish has raised issues in how we test for morally relevant milestones in non-human animals.

One interesting facet of the mirror test is that animals that perform well are social, which is often a morally relevant trait. If morality is a matter of treated others with the sort of deference they are due, then a sort of sociality for members of the moral domain makes some sense.

In defining our moral community, most theorists include some non-human animals, and most consider it relevant to identify the way creatures experience the world. These latest advances in mapping consciousness and advancing our interpretation of self-awareness tests will help us understand the spectrum of relationships possible in the animal world. 


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