Are Vegans Obligated To Eat Insects?

» October 14th, 2014

 

My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.

All that said, here we go.  I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.

Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.

As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.

Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.

Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.

The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.

63 Responses to Are Vegans Obligated To Eat Insects?

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Just saw the insect debate in the previous post comments section. I believe that Karen Dawn’s position is the better one in terms of insect subjectivity. Any analysis based upon Tom Regan’s subject of a life is itself self-limiting and constrained and in effect serves to reinforce the human need to construct hierarchical ontologies with humans at the top of the heap. There is a whole world of theory that has gone beyond Tom Regan and faces the questions that his work can not.

    All life involves killing says the Haraway faction. The Ahumanists believe that this is true, and, having come to this ethical wall, humans should themselves opt out of corporeal life and redefine life as a disembodied continuation of consciousness. No eating animals or plants or engaging in the inherent cruelties and instrumentalities of humanity.

    I don’t really care if James advocates eating insects or if he does not. I do care about selective and inconsistent ethics and assumptions about insects and a false order to life based upon Tom Regan’s deontological structure.

    • James says:

      My evolutionary observations, the most critical in the piece, have nothing to do with Regan.

      • John T. Maher says:

        I spoke to ethics because the title of the post “Are Vegans Obligated To Eat Insects?” concerns ethics and I am perhaps a bit better qualified to discuss that than evolutionary theories. Taking up the evolutionary gauntlet just a measured bit, I question whether insect individuality is a fruitful means of discussing insects and the abilities of individual insects. Human concepts of pain are abstracted from everyday life, as displayed by the rhetoric JMC uses. am not criticizing what JMC writes in particular so much as an anthropocentric view of insects which separates them as “individuals” from a multiplicity or swarm. I am all for an expanded discussion of evolutioary theories in EP. And of course I am opposed to Regan’s views on the individual and its “rights” whatever that is claimed to mean in a hierarchy of being for the reasons stated above. In a sense Regan was no different from Aristotle in his understanding of critters and is, in effect, a kinder, gentler means of justifying animal instrumentality. Eating insects is a process within worlds, in Heidegger’s terms, which affects entire social groups, populations, and ecosystems (Umwelts to use v. Uexkull’s words as discussed by Heidegger). I prefer a more radical evolutionary critique than what is offered in today’s column as insight as that would better link the insect and its role as a part of a whole to the ethical decision to eat or not eat insects. Rethinking that must consequentially cause one to rethink both the individual and the concept of individual rights.

        Not sure how my post was repeated twice. Apologies.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    I will add that the notion of the individual is an anthropocentric concept not adaptable to insects.

    Where JMC posits

    “Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. ”

    and

    “That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.”

    I say that while what he writes may be a valid theory, it only touches on the edge of the insect collective as a radically different view of life than that of the human. JMC posits something like Simonden’s assumption of the individual and discounts the rhizomatc view of insect life. The deprovation of one insect individual through predation may well cause a collective form of pain (another word may be necessary to express non human concepts of pain) at the loss of a member. Tom Regan cares about individual rights. I do not. You should not.

  3. John T. Maher says:

    I will add that the notion of the individual is an anthropocentric concept not adaptable to insects.

    Where JMC posits

    “Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. ”

    and

    “That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.”

    I say that while what he writes may be a valid theory, it only touches on the edge of the insect collective as a radically different view of life than that of the human. JMC posits something like Simonden’s assumption of the individual and discounts the rhizomatc view of insect life. The deprivation of one insect individual through predation may well cause a collective form of pain (another word may be necessary to express non human concepts of pain) at the loss of a member. Tom Regan cares about individual rights. I do not. You should not.

  4. Rucio says:

    The word “vegan” was invented because “vegetarian” had become meaningless as eggs, dairy, and even fish became “vegetarian”. Debating the ethics of eating insects may be interesting, but insects are animals, so eating them can not be called “vegan”. For me, it is not about sentience or ability to feel pain. Insects clearly have a life they deserve to live. If we do not need to eat them, we shouldn’t.

    Furthermore, once you start advocating for eating insects, then you have to decide which ones, and then your whole rationalization falls apart, just as with other animals.

    • Rucio says:

      As John T. Maher notes, I should have put the word “pain” in quotation marks, as something defined in terms of human experience. In fact, as I learned as an editor of the Pain Management Nursing journal, even human pain is a rather nebulous concept.

    • James says:

      So you are basing you moral thought on the definition a word that was “invented”? That makes you a fundamentalist. Which insects? All of them. Who said we had to decide which ones?

    • James says:

      So you are basing your moral thought on the definition a word that was “invented”? That makes you a fundamentalist. Which insects? All of them. Who said we had to decide which ones?

      • Rucio says:

        OK to eat bees, then? Butterflies? Or just “bad” insects? Or “nonsocial” insects? Of course you would have to decide.

  5. Karen Dawn says:

    Because I am concerned that people researching insects might take your word for their not feeling pain, I will paste here something I wrote on the earlier blog:
    A bit of Googling will show people that there is significant evidence that insects do feel pain — for example experiments showing larvae recoiling from hot pins — and an abundance of scientists telling us that despite such evidence, insects couldn’t be feeling pain because they don’t don’t have the pain receptors that we have. It is a shaky argument given that a stroke victim, losing part of her brain and the functions that pertain to that part, can regain those functions as the body manages to control them via different means. What system gets used for what purpose is not set in stone. Insects not having our nervous system is hardly proof that they don’t feel pain, given they behave as if they do.
    Now on the matter not just of pain, but of emotion: When I find a cricket in my house, and lean down to cup him or her in my hands to take him outside, he jumps away. He keeps jumping away until I manage to trap him. My best guess is that he has no idea that I intend to take him outside rather than eat him (as James might recommend). He seems to be showing fear — demonstrating the flight response to a potentially dangerous situation. There may be other interpretations, but I’ve always liked the saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

    • James says:

      Your response is not an argument, but rather a serious of presuppositions and assumptions and projections. Make an argument from anatomy and evolutionary survival and we can move forward. To say that insects jump when you pick them up is meaningless in light of the question of pain. Look, I’m not trying to antagonize. There’s just too much animal suffering at stake for us not to promote insect consumption under the very plausible and well-documented premise that they do not suffer.

      • Karen Dawn says:

        Another straw man, your writing “To say that insects jump when you pick them up is meaningless in light of the question of pain,” given that I very specifically noted that I had moved to the question of emotion. Noting that insects try to escape when we try to catch them may or may not be relevant to pain but is very likely relevant to sentience.
        Though you may find my arguments nothing but “presuppositions and assumptions and projections” I believe some others will see them otherwise.

        • Ruth says:

          I agree with you Karen—was going to say something similar about spiders and beetles. On the subject of beetles, I once felt this strange painful pinching between my toes. I took my sock off and looked and it was a little beetle, and the pinching I ssumed was distress. Additionally, plants to not have the means to try and escape. May be this is evolutionary to allow us (and other species) to eat them.

          Also, we dont need to eat insects, so we may just as well take the precautionary principle and not promote it.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      “for example experiments showing larvae recoiling from hot pins”

      plants, fungi, protozoa and bacteria show similar responses to noxious stimuli.

  6. Marc Bedner says:

    Some would argue that all life forms, including plants, respond to stimuli, in which case any diet can be rationalized. For those who draw the line at sentience, it makes sense to me to distinguish vertebrates (more precisely Chordata) from animals lacking a central nervous system. The definition of animal has changed over the centuries; the original Linnean system regarded protozoa as animals.

    Any human diet has a severe negative impact on other life forms. Ultimately, the only way to address this problem is to drastically reduce the human population.

  7. Karen Dawn says:

    Marc, the suggestion that invertebrates don’t feel pain has been used as the excuse for throwing lobsters into boiling water. Their desperate attempts to escape the pot contradict the reasoning. Their cause has never been more beautifully argued than by the gifted David Foster Wallace. In case you are interested, here is a link to his wonderful essay, “Consider the Lobster”: http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/consider_the_lobster

    • unethical_vegan says:

      i agree. crustacean and cephalopod invertebrates have a higher degree of cephalization and ethology suggests some minimal level of sentience.

  8. scott says:

    If people are going to eat insects they will have to farm them in vast quantities. To feed the insects, we will have to devote enormous amounts of farmland to grow their feed. It would be far more efficient to use that land to grow crops to feed to people, because the transfer process of turning plants into insect meat is necessarily very inefficient, even if it may be more efficient than with cows or chickens.

    The whole thing would be a huge waste of resources versus eating plants directly.

  9. Mary Finelli says:

    Would we really need to devote more land to grow crops if animal agriculture ended? Wouldn’t the vast acreage used to feed farmed animals instead then be adequate to grow crops for human consumption? Granted, animals would still be killed in the process but not nearly as many as happens with animal agriculture.

    I, too, shudder at the idea of animal protection advocates advocating the consumption of insects. Science is continually discovering sentient abilities of animals that have long been denied. For example, just last week it was reported that sharks have personalities. In the past it was denied that black people could feel pain as white people do, that dogs could feel pain at all, that animals even think. Some people still dispute it! Until it can be shown that insects don’t, in fact, feel pain –or suffer distress- I believe we are morally obliged to give them the benefit of the doubt. If in fact they can experience these feelings, think of the astronomical numbers of animals who would suffer if insects were raised and killed for use as food. (I realize they are already used for that purpose on some scale.)

    Yes, perhaps the same could be said of plants. However, unlike insects, plants have no nervous system or other mechanism that we recognize as being capable of detecting pain and they exhibit no indication of conscious signs of distress. Fruit is actually made attractive to animals in order to be eaten so the plants’ seeds will be spread. We’re going to eat something, and plants seem to be the most humane, healthful, and ecologically responsible substances to eat. Determining the plants to eat which cause the least harm to animals may be an admirable endeavor. (I don’t think growing plants inside on a wholesale scale is a viable or desirable option.)

    As Marc Bedner has indicated, a much better approach for animal advocates to take is to urge a reverse of the human population trend. I’m also very impressed with Karen Dawn’s comments in response to this and the previous post. Impressed but not surprised.

    Here’s lots more food for thought on the matter of insect suffering:
    http://reducing-suffering.org/do-bugs-feel-pain/

    • James says:

      Yet again, the precautionary principle. But that’s not a satisfying argument against eating insects given the competing consideration: the reduction in suffering to animals that do suffer. You want to keep eating plants instead of insects, but in so doing you indirectly advocate the massive and verifiable suffering of rodents, rabbits, deer, and other competitors in order to protect animals with a nervous system too rudimentary to understand pain in emotional terms. This response does not convince me to change course.

      And I must ask: if you follow your own logic, what do you do to reduce your own slaughter of these supposedly sentient animals? Do you drive, take public transport, etc? If so, are not you not under an obligation to reduce and eliminate those activities except when absolutely necessary? Hiding behind a “we can’t be perfect” excuse won’t work.

      Another way to put this is: are we doing ourselves any favors hypothesizing sentience in a way that we could not possibly honor? If insects suffer, then it is as useful trying to reduce animal suffering as it is emptying the ocean with a thimble.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        I think a more realistic and humane plan than trying to persuade people to eat insects would be to try to prevent rodents, deer, and the like from accessing the land used to grow food. Urging people to grow more of their own food would be one way of helping to go about doing so.

        I believe it would be a very hard sell to try to get vegans to eat insects, and the general population might be even less inclined to do so. Also, intent -which I recall you having persuasively addressed before- is a factor: intentionally killing animals with significant potential of sentience or unintentionally killing sentient animals.

        I actually do drive relatively very little. I’m very much a homebody, and largely only go out when necessary or if I think it is worthwhile (i.e., if I think it will do more good than harm). I don’t think house arrest would actually bother me much except for not being able to go out to exercise and garden. I do take public transportation when it is reasonably feasible, and I try to combine trips when possible. I really don’t like going out any more than I have to! I easily and gladly productively occupy myself at home.

        We don’t live in a perfect world but we should try to do what we can to make it a better place and not cause needless harm to others. I think we honor those with significant potential for sentience by doing what we reasonably can to help and not harm them. Life necessitates harm to others to some degree but if we are striving to make the world a better place hopefully we are doing more good than harm. You do what you reasonably can while continuing to consider how we might do better. I don’t believe eating insects instead of plants would help accomplish that.

        I think it would also cause people to care less about animals in general: the slippery slope. I think many people are probably initially desensitized to animal suffering when they see adults freak out about a spider or some insect and needlessly and mindlessly kill them. We should promote respect for all animals, not foster an appetite for some.

        • James says:

          “You do what you reasonably can while continuing to consider how we might do better. I don’t believe eating insects instead of plants would help accomplish that.”

          Great comment, but I think that eating insects will reduce animal suffering. Neither of us have the numbers to prove it, of course, so this becomes a kind of vague moral stance. But to suggest that we grow our own food is ecologically irresponsible, at least insofar as the most sustainable way humans can live is in great density, in cities, and in small apartments in buildings that rise high into the air.

          Can’t grow your own food, for all intents and purposes, under such conditions.

        • James says:

          “I think a more realistic and humane plan than trying to persuade people to eat insects would be to try to prevent rodents, deer, and the like from accessing the land used to grow food.”

          How can I possibly persuade rodents, deer, and the like from eating plants?(Other than killing them?) And why should I, given that we took their natural habitat to grow all that stuff?

          • Mary Finelli says:

            You won’t deter them from eating all plants, of course, hopefully not, at least, but the plants that you want to eat. There are all manner of ways to go about it: fencing, screening, lights, noise and scent deterrents, etc.

            We can quit growing crops for farmed animals and let at least some of that land go back to wilderness for the deer and rodents. We can take the absurdly immense acreage used as lawns and instead of continuing to pollute the world by mowing and fertilizing it we can convert much of it to growing crops to feed people. Many vacant lots could be used for the same thing. Rooftops, too, and balconies, decks, etc. These are just some examples. There’s plenty of space, it’s just a matter of interest and will. Crops could be more easily protected from animals, more easily organically grown, etc. There is already a considerable movement setting about doing this.

      • Rhys Southan says:

        Taylor: “If insects are sentient or self-aware to a degree that makes injuring or killing one a significant harm, doesn’t that render the whole animal-liberation project futile, given that the number of insects we destroy in farming and in everyday life may vastly exceed the number of mammals, birds, and fish we destroy?”

        James: “If insects suffer, then it is as useful trying to reduce animal suffering as it is emptying the ocean with a thimble.”

        There are at least two ways to deal with this problem. One is to dismiss insect suffering as a significant concern. If they want to avoid very radical conclusions, vegans should typically want to do that, because at a minimum, if insect suffering is something vegans are worried about, they should certainly want to see the end of pesticides — how could pesticide laden crops possibly be considered vegan if insect suffering is a vegan concern? But this is just one obvious step vegans would need to take. There would be a lot more changes in store for a vegan humanity that wanted to give equal consideration to insect interests.

        So the other way to deal with this problem is to believe that insects do suffer and that vegans should be concerned with that suffering. This is what vegan writer Brian Tomasik has done. He considers insect suffering to be one of the most pressing issues in the world to address, simply because there are so many insects and if these insects suffer, that amounts to a lot of suffering. (Assuming you aggregate suffering, which most people do to some extent.) One way to address insect suffering, Tomasik suggests, is to pave as much of the world as possible. By covering up biomass, this prevents insects from coming into existence and avoids their suffering:

        http://reducing-suffering.org/speculations-on-population-dynamics-of-bug-suffering/

        • Rhys Southan says:

          The first option of not taking insect interests into account would make it seem okay to farm insects for food. The second option would of course make it not okay to farm insects for food and would also make insect suffering one of the most significant issues vegans would want to address, and would cause vegans to look hard at all the various ways vegan humans are harming insects. It would mean doing more than just giving up animal products.

          It seems that a lot of commenters here want a middle option: they want to say insect interests count enough for us not to eat them, but not any more than that. Insects stay out of the vegan diet (and the definition of a vegan diet as “no animals no matter what” stays intact!) but vegans don’t have to do anything more to avoid causing suffering to insects.

          This is the classic vegan move of trying to find some way to argue that veganism as defined by not exploiting or consuming animals intentionally is always the right answer. Those who associate very strongly with a vegan identity need to shout down or ignore the complications because giving up animal products is what defines veganism, and all these nuisance debates about insects and habitat destruction or whatever else just threaten to mitigate the pride vegans are supposed to feel through their taking on a vegan identity.

        • Taylor says:

          Even if insects possess some form of consciousness (a debatable claim, but one that cannot be ruled out), I see no reason to believe that an insect’s consciousness rises to the level of its having the capacity to suffer in any way we would recognize as meaningful, much less to the level of its being what Regan calls the “subject of a life” — i.e., being a biographical subject such that it has a life that matters to it.

          I find it interesting that many vegans want to insist that insects can suffer, when one would think they would be pleased with any evidence and arguments to the contrary, given that insect suffering poses a major problem for veganism. The fact that insects are technically “animals” should be absolutely irrelevant unless one views veganism as some kind of revealed religion (with Donald Watson as its prophet) and has a fundamentalist interpretation of the command not to eat animals.

          • Mary Finelli says:

            Rhys, Taylor, it’s not that complicated. Vegans aren’t responsible for ridding the world of suffering. They are simply trying to reduce needless suffering, especially that which they themselves may otherwise cause. It’s a very laudable endeavor.

            There is adequate evidence of insects’ potential to suffer that we should give them the benefit of any doubt. That means not intentionally causing them harm, and trying to avoid unintentionally harming them as much as is reasonably possible.

            Should we all become like Jain monks, wearing masks so as to not inhale any insects, and gently sweeping the ground in front of us so as to not walk on any? Given the state of the world, we do far more good by instead working to get the rest of society to reconsider the wholesale exploitation of animals that is causing unimaginable agony and misery and is devastating the planet. That means living a lifestyle that enables us to effectively do so.

            Try to avoid the use of pesticides? Yes, as much as one reasonably can. It’s also better for all other life on Earth. Everyone should be trying to do that. Obsess with trying to not harm insects? No, not necessary or beneficial. Really, it’s not that complicated.

            I suspect you are actually just trying to justify your continued needless harm to animals. Your sardonic comments remind me of the lyrics of David Bowie’s song:
            “… And these children
            that you spit on
            as they try to change their worlds
            are immune to your consultations.
            They’re quite aware
            of what they’re going through…”

            You should really reflect on why you have such animus toward vegans. What are you doing to try to make the world a better, more humane place?

          • Taylor says:

            Mary: Animus toward vegans? Sardonic comments? Rhys can speak for himself, since I think he’s an insectivore, which I’m not. Perhaps I’m just a self-hating “vegan”? (Not a real vegan, I suppose, since I’m sceptical about the idea that insects can suffer, and I don’t care whether I fit someone’s definition of “vegan”.) Like James, I think we should be ready to examine and challenge various assumptions of the animal-liberation movement, in order to arrive at a more coherent, rational, and defensible position.

            That said, I do pay attention to your thoughtful contributions to this blog. I know you’re doing excellent work in the movement and I wish there were more people like you in the world.

          • Mary Finelli says:

            Thank you, Taylor, very much. I, too, greatly appreciate ongoing consideration of the animal-liberation movement by members of it, which is why I participate in discussions such as this. What I resent are opportunists who snipe at such introspection, trying to find ways to discredit the movement. I apologize if I misread your comments. I find it admirable that many vegans assert that insects can suffer when it would be easier for them to deny them that capacity. They are not looking for an easy way out, they are looking to do the right thing.

          • Ruth says:

            It’s not just insects that suffer because of crop growing. There are also all the small mammals, and maybe ground nesting birds. Unless there are new ways of farming crops to stop the harm caused to other species, it is most unfortunate, but we do have to survive, and I’m afraid until the majority are vegan===for ethical reasons, I’m afraid we’re not going to get anywhere with new crop farming systems to cut out harm to other species. While the majority continue to eat animals and their products they’re not going to care to much about the collateral damage (of mice, rabbits, insects, etc. Importantly, there should be a drastic reduction in human population which would solve an awful lot of problems, by stabilisation and then reduction over a few generations.

          • Mountain says:

            “there should be a drastic reduction in human population”

            Will you be leading by example? If not, then a call for a “drastic reduction in human population” requires a level of control and violence that isn’t the least bit vegan.

            I think Masanobu Fukuoka established that we can feed far more people than we currently do, with far less harm to animals, including insects.

  10. Taylor says:

    My two-cents worth:

    (1) Nociceptors (not “nocireceptors”) are nerve endings that react to noxious stimuli. My understanding is that their possession is not, by itself, sufficient for being able to experience pain. So the fact that a creature exhibits nociception or similar harm-aversion responses associated with pain in humans does not prove that it is sentient.

    (2) If insects are sentient or self-aware to a degree that makes injuring or killing one a significant harm, doesn’t that render the whole animal-liberation project futile, given that the number of insects we destroy in farming and in everyday life may vastly exceed the number of mammals, birds, and fish we destroy?

    • James says:

      thanks for the typo correction.

    • Mary Finelli says:

      (1) Nociceptors don’t prove that someone is sentient but it is evidence of their sentience.

      (2) No, the point of the animal liberation movement isn’t to not to do any harm but to try to do the least harm and the most good. Far more animals -including insects- are killed by exploiting animals for food, fiber, etc., than if we directly relied on plants instead. Remember, for example, farmed animals are fed plants before being consumed, and most of those plants are farmed.

      • Taylor says:

        (1) The fact that James has two ears doesn’t prove he is an elephant but it is evidence that he is an elephant? If nociception is all about harm-avoidance responses and evolution selects for harm avoidance, why should nociception by itself carry much weight as evidence for sentience?

        (2) I was trying to express what James expressed so much better: “If insects suffer, then it is as useful trying to reduce animal suffering as it is emptying the ocean with a thimble.”

        • Mary Finelli says:

          James’s two ears are evidence that he is a hearing animal. His two human ears are evidence that he is human.

          Nociception is recognized as a basic element in the detection of pain and therefore sentience. It is as much evidence of sentience in insects as it is in humans or any other animals who possess nociceptors. It isn’t definitive evidence but it is evidence. If they lacked nociceptors it would be evidence that they are not sentient. Not definitive evidence but evidence none the less.

          “If insects suffer, then it is as useful trying to reduce animal suffering as it is emptying the ocean with a thimble.”

          I don’t know how true that is, but if you are the animal whose suffering is reduced I’m sure you would consider it very useful. Have you ever heard the starfish story?
          No, we can’t end all the suffering in the world nor should we try. Some suffering is very useful, such as in letting someone know that something is wrong. Much of it is unavoidable. What we should try to do is reduce and preferably eliminate needless suffering, especially that which we ourselves would otherwise subject others to.

  11. Ellen K says:

    “We can, in essence, put them to good use …. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.”

    Why are we obligated? That implies that plant foods are insufficient in quantity and/or nutritional quality to feed human population, and that animal protein is necessary. Neither is true, right?

    I can see tolerating insect farming and consumption as a lesser problem than raising and killing vertebrates, but fail to understand why we must. Isn’t improvement and promotion of plant-based solutions the true and sole obligation?

    • Marc Bedner says:

      Ellen, I find your phrasing of the issue the clearest so far. What does it mean to be “obligated” to eat insects, grow one’s own food, or refrain from overpopulating the planet? I do not use the term “vegan” as I do not care to engage in holier-than-thou arguments about abstract moral questions. I follow a plant-based diet in order to minimize the suffering of animals who are clearly sentient.

      I can see how insect farming might be less damaging than factory vegetable farming. But I can’t see campaigning for it: as you point out, such a campaign is more likely to raise doubts about plant-based diet than it is to actually save animals.

      • Ellen K says:

        Thanks, Marc.
        I’m eager for a reply, especially since this post’s title and italicized exhortation suggest that the mandate is supposed to be the primary focus here, but the rationale for such a mandate isn’t given (only possible rationale for a possible allowance — big difference).

        James?

  12. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    The Rights of Flies and Fleas by Norm Phelps
    http://normphelps.org/the-rights-of-flies-and-fleas/

  13. Kimberley Mae Richardson says:

    I think that it is outrageous to suggest eating insects and equally outrageous to put insects on a par with plants. There is absolutely no evidence that plants feel pain or suffer. On the other hand, Joan Dunayer in Speciseism explains that there is abundant evidence that insects feel pain. Insects are on a continuum of living beings. Advocating the eating of insects might lead to eating molluscs and then crustaceans. This is a binary decision. There are no shades of gray. If we care we must always err on the side of safety. You can not call yourself an ethical vegan unless you reject all ideas about eating anything other than plants.
    James, I am very disappointed in you.

    • James says:

      a) Please don’t write to me as if you were scolding a child.
      b) There are always shades of gray.

      Thanks.

      • John T. Maher says:

        a) Scolding is always annoying, even when I do it.
        b) Binary oppositions must be eliminated from Western thought (Socrates and Hegel) because they constrain thought via a supposed dialectic and have led to the political economy we live in today.
        c) There are no shades of gray but there is always the possibility of new ways to think better new thoughts and even understand them.
        d) Joan Dunayer insists on absolutes. In fact, the nonexistence of absolutes is the only absolute. From my perspective, Dunayer fails to grasp that all life involves killing.

    • unethical_vegan says:

      some sessile molluscs have devolved and are unambiguously non-sentient (they lack central sensory afferents). even though i personally have no desire to eat sessile molluscs i still consider oysters and sessile mussels to be as vegan as kale or tofu.

      • Erik says:

        I’m glad “unethical_vegan’s” post brought up molluscs, as I think the debate on this font is similar to the insect question, and test-tube meat for that matter. That said, James, “Are vegans obligated to eat clams?” Are vegans “obligated to eat test-tube meat?” I think we then cross out of “vegan” into some other term for the said lifestyle/ideology…entomophagy or “entomogans”?

        Speaking of terminology, I have an issue with the term “obligation.” I don’t know that a strong argument for “obligation” was ever made. The argument only seems to indicate that eating insects ‘can reduce’ the need for sentient flesh. Did I miss something? This is not an obligation, as eating plants alone can achieve this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reducing so-called suffering, but I’m not sure people will give up X for Z because they “are” obligated or “should be” obligated. Vegans already reduce suffering without insects because they have obligated themselves to plants alone. It seems more appropriate to point your demand for obligation to meat eaters, who can reduce suffering by consuming insects instead of meat. Again, vegans aren’t obligated, as they have already reduced suffering, sin-insects. But the “entomogans” can lead by example if that’s what you’re getting at.

        Elsewhere you mention ‘shades of gray,’ and I’ll concur, and see veganism as one more ideology, or gray “should/could/would,” like a religion. Some ideologues fail to use their gray matter in thinking about why they should act, or believe as they do, or in essence why they should be “obligated.” Nonetheless, pick your sect, or insect, and be free, but in fairness please consider the freedom of other free beings in that quest to feel obligated…or not.

  14. Steven van Staden says:

    The core concern of most of us here is, I think, to reduce the suffering inflicted by humans on creatures that do or may feel pain and trauma, and here we’re arguing about whether insects might or might not be included among those creatures. Not so say this isn’t a valuable debate, I can’t help wondering why when the appalling overpopulation is mentioned, it is not taken up, and why of that increasing population, far less the 1% are even genuine vegetarians. If insects became a fashionable food source, this would just be added as a new addition to meat eating, not a substitute. So if we want to reduce suffering caused by our eating habits and people like Sam Harris can’t even manage to become vegetarians, and most ordinary Americans are Christians who see nothing wrong in killing to eat, how are we really progressing here towards reducing that suffering?

  15. Greg says:

    I haven’t researched the point I want to raise but I think it obvious: Wouldn’t we still have to eat plants in addition to insects? Wouldn’t there still be the collateral damage of large scale agricultural production if we advocated that eating insects were a better option than animals? I understand that there would be fewer row crops grown if animal feed were not being produced but how much? The insects have to eat and I think that demand for soy products like Beyond Meat and grain products like Fieldroast would skyrocket. Insect consumption, in the West at least, would be a hard sell. If the goal is to reduce suffering by completely shifting the paradigm, wouldn’t it be more pragmatic to build upon the years of solid work of veganic farmers and permaculturalists?

  16. Kimberley Mae Richardson says:

    Why even have this debate? What’s wrong with continuing to eat only plant based food and give insects the benefit of the doubt? Even if they didn’t feel pain, I prefer to respect them rather than eat them.

  17. Karen Dawn says:

    In a comment on the previous blog on this topic, Bruce Friedrich recommended the chapter on bees from Steve Wise’s superb book, Drawing the Line. I was guided by that chapter for my own section on honey, and used many of the same source papers. When Bruce made the recommendation, I realized that what I had learned from that book years ago had changed my thinking so profoundly that it made impossible any reaction besides immense discomfort with the suggestion that insects are expendable and should be eaten, any suggestion that they are not conscious. While James has suggested that those who disagree with him could only be coming from some intense alignment with a vegan identity, I ask, as Bruce Friedrich has, that anybody inclined to agree with James’ premises and resulting recommendations read Steve Wise’s chapter on bees (or you could start with my own chapter on honey in “Thanking the Monkey” if that is handy and Steve’s book isn’t — Steve’s is more thorough).

    • John t maher says:

      Read mary kosut on what assemblages of bees might mean.

      • Karen Dawn says:

        Thanks John, I will check it out if you think it is some way refutes the information below. I don’t have an electronic copy of Drawing the Line, or permission to reprint the whole chapter, but I will paste below my summary of some of the highlights. I cannot think of an explanation for the bees refusing to respond to the suggestion that there is a food source in the middle of the lake, other than conscious incredulity. Perhaps one can find another explanation if one is invested in the idea that insects are not conscious. But I tend to like the most obvious explanations, and, as I mentioned previously, the saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Here’s my summary of Wise’s chapter, which in his book and mine includes referencing to the relevant papers:

        Wise begins by describing an experiment in which bees flew into a decision chamber with either a blue or yellow sign at the door. If they exited by a tunnel marked with the same color as the entry door, they received a sip of sucrose at the end of the tunnel. Bees learned that task easily. They could also learn to choose the sign that did not match. And they exhibited what scientists call “cross model associative recall”: They could be trained to exit yellow if they had smelt lemon and exit blue if they had smelt mango. Their learning was not hard-wired. They could learn to reverse the associations.

        Bees communicate with intricate “waggle-dances” by which they tell each other where to find nectar. They can send ten thousand distinct messages, detailing the distance, direction and quantity of food. Wise describes a study by the Princeton biologist James Gould in which Gould brought bees to a boat loaded with nectar that he had anchored in the middle of a lake. Once the bees had gorged, he let them fly back to their hive. The bees did the waggle dance telling the others that there was a huge supply of nectar in the middle of the lake — a seemingly impossible location. Just as you might ignore an ad for a fabulous condo for sale for $100,000 in the West Village of Manhattan, assuming it to be a misprint, the other bees did not race to the middle of the lake. When Gould repeated the experiment with the boat on the far shore of the lake – more like Greenpoint Brooklyn perhaps — and the bees returned to their hive and did the dance communicating the location, the other bees took off across the lake immediately. The comparative psychologist Marc Hauser has remarked that this study indicates that bees not only have symbolic cognitive mental maps but also have a mental tool for skepticism.

        Scout bees investigate possible home sites and then dance information about them to the group. Researchers have seen the following: Bees have advertised a spot they have found, watched other bees dance about other spots, gone to investigate the competing spots, and then returned home and changed their vote.

        Bees do not have a cerebral cortex. But Wise tells us that Carl Jung, having read the studies that provide evidence of bee language (now a mountain of evidence) said that if that kind of behavior were seen in a human being, “we would certainly regard such behavior as a conscious and intelligent act and could hardly imagine how anyone could prove in a court of law that it had taken place unconsciously.” He said we are “faced with the fact that the ganglionic system apparently achieves exactly the same result as our cerebral cortex.”

        Since human beings can lose a part of the brain generally responsible for certain functions, and then learn to use another part instead, it wouldn’t seem such a stretch to infer that bees have evolved the ability to reason without the part of the brain we had thought was needed for reasoning.

  18. John T. Maher says:

    If you have not read it already, you might enjoy Karl von Frisch’s Aus dem Leben der Bienen or The Dancing Bees which has generated a great deal of traction in human animal studies. With reference to Steve Wise (not the head of the NHRP Steve Wise), I am not an expert on ethology but I do not disagree or offer evidence in contrast. My post above regarding new ways of using philosophy to posit a collective consciousness for insects (perhaps a collective and in the case cited, judgmental, algorithmic and abstracted decision making,cortex much as computers organized in a network all compromise a collective processing unit to get into systems theory) fits in well with the summary of Wise’s work you reference. Excellent thoughts you posted!

Leave a Reply