June 11, 2021 - 7:00am

“I will not eat the bugs!” has become an online Right cri de coeur — a howl of defiance against those who say that we should consume insect protein to save the planet.  

The argument is that farming creepy-crawlies for food is better for the environment than farming conventional livestock. The counter-argument is that eating bugs is beneath our dignity — and that we must resist those who’d try to impose their weird technological ‘solutions’ on our way of life.

In a deeply thought-provoking post, Scott Alexander offers a different argument against eating the bugs: not that it is dehumanising to us, but that it is inhumane to them.

So, if we care about animal welfare, then don’t insects deserve our compassion too? 

Alexander is far from certain that bugs are capable of suffering, but argues that if it’s a significant possibility we ought to err on the side of caution: 

…even if there’s only a 50-50 chance insects have moral value, or a 1% chance, [it] still seems like you should avoid factory-farming and killing ten trillion of them, which is about how many we currently farm…
- Scott Alexander, Astralcodexten

But how do we even start to estimate these probabilities? What would be a rational method of doing so? Alexander talks about the number of neurons in different animal brains; but as we have no idea how (or even whether) the brain produces self-awareness, this only gets us so far.

In theory, the self-awareness — or otherwise — of every living thing is open to question. Indeed, some philosophers seriously argue that consciousness is a basic property of all matter. Certainly there’s no way of absolutely proving that plants, for example, are definitely not conscious or that other human beings definitely are. 

Ultimately, individuals and societies are guided by a deep moral intuition about these matters. We believe that plants are not conscious and thus have no hesitation in chopping up a cucumber; and we believe — as the very foundation of our ethical systems — that other people are every bit as self-aware as our own selves. These gut instincts may not be infallible, but they do have their place.

So in respect to the insect question, ask yourself this: how would you feel if you happened upon someone you know and love pulling the legs off a fly? If they were a child, would you teach them not to? If they were an adult would you think less of them? I think that most of you probably would — and that tells us that the life of an insect has at least some moral relevance.

Of course, such judgements owe more to the heart than the head, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.