considering the issue of rights, let us first address the question "What about
insects?". Strictly speaking, insects are small invertebrate animals of the class
Insecta, having an adult stage characterized by three pairs of legs, a segmented body with
three major divisions, and usually two pairs of wings. We'll adopt the looser definition,
which includes similar invertebrate animals such as spiders, centipedes, and ticks.
Insects have a ganglionic nervous system, in contrast to the central
nervous system of vertebrates. Such a system is characterized by local aggregates of
neurons, called ganglia, that are associated with, and specialized for, the body segment
with which they are co-located. There are interconnections between ganglia but these
connections function not so much as a global integrating pathway, but rather for local
segmental coordination. For example, the waves of leg motion that propagate along the body
of a centipede are mediated by the intersegmental connections.
In some species the cephalic ganglia are large and complex enough to
support very complex behavior (e.g., the lobster and octopus). The cuttlefish (not an
insect but another invertebrate with a ganglionic nervous system) is claimed by some to be
about as intelligent as a dog.
Insects are capable of primitive learning and do exhibit what many
would characterize as intelligence. Spiders are known for their skills and craftiness;
whether this can all be dismissed as instinct is arguable. Certainly, bees can learn in a
limited way. When offered a reward from a perch of a certain color, they return first to
perches of that color. They also learn the location of food and transmit that information
to their colleagues. The learning, however, tends to be highly specialized and applicable
to only limited domains.
In addition to a primitive mental life as described above, there is
some evidence that insects can experience pain and suffering. The earthworm nervous
system, for example, secretes an opiate substance when the earthworm is injured. Similar
responses are seen in vertebrates and are generally accepted to be a mechanism for the
attenuation of pain. On the other hand, the opiates are also implicated in functions not
associated with analgesia, such as thermoregulation and appetite control. Nevertheless,
the association of secretion with tissue injury is highly suggestive.
Earthworms also wriggle quite vigorously when impaled on a hook. In
possible opposition to this are other observations. For example, the abdomen of a feeding
wasp can be clipped off and the head may go on sucking (presumably in no distress?).
Singer quotes three criteria for deciding if an organism has the
capacity to suffer from pain: 1) there are behavioral indications, 2) there is an
appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary usefulness for the experience
of pain. These criteria seem to satisfied for insects, if only in a primitive way.
Now we are equipped to tackle the issue of insect rights. First, one
might argue that the issue is not so compelling as for other animals because industries
are not built around the exploitation of insects. But this is untrue; large industries are
built around honey production, silk production, and cochineal/carmine production, and, of
course, mass insect death results from our use of insecticides. Even if the argument were
true, it should not prevent us from attempting to be consistent in the application of our
principles to all animals. Insects are a part of the Animal Kingdom and some special
arguments would be required to exclude them from the general AR argument.
Some would draw a line at some level of complexity of the nervous
system, e.g., only animals capable of operant conditioning need be enfranchised. Others
may quarrel with this line and place it elsewhere. Some may postulate a scale of life with
an ascending capacity to feel pain and suffer. They might also mark a cut-off on the
scale, below which rights are not actively asserted. Is the cut-off above insects and the
lower invertebrates? Or should there be no cut-off? This is one of the issues still being
actively debated in the AR community.
People who strive to live without cruelty will attempt to push the line
back as far as possible, giving the benefit of the doubt where there is doubt. Certainly,
one can avoid unnecessary cruelty to insects.
The practical issues involved in enfranchising insects are dealt with
in the following two questions. --DG
"I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the
beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things
as crawl upon earth." --Mahatma Gandhi (statesman and philosopher) "What is it that should trace the insuperable line?
...The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"
SEE ALSO: #22, #40-#41, #47
#40 Do I have to
be careful not to walk on ants?
The Jains of India
would say yes! Some of their more devout members wear gauze masks to avoid inhaling and
killing small insects and microbes.
Regardless of how careful we are, we will cause some suffering as a
side-effect of living. The goal is to avoid unnecessary suffering and to minimize the
suffering we cause. This is a far cry from wanton, intentional infliction of cruelty. I
refer here to the habit of some of pulling off insects' wings for fun, or of torching a
congregation of ants for pleasure.
This question is an issue for the individual conscience to decide.
Perhaps one need not walk around looking out for ants on the ground, but should one be
seen and it is easy to alter one's stride to avoid it, where is the harm in doing so? --DG
SEE ALSO: #39, #41
#41 There is some
evidence of consciousness in insects; aren't you descending to absurdity to tell people
not to kill insects?
Enfranchising insects does not mean it is never justifiable to
kill them. As with all threats to a being, the rule of self-defense applies. If insects
are threatening one's well-being in a nontrivial way, AR philosophy would not assert that
it is wrong to eliminate them.
Pesticides and herbicides are often used for mass destruction of insect
populations. While this might be defended on the self-defense principle, one should be
aware of the significant adverse impact on the environment, on other non-threatening
animals, and indeed on our own health. (Refer to question #59 for more on the use of
It is not absurd to attempt to minimize the amount of suffering that we
inflict or cause. --DG
"We should begin to feel for the flies and other insects
struggling to be free from sticky fly paper. There are humane alternatives."
W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)
SEE ALSO: #39-#40, #59
#42 Isn't it
hypocritical to kill and eat plants?
There is currently no reason to believe that plants
experience pain, devoid as they are of central nervous systems, nerve endings, and brains.
It is theorized that the main reason animals have the ability to experience pain is as a
form of self-protection. If you touch something that hurts and could possibly injure you,
you will learn from the pain it produces to leave it alone in the future. Since plants
cannot locomote and do not have the need to learn to avoid certain things, this ability
would be superfluous and evolutionarily illogical. Furthermore, the fact that plants may
or may not be able to suffer doesn't justify causing pain and distress to animals like
dogs, cows, rats, or chickens who we know are capable of suffering a great deal.
would be hypocritical IF the same criteria or morally relevant attributes that are used to
justify animal rights also applied to plants. The criteria cited by the AR movement are
"pain and suffering" and being "subjects-of-a-life". An assessment of
how plants measure up to these criteria leads to the following conclusions.
First, our best science to date shows that plants lack any semblance of
a central nervous system or any other system design for such complex capacities as that of
conscious suffering from felt pain.
Second, plants simply have no evolutionary need to feel pain. Animals
being mobile would benefit from the ability to sense pain; plants would not. Nature does
not gratuitously create such complex capacities as that of feeling pain unless there is
some benefit for the organism's survival.
The first point is dealt with in more detail in questions #43 and #44.
The general hypocrisy argument is discussed in question #4. --TA
#43 But how can
you prove that plants don't feel pain?
Lest we forget the ultimate point of what follows, let us not
forget the central thesis of AR. Simply stated: to the extent other animals share with us
certain morally relevant attributes, then to that extent we confer upon them due regard
and concern. The two attributes that are arguably relevant are: a) our capacity for pain
and suffering, and b) the capacity for being the "subject-of-a-life", i.e.,
being such that it matters to one whether one's life fares well or ill.
Both of these qualities require the existence of mental states. Also
note that in order to speak of "mental states" proper, we would denote, as
common usage would dictate, that such states are marked by consciousness. It is
insufficient to mark off mental states by only the apparent presence of purposefulness or
intentionality since, as we shall see below, many material objects possess
So then, how do we properly attribute the existence of mental states to
other animals, or even to ourselves for that matter? We cannot infer the presence of felt
pain simply by the presence of a class of behaviors that are functional for an organism's
amelioration or avoidance of noxious stimuli. Thermostats obviously react to thermal
changes in the environment and respond in a functionally appropriate manner to restore an
initial "preferred" state. We would be foolish, however, to attribute to
thermostats a capability to "sense" or "feel" some kind of thermal
"pain". Even placing quotes around our terms doesn't protect us from absurdity.
Clearly, the behavioral criterion of even functional avoidance/defense
reactions is simply not sufficient nor even necessary for the proper attribution of pain
as a felt mental state.
Science, including the biological sciences, are committed to the
working assumption of scientific materialism or physicalism (see "The Metaphysical
Foundations of Modern Science", E. A. Burtt, 1924). We must then start with the
generally accepted scientific assumption that matter is the only existent or real
primordial constituent of the universe.
Let it be said at the outset that scientific materialism as such does
not preclude the existence of emergent or functional qualities like that of mind,
consciousness, and feeling (or even, dare I say it, free will), but all such qualities are
dependent upon the existence of organized matter. If there is no hardware, there is
nothing for the software to run on. If there is no intact, living brain, there is no mind.
It should also be said that even contemporary versions of dualism or mind-stuff theories
will also make embodiment of mental states dependent on the presence of sufficiently
To briefly state the case, cognitive functions like consciousness and
mind are seen as emergent properties of sufficiently organized matter. Just as breathing
is a function of a complex system of organs referred to as the respiratory system, so too
is consciousness a function of the immensely complex information-processing capabilities
of a central nervous system. It is possible, in theory, that future computers, given a
sufficiently complex and orderly organization of hardware and clever software, could
exhibit the requisite emergent qualities. While such Compute rs do not exist, we DO know
that certain living organisms on this planet possess the requisite complexity of
specialized and highly organized structure for the emergence of mental states.
In theory, plants could possess a mental state like pain, but if, and
only if, there were a requisite complexity of organized plant tissue that could serve to
instantiate the higher order mental states of consciousness and felt pain.
There is no morphological evidence that such a complexity of tissue
exists in plants. Plants lack the specialized structures required for emergence of mental
states. This is not to say that they cannot exhibit complex reactions, but we are simply
over-interpreting such reactions if we designate them as "felt pain".
With respect to all mammals, birds, and reptiles, we know that they
possess a sufficiently complex neural structure to enable felt pain plus an evolutionary
need for such consciously felt states. They possess complex and specialized sense organs,
they possess complex and specialized structures for processing information and for
centrally orchestrating appropriate behaviors in accordance with mental representations,
integrations, and reorganizations of that information. The proper attribution of felt pain
in these animals is well justified. It is not for plants, by any stretch of the
The absurdity (and often disingenuity) of the plant-pain promoters can
be easily exposed by asking them the following two questions:
1) Do you agree that animals like dogs and cats should receive
pain-killing drugs prior to surgery?
2) Do you believe that plants should receive pain-killing drugs prior
to pruning? --DG
SEE ALSO: #42, #44
#44 Aren't there
studies that show that plants can scream, etc.?
How can something without vocal apparatus scream? Perhaps the
questioner intends to suggest that plants somehow express feelings or emotions. This
notion is popularized in the book "The Secret Life of Plants", by Tompkins and
Bird, 1972. The book describes "experiments" in which plants are claimed to
respond to injury and even to the thoughts and emotions of nearby humans. The responses
consist of changes in the electrical conductivity of their leaves. The truth is, however,
that nothing but a dismal failure has resulted from attempts to replicate these
experiments. For some definitive reviews, see Science, 1975, 189:478 and The Skeptical
Inquirer, 1978, 2(2):57.
But what about plant responses to insect invasion? Does this suggest
that plants "feel" pain? No published book or paper in a scientific journal has
been cited as indeed making this claim that "plants feel pain". There is
interesting data suggesting that plants react to local tissue damage and even emit
signaling molecules serving to stimulate chemical defenses of nearby plants. But how is
this relevant to the claim that plants feel and suffer from pain? Where are the replicated
experiments and peer-reviewed citations for this putative fact? There are none.
Let us, for the sake of argument, consider the form of logic employed
by the plant-pain promoters:
premise 1: Plants are responsive to "sense" impressions.
premise 2: As defined in the dictionary, anything responsive to sense
impressions is sentient.
conclusion 1: Plants are sentient.
premise 3: Sentient beings are conscious of sense impressions.
conclusion 2: Plants are conscious of sense impressions.
premise 4: To be conscious of a noxious stimuli is unpleasant.
conclusion 3: Noxious stimuli to plants are unpleasant, i.e., painful.
There is a major logical sleight-of-hand here. The meaning of the term
"sentient" changes between premise 2 ("responsive to sense
impressions") and premise 3 ("conscious of sense impressions"). Thus,
equivocation on the usage of "sentient" is used to bootleg the false conclusion
3. There is also an equivocation on the meaning of "painful"
("unpleasant" versus the commonly understood meaning). --TA
If we can bring ourselves to momentarily assume (falsely) that plants
feel pain, then we can easily argue that by eliminating animal farming, we reduce the
total pain inflicted on plants, leading to the ironic conclusion that plant pain supports
the AR position. This is discussed in more detail in question #46. --DG
SEE ALSO: #42-#43, #46
#45 But even if
plants don't feel pain, aren't you depriving them of their life? Why isn't that enough to
accord moral status to plants?
The philosophy of
Animal Rights is generally regarded as encompassing only sentient creatures. Plants are
just one of many non-sentient, living creatures. To remain consistent, granting moral
status to plants would lead one to grant it to all life. It may be thought that a
philosophy encompassing all life would be best, but granting moral status to all living
creatures leads to rather implausible views.
For example, concern for life would lead one to oppose the distribution
of spermicides, even to overpopulated Third world countries. The morality of any sexual
intercourse could be questioned as well, since thousands of sperm cells die in each act.
Also, the sheer variety of life forms creates difficulties; for example, arguments have
been made to show that some computer programs--such as computer viruses--may well be
called alive. Should one grant them moral status?
There are questions even in the case of plants. The use of weed-killers
in a garden would need defending. And if killing plants is wrong, why isn't merely
damaging them in some other way also wrong? Is trimming hedgerows wrong?
The problems raised above are not attempts to discourage efforts to
develop an ethics of the environment. They simply point out that according moral status to
all living creatures is fraught with difficulties.
Nevertheless, some people do, indeed, argue that the taking of life
should be minimized where possible; this constitutes a kind of moral status for life.
Interestingly, such a view, far from undermining the AR view, actually supports it. To see
why, refer to question #46. --AECW
SEE ALSO: #46, #59
#46 Isn't it
better to eat animals, because that way you kill the least number of living beings.
There are at least
two problems with this question. First, there is the assumption that killing is the factor
sought to be minimized, but as explained in question #18, killing is not the central
concern of AR; rather, it is pain and suffering, neither of which can be attributed to
Second, the questioner overlooks that livestock must be raised on a
diet of plant foods, so consumption of animals is actually a once-removed consumption of
plants. The twist, of course, is that passing plants through animals is a very inefficient
process; losses of up to 80-90 percent are typical. Thus, it could be argued that, if
one's concern is for killing, per se, then the vegetarian diet is preferable (at least for
today's predominant feedlot paradigm). --DG
SEE ALSO: #18, #28, #45
#47 Nature is a
continuum; doesn't that mean you cannot draw a line, and where you draw yours is no better
than where I draw mine?
Most people will accept that the diversity of Nature is such
that one is effectively faced with a continuum. Charles Darwin was right to state that
differences are of degree, not of kind.
One should take issue, however, with the belief that this means that a
line cannot be drawn for the purpose of granting rights. For example, while there is a
continuum in the use of force, from the gentle nudge of the adoring mother to the hellish
treatment visited upon concentration camp prisoners, clearly, human rights are violated in
one case and not the other. People accept that the ethical buck stops somewhere between
the two extremes.
Similarly, while it is true that the qualities relevant to the
attribution of rights are found to varying extents in members of the animal kingdom, one
is entitled to draw the line somewhere. After all, society does it as well; today, it
draws the line just below humans.
Now, such a line (below humans) cannot be logically defensible, since
some creatures are excluded that possess the relevant qualities to a greater degree than
current rights-holders (for example, a normal adult chimpanzee has a "higher"
mental life than a human in a coma, yet we still protect only the human from medical
experimentation). Therefore, any line that is drawn must allow some nonhuman animals to
qualify as rights-holders.
Moreover, the difficulty of drawing a line does not by itself justify
drawing one at the wrong place. On the contrary, this difficulty means that from an
ethical point of view, the line should be drawn a) carefully, and b) conservatively.
Because the speciesist line held by AR opponents violates moral precepts held as critical
for the viability of any ethical system, and because some mature nonhumans possess morally
relevant characteristics comparable to some human rights-bearers, one must come to the
conclusion that the status quo fails on both counts, and that the arrow of progress points
toward a moral outlook that encompasses nonhuman as well as human creatures.
In addition, it should be noted that when a new line is drawn that is
more in step with ethical truth (something quite easy to do), in no way should one feel
that the wanton destruction of non rights-holders is thereby encouraged. It is desirable
that a moral climate be created that gives due consideration to the interests and welfare
of all creatures, whether they are rights-holders or not. --AECW
The idea that a continuum makes drawing a line impossible or that one
line is therefore no better than another is easily refuted. For example, the alcohol
concentration in the blood is a continuum, but society draws a line at 0.10 percent for
drunk driving, and clearly that is a better line than one drawn at, say, 0.00000001