Dr. Kohen, long-time reader, first-time writer here. I'd like to get your insight on an ethical dilemma I'm facing: Yesterday I was walking around my backyard and discovered a giant ant colony, the largest I've ever seen! I don't like ants and don't want them getting in to my house or biting my outdoor cat; yet, I'm struggling with the decision to kill them en masse. I would never kill a flock of sheep, am I wrong to kill a massive colony of ants? Thank you, kindly. -LouisAnonymous
Don’t kill the ants, Louis.
They’re not hurting you and “to kill them en masse” because they might present some trouble to you or to your cat in the future doesn’t seem like a particularly strong ethical justification.
If it helps, here’s a snippet from an interview with Peter Singer in which he talks about dealing with ants:
QUESTION: It’s easy for me to connect with animals and fowl—I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat chickens. However, I do eat fish, and I do step on ants if I find them. Is there some difference in all of this? How would you differentiate a crawling insect from a fish, from human beings?
PETER SINGER: Well, it’s not a matter of whether it crawls or not, of course. After all, I’ve had grandchildren who crawl [laughter]—but it is a matter of what kind of nervous system they have, and where it becomes a reasonable inference to believe that they can feel pain.
I do think that it’s reasonable to believe that all vertebrates can feel pain. So, I’m sorry, that leaves fish out of my menu; I don’t eat them. On the other hand, if you get down to oysters or clams, with much more rudimentary nervous systems, I think they probably can’t feel pain, so I wouldn’t really have a problem with eating them.
QUESTIONER: So the consideratum is pain?
PETER SINGER: The consideratum is essentially really I’m trying to say: Are they conscious beings; do they have subjective experiences of any kind? I would take it that the minimal subjective experience would be a capacity to feel pain.
With insects I’m somewhat more agnostic because their nervous systems are, again, quite different, more complicated perhaps than that of an oyster; and they’re certainly more mobile, but also a little more rigid, one could almost say robotic. So it’s not clear to me whether they do feel pain.
If you need to get ants out of your house—well, I certainly do that myself too, but I wouldn’t gratuitously step on them if I didn’t need to.
In other words, ants are certainly different from sheep, especially insofar as they likely don’t feel pain … but that doesn’t mean we ought to destroy them needlessly.
Of course, there also might be other considerations, apart from the ability of the target to feel pain, that we could use to help us make choices about destroying other living beings that don’t pose an immediate threat.
I say, don’t disturb them and they probably won’t disturb you.
That said, if they grow to an unusual size or become obviously malevolent toward you, I reserve the right to revise the above.
- randycwhite said: Wait until you have fire ants in Nebraska…
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- missmanners62 said: So, pain and malice are the criteria. I will make a note of that. P.S. this made me laugh so, so hard…
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- squashed said: Ugh, what’s with liberals and appeasement? Did Hitler stop with Poland? No. Why would the ants be content with just the back yard. What are you going to tell Louis when the myrmeco-fascists strip his cat to the bone?
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