Mosquitoes and Morality
At the risk of becoming tiresome: another column on insects. Over the last week a watered down version of the “drawing the line” question had emerged here at Eating Plants. Is it less morally egregious to harm or kill a mosquito than a cow?
Trust me, I would like to avoid this question, but—given than I have no problem eliminating mosquitoes to reduce malaria in Africa and that if I find a black widow spider (not an insect, I know) in my bathroom I’ll kill her—I cannot avoid the question and, at the same time, feel intellectually honest.
I’m realizing that, in confronting a question of such difficulty, a lot has to be torn down before I can start building up an answer—which I hope to do in the form of a long academic type article. (This is what is so satisfying to me about the Eating Plants experience: I know with lighting bolt clarity when it’s time to write a real article.)
What I want to tear down here is the claim that because “we’re doing the best we can” to reduce animal exploitation by not eating animals, there’s no need to get overly worked up about swatting mosquitoes or initiating a June bug holocaust by driving down an East Texas highway in July.
My sense is that we resort to this “best we can” rationale to avoid admitting that a) we are intentionally causing suffering that could be avoided or reduced (by, say, not driving); or, b) it’s not as morally problematic to kill insects as it is to kill a cow. Both options are difficult for the ethical vegan to accept, but such is life when you engage it authentically.
My sense at this point is that we have to tear down “a” in order to build up “b.” We certainly could stop driving in order to radically reduce insect suffering. Driving is, after all, intentional. However, as I want to argue (in a longer article), we do not have to stop driving in order to reduce insect suffering—nor do we have to stop farming to eat vegetables. Why? Because insect suffering is qualitatively different than the suffering experienced by farmed animals.
I’m making this claim at this point without elaboration. But answering it effectively is critical to effective activism. Failure to draw a moral distinction between pigs and mosquitoes—a distinction that warrants different levels of moral consideration from humans—means vegans have accepted a standard that can never even be practically achieved. It is, in essence, to ensure our ultimate insignificance as a result of our self-imposed implausibility.
Am I shamelessly molding morality to meet reality? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. I believe that a convincing case can be made to distinguish our respective behavior towards insects and farm animals. In making it, I also think ethical vegans dramatically improve their chances of convincing people to stop eating animals. “A cow deserves moral consideration” is a much easier case to make than “a mosquito deserves moral consideration.” It might also have the benefit of being true.
Tomorrow: a report on my NYU talk.
PS: Thank you for all the wonderful comments to yesterday’s post.