Do ethics change with the number of legs?

Ever alert to interesting ideas whose precepts I can at least come close to understanding, I have been wondering about insects -again. Not so much the idea of insects or their tendency to annoy, but more the ethics of their treatment: our seeming disregard of any consideration of their welfare in our dealings with them.

Even as a child I always enjoyed reading -it was like swimming in a world I never knew existed. At some stage, I also plunged into different  religions, much to the chagrin of my Baptist father: Grade 2 in Riverview Public School in the Winnipeg of the early ‘50ies, was hardly a hotbed of disparate ideologies, but I think he worried that I was being led astray. My mother thought it was just a phase I was going through, however, and calmed him down by leaving opened Bibles on tables around the house. I calmed both of them down by cleverly changing the opened pages -sort of like a fish nibbling the bait on a hook. 

But, having discovered that there were many more religions than one to choose from, I began to crave the sudden surfeit of flavours I saw were available. One of my early favourites, I think, was Jainism. Jain -I loved the name, I remember -my first girlfriend in Grade 2 was named Jane- but apart from it being an ancient religion from India, what also fascinated me was a picture I saw of an old man in some sort of a dress sweeping the path ahead of an even older man following behind him.

“They don’t want to step on any insects,” a patient, but concerned teacher explained when I showed her the picture in a book I’d brought to school.

I suppose I must have looked puzzled: this was Winnipeg; this was the prairies; we stepped on ants and beetles for fun, for goodness sakes.

“They’re concerned they might be stepping on an ancestor,” she added, looking more troubled than ever at having to say such a thing to an obviously impressionable child. She decided not to mention anything about rebirth, and nothing involving other strange words like Samsara, or Karma, but that was just as well -it was mainly the name that intrigued me. Jainism wouldn’t have made much sense at the time, no matter how she’d dressed it up, but nevertheless, it did make me wonder about the value of insects and whether we’d better be kind to them -or else…

And there, any serious consideration of the ethics of our treatment of animals with more than four legs (more than two legs, actually) rested for me -until I had sufficient leisure time to consider stuff other than sex, food, and money: Retirement, in other words. But with the profligately increased time to read, and for some Jungian reason, stumbling across an article on the ethical treatment of insects, memories of the shock of that childhood discovery flooded back to me. I remembered something that had happened around that time so long ago on a hot, boring morning in my backyard. My father had made me a wooden sword and I was practicing killing things like flowers and blades of grass, when a butterfly fluttered past me and landed on a flower I was about to kill. Never one to waste an opportunity, I thought I’d go for it as well -but I suppose my aim was off (I was just learning swordsmanship) and I merely injured the butterfly; it flopped onto the ground only able to move one of its wings, and I was horrified at what I’d done. I lifted it up by its good wing and ran into the house with it, crying.

My mother was on the couch in the living room knitting, or something and she immediately invited me to sit with her.

I handed the still fluttering butterfly to her with tears in my eyes. I was speechless with grief and started sobbing. I remember she looked at the butterfly and its desperate struggles, then put her arm around me.

“Butterflies are not like us, G,” she said, looking almost as sad as me about it. “I don’t think we can fix its wing…” She hugged me tightly as she spoke.

“But…” -I don’t think I fully realized what she was suggesting- “Couldn’t I just put it back on the flower, and…”

She wiped a tear off my cheek and sighed. “Well, I suppose we could do that, but it won’t be able to fly anymore…” She stared at me with sad doe-eyes. “So it wouldn’t be able to do butterfly-things, G… And that means it might suffer,” she added softly.

I looked up at her, full of remorse. “So what would happen to it if we just left it on the flower?” I think I was bargaining with her.

She shrugged, gently, and kissed my forehead. “It would probably either fall off the flower and die in the grass. Or something like a bird would come along and eat it.”

We both decided it would be best to squash it outside and bury it near the flower. I decided not to mention that it might be a relative of ours, and anyway, I figured it would be happier near its flower. And after she went inside to make me lunch, I said a few words over the grave.

At any rate, the article that reignited  those memories was an essay by Jeff Sebo from New York University entitled ‘Don’t farm bugs’. https://aeon.co/essays/on-the-torment-of-insect-minds-and-our-moral-duty-not-to-farm-them

I have to admit that the idea of farmed as opposed to free-range bugs had not crossed my mind either, but the ethical subject of the essay was suggested by its URL, or whatever you call its address on the web. At any rate, the issue of whether or not to consider insects as possessing enough qualities for ethical treatment would seem to be a thorny one for most of us. Even to extend the courtesy to animals is often problematic -especially for the non-cuddly, hardly-snuggly variety (although I must confess to contributing to the problem in an essay I wrote back on March 17/21: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2021/03/17/look-the-other-way-please/)

But insects? Sebo talks about some of the neurological similarities we share with insects, and the possibility of their consciousness. Their sentience. I mean, how much sentience do we require in an organism to afford it the protection of ethics -language, culture, or maybe a moral system amongst themselves? And, of course, if we ever did offer them an ethical shield, what would we do with a plague of locusts destroying our crops, or an infestation of spruce bud-worms killing our forests? Then again, what would we do with a human hoard of enemy soldiers attacking our towns…? Of course, ethics -like insurance policies- no doubt has escape clauses in it for just such exigencies.

Still, as Sebo points out: ‘Our character is shaped by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. If we harm insects merely because they are different than us, smaller than us or weaker than us, then that reveals a defect in our character that might be influencing our treatment of other humans and nonhumans too. In contrast, if we aspire to treat insects with respect and compassion, then we can cultivate virtuous character traits and perhaps improve our treatment of other vulnerable individuals as well. Ultimately, of course, we should treat insects better than we do because we owe it to them.’ As E.O. Wilson, the famous biologist from Harvard once wrote, ‘If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’

I suppose it’s a delicate balance, though. As a vulnerable Elder myself, I’d like to think I actually try to use the Golden Rule on insects and consider how I’d like to be treated: I’d like to think that I worry what my great great grandfather, or whoever, would think of being swatted out of existence. But then, annoyed that he’s walking on my toast,  I go ahead and do it.

Come on, at least I think about it, eh?

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