Human Exceptionalism

Don’t Hurt the Insects!

A few years ago, some wag created a parody website called The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Insects. But here’s the thing: There is no such thing as reductio ad absurdum anymore. In these days of anti-humanism, no matter how far out you try to get, it will soon be proposed seriously.

For your consideration, the views of Brian Tomasik, consultant for Foundational Research Institute–which is putting too much time into its advocacy memes to be a parody. Foundational is obsessed with reducing suffering–a concept so all-encompassing in the group’s vision, that heeding its prescriptions would paralyze society.

Indeed, Tomasik’s aversion to suffering is so extreme that he seriously ponders the suffering of gaming characters, especially as they grow more sophisticated and move toward artificial intelligence.

But I want to focus here on his concern about the supposed suffering of insects–the very issue about which the SPCI only pretended to advocate. First, because of their sheer numbers, Tomasik proposes that insects may matter more than people because their total sentience exceeds oursFrom the interview:

There are an estimated 1019 insects on Earth, compared with around 1010 humans or around 1011 to 1012 birds. Even if you count just raw number of neurons, insects outweigh humans by a few orders of magnitude. While humans may matter a lot more for instrumental reasons related to the trajectory of the far future, in terms of pure morally relevant amount of sentience, insects may dominate on Earth at the moment.

And they suffer so!

Unfortunately, this has pessimistic implications for the net balance of happiness and suffering in the wild. Many insects live just a few weeks, and they give birth to hundreds or thousands of offspring, most of which die shortly after being born. Life even for the survivors may also involve hunger, disease, and death by predation, lack of water, or something else.

We have to begin to ponder the welfare of insects we consume:

As one example, insects are raised and cooked for food in many parts of the world, such as Mexico and Thailand. In many cases, these insects are fried or roasted alive. And entomophagy may become more popular in Western countries as well.

I think raising insects is a bad idea because they have such high infant-mortality rates that their cultivation inherently leads to lots of unavoidable suffering. But if insects are raised for food, there should at least be welfare standards for their living conditions and especially for their slaughter. Some entomophagy companies in the US claim that freezing their insects to kill them is humane, but it’s disputed whether freezing is actually painless for insects. More research and attention is needed here.

See how crazy things get once human exceptionalism is rejected? Tomasik focuses on mere “sentience” as the prime determiner of moral value. Do that, and you enter the realm of moral neurosis.

He’s not alone. So does animal rights crusader, Gary Francione. Similarly, PETA advocates for insect rights, for example, opposing commercial honey production because it supposedly involves forcing queen bees onto “factory farm rape racks”!

It would be easier to laugh this off if “nature rights” laws weren’t being enacted, requiring equal consideration be given to the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees when contemplating nature-disrupting human enterprises.

Also, Switzerland has legally recognized the intrinsic dignity of individual plants–a country to which people can fly to commit suicide but where flushing a gold fish down the toilet is crime.

The way things are going, we’ll soon see a puff profile of the Foundation in the New York Times Magazine. Meh.


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