Insect Suffering as the Biggest Utility Monster

Another difficult counter-intuition for utilitarianism

I recently read an interesting piece by Scott Alexander of Astral Codex Ten. Scott takes a serious look at the ethics of consuming insects. A lot of interesting ideas spring forth in my mind from this post. I previously just thought that it was not likely that bugs experience suffering, so I was not obligated to consider their well-being significantly in my moral system of common sense morality. However, I did not consider insect suffering in a utilitarian framework. I think that this poses an extremely difficult problem for utilitarians because the conclusion is so counter-intuitive.

Scott does not believe that we can be sure that insects feel pain but he believes that they might feel pain. A very reasonable belief.

Less poetically: don’t some insects (though not others) have nociceptors, ie nerve receptors that specialize in feeling pain? Sneddon, Elwood, Adamo, and Leach, in their paper on defining and assessing animal pain, write that "there is evidence that nociceptive information reaches higher learning centres in the insect brain". If you hurt an insect in a particular place, they can eventually learn not to go to that place. Does that mean they feel pain? Here's one paper arguing probably yes; here's anothersaying that "the likelihood that insects experience pain is low". I'm not qualified to resolve this dispute, but there seem to be good scientists on both sides. See also this summary, which quotes entomology professor Vincent Wigglesworth as saying he is “sure” insects can feel pain.

Scott goes on to make an argument related to probability. If you meet an Android that has a 50% probability of experiencing pain, are you morally obligated to avoid harming it. Yes. What about 1% probability of experiencing pain? It seems that there is still a chance of some moral harm. Scott says this doesn’t really add up for bugs until you start farming 10 trillion insects for consumption.

Scott makes three concluding points:

First, people keep trying to say you should eat insects to save the environment / help animals / be vegan. I don't want to do this. That makes it very convenient that it also seems to be potentially morally wrong. Usually moral wrongness prevents me from doing things I want to do, like eat cheeseburgers. When moral wrongness prevents me from doing things I don't want to do, like being guilted into eating mealworms, this is much more fun.

Second, it's good for me to remember that there are people like Brian Tomasik and Vincent Wigglesworth who care a lot about insect suffering and try to prevent it.

Third, it helps me understand and test the cows vs. chickens calculation. In general, animal neuron number scales up slower than animal weight. If the principle holds, then all else being equal you should generally prefer getting the same quantity of meat by eating fewer larger animals (eg one cow) rather than many smaller animals (eg 100 chickens).

The third conclusion is interesting but I think there is something much more significant to take away from this: Bugs are the biggest utility monster even if we aren’t sure they feel pain or how much. We just have to be reasonable in our probabilities and expected utility to arrive at an absurd conclusion. From my comment:

From a quick google, there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 bugs alive at any given time. The number of bugs one human interacts with or could potentially interact with is huge. If bugs have even a very small fraction the capacity for suffering or pleasure that humans have, then it makes me think that utilitarianism's most primary concern by orders of magnitude is how are we going to treat bugs. Perhaps rather than dedicating 50% of our income to saving starving children in the developing world, we should be using 50% of our income to create a farm with hundreds of trillions of happy ants. 

We do not even have to be sure that bugs suffer. We can say that bug suffering is unlikely and that there is only a .01 chance. We could also say that bug suffering only amounts to .01 of human suffering. Of course, there would actually be a probability distribution over potential suffering but consider this simplified version. Multiply these and arrive at .0001. Multiply this number by 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 and arrive at 1,000,000,000,000,000 suffering capacity. If I increase the number of humans on earth for the sake of simplicity to 10 billion, then the “problem of bug suffering” is 100,000 times more important than the problem of human suffering. Raw numbers is only a very rough guide for a measure of moral importance. We would have to evaluate average life quality and other factors as well. I have to be a bit reductionist for clarity’s sake.

A 1% chance of bug suffering and a 1% capacity for suffering seems somewhat reasonable. Obviously, the other 99% would not be 0% suffering. It would look something like a normal distribution about the most reasonable estimate. What would you assign to the probabilities? It seems easy for me to think that it is plausible that bug suffering could be a problem many orders of magnitude larger than human suffering. To not reach the conclusion that bug suffering is more important by an order of magnitude you must use really small probabilities and really small levels of suffering. That seems possible.

However, even if you make bug suffering really small and the chance of it extremely small, you run the risk of being wrong. A true utilitarian would dedicate a significant amount of time to being absolutely sure of this question. Slight errors would mean unimaginable variation in levels of suffering. The difference between bug suffering being .1% or .2% of human suffering could be equivalent to many genocides worth of suffering or the suffering generated from all of slavery throughout human history because there are so many bugs in the world. Perhaps the bug-suffering question is the most important moral question of them all.

If that is the case, then utilitarians should dedicate a great deal of effort to caring for bugs it would seem. We can’t care for all of them but an individual could reasonably affect the lives of trillions. I’m not sure how this would be done. Perhaps, each person could spend their time caring for 10 acres worth of ants and making sure their experience is pleasurable in some way. The “how” is not quite as important as the fact that it should be done.

I think these conclusions are logical from a utilitarian perspective but I think that they are a point against utilitarianism. This conclusion seems very absurd to me. However, the problem simply seems to be the premise that we ought to maximize utility. I do not feel that we should maximize utility and therefore we do not need to dedicate all our time to caring for bugs. Follow your intuitions and consider ethical intuitionism rather than utilitarianism. Too frequently, utilitarians try to find a work around to solve the problem without biting the bullet.

I want to make a final point against pessimism. There could be an unimaginable amount of bug suffering and you could have just learned about the worst fact in the universe. I think it’s plausible that there is more happiness in life for humans, animals and bugs than there is suffering. If that is the case, then you have just learned that there is an unimaginable amount of happiness in this world that is being experienced all around us. What a great thought!