The Insect Challenge
Loyal readers of Eating Plants: we face a challenge. It’s one that, I think, ethical vegans dismiss at our ultimate peril. Here’s what the last two blog posts—in addition to the essential/incredible commentary—have demanded that we do: we must explain why it’s morally unacceptable to exploit a farm animal but morally excusable to exploit insects.
We eat. We eat plants (or at least most of us here do). As a result, we kill insects. Anyone who thinks that organic agriculture spares insects needs to accept the fact that organic growers spray with an arsenal of insecticides. They just happen to be “natural” insecticides, a designation that makes consumers feel “safer.” Likewise, anyone who thinks we can consume food by foraging needs to choose about 5 billion humans who get to die first.
We eat plants. Therefore we support agriculture. Therefore we support the wholesale and unfathomable destruction of insects (among other “lesser” animals). Significantly (and obviously), we do not accept this destruction for cows, pigs, chickens, or other farm animals. But we do for insects.
Why? It’s not enough to say “we’re doing the best we can to reduce animal exploitation.” Even if it’s true—which it is for so many of us—the relativity inherent in such a claim requires grounding in order to make our case convincing. “The best we can do” tacitly consents to insect devastation but in no way tolerates the exploitation of farm and fur animals. As a said, we face a challenge: why?
Let me get to what I think does NOT need to happen: we do not need to draw a precise species line between morally unacceptable and excusable. That’s not possible to do with any degree of accuracy. We do, however, have to explain the question I opened with: why is it worse to kill a cow than an ant? I don’t like this question one bit, but I’m also tired of hiding from it.
Ultimately, this is going to require that take the concept of “sentience”—a word thrown around a lot on this blog (mostly by me)—and give it more nuance, greater gradation. The first thing I’m going to do when I get back from my Spring Break (and closer to my library) is go back to Gary Francione and Tom Regan (and others), re-examine what they have to say about sentience, and then start facing up to this challenge.
There’s no denying that this project will be a human-centered project. And there is no denying that the gradation of sentience that we devise to answer our cow/ant dilemma will ipso facto be a human designation. But until you can get an ant or a goat undertake the task for us, I see no other option. Onwards.