Archive for September 24th, 2015

Insect Agonies

Utilitarianism dominates the rationalization of morality within the English-speaking world. It is scarcely imaginable that it could be expressed with greater purity than this:

There are roughly 10^18 insects in the world. Suppose we give insects a .1% chance of being sentient, with their sentience being .1% of a human’s. (These values are intentionally small to demonstrate the scale to which insect suffering dominates) Assuming we assign moral weight to categories of beings by their number and the intensity of their inner experiences, this assignment gives each insect 1/1,000,000 of the moral weight for a human, meaning that the suffering of 1,000,000 insects equals the suffering of one human. Even when assigning insects this absurdly low moral weight, their suffering still dominates, as 10^18 insects comes out to 1 trillion human equivalents. If the number of insects were smaller, say around 7 billion, the consequences of not considering insect suffering might be acceptable. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, and as we shall see, ignoring insect suffering even if we assign a low probability to insect consciousness presents an unacceptably high risk of ignoring a catastrophic moral harm.

There’s no need to condescend to this argument by pretending to ‘steelman’ it. It’s already quite steely. For a start, it’s conceptually pure — undistracted by irrelevances such as habitat preservation. It’s solidly consequentialist, and — in its development from of its own basic axiom — practical. There’s no sign of a fetishistic rejection of pesticide use, for instance, or an appeal to any totemic vision of ‘nature’. It’s even realist, in that it recognizes enough about the character of this universe to understand the utilitarian obligation as primarily about the alleviation of suffering (positive pleasures being, in the grand scheme of things, no more than a rounding error). On this basis, there’s an insectoid antinatalist sub-theme, which (briefly) explores the thought that ethical extermination might be a positive moral good: “It is possible that most insects have lives that aren’t worth living … meaning the fewer insects in existence the better.” It focuses tightly upon the problem of relieving insect agonies, by chemically inducing a comparatively painless — rather than agonizing — death. Building its case in uncontroversial steps, it concludes that no effective altruistic cause has higher priority, since “… insect suffering probably dominates all other sources of suffering” and “… humane pesticides saves 25 human equivalents from a more painful death per dollar.”

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September 24, 2015admin 64 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Philosophy