I Will Not Eat The Bugs

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From the comments on Moral Costs Of Chicken Vs. Beef:

As far as moral concern goes, I think it's right to act your rational conviction, but I can't honestly surmount my own doubt that it makes sense to care about animal well-being...if I really am to say that chickens have moral worth, I don't see any easy spot to get off that train between chickens and insects.

Don't worry, you're not getting off the train. The train has already left the station and gotten halfway to Vladivostok.

Last month the EU food safety regulator officially approved mealworms as safe for human consumption, sparking a bunch of articles on how bugs are the food of the future (see eg The Guardian: If We Want To Save The Planet, The Future Of Food Is Insects). And although it’s not a massive groundswell of outrage or anything, it’s also sparked a little bit of concern from animal welfare advocates.

In order to produce a kilogram of bug-based food, you need about 10,000 bugs (mealworms weigh about 100 mg). On the one hand, bugs probably don't matter much morally. On the other hand, 10,000 is a lot. If bugs had any moral value at all, factory-farming and killing 10,000 of them would be really bad.

Do bugs have moral value? Everyone will answer this question differently. I think of Shakespeare, who has his Jewish character Shylock argue for his own moral value like so:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?

And don't bugs have eyes, limbs, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, and passions? Don't they eat the same food as us, especially if we forget to put it in the refrigerator? Aren't they subject to the same diseases - malaria, Lyme, bubonic plague? Aren't they healed by the same means? If you prick them, do they not bleed creepy black hemolymph? If you tickle them, do they not hiss? If you poison them, do they not die? And if you wrong them - say, by throwing a stone at a hornets' nest - will they not revenge?

Less poetically: don’t some insects (though not others) have nociceptors, ie nerve receptors that specialize in feeling pain? Sneddon, Elwood, Adamo, and Leach, in their paper on defining and assessing animal pain, write that "there is evidence that nociceptive information reaches higher learning centres in the insect brain". If you hurt an insect in a particular place, they can eventually learn not to go to that place. Does that mean they feel pain? Here's one paper arguing probably yes; here's another saying that "the likelihood that insects experience pain is low". I'm not qualified to resolve this dispute, but there seem to be good scientists on both sides. See also this summary, which quotes entomology professor Vincent Wigglesworth as saying he is “sure” insects can feel pain.

("Wigglesworth" is obviously a great name, but it's even better than that - "wiggle" is cognate with "wigga", the Old English word for "bug", which survives in modern "earwig". So someone named Wigglesworth studying bugs' [eg wigga]'s moral value [eg worth] is kabbalistically exactly correct. Also, this is related to my pet theory that Orson Scott Card knew exactly what he was doing and the name "Ender Wiggin" was meant to convey "ender of bugs".)

Suppose you meet someone who might or might not be an android; there's a 50-50 chance either way. If they're an android, they have no subjective experience and no moral value; if they're a human, they have normal human moral value. Is it okay to murder/maim/torture them? Seems obvious the answer is no, at least not until you're sure they're the android. What if there's a 99% chance they're an android? Still seems like you should avoid the torture-murder, for the 1% chance they're human. 99.9999999% chance? At this point I think it becomes less pressing, but it's still a little bad to hurt them.

In the same way, even if there's only a 50-50 chance insects have moral value, or a 1% chance, still seems like you should avoid factory-farming and killing ten trillion of them, which is about how many we currently farm (see also here: “insect farms would raise many more animals in one year than all other forms of factory farming have in their history to date.”)

I will be honest - I swat flies and only feel a little bad about it. That's fine. If we act like we can use neuron number to estimate intuitive moral value (see here for some discussion of why we might do this), a fly has less than 0.1% the moral value of a cow, and I don't really care about cows a super huge amount either. Really any normal person should be able to take care of all their insect-harming needs without going over whatever moral budget they set for themselves - the same kind of venial sin as buying a banana even though this is probably bad for the rainforest somehow. It's not a problem unless you're factory-farming ten trillion insects, at which point it really starts to add up.

On the other hand, there are 25 million insects per hectare, which means ten trillion insects = 400,000 hectares = about the size of Rhode Island. I'm not sure what to do with this information. It's tempting to say something like "crop farming kills more insects than insect farming, because it occupies way more than 400,000 acres and involves lots of pesticide". But Brian Tomasik, who analyzes this issue heroically thoroughly, says that if you're trying to prevent insect suffering, crop farming is probably net positive, because cropland has fewer insects than wild land, and most insects that exist suffer most of the time, with pesticide-related suffering being swiftly over and not very relevant. It's also tempting to say something like "if the scale of wild insect suffering dwarfs the scale of factory-farmed insect suffering so much, who cares?", but this doesn't really seem right. The scale of the Xinjiang genocide dwarfs the scale of the latest mass shooting, but we are still against the latest mass shooting, and all else equal we would prefer it not happen.

Overall it’s hard for me to make myself care very much about insect suffering, but I find it interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, people keep trying to say you should eat insects to save the environment / help animals / be vegan. I don't want to do this. That makes it very convenient that it also seems to be potentially morally wrong. Usually moral wrongness prevents me from doing things I want to do, like eat cheeseburgers. When moral wrongness prevents me from doing things I don't want to do, like being guilted into eating mealworms, this is much more fun. Realistically this shouldn’t be a big consideration - most factory-farmed insects are being raised as animal food and not for humans - but it’s hard not to think about.

Second, it's good for me to remember that there are people like Brian Tomasik and Vincent Wigglesworth who care a lot about insect suffering and try to prevent it. Most people are only about as moral as the average of the other people they hear about and interact with - if the rest of your society feels okay with slavery, probably you will too. But it can be hard to cultivate a community full of people exactly as moral as you want to be. One helpful trick is knowing a couple of people who are much more moral than you're aiming for, so that even when you average them out with all the jerks you know, you land somewhere close to where you want to be. People who care a lot about insect suffering fulfill that role for me. I am probably not able to care that much, but if they can work that hard to help insects, I can at least remember not to kick a dog or something.

Third, it helps me understand and test the cows vs. chickens calculation. In general, animal neuron number scales up slower than animal weight. If the principle holds, then all else being equal you should generally prefer getting the same quantity of meat by eating fewer larger animals (eg one cow) rather than many smaller animals (eg 100 chickens). Thinking about insect farming is useful to test this hypothesis at the limit and see if our moral intuitions hold up.

What about the other limit? Plausibly the most morally correct action, short of becoming vegetarian, would be to eat the largest animal there is. And according to the Talmud - Baba Bathra 74b- the righteous in Heaven dine on the flesh of Leviathan, which suffices to feed all of them forever. Hypothesis confirmed!

[UPDATE: a group called the Insect Welfare Project is taking shape to think about some of these considerations more; they don’t have a website or much information yet, but I’ll keep you updated]