All Commentary
Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Shouldn’t Bugs Have Rights If Other Animals Do?

If even morally scrupulous animal rights activists don't sincerely believe that killing bugs is wrong, it's probably not wrong.

The most compelling objection to animal rights, to my mind, has long been… bugs. Bugs are animals. Every human being directly kills bugs just by walking – and indirectly kills bugs by renting and buying constructed housing. Yet I’ve never heard even a strict vegan express a word of moral condemnation for this mass animal killing.

So what? I’ve previous defended what I call the Argument from Conscience. The gist of it:

1. If even morally scrupulous advocates of view X don’t live in accordance with X, the best explanation is that they don’t really believe X.

2. If even the dedicated advocates of X don’t really believe X, X is probably false.

By this logic: If even morally scrupulous animal rights activists don’t sincerely believe that killing bugs is wrong, it’s probably not wrong. And once you proverbially throw bugs under the bus, why not other pests like mice and rats? And once you abandon mammalian pests, why not cows and pigs?

Let’s Ask PETA

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly do leading animal rights activists actually say about bugs? Let’s start with PETA, which endorses the following general principles:

PETA believes that animals have rights and deserve to have their best interests taken into consideration, regardless of whether they are useful to humans. Like you, they are capable of suffering and have an interest in leading their own lives.

The very heart of all of PETA’s actions is the idea that it is the right of all beings–human and nonhuman alike–to be free from harm.

Now here’s PETA on bugs:

All animals have feelings and have a right to live free from unnecessary suffering–regardless of whether they are considered “pests” or “ugly.”

As with our dealings with our fellow humans, the determination of when lethal defense against insects and animals is acceptable must be judged on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the level of the threat and the alternatives that are available. As Albert Schweitzer once said “Each of us must live daily from judgment to judgment, deciding each case as it arises as wisely and mercifully as we can.”

A bizarre juxtaposition. No one would say that humans have a “right to live free from unnecessary suffering,” then immediately talk about killing them on a “case-by-case basis.” And if someone killed hundreds of humans with his car on a cross-country trip, no one would accept the excuse, “It was necessary to cross the country.” If your only mode of transportation kills innocent human beings, you’re obliged to stay put. General principles notwithstanding, PETA clearly smuggles in the common-sense intuition that human lives are more morally important than insect lives. Indeed, it smuggles in the assumption that human convenience is more morally important than insects’ very lives.

A Second Opinion

To be fair, I’ve heard many animal activists hold PETA in low regard. Here’s what the Animal Rights FAQ tells us about bugs:

Singer quotes three criteria for deciding if an organism has the capacity to suffer from pain: 1) there are behavioral indications, 2) there is an appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary usefulness for the experience of pain. These criteria seem to satisfied for insects, if only in a primitive way.

Now we are equipped to tackle the issue of insect rights. First, one might argue that the issue is not so compelling as for other animals because industries are not built around the exploitation of insects. But this is untrue; large industries are built around honey production, silk production, and cochineal/carmine production, and, of course, mass insect death results from our use of insecticides. Even if the argument were true, it should not prevent us from attempting to be consistent in the application of our principles to all animals…

Let’s Evaluate

My Argument from Conscience, to repeat, objects: “But no one – even the author of this FAQ – does this. Which strongly suggests even he finds his own position unconvincing.” But to his credit, the FAQ author discloses these complications:

Insects are a part of the Animal Kingdom and some special arguments would be required to exclude them from the general AR argument.

Some would draw a line at some level of complexity of the nervous system, e.g., only animals capable of operant conditioning need be enfranchised. Others may quarrel with this line and place it elsewhere. Some may postulate a scale of life with an ascending capacity to feel pain and suffer. They might also mark a cut-off on the scale, below which rights are not actively asserted. Is the cut-off above insects and the lower invertebrates? Or should there be no cut-off? This is one of the issues still being actively debated in the AR community.People who strive to live without cruelty will attempt to push the line back as far as possible, giving the benefit of the doubt where there is doubt.

The overarching problem with these “exclusion” arguments: They try to justify a massive difference in treatment with a totally debatable difference in capacity for pain. It’s easy to show that some creatures are much smarter than others; but how on earth could we ever convincingly show that some feel much less pain than others?

This is especially pressing given the FAQ’s closing proviso: If there’s a real possibility that killing bugs is very wrong, we should refrain until we know better. And per the Argument from Conscience, since even the author of the FAQ does not refrain, there probably isn’t a real possibility that killing bugs is very wrong.

P.S. What about more academic sources? I searched Google Scholar, but found nothing on the topic. I’m open to reading suggestions in the comments.

Follow-Up: Mike Huemer, my favorite philosopher, responded to this post on Facebook.  Huemer’s words, reprinted with his permission:

“I don’t think the best way of determining whether x is true is by seeing whether x-advocates are hypocritical or morally flawed. (Btw, on this criterion, the slavery-defenders who knew Thomas Jefferson would presumably have declared that slavery is probably right, since even Jefferson held slaves.)

Rather, the best way to find out whether x is true is to just look at the arguments for and against x, especially if those arguments are simple and easy to find.

The arguments on ethical vegetarianism are simple and easily found. It seems wrong to cause extreme amounts of pain and suffering for the sake of minor benefits to oneself. If you just look at some of the things that go on on factory farms, you’re going to be horrified. If you look, I think you are going to find it extremely difficult to say, “Oh yeah, that seems fine.”

If you think it is not wrong to inflict severe suffering as long as the victim of the suffering is stupid, then you’d have to say that it is permissible to torture retarded people for fun. Etc. (I don’t have anything to add to the standard arguments.) You also have to explain why pain isn’t bad when the victim is stupid.

Now, what is the proposed response to the argument? The fact that people kill many insects is supposed to be evidence that . . . pain isn’t really bad? That it’s not really wrong to cause lots of bad things for the sake of minor benefits to oneself? But how could the number of insects that people kill be evidence for any of these things? 

The blog post even seems to suggest that it’s impossible that it’s wrong to cause pain to stupid creatures. That is, that we know that pain is only bad if you’re smart. But really, could that plausibly be said to be something that we know? How would that be? Is there some proof of that proposition?

Maybe the suggestion is that it’s self-evident that pain is only bad if you’re smart. But then, rather than trying to draw inferences about this by looking at the behavior of PETA-members, etc., it seems like we could just introspect and see whether that’s self-evident. When I do, I see that it’s not self-evident (indeed, it isn’t even plausible). I don’t have to make any inferences or look at anyone else’s behavior, since I can just look and see.”

Reprinted from EconLog.

  • Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.