Ants, Vegetarianism, and Ethics

Two months ago, when ants invaded my kitchen, I reached for the bleach-based cleaner without compunction and massacred them en masse. A hundred died in the first hour of their discovery; a hundred more, at least, in the ongoing battle to convince them to find another food source. I shelled out for poising traps, I sprayed them, I squished them, and the only emotion I felt was ongoing annoyance and frustration that they were seemingly incapable of getting the message to find safer food sources.

Fast forward to the start of June, and the second night of discovering a giant ant in my living room. Where the previous ants were tiny enough that I might not spot lone scouts without careful scanning, these carpenter ants are an inch long. Yes, I measured, while one was trapped under a glass. Because it seems size does matter: I had no qualms about mass extermination of their measured-in-millimeters brethren, but my instinct with these is catch-and-release.

Being a psychologist, of course, I had to understand what subconscious rationale was at play here. Were some of the same cues that lead us to perceive consciousness in robots at play now that individual features of the life form were  distinct? Was I experiencing greater moral disgust at killing because the corpses would no longer be tiny black specks on a paper towel that could just as easily be crumbs? Perhaps I was just flashing back to childhood memories of Honey I Shrunk the Kids and the ant those shrunken kids adopted as a means of transportation.

Although I found several philosophical texts debating our moral obligations to insects, there’s relatively little about the human reaction to insects outside of the narrow realm of spider phobia. In retrospect this shouldn’t be surprising; those of us who go into psychology have an interest in people, while those who have an interest in creepy-crawlies probably go into entomology.

My breakthrough came when my sister heard of my investigation and sought reassurance that she and my three-year-old nephew – who had just that morning demonstrated his excellent learning skills by Lysol-ing ants in the bathroom – were not sociopaths. My automatic response was to point out that she was vegetarian for ethical reasons, and therefore shouldn’t be worried about her attitude to insects. Which sent me to the research on vegetarianism, which is more widely studied –  particularly the paradox to our behavior where many “omnivores” love dogs and cats but cheerfully chow down on pigs and cows.

We know that a curious mental quirk leads people to think that food animals are fundamentally different than other animals. People who were told that the tree kangaroo of Papua New Guinea was eaten by humans – regardless of whether humans actively hunted it or just took advantage of natural deaths – believed that tree kangaroos were 20% less likely to suffer when hurt compared to those who were just told about some tree kangaroo demographics. This is not necessarily emotionally motivated self-justification; it may be much more automatic and unconscious, with descriptions of eating and cooking animals bringing certain ideas (namely, flavor) to the front of our minds, overriding characteristics like “furriness” and “breathing” that might lead us to recognize a potential to feel pain.

What does this mean for my giant ants? Well, we can assume that I have do not see much capacity for suffering in insects. Aside from the tiny ant invaders, I’ve swatted many a mosquito and a handful of flies, and spiders that set up home in my kitchen and bathroom tend to live short lives as well. But in a twist on our difficulty recognizing the living-creature qualities of an animal we think of as food, I may be having a hard time recognizing the carpenter ants as “insects”.

Insects are tiny. Ants, mosquitoes, most house spiders, those annoying varieties of tiny fly that squeeze through a window screen: all are measured in millimeters. This carpenter ant is anything but tiny. It is probably evoking associations with dragonflies, grasshoppers, even small mammals like hamsters – all things I have never deliberately killed and would feel bad about even stepping on accidentally.  These implicit associations are all with things that I would guess do suffer, at least more than the usual tiny ants do, and I can’t bring myself to cause that suffering.

Odds are good that I could talk myself into squishing the carpenter ants by highlighting all the similarities to the previous tiny invaders, the same way that declaring something “food” reduces our perceptions of their suffering. (I could probably try to think of the ant as food animal, in line with recent calls to make insects a dietary staple to solve food problems, but that’s a rabbit hole I’d rather not travel down yet).  But talking myself out of an instinctual response that something else has a life worth preserving just seems wrong. So the carpenter ant will be released.

Perhaps someday I will instead adopt more Buddhist ideals about the value of even the tiny, insidious ants, and no longer aim for mass extermination when they enter my home. Someday far in the future.

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