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.