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.”
The most straightforward line of dissent this blog raises against Effective Altruism is roughly Hayekian, i.e. based upon a ‘knowledge problem’. In particular, the confounding dynamics of global traps (1, 2, and their sub-component perverse effects) is typically under-appreciated. Beating back Malthus seems — locally — like a great idea from a utilitarian perspective, structurally blind to the catastrophe that results on a larger scale (dysgenics, decivilization, left-acceleration, and ultimately the mass die off that had been naively thought avoided). In this case, however, it is difficult to find much leverage for such criticism. ‘Humane’ euthanasia for bugs isn’t any kind of obvious offense against cold Malthusianism, in contrast — for instance — to more romantically environmentalist moralizations of nature. Even the blackest of Dark Enlightenment optics would find it hard to envision the grave practical necessity of torturing locusts slowly to death rather than terminating them rapidly.
To mobilize an alternative ethical axiom against that of the utilitarians — the Xenosystems candidate is of course intelligence optimization, and diagonalism (self-cultivation) — looks like the misuse of a nuke in this case. If some minor diversion of resources from superior (self-reinforcing) purposes is proposed in this argument for the relief of insect suffering, it scarcely seems to be on a scale to subvert terrestrial capital teleology, or even to scratch the paint. Stimulating the emergence of an inevitably marginal soft death™ bug poison industry isn’t likely to advance intelligence explosion significantly, but nor is it going to pose any kind of insuperable obstacle. This isn’t, unlike FAI, the sort of undertaking that clearly merits a fight. The fact that, in regards to the IO-orientation, the relief of suffering has to strictly count for nothing is no reason to enthusiastically invest in the drawn-out excruciation of cockroaches.
Given these caveats, EA is a morbid symptom, rather than any kind of serious enemy. If it turns to helping farm animals, and then insects, rather than people, it actually becomes less toxic in respect to the proliferation of perverse social dynamics. The socialists are probably right to be suspicious of these types. When lost among insect agonies, they’re not subverting crucial social incentive structures or selection mechanisms. I’m thinking: fundamentally harmless.