Whether invertebrates have a capacity for valenced experience is still uncertain. Rethink Priorities has been systematically exploring this issue during the past months. Here, in the fourteenth post of this series, I explore our attitudes towards invertebrates, draw attention to different possibilities of ‘indirect advocacy’ and suggest some questions that deserve further research. As remarked in our previous post, even if we concluded that invertebrates are conscious and even if we had the means to help them, we would still need to determine how likely it is that specific interventions on their behalf will be supported and adopted. Future research on this matter will allow us to better determine the tractability of improving invertebrate welfare.
Invertebrates are commonly assumed to be incapable of experiencing positive or negative states. In a series of publications by Rethink Priorities, we have been exploring several relevant questions and surveying the scientific evidence about this matter. In this series:
- We examined the philosophical difficulties inherent in the detection of instances of morally significant pain and pleasure in nonhumans;
- We described our approach to investigating invertebrate sentience, the rationale of this project, and its limitations;
- We explained in detail what we believe to be the most relevant features for assessing invertebrate sentience in the third, fourth, and fifth posts;
- In a sixth post we presented our main findings, summarized in an ‘Invertebrate Sentience Table’;
- A discussion about our main findings by feature and taxa is available in the seventh and eighth posts. We also published our own personal opinions on estimating invertebrate sentience;
- Our ninth post explores what unconscious processes in humans tell us about sentience;
- In the tenth post we applied the standard importance-neglectedness-tractability framework to invertebrate welfare in order to determine whether this is a cause area that is worth prioritizing;
- In the eleventh post, we reflected on possible directions for future fundamental research on invertebrate welfare;
- In the twelfth post, we explored different possible ways how we may assist some sentient invertebrates.
But suppose we discovered that some invertebrates are conscious in a morally significant way. Suppose, in addition, that we possessed the technical means to aid them. For at least some interventions, we would still have to ascertain the likelihood that they will be socially supported, or supported by key stakeholders, and thereby, adopted.
Here I will explore this topic and propose some possible research questions in this regard. I will also argue that public attitudes towards invertebrates and towards interventions on their behalf are an important element to consider when determining the tractability of invertebrate welfare. In other words, its tractability does not only depend on the availability of adequate interventions, but also on what at any given time is socially and/or politically possible to implement. Thus, the feasibility of a specific intervention can be understood as the interplay of three factors (see fig. 1): (i) desirable interventions on behalf of invertebrates, according to a systematic diagnosis, (ii) what is technically possible to do, and (iii) what is socially and/or politically possible to do.
Fig. 1. Identifying a possibly feasible intervention.
In this post, I will discuss the third factor.
Understanding our attitudes towards invertebrates
How do we perceive invertebrates?
The majority of the research on beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors towards animals is circumscribed to vertebrates (especially mammals) under human control. Contrariwise, little is known about our attitudes towards invertebrates, although most animal species belong to this category. In what follows, I summarize the existing knowledge about this topic in four brief sections. First, I highlight that most of our attitudes towards invertebrates are related to feelings of aversion or dislike. Second, I will explain why, nevertheless, we tend to have a positive attitude towards insects we consider ‘beautiful’. Third, I will explore some hypotheses about our negative attitudes towards invertebrates and how malleable they may be. Fourth, I will draw attention to how our attitudes towards invertebrates vary among different contexts and social groups. Finally, I will point out that our attitudes towards invertebrates may be superficial and not integrated into a coherent belief system.
We tend to have negative attitudes towards invertebrates
As previously stated, our perceptions and attitudes towards invertebrates is an under-researched topic. However, the scant existing studies coincide in pointing out the negative perceptions surrounding invertebrates –especially insects– in Western societies.
Regarding our attitudes towards wild animals, sociologist S. Kellert is considered to be one of the most prominent authors in the field. In a general study of attitudes towards animals, he found that people were least knowledgeable about invertebrates, and that they were among the least-liked animals (Kellert, 1985, in Fox & Mickley, 1985). Later, in a specific investigation about perceptions of invertebrates (N=214), a sizable majority of the interviewees indicated a dislike of ants, bugs, beetles, ticks, cockroaches, fleas, moths and spiders, as well as a perception of octopuses and cockroaches as highly unattractive animals (Kellert, 1993). More recently, another study also found that earthworms are considered revolting (Almeida et al., 2017). Broadly, invertebrates of several species, especially insects, seem to be considered “disgusting” due to their appearance and/or to their habits –like feeding from feces or rotting fruit. Because of this, they may generate feelings of anxiety, fear or revulsion and people tend to support their extermination (e.g., de Pinho et al., 2014; Knight, 2008; Sevillano & Fiske, 2015, Sevillano & Fiske, 2016). Still, given the methodological limitations of the few existing studies, further research is needed about our attitudes towards invertebrates and our perceptions of invertebrate pain or consciousness.
Moreover, negative attitudes may be associated to insect consumption in several Western countries. In general, there is a negative consumer perception of insects as a food source (Gerhardt et al., 2019; Looy et al., 2014; Schösler et al., 2012; Verbeke, 2014), and consumers’ willingness to try insect-based food seems to be especially driven by beliefs about their ‘disgusting’ properties (Vanhonacker et al., 2013; Verbeke, 2015). Given our generalized hostile attitudes towards insects, the main challenge to insect-based food in most Western countries is related to this perception of disgust, rather than moral concern for insects.
We like “beautiful” invertebrates
A limited review of the literature largely corroborates that positive attitudes towards invertebrates seem to be an exception (e.g. Batt, 2009; de Pinho et al., 2014; Driscoll, 1995; Kellert, 1993; Knight, 2008; Lockwood, 1987; Sevillano & Fiske, 2016). However, we are not afraid of butterflies as we are of cockroaches, because we consider the former ‘beautiful’. As it happens with other animals, positive attitudes are more likely when the individual in question is considered aesthetically valuable (Kellert, 1993; Wagler & Wagler, 2012; Knight, 2008). Is aesthetics an important predictor of support for interventions on behalf of invertebrates? Currently, we do not have a clear answer to this question.
Apparently, we also like invertebrates which perform an ecosystem service for humans, most notably pollination –e.g., bees (Coon et al., 2018). In general, describing an animal species as "useful" paves the way for its protection, but not necessarily to the moral consideration of the interests of its individual members (Opotow, 1993).
How malleable are our attitudes towards invertebrates?
Existing research suggests that our hostile attitudes toward invertebrates—especially arthropods—constitute a formidable challenge to developing an effective strategy for promoting invertebrate welfare. Currently, it is not clear how to explain this pattern of aversion, disdain, and avoidance. Some speculate about an innate fear of potentially dangerous insects, generalized to other invertebrates (Adams, 1981). Others suggest a presumed and persistent connection between many arthropods and human diseases (McNeill, 1998). If that were the case, are these attitudes resistant to change?
Another possible explanation for human avoidance of invertebrates is how different these animals are from our own species, morphologically and behaviorally. As Kellert (1993) highlights, they have radically different survival strategies, they live in extremely different environments than ours, and have ‘alien-looking’ morphologies.
Our attitudes towards invertebrates vary across different contexts and social groups
Invertebrates are a very diverse group of animals. Usually, we compartmentalize them into different socially constructed categories (e.g., some are considered “pests”, others “food”), which, in turn, vary across different cultural contexts. Octopuses and snails, for example, are seen as ‘food’ in many Mediterranean countries, whereas they are not in other regions. Similarly, attitudes towards eating insects, for example, are not the same in India as in a ‘typical’ Western country like Belgium (Verbeke, 2015). Furthermore, our interactions with invertebrates are influenced by historical factors and differ across biogeographic regions. Future research should be sensitive to these differences and identify to what extent its findings may or may not be generalizable.
In addition, if we want to promote specific interventions, it should be noted that our attitudes towards invertebrates may also vary according to certain sociodemographic factors —e.g., age, sex, and educational level, according to Kellert’s (1993) findings. However, the issue requires further investigation.
Similarly, in some Western countries, our willingness to eat insect-based food may vary across different sociodemographic groups. In particular, males seem to be more likely than females to eat insect-based food (Megido et al., 2016; Schösler et al., 2012; Verbeke, 2015). Additionally, in two studies, consumers who planned to reduce meat intake and younger consumers —when compared to older ones– appear to be more willing to eat insects (Schösler et al., 2012; Verbeke, 2014). Hence, it is plausible we may need to target different demographic groups differently.
Our attitudes towards invertebrates may be superficial
In general, existing knowledge about our attitudes towards invertebrates is not only limited in terms of the taxa studied, but also in terms of the attitudes surveyed. They mostly look into occurrent, spontaneous or superficial responses that people tend to experience in the course of their everyday life. But, importantly, those attitudes do not necessarily reflect people’s views on the moral consideration of invertebrates, or their actual behavior towards these animals. For example, even if someone feels disgust towards insects, that does not necessarily entail that she believes they are not sentient, that their pain does not matter or that using insecticide is morally innocuous.
In this regard, it is worth noting that our attitudes towards animals (in general) seem to be often contradictory and do not necessarily form a coherent belief system (Herzog et al., 2001; Herzog, 2011: 237-262). For example, a poll conducted by Sentience Institute in collaboration with Ipsos Group (see Reese, 2017) showed that almost half of Americans think that slaughterhouses should be banned. Despite these results, people do not make a corresponding change in their own diets and only 5% of Americans claim to be vegetarians (Gallup, 2018). Another common example are people who consume meat and define themselves as “animal lovers”. While there are exceptions, we tend to have attitudes about animals that are peripheral and superficial. These beliefs are collections of largely unrelated and isolated ideas and opinions, and are often incongruent with each other.
Besides this ambivalence, apparently, many people do not care about animal welfare (Herzog et al., 2001; Herzog, 2011: 237-262). If that is the case for animals in general the welfare of invertebrates, in particular, is probably of much less importance to most people. Presumably, it is not even an issue. Thus, it can be hypothesized that most people have not even thought about invertebrate welfare as a moral problem.
Psychological barriers to invertebrate welfare
Based on his findings, Kellert (1993) concluded that “it is unlikely that very many people will develop an affection or affinity for [invertebrates]” (852). Although Kellert’s work does not address our moral concern towards invertebrates, emotions like “affection” or “affinity” may play an important role when trying to moralize an action or event in which invertebrates are involved. While affection or affinity can foster moralization, attitudes of fear, antipathy and aversion may constitute barriers to it.
Besides being considered “disgusting” due to their morphology and/or to their habits, as well as being associated with diseases and other threats to human health, there may be additional factors that prevent us from caring about invertebrates. I hypothesize that there are at least four other barriers that make the moral consideration of invertebrates difficult for us. I briefly describe these four points hereunder.
Invertebrate welfare is ‘weird’: it defies existing social norms
As Lockwood (1987) admitted years ago, “there seems to be an overall aversion to recognizing insects as organisms deserving of moral consideration” (83). For many of us, the notion that (some) invertebrates may be sentient and may have a welfare we should care about is counterintuitive. It defies current perceptions of many invertebrates. It challenges existing norms in most societies, where invertebrates are commonly considered undesired visitors (‘pests’).
How influential are these social norms to our individual behavior? For example, if all of your friends are fascinated by a new series on Netflix, you will probably at least have a look at it, even if you rarely watch series. As social animals, humans have an ‘innate’ (and sometimes, non-conscious) disposition to fit with our group. We tend to conform, that is, to act or think in ways similar to those of other members of the group we belong to, simply because these other members act and think on those ways (Gavac et al., 2014).
This explains why when it comes to changing ideas or behavior —especially at the individual level– we find it difficult to deviate from social norms. We are afraid of not being socially accepted. Hence, our need to belong and our perception of the expectations of others may dissuade us from behaving or thinking differently than they do (Feinberg et al., 2019; Williams, 2007). In this context, it should be particularly difficult to persuade others about ‘weird’ ideas, such as that invertebrate welfare is a matter of ethical concern.
We are usually resistant to ideas that conflict with our beliefs
Psychologist Leon Festiger (Festinger et al. 2008 ) wrote that “[a] man [sic] with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point” (22). These words draw attention to a common pattern: we usually refuse to accept facts that conflict with our beliefs. Thus, even if there is sufficient evidence that some invertebrates are sentient, people may vigorously oppose the idea that we should be concerned about their welfare.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that if we feel pressured to think or act in a certain way, we tend to think or do precisely the opposite. For instance, warnings about the harms of smoking often lead smokers to be less inclined to quit and nonsmokers to be more prone to smoke (Erceg-Hurn & Steed, 2011; Robinson & Killen, 1997 in Feinberg et al., 2019). This reaction usually appears when change is advocated because of moral reasons. This effect can be accentuated if the message is highly discrepant from existing attitudes, which usually leads to the development of more counterarguments by the receiver (Choo, 1964; Kaplowitz & Fink, 1997).
How likely is it that something similar will happen if we directly advocate for invertebrate welfare? In this regard, Michael Greger (of Nutrition Facts) argues forcefully that anti-honey advocacy hurts the vegan movement. Many people apparently have trouble ascribing morally valuable states to cows and pigs. The idea that bees might suffer (and that we should care about their suffering) strikes these people as crazy. If an average person thinks that a small part of vegan ‘ideology’ is crazy, motivated reasoning will easily allow this thought to infect their perception of the rest of the vegan worldview. Hence, the knowledge that vegans care about bees may lead many people to show less compassion toward cows and pigs than they otherwise would.
Thus, invertebrate welfare is not only a ‘weird’ concern, but so incompatible with our current attitudes that it can elicit a backfire effect (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010). The backfire effect is a phenomenon in which, under certain circumstances, the presentation of evidence in favor of some proposition p actually reduces credence in p. That is to say, regardless of the evidence we face, our established beliefs against p do not change but actually get stronger.
That does not necessarily suggest that it is not possible to change our minds about invertebrates. It is just that we have other important goals besides getting to know the facts about the world around us. One of these is confirming our current beliefs, since that is a way to affirm our identity and to protect our self-conception.
However, subsequent studies (i.e., Haglin, 2017; Wood & Porter, 2019) have not replicated Nyhan & Reifler’s (2010, 2015) findings. Hence, more work is needed to validate the backfire effect, and whether this phenomenon is applicable to the promotion of invertebrate welfare.
Invertebrates as food: pleasure as a barrier to moral consideration
It is known that smoking is unhealthy. However, the risks related to this habit usually do not suffice to encourage smokers to quit their habit. Why? Are smokers especially irrational or irresponsible?
Smokers think and behave just like other humans do. For someone who smokes, warning messages linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer elicit a clear dissonance: their behavior is not consistent with the idea that smoking is dangerous. This is a conflict that needs to be resolved or eluded. Clearly, the most beneficial way to do so would be to give up smoking. But if for whatever reason quitting smoking is not an option for us, in all probability, we will try to suppress the troubling idea that “smoking is unhealthy” –rather than changing our behavior. Thus, we may convince ourselves that the scientific evidence against smoking is not conclusive or that this habit “is not that bad” (Chapman et al., 1993; Festinger, 1964; Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Tagliacozzo, 1981).
Likewise, eating lobster is pleasant for many people, and just as smoking, we may think that changing our behavior is not an option. The pleasure involved in eating invertebrates like crabs, squids, lobsters and others can act as a barrier to the moral consideration of these animals (see Bastian & Loughnan, 2017; Feinberg et al., 2019; Piazza et al., 2015). Thus, instead of changing a specific behavior (not eating lobster anymore), people may rather come up with all sorts of justifications for it. For instance, they may claim that it is natural for humans to eat animals or they may deny that lobsters are conscious in a morally relevant way .
Nevertheless, other factors can come into play (see e.g. Loughnan & Piazza, 2018 in Gray & Graham, 2018). Those factors may make people more likely to be concerned for lobster welfare than for other invertebrates such as insects.
Other challenges for considering the welfare of invertebrates in nature
The situation does not seem any easier for invertebrates living in nature who suffer from natural harms. In these cases, the appeal to nature fallacy (see Moore & Baldwin, 1993: 47) may lead to the belief that suffering caused by natural factors must be positive, and, in turn, interfering in those processes is not desirable. However, the role of this fallacy in how invertebrate welfare is perceived (if any) has not been empirically explored yet.
Additionally, when animals are affected by natural events, there is either no intentional agent that caused the harm or its existence is not evident. Humans, however, seem to think of moral situations and seem to perceive harms as dyads (or pairs) of victim-perpetrator (Gray et al., 2012; Gray et al., 2014). It is possible that natural processes that negatively affect invertebrates —where there is no intentionality— are interpreted as "psychologically incomplete" events and, thus, dismissed as ethically irrelevant, exempting us of any moral obligation. This phenomenon and other possible elements of human perception regarding invertebrate welfare and intervention in nature should be empirically addressed.
As the situation of animals living in nature illustrates, caring for invertebrate welfare does not only imply that we have reasons to stop harming these animals. If invertebrates matter,, their interests may place positive duties of assistance on us. In all probability, these moral demands will be exceptionally costly. Thus, accommodating invertebrate interests may require essential changes in human activities, in our social norms and, at an individual level, it may involve serious cognitive costs.
Regarding the latter, people usually engage in "look the other way" strategies to avoid feeling sympathy for animals used as food, because of the practical implications of such feelings (Rothgerber, 2014). Note that occurs even when the behavioral cost is associated to stop doing something that harms vertebrate animals. Hence, it would not be surprising that a similar process happens when invertebrates are involved and, in particular, when meeting their needs require some positive action on our part.
Furthermore, invertebrates are the vast majority of existing animals. If they matter morally, perceiving that one must care for their welfare may trigger other psychological barriers associated with a problem’s magnitude problem (e.g., scope insensitivity and collapse of compassion).
In sum, even if invertebrate welfare is a worthwhile cause, several factors may prevent us from considering this issue properly. Additionally, there is the worry that rushing into a direct advocacy campaign may create hard-to-reverse lock-in effects. If the initial message is suboptimal, these lock-in effects can impose substantial costs. Hence, directly advocating for invertebrate welfare at this time might be actively counterproductive, both to the invertebrate welfare cause area and effective altruism more generally.
How are interventions on behalf of invertebrates perceived?
In general, our attitudes towards animals and how we morally consider them is a complex issue. As it was previously suggested, most attitudes towards animals may be superficial and incoherent. It can be hypothesized that invertebrates are not an exception.
Hence, in spite of our presumed negative attitudes towards invertebrates, people may not have strong opinions one way or another about specific interventions on behalf of these animals. How specific interventions (e.g., humane insecticides, banning lobster tanks in grocery stores, stunning crustaceans before being killed and boiled) are perceived is an issue that merits further investigation. In this regard, the study of attitudes towards technically feasible interventions should be prioritized.
Exploring the possibilities of ‘indirect advocacy’
At present, we do not know if there are ways to overcome our psychological barriers to invertebrate welfare. However, even if people are not willing to recognize (some) invertebrates as individuals deserving of moral consideration, they may still support specific campaigns on behalf of invertebrates for other reasons. Indeed, the extension of the movement on behalf of farmed animals and the increase in plant-based products seem to have been driven, in an important part, by considerations different from a concern for animal welfare. Several studies point out that consumers have been choosing a plant-based diet or meal not necessarily out of concern for animals, but rather out of a concern for the environment and their own health (Ceuta Group, 2019; Gallup, 2018; Lantern, 2019; NPD Group, 2019). Thus, it is reasonable to think that a similar approach for invertebrates is worth exploring.
We still know very little about which arguments may be used for an indirect promotion of measures that benefit invertebrates. However, it is known that a compelling argument used to encourage chefs to switch to the Crustastun electrical stunning system for crustaceans is that this method—unlike boiling crabs or lobsters alive—prevents animals from releasing stress hormones, and, therefore, “the flavour of the meat is enhanced and the texture becomes more succulent” (Mitchell & Cooper, 2019). This is not to say that such an argument should be used openly when addressing the public at large (assuming that is something we want to do). The point is rather that the types of arguments employed must be tailored to the different social groups or stakeholders. If successful, this can even neutralize their possible opposition or, at least, create division among them.
For their part, if the development of humane insecticides succeeds, given our attitudes towards insects, they will presumably have to be promoted under a framing different from that of ‘insect welfare’. In this sense, if these new insecticides can overcome the problems of conventional ones (i.e., insect resistance, contamination risks and potential negative effects on human health, see Hendrichs, 2000; Thullner, 1997), they could be more effectively promoted employing those arguments.
Economic concerns can also encourage specific interventions on behalf of invertebrates. On the one hand, economic pressure for improvements in animal welfare has become an increasingly important driving force for changes in handling and rearing conditions of land vertebrate animals (Gibson & Jackson, 2017). If higher welfare standards for, say, farmed crustaceans are beneficial for producers, they are more likely to be adopted. Indeed, the new technology for crab processing implemented by Hitramat, Norway’s largest crab producer, does not only stun the animals before being slaughtered but also automatically sorts out those crabs with the highest meat content —a process that was previously conducted manually (Berg-Jacobsen, 2014).
On another note, economic concerns can also promote specific research on invertebrate welfare. For example, the increased occurrence of colony-collapse disorder in honey bees has led to more research into bee health and welfare, given their importance in producing honey and pollinating crops (Evans & Schwarz, 2011).
Appealing to other reasons, different from a concern for invertebrate welfare, will probably require linking specific goals to the goals of other social movements or organizations. Plausibly, other social groups might not be moved by the same motivations as we are. However, if they are brought on board a budding movement, they usually provide invaluable resources and social networks to it. Hence, if a form of intervention appeals to another group's scope of action or fits into their programmatic goals, it will mobilize more resources, and gain more adherents. Generally, the broader the base of a coalition is, the greater the chance it has of attracting the attention of institutions.
In this regard, some forms of intervention are likely to be endorsed if they coincide with the agenda of, let's say, conservationist organizations. One example of this is Tomasik’s (2017) proposal of reducing irrigation subsidies and fertilizer use in agriculture (assuming that invertebrate lives are net-negative and that this is a cost-effective intervention). Sustainability and efficiency problems associated with octopus farming (Jacquet et al., 2019) can mobilize environmental organizations and, if the opportunity arises, these arguments can be used to discourage further public investments in such projects (e.g., as the Spanish Institute of Oceanography is currently doing in the development of octopus aquaculture).
In general, which arguments may be used for an indirect promotion of measures that benefit invertebrates is an issue that requires future investigation.
Despite the potential benefits associated with mobilizing coalitions, this approach has its challenges. First, even organizations within the same movement that share broadly similar goals may hold ideological positions adverse to form a coalition. Generally, ideological differences can inhibit coalition formation or jeopardize their stability (Van Dyke & Amos, 2016). Second, although sharing similar goals may be sufficient for an ad-hoc alliance, the lack of a shared ideology can lead to a superficial and restricted communicational strategy, that does not appeal to substantive discussions about the moral consideration of invertebrates.
Third, researchers on social change state that the differences mentioned above may be overcome by members who connect the different organizations or movements involved (“bridge builders”) (Bystydzienski & Schacht, 2001: 8-13; Rose, 2000: 166-186; Van Dyke & Amos, 2016). In this regard, however, the animal rights movement does not have a rich history of cooperation with other social movements.
Fourth, the need for collaboration between different organizations or movements is usually motivated by new events that constitute a threat –real or perceived– to their goals (Van Dyke & Amos, 2016). With a few exceptions (e.g., octopus farming), the problem of invertebrate suffering cannot be described as a disruptive or extraordinary event. Instead, it is the result of either established human practices or natural events.
In general, the well-being of invertebrates will increasingly depend on our willingness to help them. Nowadays, humans have a limited capacity to do so. However, our ability to intervene on behalf of these animals will probably increase in the future, as new technologies are developed and knowledge of ecosystemic relations improves (Horta, 2016). Hence, we need to understand human attitudes towards invertebrates, as well as explore other important considerations about social change, in order to learn how to successfully discourage harmful practices towards these animals and how to develop and implement positive interventions on their behalf.
In summary, some questions on this topic that we would like to see answered are:
- How generalizable are existing findings about our attitudes towards invertebrates?
- What are our attitudes towards specific invertebrate species or families?
- Which factors shape our attitudes towards invertebrates? What are the most relevant predictors of the moral consideration we assign to invertebrates?
- Are our hostile attitudes towards invertebrates resistant to change? How malleable are they?
- What conditions would make the moralization of invertebrate welfare more likely?
- How are specific forms of intervention perceived? Do these measures have other benefits besides improving the lives of the invertebrates involved?
- How to frame a specific invertebrate welfare problem and its solution so that they appear compelling? Similarly, how is the industry framing the promotion of insect-based foods? Are there ways to counter their arguments? Qualitative studies are probably a suitable approach to explore these questions.
We hope that future research focuses on shedding some light on the problems presented above. That will allow us to better determine the tractability of invertebrate welfare.
This essay is a project of Rethink Priorities.
It was written by Daniela R. Waldhorn. Thanks to David Moss, Eze Paez, Jane Capozzelli, Jason Schukraft, Marcus A. Davis, and Matias Vazquez for their contribution.
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Specifically, in psychology, some studies explore the relationship between humans and companion animals (e.g., Anderson, 2008; Serpell, 1995; Zawistowski, 2008). Others deal with the correlation between cruelty to companion animals and violence against humans (e.g., Arluke et al., 1999; Ascione, 2001). Additionally, there is a recent and expanding interest in the psychology of eating animals (e.g., Bastian et al., 2012; Joy, 2010; Loughnan et al., 2010; Loughnan et al., 2014). ↩︎
Schwitzgebel et al. (2019) also claim that education may have a general influence on real-world moral behavior. However, other authors are sceptical about the influence of education on this regard (see Haidt, 2012; Schwitzgebel & Rust, 2016). ↩︎
The Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University (2018) replicated Sentience Institute’s survey and found similar results. Rethink Priorities is working on a forthcoming conceptual replication of this study, exploring the depth and understanding of the public's views on this issue. ↩︎
Structurally inconsistent attitudes traditionally have been termed "vacuous attitudes" or "non-attitudes". See Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Chaiken et al., 1995: 387-412. ↩︎
I thank Jason Schukraft for these points. ↩︎
The appeal to nature fallacy says that "a thing is good because it is 'natural', or bad because it is 'unnatural'" (Moore & Baldwin, 1993: 47). ↩︎
I thank Jason Schukraft for these points. ↩︎
This process may be similar to the way people seek to avoid feeling empathy towards human victims because of the costs and efforts that empathy is associated with (see Cameron et al., 2017; Shaw et al., 1994). ↩︎
Scope insensitivity or scope neglect is a cognitive bias that consists in not realizing the real scope of a certain quantity, usually when those quantities are very large. Thereby, when we compare two different quantities we fail to notice the difference between them, and we tend not to adjust our valuation of an issue in proportion to the size or scale of it (Kahneman, Ritov & Schkade, 2000 in Kahneman & Tversky, 2000: 652-653). This phenomenon especially impairs our judgments about helping animals because of the massive amount of animal suffering and death. ↩︎
Being confronted with too much suffering can lead to what is often called the collapse of compassion, a defense mechanism that reduces or eliminates our sensitivity to the harms others suffer when we are faced with massive amounts of suffering (Slovic, 2007). So far, this phenomenon has only been empirically studied when the victims are humans. ↩︎
I thank Jason Schukraft for these points. ↩︎
Chemical insecticides are likely to produce high amounts of direct suffering. If we have to kill insects, we should do it as painlessly as possible. In this regard, Wild Animal Initiative (WAI) is investigating the feasibility of humane insecticides. WAI aims to identify insecticides that kill faster, less painfully, or both, avoiding potentially negative downstream ecological effects (Howe, 2019). ↩︎
In sociology, this happens through what is called a frame alignment process (Snow et al., 1986). About framing processes and social movements see also Benford & Snow (2000), Carroll & Ratner (1996), McAdam et al. (1996), and Tarrow (2011). ↩︎
Thanks for writing this up!
Is there evidence that this is a significant effect? There are many lines of motivated reasoning, and if you avoid this one, perhaps people will just find another. My impression is that people who reject an idea or ideology because of some association with something 'crazy' are actually often just opposed to the idea/ideology in general, and would still be opposed if the 'crazy' thing wasn't around.
Also, there is an effect in the opposite direction from moving the Overton window, or making others look more moderate. (Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_flank_effect )
While I agree that we should be very careful about publicity at this point, I feel like there might still be opportunities for thoughtful advocacy. It seems not implausible that we could find angles that are mainstream-compatible and begin to normalise concern for invertebrates - e.g. extending welfare laws to lobsters.
Thanks for your interest and your stimulating feedback. In general, I think that people do not have an elaborated position about these issues. But we are typically resistant to ideas that conflict with our beliefs, and, as you say, if one rationalization does not work, in all probability, we will make up a new excuse in order to dismiss a "troubling" or "crazy" position.
Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence about this specific effect in how we morally think about invertebrates. In fact, the psychological barriers here described are, in several cases, mere hypotheses based on existing knowledge. Thus, to what extent these psychological barriers operate, and the role of the radical flank effect and other mechanisms are issues that should be empirically addressed.
I also share your impression that, in some contexts, we may have the chance to promote welfare measures for some invertebrates, like octopuses, crabs, or lobsters. Crustacean Compassion's work in the UK is a good example in this regard. Surprisingly, some of their demands are shared by the Labour Party, and an animal welfare organization linked to the Conservative Party. I still wonder under what circumstances this is possible –(i) on behalf of which species and why (i.e., what factors make us more likely to consider some invertebrates rather than others), and (ii) what makes a society more suitable for such demands. Do you have any other suggestions in this regard?