Yesterday’s post purposely obscured an irony that should, if treated with honesty, give the ethical vegan fits. I argued that it was inherently compassionate for a scientist to bring his lab ants home rather than dispose of them as used objects. “Charming,” I called it. Left undiscussed is why he needed to be raising ants to study in captivity in the first place.
The answer to that question is that he was raising ants in captivity to confirm a level of consciousness that very well might warrant our moral consideration. This level of consciousness is arguably a quality that, without the scientist’s work on ants, we would have never fully recognized. Studying ants in captivity (not in the wild, as can often be done with birds), in essence, was a necessary precondition to confirming their sentience. Hence our first dilemma: to determine that an animal deserves moral consideration might require exploiting that animal without the consent that the animal cannot give.
This dilemma, in turn, poses its own dilemma. Assuming that there’s a sound moral justification for holding ants in captivity, does the scientist merely extend the exploitation by transferring their colonies to his garage and letting them develop in shoe boxes when their lab years are over? I honestly don’t know enough about ants to effectively answer this question, but even if I did I think there’s going to be a troublesome reality at the center of it. Do we know how ants bred in captivity will do in the wild? My guess is that they would be the proverbial fish in a barrel and that, therefore, they are better off in the garage. Again, some level of exploitation might be, under the circumstances, in the animals’ best interest.
These kinds of questions are annoying to the ethical vegan. They’re annoying because, despite our claims that our ethics are so basic and easy to comprehend, they aren’t. It is also important to confront these issues on as a sophisticated level as we can, drawing on science and philosophy to do so. Sometimes it’s not enough to say “we must live in a way that reduces animal suffering as much as possible” and leave matters at that. It’s not enough because, hard as it is to admit, we don’t know how our decisions will bear on such a noble goal.