Is it ridiculous to take steps to reduce personal harm to insects?

I was outside working in my parents garden today and noticed that the air was thick with small flying insects (I’m not exactly sure what they were – sand flies perhaps?). I didn’t want to breathe any of them in, so I went and grabbed a homemade mask I’d made for outings during COVID-19. As I was working, it occurred to me that someone might think that was a ridiculous thing to do, and I thought of a defence for it.

Here are two questions for someone who thinks that the suffering of insects is ridiculous.

  • Is human suffering ridiculous?
  • If there were a species or intellect significantly more intelligent, more capable of experiencing suffering/wellbeing etc. (insert any other morally relevant mental trait here), would that make human suffering any more ridiculous?

I am assuming that most people would answer no to both (though if someone doesn’t – ok). And so, in the same way that human suffering wouldn’t be any less important in that case, I would argue that insect suffering shouldn’t be any less important simply because a species with different mental traits exists. Their suffering is real and bad (if you would like to debate about how bad, sure, we can do that).

Note, this relies on me believing that insects are likely sentient to at least some degree. They have neurons, which is likely what gives us sentience. It seems strange to me for there to be some cut-off where having one fewer neuron results in zero sentience or capacity for pain (other than perhaps something like 2 to 1 or 1 to 0, but fruit flies have ~100,000). Or at least, in the absence of knowing where such a cut-off would lie, it seems prudent and safest to assume there is none.

More rigorously, there are some insects that recent tests have shown to be self-aware (e.g. this). Also given the trend of science showing that more species more unlike us are sentient and self-aware (most researchers in the field thought that all non-human animals were not sentient and nothing more than machines as little as ~50 years ago), it seems likely for the trend to continue from vertebrates to invertebrates.

Anyway, it took me like 20 seconds to do something to stop me from probably breathing in some insects and causing them to suffocate and die, so why not? And yes, I try where possible to avoid stepping on insects, it doesn’t really cost me anything.

Final note – I’m aware of and sympathetic to the wild-animal suffering argument but did not cover it here for simplicity.

Is not caring about wild-animal suffering speciesist?

Two terms to define here first:

Wild-animal suffering is the idea that animals in the wild experience some amount of suffering naturally, e.g. from parasites, exposure, hunger, being killed slowly by predators, etc. Some argue that the life of an average wild-animal (especially when you consider marine animals and insects) is so full of suffering that they experience more suffering than wellbeing. This might lead to the conclusion that their lives are not worth living, and would be better off not being born, so to speak. (Note this doesn’t automatically mean we should kill all predator animals, as some strawman makers of this would argue)

Speciesism I’ll leave to Peter Singer to define (from his book Animal Liberation): “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species”. It is a similar idea to racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’.

Many argue (and I’d agree) that causing harm to animals for small amounts of human pleasure (such as eating their flesh or secretions) is speciesist. I prefer the utilitarian framework, but I concede that this is speciesist as much as the mistreatment of other races would be racist.

I’ve seen recently some people argue that thinking we have the right to intervene in the lives of wild animals in any way to try and alleviate suffering is speciesist. I argue here the opposite.

When a human is intentionally harmed by another human, we naturally think that this is bad. Most people also believe that a human intentionally harming a non-human is bad (though some will exempt certain animals from this care!). When a human suffers through some natural cause, e.g. exposure, hunger, disease, we tend to also think this is bad, and will do our best to help them. Why should we think that the same suffering, experienced by a wild animal, is not bad, or that we shouldn’t also try to prevent it?

Suffering is bad regardless of the cause, as the individual experiencing the suffering doesn’t intrinsically care where the suffering came from. And so I argue that caring about natural human suffering but not natural non-human suffering is speciesist.