Culture & Ethics
Bioethicists: Insects Are People, Too!
Rejecting human exceptionalism turns the world upside down and people’s brains inside out. We have seen opponents of human exceptionalism promote animal rights and nature rights. We have even seen one professor declare the supposed personhood of peas. Now, it is insects’ turn at being anthropomorphized.
As many readers probably know, radical environmentalists want us to prevent meat-eating to stop global warming caused by cow flatulence. But this plan causes horror for two bioethicist types writing in Aeon. Oh, not because they like steak. Rather, such a plan would kill trillions of sentient beings! From “Don’t Farm Bugs”:
Do we want to encourage a food system that farms animals by the trillion?
By number of animals killed annually, the most farmed insects are crickets, mealworm beetle larvae and black soldier fly larvae. The most common slaughter methods on these farms include baking, boiling, freezing and shredding. In most jurisdictions, there are no welfare regulations that govern insect slaughter. Operators are free to kill the insects in whatever manner is most efficient.
What’s Next? Insect-Welfare Laws?
The hand-wringing goes on:
While insect farming is the newest way in which humans kill insects in large numbers, it is far from the only way. Humans kill insects for silk, for carmine dye, for shellac (a type of resin) and for many other products. We apply insecticides in our homes, schools and offices. Most significantly, farmers spray vast amounts of chemicals on our fields and orchards, killing more than a quadrillion insects every year with agricultural pesticides.
Insects are people too:
Insects engage in some behaviours that suggest a capacity for positive and negative experiences. For example, fruit flies seem to be capable of anhedonia, a loss of interest in activities previously found to be rewarding, and a common symptom of human depression. If you expose flies to aversive vibrations over several days, their activity begins to change in predictable ways. The shaken flies show reductions in various voluntary actions, though their reflexive behaviour remains unchanged. In particular, shaken flies consume much less glycerol (commonly used as a reward in fruit-fly studies) than non-shaken controls, suggesting that the shaken flies have lost their taste for sweets.
The idea is to not harm anything that is sentient — even if not alive:
One might also argue that our reasoning leads to a slippery slope. After all, insects are not the only beings who at least might be sentient. For example, artificial intelligences have increasingly complex sensory and cognitive abilities. Does our argument imply that we should adopt a presumption against harming them as well? In that case, the implications of our argument could be even more onerous. Can we really be expected to adopt a presumption against harming not only ants and bees but also characters in video games or digital assistants in phones?
Maybe so. Granted, we can draw a line between insects and artificial intelligences for now, since insects are much more likely than artificial intelligences to be sentient. But we might not always be able to draw such a line, since artificial intelligences might not always have such a low chance of being sentient. Perhaps one day insects and artificial intelligences will both have a non-negligible chance of being sentient, given the evidence available at the time. And if and when that day arrives, perhaps we really should adopt a presumption against harming them both, in the spirit of caution.
Sentience is a very low bar. It means, “feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought.” A fly is indeed sentient. So are oysters, which grow pearls when a grain of sand irritates their membranes.
Late-Term Abortion? That’s Different
Gee, I wonder what the authors think about late-term abortion, given that fetuses can feel pain. That’s sentience, too. I’ll bet they would say, “That’s different.” Right.
It’s a very long piece, but you get the gist. And don’t think these folk are alone. PETA opposes honey because it involves “raping” the queen bees.
Why point out this nonsense? First, this is the kind of stuff that universities now foster among their up-and-coming professors. Second, and more important, don’t say it will never happen. Think of what we laughed at 50 years ago that is now such hard dogma that having a heterodox view can lead to losing your job.
Human anti-exceptionalism must be opposed every time it rears its misanthropic head, no matter how seemingly fringe or unlikely. Failing to do so allows truly harmful ideas to germinate and grow.
Cross-posted at The Corner.