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Crossposted on my blog.  This article was written about the general apathy towards insect suffering, and farming especially, so many of the statements about general indifference are not as applicable to those reading on the EA forum.  

1 Beneath the giants’ heels

The giants ruled the world and

They reshaped it a lot

Nature warped beneath their hands

Vast palaces were built, but not

Much heed was paid to those below

Those trampled by their feet

They didn’t really care to know

What those tiny beings could be

One day some giant scientists performed some basic tests

On those tiny little creatures, who got crushed and squashed and bled

It turned out those little guys, by the word human, that were addressed

Could feel, and laugh, and love, and yet their blood was flowing red

A few especially caring giants wondered what to do

For these beings that they killed and maimed

Were, as they said, “just like me and you.”

And were screaming out in pain

They hoped and prayed that this would change

The way that things were done

That they could mitigate the insane

Destruction wrought upon the tiny screaming ones

They asked those advocating change for giants ill-treated

If they’d support reshaping

The practices done to these creatures

That they were mercilessly razing

But those progressive giants shook their head

And in their heels dug

For though these creatures became dead

Nothing should be done

And though the science did suggest

That they could feel all

Could morality need one acquiesce

To the demands of one so small

Meanwhile, many miles below, the little humans screamed

They wished that they’d have respite from

The giant torturous fiends

—A poem broadly inspired by this article.

2 Reasons to care


Soon, trillions of insects will starve.

This article is about the mistreatment of insects. I write this knowing that virtually no one cares about insects being mistreated, however badly. I am going to try very hard to get you to care about these creatures that matter, that cry out in agony by the trillions. Yet I recognize most of you will continue to be indifferent.

Caring about insects is treated as so manifestly absurd that people reject any view implying we should do it, however otherwise plausible. Bryan Caplan thinks we shouldn’t care about animals because if we do, we’d have to care about insects, and that’s clearly crazy (his argument is wrong).

And yet the evidence is mounting that insects can feel pain, just as non-insects can. The most detailed report on insect sentience concludes that the ones I discuss in this article, called black soldier flies, feel pain around 1.3% as intently as us. This means that a hundred insects in pain will feel around as much pain as a single human in a similar amount of pain.

Pain is a bad thing, as anyone who has experienced it knows. Its badness resides not in other things it causes or in one’s higher-order thoughts about it but instead in the raw feel of the experience. Though an insect cannot think about the cosmic injustice of its mistreatment, neither can a baby or a person with a severe mental disability. Yet it is bad when babies and the mentally enfeebled are mistreated, for they can suffer.

Bentham famously said “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” Insects can neither speak nor reason, yet it’s likely that they can suffer. Thus, as long as one thinks that suffering is a bad thing, they must think there’s at least a reasonable probability that something unspeakable is being done to insects.

One’s cognitive capacities have nothing to do with the badness of their suffering. If you became very stupid before being tortured, that would not reduce the badness of the torture. Consequently, it would be wrong to ignore the plight of the insects simply because of their lack of intelligence.

Because of their sheer numbers—maybe 100 quadrillion earthworms alone—if insects can suffer, most of the suffering on earth probably happens to these creatures. Caring about insects, then, isn’t so extreme. It says we should consider most suffering on earth to matter! It says we should think twice before dishing out immense suffering on scores of potentially feeling creatures.

Caring about insects is inconvenient. It’s a test of how much we care. It’s easy to take morality seriously occasionally, moralizing about those you don’t like mistreating those you can empathize with. Yet insects pose a deep challenge to our morality: are we willing to do the right thing even when it sounds weird, when others make fun of us for doing so, when doing so is inconvenient?

We mustn’t be blinded to the immensity of a grave horror simply because taking it seriously would require we live differently and would potentially implicate much of our lifestyle. Just as we wouldn’t fry an insect with a magnifying glass or microwave them, we must be sensitive to other ways we harm them. As Joe Carlsmith says:

Indeed, threatened by the burdens of new obligations, it’s possible greet reductios of this kind with a type of relief. On the topic of the ants, for example, I noticed some sort of relief in relation to the idea that I was already killing bugs when I drove or walked on grass: “No one’s going to say we should stop driving or walking on grass, right? So killing these ants must be OK, too.” If a candidate norm is seen as externally imposed, rather than grounded in something one cares about wholeheartedly, one greets evidence that abiding by the norm is impossible or extremely burdensome with enthusiasm, rather than sadness. 

V. If dust-mites were different

Imagine a world in which humans were the only macroscopically visible species. For centuries, these humans lived wonderful lives; dancing in the grass, cooking delicious meals over open fires, playing music together — all under the assumption that they were the only sentient creatures in existence.

Then one day, a scientist invents a microscope, and begins examining the world with it. She finds, to her surprise, that the surface of everything is covered with a thin film — invisible to the naked eye — of something that looks like a civilization all unto itself. The creatures in this civilization are made of a type of intricate slime, but their nervous systems are incredibly complex — much more complex, indeed, than human nervous systems, and made of superior materials. These slime, it seems, have a kind of art, language, and religion; they, too, engage in a type of dancing. And they do much else besides, which human scientists cannot, at present, understand (let’s imagine that communication remains, for now, impossible).

What’s more, the humans realize, whenever humans walk or dance on the grass, they crush this slime civilization under their feet; whenever they make an open fire, the slime civilization burns; whenever they pluck the strings of a guitar, slime creatures are thrown into the air and killed. For centuries, they realize, they have been devastating a sophisticated and invisible civilization; with no knowledge that they were doing so.

What, then, do they do? Do they argue that the slime civilization can’t be worthy of care, because changing practices of dancing, cooking, music-making, etc would be too demanding? Do they start looking for ways to protect and understand the slime? Do they start wondering about future conflicts with the slime? If there was a pill they could take, that would allow them to forget about the slime, and go back to how things were before they had microscopes, would they take it?

The point of the set-up here is not to force or pressure the humans to give up their beautiful lives, on pain of being bad. They’ve learned something new about the world they’re living in, and the consequences of their actions, but it’s up to them how to respond. The point is that the real world — the world they’ve always been living in — stays real regardless. Whatever the truth was about slime art, and religion, and music — and about the damage that dancing and fires and guitars do — that truth stays true.

We must not be like the giants.

3 The insects are screaming


I don’t know how to help most insects, though I know how to help some. I wish I did.

Everything we do kills insects. Yet we can’t just do nothing. And it’s not at all obvious if killing insects is bad for them. Insects left alive bring scores of new insects into the world, brought into a world where everything can kill them, where they only survive a few hours or days before dying a painful death. For this reason, I, like Brian Tomasik, imagine that humans have, on net, reduced animal suffering and that the typical human reduces animal suffering.

Yet there is one practice humans are currently carrying out that will be bad for insects almost certainly—many trillions of them. And yet no one seems to care much about this.

The insect farming industry is ramping up, growing in size. To feed farmed fish, we currently farm a few hundred billion black soldier flies. There are around 8-16 billion farmed black soldier flies alive at any time. And yet in the coming decades, many tens of trillions of black soldier flies will be brought into existence, farmed, and killed to feed to fish in ghastly, underwater torture chambers. As Barrett reports “Even if only 25% of fishmeal was replaced by insect protein, this represents tens of trillions of additional farmed-insect lives and deaths annually (Rowe 2020).”

Given that trillions of lives are on the line, it’s worth seriously considering how we’re treating those creatures. Tragically though, we treat them basically as expendable byproducts without an ounce of moral consideration. Barret’s report notes:

BSF larvae are reared either in large troughs (of tens to hundreds of thousands of individuals) or, more frequently, in small plastic pans of a few thousand individuals.

Sometimes, little kids mistreat insects in fairly grotesque ways. They microwave them or burn them with a magnifying glass or do something else of similar malevolence. We regard this as quite immoral. And yet this will be the fate of trillions of insects, not fried by a single sadist but instead fried by a sadistic industry.

The insects are mistreated in exactly the ways a sadistic child might torment an insect. Imagine the horror of a child putting an insect in the microwave and turning the microwave on, so that the insect slowly burns to death. Yet microwaving live insects is common. And they’re killed in a lot of other equally cruel ways including “boiling/blanching, oven heating, sand roasting, roasting in sunshine, liquid nitrogen freezing, air freezing, asphyxiation, and shredding/grinding.”

Imagine what it feels like to be roasted alive in a microwave, your insides heating up, the heat slowly killing you. Or of being ground up alive, a large object beating you against some surface, taking a few times before it kills you, while you’re in the worst agony of your life, all of your organs crushed. This is the fate of trillions of insects. And while they might not be smart, while they might not feel pain as intensely as us, the experience of being microwaved is similarly unpleasant.

We don’t know exactly what these creatures feel. But that means we should use the precautionary principle. If you don’t know what some being’s experiences are like, you shouldn’t kill trillions of them by putting them in the fucking microwave, to provide food for more tortured beings.

Oh, and we also starve them.

An oft-repeated falsehood about black soldier flies is that the adults don’t eat. The industry sure acts like they don’t in that they don’t feed them. So every black soldier fly undergoes a lengthy period of starvation before being killed. Barrett thus notes “Current industry practice violates the principle of freedom from hunger, and denies BSFs the opportunity to engage in natural foraging behaviors.”

Prior to reaching their adult stage, these creatures are fed a horrible, unhealthy diet that makes them sick. Additionally, they’re stuffed in high-density meshed wire. They have minimal ability to move or practice their natural behaviors. Because of these terrible conditions, black soldier flies develop diseases at high rates. They additionally might be genetically modified to be in constant agony in the future.

Suppose that the earlier estimate is right, that black soldier flies feel pain about 1% as intensely as humans. Assume additionally that half of the suffering—which is a bit broader than pain and means any unpleasant experience—of a person being burned to death comes from the raw agony, and half of it comes from fear, sadness, and so on. Well then, an insect being burned to death or microwaved causes about 1/200th as much agony as a human being burned to death. This means that that ~30 trillion insects being killed annually causes around as much suffering as if 150 billion humans were killed every year. Insect farming, which is done for the sake of propping up a deeply immoral industry, thus causes about as much agony as if every 20 days, every human on earth had the experience of being burned alive. And these are quite conservative estimates.

If that’s weird to care about, then I’ll take being weird! If snickers of suspicion and people making snide jokes dissuades us from caring about an amount of suffering equivalent to everyone burning to death every 3 weeks, we don’t give a shit about morality. Instead, we care about social norms that we can use to shame other people, masquerading under the banner of morality.

4 What to do?


So, what can you do? One thing: donate here—these guys are working to stop insect farming (conflict of interest alert: I’m friends with Dustin, who works there). You can also try to get a job working for them—they’re hiring.

Insects matter. They matter because they can and do suffer. The fact that they’re not smart, not responsive to morality, and are small and weird-looking doesn’t make any difference to their moral worth. For we are like that to the giants, and yet it would be wrong of them to squash us underfoot.

Oftentimes, doing the right thing is emotionally salient. When one sees children starving to death, they can see that something deeply wrong is going on. Othertimes, however, doing the right thing isn’t emotionally salient. Other people don’t recognize that doing the right thing isright, perhaps even dismissing it as weird. The good states of affairs being brought about aren’t obviously good, for the creatures being mistreated are too different from us for us to feel much empathy.

I sometimes hear Christians confidently proclaim that those who don’t believe in Jesus in life will suffer forever in hell. I’m appalled by their jarring absence of moral concern. Can they not see that even those who don’t believe in Jesus matter.

Yet they have excluded non-Christians from their circle of concern and become mostly indifferent to their plight. Their ingroup is so small it doesn’t even contain most of the human race. Yet most of us are like that. We ignore the majority of beings and the majority of suffering on the planet, for the suffering beings are too different from us for us to feel much empathy.

Scanlon famously thought that morality was about what rules would have to be reasonably accepted. It’s wrong to kill and maim others, for that rule couldn’t be justified to them. Yet we couldn’t justify ourselves to the insects—those we starve, freeze, and burn, all for minuscule benefit. If, in the afterlife, we are confronted by those insects and asked why we mistreat them so, there is no good answer we will be able to give.

The screaming insects haunt my dreams. For they scream because of us.







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Executive summary: Insects likely feel pain and suffer immensely from human practices like insect farming, yet this suffering is widely ignored due to speciesism and inconvenience.

Key points:

  1. Evidence suggests insects like black soldier flies can feel pain, even if less intensely than humans.
  2. Insect farming, projected to grow to tens of trillions of insects, subjects them to cruel practices like starvation, microwaving, and grinding.
  3. Causing such immense suffering cannot be justified by insects' lack of intelligence or inconvenience of changing practices.
  4. Speciesism leads to ignoring insects' moral worth, just as humans ignore the majority of suffering on Earth due to lack of empathy for dissimilar beings.
  5. Supporting organizations working against insect farming is a concrete way to help reduce this suffering.



This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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