by Peter Franklin
Friday, 11
June 2021

Would you pull the legs off a fly?

The debate over insect protein as a substitute for meat has taken a surprising turn
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

“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. 

Join the discussion

  • If pulling the legs off a fly is part of a method in a recipe to prepare a delicious (or just nutritious) fly-based dish that someone else or I intended to eat I’m fine with that and wouldn’t think any less of myself or the chef. If pulling the legs off a fly is done simply for some kind of weird self-gratification (something like sadism) I would think less of the adult doing it.

  • I think what’s going on here is that there’s a serious discrepancy between how rural and urban people see animals.
    In the countryside there are really only three classes of animal: working, livestock, and vermin.
    Working animals are too valuable to eat. Dogs guard the house, the flock and the coop and keep down vermin; cats keep down vermin; the horse is a noble animal that you can ride or work. We don’t eat dogs, cats or horses, because they occupy a niche above livestock in our lives.
    Livestock is any animal that’s fit to eat. Vermin is the rest: any animal that’s unfit to eat (or only at undue trouble, eg rabbits can be eaten but are a hassle to farm), and that is hence a pest. In Africa, elephants are vermin.
    In the town, animal taxonomy is utterly different. Essentially, it’s simply whether or not the animal is cute or not. If an animal’s cute you can kill it to eat it, but not otherwise. If it’s not you can treat it as you wish.
    Thus townies oppose fox-hunting and badger-baiting because they think foxes and badgers are cute, and furs because they think mink are cute. But they are happy for any cruel pest control method to be used on rats or cockroaches, because they’re horrible. Calves, lambs and deer are cute too, but you can eat those, so it’s OK to kill them. You can eat pigs and tuna, because they’re ugly, but you can’t eat dolphins or whales, because those are cute.
    Insects don’t fit into this model at all but whether the townie-veggie complex is in favour of eating them or opposed, we can be sure they haven’t thought about it properly.

  • The moral chaos which opens up once human exceptionalism is denied is on show in this ludicrous concern for insects. In the first place, if any life form is close to a Cartesian machine it is a fly – or a wasp, or any such entity. In the second, they form the diet of a vast array of other creatures. Are the vegan wets going to slap court orders on bats and pigeons for chomping bugs? If not, why prevent humans from doing the same? If insects are valuable – all billion billion of them – then no expense should be spared in preventing their violent deaths at the hands – or the beaks – of these wicked predators, surely? One would hope that the sheer caricature offered in that question would have an effect, but once the audience has lost its sense of humour, who knows? Upper middle class society appears to be too coddled and spineless to compromise with reality itself.

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