by Peter Franklin
Friday, 11
June 2021
Debate
07:00

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. 

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Peter LR
Peter LR
11 months ago

This kind of question would be answered so much more easily if we all had to provide our own families with food: if you want bread you grow wheat; if you want meat you kill an animal. We can luxuriate in our feelings as we have access to too much food and choice of food without any effort on our part. I’ve killed and dressed animals for food; it doesn’t have to involve cruelty if one has respect for our place in the balance of nature. In fact I respect this balance enough to have a conscience about wasting food; especially meat which has cost an animal its life.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago

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.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

But Simon – what if contemplating the misery that animals and chickens live IS REALITY ITSELF -what does that say about you ?? Could it be that you are too coddled and spineless to consider that you may be arrogantly perpetrating/enabling misery on a grand scale because you are too lazy or arrogant to check it out before making such silly statements. Check out “DOMINION” so you can at least comment with a modicum of integrity…….

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago

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.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jon Redman
Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Disney classics like Bambi taught hundreds of millions that deer are people too, leading to restrictions of hunting (and thus eating) deer -of course having no natural predators in populated areas this sentenced many of these differently hooved people to death by car. All the insect lovers need is a popular Disney movie where the hero insect dies saving his friends from an insect food farm and PETI will be a household name.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Further to ‘thinking about things properly’ – who decided that ‘its OK to kill them” – we borrow pig’s organs to use as our own cos their organs and nervous systems are so similar to our own – it seems that you have not actually ‘thought about this properly’ and are merely just another one of the ‘unthinking masses’. Or have I missed some subtle but revealing sign of your powers of critical thinking ??

Kristof K
Kristof K
11 months ago

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.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Kristof K

Quite so. But if the sadist in question confined himself to flies and never progressed to more sentient creatures then there is not much of a problem, surely?

Kristof K
Kristof K
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Quite so, though, it might be the “thin end of the wedge?”

And I would really be stumped if I got to know that the chef also enjoyed preparing this recipe because he got a sadistic kick out of fly-limb-amputation.  On the whole I think I would still return to the restaurant if caramelised sky-whitebate sans jambes were a pleasure to scoff down, though.

Kristof K
Kristof K
11 months ago
Reply to  Kristof K

Hmmm, I of course meant “caramelised sky-whitebait sans jambes”

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago
Reply to  Kristof K

Indeed – pulling the legs off a fly is a sort of Twitter pile-on that one person can do alone.

Kristof K
Kristof K
11 months ago

When you said “neutrons” did you mean “neurons?” Or did Mr Alexander make the same mistake?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
11 months ago
Reply to  Kristof K

Well done. I bet many would not have noticed that one.

James Billot
James Billot
11 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Correct! Thanks for flagging, Kristof.

Saul D
Saul D
11 months ago

The only observable principle of the universe is that we are all food for something else.
And while prawns and crustacea aren’t too far off insects, having swallowed a fair few flies while cycling, I’m not sure they’re the best food available.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Locusts are sold in Thailand as “sky prawns”…

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
11 months ago

How do we know that plants don’t feel anything when they are uprooted?
I tried to make a lawn over a patch of bluebells and the latter kept coming up through the grass. They clearly objected to being shut away from the light. When we discuss Natural Selection and explain why our brains have developed over the centuries we don’t seem to realise that other species have also developed bigger brains to help them to survive. Prince Charles is an expert on this – he encourages plants to grow by talking nicely to them.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
11 months ago

Whilst it’s a reasonable position to seek to minimise suffering, I don’t believe the ability to suffer is what gives life value.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
11 months ago

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
Shakespeare, King Lear

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago

we murder millions of animals and birds every day for food so why the fuss about insects-should we not feel for the animals first – or are they somehow irrelevant as well as powerless ??

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago

True – why kill anything that is not actually attacking you ???? good case for killing mosquitoes , but really what else ….

John Simpson
John Simpson
11 months ago

Insects form the bottom of the food chain. Humans are a top predator. We have already done immense damage to the top end of the food chain. If we start chomping our way through the bottom of the food chain, like antarctic krill for instance, I fear we will complete distruction of the environment as we know it.

ralph bell
ralph bell
11 months ago

I thought the main basis for insect farming was less damage to the environment and a reduction in CO2 emissions from animal digestion. Plant based protein manufacture may offer the best way forward against animal food production.
I agree with the author that abuse of insects during food production is no better than with livestock and should be outlawed.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
11 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Do insects have civic institutions, literature, familial relationships, anything like that? Or are they just six-legged versions of Robbie Williams – a noisy and dim nuisance that exists to copulate?

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
11 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

The author didn’t say that, he just noted that we can’t prove our suppositions.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

There is no need for any creatures to be abused – there is plenty of plant food around and often quite tasty ! – and yes it would result in a big reduction to environmental damage. And whats with the down thumbing of Ralph’s comment ?? I live in hope that I will find open minded intelligence on UNHERD not some blinkered view of Reality with a capital R……………………..