What about bees? What about squid? We need to move beyond vertebrate-centric ethics, scholars argue

The Indian religion of Jainism believes that all living creatures have souls. It teaches the doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence, which enjoins devotees to avoid harming any living being, from gnats to elephants. This means that devout Jains even wear masks to avoid breathing in gnats. As they walk they sweep the ground ahead of them to avoid treading on bugs.

It’s a faith which has traditions stretching back millennia and is worthy of deep respect. But most Westerners would regard it as wildly eccentric.

However, the increasing respectability of the philosophy of utilitarianism is leading some academics to embrace a secular Jainism. It’s well known that Peter Singer, the doyen of utilitarianism, believes that we need to enlarge the moral circle to include great apes, pigs and dolphins.

And what about insects? Singer thinks that a campaign for insect rights is premature when so many battery hens need to be saved from suffering. But he is sympathetic.

However, Singer is 74. Younger animal rights philosophers are asserting the need for insect rights.

A recent issue of the journal Animal Sentience features a leading article by two young philosophers who argue that invertebrates – spiders, insects, lobsters, octopuses, etc – deserve to be treated as moral beings. In other words, we humans should protect them and refrain from harming them. In “Minds without spines: Evolutionarily inclusive animal ethics” they say that we have to move beyond vertebrate-centred notions of morality.

A long-standing prejudice based on feelings of disgust and speciesism has excluded non-vertebrate animals like octopuses and insects from moral consideration. But invertebrate brains comprise upwards of 99 percent of the brains on the planet, contend Irina Mikhalevich, of Rochester Institute of Technology, and Russell Powell, of, Boston University. It is time to end the “vertebrate dogma”.

Wackos? If so, Mikhalevich and Powell have plenty of company. In a commentary section of the journal about 40 or so philosophers and biologists register their broad agreement with the idea that we humans are treating cockroaches very badly.

Why hasn’t the idea of cockroach liberation caught on?

Part of the problem, say Mikhalevich and Powell, is anachronistic views of evolution. The vulgar concept of evolution imagines it as a great tree growing over hundreds of million years from lower beings to higher beings. This continues to influence public policy and common morality.

Studies of invertebrate behaviour, especially of bees, suggest that they may have a rich inner life. Singer points out that “Honeybees have about a million neurons, which isn't many compared with our roughly 20 billion … But it is still enough to be capable of performing and interpreting the famous ‘waggle dance’ that conveys information about the direction and distance of flowers, water, or potential nest sites.”

Mikhalevich and Powell are quite emphatic that bees deserve moral status.

“Honeybees can be taught addition and subtraction procedures, appear to have the concept of ‘zero’ and can learn to attend to global or local features of objects ... Bees and wasps can recognize human faces... One study suggests that ants can pass the mirror self-recognition test which human infants only pass at around 20 months of age. There is even tantalizing evidence of causal reasoning and means-end rationality in bees and transitive inference in paper wasps.”

Bees may even have feelings. “For example, bumblebees tend to interpret ambiguous stimuli more optimistically after exposure to a pleasant stimulus, just as humans tend to do when they are happy or calm. Conversely, vigorously shaking bees appears to induce a pessimistic bias in odor discrimination tests.”

The evidence that non-vertebrates have inner states is ambiguous and controversial, but isn’t it better for policy-makers to play it safe, the authors ask. “If the costs of falsely attributing sentience to animals are minor while the costs of false negatives are high (because, for instance, they result in a great deal of unnecessary suffering), then erring on the side of false positives is prima facie ethically preferable.”

Wouldn’t including invertebrates in the moral community impose impossible demands upon humans? After all, according to an estimate by the Smithsonian Institution, at this very moment, there are probably 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects moving about. That is a lot of bugs to sweep off the footpath.

But Mikhalevich and Powell are adamant. “The fact that living up to our moral obligations is hard is a patently inadequate reason for failing to meet those obligations.” Besides, this does not mean that we must give equal moral consideration to all beings; it would probably be proportionate to their sentience.

There would be morally complicated situations, they acknowledge. “Whether harm to a small number of vertebrate subjects is morally preferable to harm to a large number of invertebrate subjects is unclear. But such questions should be resolved through an analysis of interest conflicts, not by according some legitimate interests no weight at all.”

It’s easy to imagine the kind of conflicts we would have to deal with if insects had rights. Should we let termites eat up the Smith's house because fumigation would kill millions of them rather than protect the dwelling of mum, dad, two kids and a dog? Should we refrain from using insecticide to protect a few hundred thousand children lest we kill billions of malaria-bearing mosquitos?

It’s hard to imagine that a mosquito liberation movement is ever going to get traction outside of the BBC or the New York Times op-ed page. However, the very fact that brainy people are even discussing it is further evidence of a deep crisis in Western rationality.

The Australian poet and critic James McAuley once wrote: “If anyone thinks that this notion of the ‘person’, with all it implies, is something that comes automatically and universally, and does not have to be learned, and learned by heart, he has not understood his own civilization.”

Unhappily, what has been learned can be forgotten. In our post-modern world, large numbers of people no longer understand what it means to be a human being. This is not an abstruse metaphysical issue. It has very practical consequences. The Nazis excluded Jews and Gypsies from the moral circle so that they could be killed. Fifty years ago most Western countries excluded unborn children so that they can be aborted. Today there is a growing movement to exclude the elderly, unconscious and demented so that they can be euthanised.

The danger is not giving votes to cockroaches. The danger is treating people like cockroaches. Rwanda experimented with that approach a few years ago. It didn’t turn out too well.  Secular Jainism is one of the world's more dangerous ideas.


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