Posts Tagged ‘animal sentience

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.

The Elephants In The Room

» July 12th, 2014


My apologies for the long absence. The site experienced ongoing technical problems while my web man was on vacation. But the good news is that we all got a rest. That said, matters are in order and I’m back to work.

Over the break I became intrigued by the current outrage against ivory. Just the other day, Ricky Gervais, the English comedic actor, called on the public to “turn in” their ivory products as an act of public absolution. It’s curious, but all of sudden the media is all about elephants. Will ivory trinkets become targets of public attack such as fur coats once were? Why are we currently confronting the elephants in the room?

As usual, I’ve no idea. But in and of itself, the public/media outcry against ivory is a praiseworthy response to the gross atrocities committed against elephants. Interestingly, though, nothing of the sort is happening with respect to, say, the tens of millions of cattle we slaughter every year. This kind of inconsistency is common when it comes to the way humans treat animals. And it cuts both ways. I recall commenters on this site advocating the death of elephant poachers. But would they advocate the death of slaughterhouse workers? Either way, this paradox bears some consideration.

One obvious reason for the disparity—aside from the fact that we eat one product and not the other—is that elephants are going extinct whereas cattle, whose genetics are controlled by humans, proliferate at whatever rate we want them to proliferate. In essence, elephants are wild creatures who matter collectively whereas cattle are factory products who do not. The terms of their reproduction have illogically determined the terms of their extermination. How that happened is a historical/cultural question that somebody should explore.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a collective focus on a species, of course. But the current “save the elephant” gambit rests on a false—or at least conflicted—sense of what’s considered “natural.” That is to say, what bothers environmentalists isn’t the death of individual elephants for their tusks. It’s the fact that their death is denuding the landscape of the elephant’s presence, a diminution that’s perceived to be out of sync with what nature intended—whatever that may be. But who ever said scarcity, even anthropogenic-determined scarcity, was unnatural?

It’s more that scarcity can be unjust. But even if this kind of human-driven ecological change is unjust, the same kind of ecological logic would have to be applied to cattle. Cattle may not be going extinct, but the resources used to ensure their proliferation most certainly are in grave danger of depletion: arable land and water most notably. If conservationists and environmentalists are truly committed to the ecological logic of scarcity, then consistency would require them to wring their hands just as earnestly about the consumption of beef as the consumption of ivory. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

What’s lost in the failure to do so, however, is an opportunity to incorporate animal sentience into an increasingly cynical environmental lexicon.

PS: Speaking of which, if you’d like to send me your critical thoughts about the documentary Cowspiracy, please email them to I’m hoping to do a post that incorporates readers’ thoughts on the film.


Future Present

» October 6th, 2013

For all the discussion that goes on about the comparative ethical implications of raising animals in industrial and non-industrialized settings, the easily overlooked point is that both systems, and for that matter any system that raises animals to kill them, engages in the troublesome behavior of ending an animal’s life unnecessarily and, in so doing, denying that animal a future of potential pleasure. Supporters of  the “death is just one day” or “everything dies” approach to rationalizing the “humane slaughter” of animals fail to consider the point that life is a phenomenon that’s given meaning not in the moment alone but by what has yet to happen as well.

In many ways our essential quality of life is contingent on the expectation of future happiness. The nit and grit of every moment—the here and now—is linked to the future in ways we rarely appreciate. About ten minutes ago my dogs misinterpreted my movements to think we were heading out for a walk. They began to huff with excitement and run back in forth in anticipation. They were thinking of the future and the happiness they would experience later.  Every act, in this sense, depends on having access to the future. Awareness of that access strikes me as critical to evaluating the argument that “death is just one day.”

We plan. And so much of what we do in the moment is intended to lay a foundation for future behavior. This is likely as true for sentient animals as it is for humans. It’s also an idea that might help us draw some distinctions between between animals that deserve equal moral consideration and those who do not. It seems unlikely that insects, to cite a controversial example, have conscious awareness of the future in the same way that farm animals do. Perhaps this could be one reason we might deny insects the same level of moral standing we grant to pigs, cows, and chickens.

Do note: behaving in a way that’s relevant for future activity and behaving in a way that self-consciously anticipates the future are not the same thing. Bees and ants and probably every insect acts in a way that’s relevant for the future, but they are not self-sconsciosly aware of it. Heading to the other margin, even mentally incapacitated humans are aware of a future, one that might very well bring a modicum of pleasure.

This idea of the future being embedded in the present, as well as the implications it has for our assessments of moral consideration, has been percolating with me for a few years. I’d like to pursue it more systematically, so I look forward to all thoughts and references you might have.



The Insect Challenge

» March 11th, 2013

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.