INSECTS AND PLANTS
Question 39: What about insects? Do they
have rights too?
Before considering the issue of rights, let us first address the
question "What about insects?". Strictly speaking, insects are
invertebrate animals of the class Insecta, having an adult stage
characterized by three pairs of legs, a segmented body with three major
divisions, and usually two pairs of wings. We'll adopt the looser
definition, which includes similar invertebrate animals such as spiders,
centipedes, and ticks.
Insects have a ganglionic nervous system, in contrast to the central
nervous system of vertebrates. Such a system is characterized by local
aggregates of neurons, called ganglia, that are associated with, and
specialized for, the body segment with which they are co-located. There
are interconnections between ganglia but these connections function not
much as a global integrating pathway, but rather for local segmental
coordination. For example, the waves of leg motion that propagate along
the body of a centipede are mediated by the intersegmental connections.
In some species the cephalic ganglia are large and complex enough to
support very complex behavior (e.g., the lobster and octopus). The
cuttlefish (not an insect but another invertebrate with a ganglionic
nervous system) is claimed by some to be about as intelligent as a dog.
Insects are capable of primitive learning and do exhibit what many would
characterize as intelligence. Spiders are known for their skills and
craftiness; whether this can all be dismissed as instinct is arguable.
Certainly, bees can learn in a limited way. When offered a reward from
perch of a certain color, they return first to perches of that color. They
also learn the location of food and transmit that information to their
colleagues. The learning, however, tends to be highly specialized and
applicable to only limited domains.
In addition to a primitive mental life as described above, there is
evidence that insects can experience pain and suffering. The earthworm
nervous system, for example, secretes an opiate substance when the
earthworm is injured. Similar responses are seen in vertebrates and are
generally accepted to be a mechanism for the attenuation of pain. On the
other hand, the opiates are also implicated in functions not associated
with analgesia, such as thermoregulation and appetite control. Nevertheless,
the association of secretion with tissue injury is highly suggestive.
Earthworms also wriggle quite vigorously when impaled on a hook. In
possible opposition to this are other observations. For example, the
abdomen of a feeding wasp can be clipped off and the head may go on
sucking (presumably in no distress?).
Singer quotes three criteria for deciding if an organism has the
capacity to suffer from pain: 1) there are behavioral indications, 2)
there is an appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary
usefulness for the experience of pain. These criteria seem to satisfied
for insects, if only in a primitive way.
Now we are equipped to tackle the issue of insect rights. First, one
might argue that the issue is not so compelling as for other animals
because industries are not built around the exploitation of insects. But
this is untrue; large industries are built around honey production, silk
production, and cochineal/carmine production, and, of course, mass insect
death results from our use of insecticides. Even if the argument were
true, it should not prevent us from attempting to be consistent in the
application of our principles to all animals. Insects are a part of the
Animal Kingdom and some special arguments would be required to exclude
them from the general AR argument.
Some would draw a line at some level of complexity of the nervous
system, e.g., only animals capable of operant conditioning need be
enfranchised. Others may quarrel with this line and place it elsewhere.
Some may postulate a scale of life with an ascending capacity to feel pain
and suffer. They might also mark a cut-off on the scale, below which
rights are not actively asserted. Is the cut-off above insects and the
lower invertebrates? Or should there be no cut-off? This is one of the
issues still being actively debated in the AR community.
People who strive to live without cruelty will attempt to push the line
back as far as possible, giving the benefit of the doubt where there is
doubt. Certainly, one can avoid unnecessary cruelty to insects.
The practical issues involved in enfranchising insects are dealt with in
the following two questions.
I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings
called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with
such things as crawl upon earth.
Mahatma Gandhi (statesman and philosopher)
What is it that should trace the insuperable line? ...The question
is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Jeremy Bentham (philosopher)
see also question 22, 40-41, 47
Question 40: Do I have to be careful not
to walk on ants?
The Jains of India would say yes! Some of their more devout members
wear gauze masks to avoid inhaling and killing small insects and
microbes. Regardless of how careful we are, we will cause some suffering
side-effect of living. The goal is to avoid unnecessary suffering and
to minimize the suffering we cause. This is a far cry from wanton,
intentional infliction of cruelty. I refer here to the habit of some of
pulling off insects' wings for fun, or of torching a congregation of ants
This question is an issue for the individual conscience to decide. Perhaps
one need not walk around looking out for ants on the ground, but should
be seen and it is easy to alter one's stride to avoid it, where is the
in doing so?
see also question 39, 41
Question 41: There is some evidence of consciousness
in insects; aren't you descending to absurdity to tell people not to kill
Enfranchising insects does not mean it is never justifiable to
them. As with all threats to a being, the rule of self-defense applies.
If insects are threatening one's well-being in a nontrivial way, AR
philosophy would not assert that it is wrong to eliminate them.
Pesticides and herbicides are often used for mass destruction of insect
populations. While this might be defended on the self-defense principle,
one should be aware of the significant adverse impact on the environment,
on other non-threatening animals, and indeed on our own health. (Refer
question #59 for more on the use of insecticides.)
It is not absurd to attempt to minimize the amount of suffering that
we inflict or cause.
We should begin to feel for the flies and other insects struggling
be free from sticky fly paper. There are humane alternatives.
Michael W. Fox (Vice President of HSUS)
see also question 39-40, 59
Question 42: Isn't it hypocritical to kill
and eat plants?
It would be hypocritical IF the same criteria or morally relevant
attributes that are used to justify animal rights also applied to
plants. The criteria cited by the AR movement are "pain and suffering"
and being "subjects-of-a-life". An assessment of how plants measure
to these criteria leads to the following conclusions.
First, our best science to date shows that plants lack any semblance
of a central nervous system or any other system design for such complex
capacities as that of conscious suffering from felt pain.
Second, plants simply have no evolutionary need to feel pain. Animals
being mobile would benefit from the ability to sense pain; plants would
not. Nature does not gratuitously create such complex capacities as that
of feeling pain unless there is some benefit for the organism's
The first point is dealt with in more detail in questions #43 and #44.
The general hypocrisy argument is discussed in question #4.
see also question 4, 39-44
Question 43: But how can you prove that
plants don't feel pain?
Lest we forget the ultimate point of what follows, let us not forget
central thesis of AR. Simply stated: to the extent other animals share
with us certain morally relevant attributes, then to that extent we confer
upon them due regard and concern. The two attributes that are arguably
relevant are: a) our capacity for pain and suffering, and b) the capacity
for being the "subject-of-a-life", i.e., being such that it matters
whether one's life fares well or ill.
Both of these qualities require the existence of mental states. Also
note that in order to speak of "mental states" proper, we would
common usage would dictate, that such states are marked by consciousness.
It is insufficient to mark off mental states by only the apparent presence
of purposefulness or intentionality since, as we shall see below, many
material objects possess purposeful-looking behaviors.
So then, how do we properly attribute the existence of mental states
other animals, or even to ourselves for that matter? We cannot infer the
presence of felt pain simply by the presence of a class of behaviors that
are functional for an organism's amelioration or avoidance of noxious
stimuli. Thermostats obviously react to thermal changes in the environment
and respond in a functionally appropriate manner to restore an initial
"preferred" state. We would be foolish, however, to attribute
thermostats a capability to "sense" or "feel" some
kind of thermal "pain".
Even placing quotes around our terms doesn't protect us from absurdity.
Clearly, the behavioral criterion of even functional avoidance/defense
reactions is simply not sufficient nor even necessary for the proper
attribution of pain as a felt mental state.
Science, including the biological sciences, are committed to the working
assumption of scientific materialism or physicalism (see "The Metaphysical
Foundations of Modern Science", E. A. Burtt, 1924). We must then start
with the generally accepted scientific assumption that matter is the only
existent or real primordial constituent of the universe.
Let it be said at the outset that scientific materialism as such does
not preclude the existence of emergent or functional qualities like that
of mind, consciousness, and feeling (or even, dare I say it, free will),
but all such qualities are dependent upon the existence of organized
matter. If there is no hardware, there is nothing for the software to run
on. If there is no intact, living brain, there is no mind. It should also
be said that even contemporary versions of dualism or mind-stuff theories
will also make embodiment of mental states dependent on the presence of
sufficiently organized matter.
To briefly state the case, cognitive functions like consciousness and
mind are seen as emergent properties of sufficiently organized matter.
Just as breathing is a function of a complex system of organs referred
as the respiratory system, so too is consciousness a function of the
immensely complex information-processing capabilities of a central nervous
system. It is possible, in theory, that future computers, given a
sufficiently complex and orderly organization of hardware and clever
software, could exhibit the requisite emergent qualities. While such
computers do not exist, we DO know that certain living organisms on this
planet possess the requisite complexity of specialized and highly
organized structure for the emergence of mental states.
In theory, plants could possess a mental state like pain, but if, and
only if, there were a requisite complexity of organized plant tissue that
could serve to instantiate the higher order mental states of consciousness
and felt pain.
There is no morphological evidence that such a complexity of tissue
exists in plants. Plants lack the specialized structures required for
emergence of mental states. This is not to say that they cannot exhibit
complex reactions, but we are simply over-interpreting such reactions if
we designate them as "felt pain".
With respect to all mammals, birds, and reptiles, we know that they
possess a sufficiently complex neural structure to enable felt pain plus
an evolutionary need for such consciously felt states. They possess
complex and specialized sense organs, they possess complex and specialized
structures for processing information and for centrally orchestrating
appropriate behaviors in accordance with mental representations,
integrations, and reorganizations of that information. The proper
attribution of felt pain in these animals is well justified. It is not
plants, by any stretch of the imagination.
The absurdity (and often disingenuity) of the plant-pain promoters
easily exposed by asking them the following two questions:
1) Do you agree that animals like dogs and cats should receive
pain-killing drugs prior to surgery?
2) Do you believe that plants should receive pain-killing drugs
prior to pruning?
see also question 42, 44
Question 44: Aren't there studies that show
that plants can scream, etc.?
How can something without vocal apparatus scream? Perhaps the questioner
intends to suggest that plants somehow express feelings or emotions. This
notion is popularized in the book "The Secret Life of Plants",
and Bird, 1972. The book describes "experiments" in which plants
claimed to respond to injury and even to the thoughts and emotions of
nearby humans. The responses consist of changes in the electrical
conductivity of their leaves. The truth is, however, that nothing but a
dismal failure has resulted from attempts to replicate these experiments.
For some definitive reviews, see Science, 1975, 189:478 and The Skeptical
Inquirer, 1978, 2(2):57.
But what about plant responses to insect invasion? Does this suggest
that plants "feel" pain? No published book or paper in a scientific
journal has been cited as indeed making this claim that "plants feel
pain". There is interesting data suggesting that plants react to local
tissue damage and even emit signaling molecules serving to stimulate
chemical defenses of nearby plants. But how is this relevant to the claim
that plants feel and suffer from pain? Where are the replicated
experiments and peer-reviewed citations for this putative fact? There are
Let us, for the sake of argument, consider the form of logic employed
the plant-pain promoters:
premise 1: Plants are responsive to "sense" impressions.
premise 2: As defined in the dictionary, anything
responsive to sense impressions is sentient.
conclusion 1: Plants are sentient.
premise 3: Sentient beings are conscious of sense impressions.
conclusion 2: Plants are conscious of sense impressions.
premise 4: To be conscious of a noxious stimuli is unpleasant.
conclusion 3: Noxious stimuli to plants are unpleasant, i.e., painful.
There is a major logical sleight-of-hand here. The meaning of the term
"sentient" changes between premise 2 ("responsive to sense
and premise 3 ("conscious of sense impressions"). Thus, equivocation
the usage of "sentient" is used to bootleg the false conclusion
is also an equivocation on the meaning of "painful" ("unpleasant"
the commonly understood meaning).
If we can bring ourselves to momentarily assume (falsely) that plants
feel pain, then we can easily argue that by eliminating animal farming,
we reduce the total pain inflicted on plants, leading to the ironic
conclusion that plant pain supports the AR position. This is discussed
in more detail in question #46.
see also question 42-43, 46
Question 45: But even if plants don't feel
pain, aren't you depriving them of their life? Why isn't that enough to
accord moral status to plants?
The philosophy of Animal Rights is generally regarded as encompassing
only sentient creatures. Plants are just one of many non-sentient, living
creatures. To remain consistent, granting moral status to plants would
lead one to grant it to all life. It may be thought that a philosophy
encompassing all life would be best, but granting moral status to all
living creatures leads to rather implausible views.
For example, concern for life would lead one to oppose the distribution
of spermicides, even to overpopulated Third world countries. The morality
of any sexual intercourse could be questioned as well, since thousands
sperm cells die in each act. Also, the sheer variety of life forms creates
difficulties; for example, arguments have been made to show that some
computer programs--such as computer viruses--may well be called alive.
Should one grant them moral status?
There are questions even in the case of plants. The use of weed-killers
in a garden would need defending. And if killing plants is wrong, why
isn't merely damaging them in some other way also wrong? Is trimming
The problems raised above are not attempts to discourage efforts to
develop an ethics of the environment. They simply point out that according
moral status to all living creatures is fraught with difficulties.
Nevertheless, some people do, indeed, argue that the taking of life
should be minimized where possible; this constitutes a kind of moral
status for life. Interestingly, such a view, far from undermining the AR
view, actually supports it. To see why, refer to question #46.
see also question 46, 59
Question 46: Isn't it better to eat animals,
because that way you kill the least number of living beings.
There are at least two problems with this question. First, there
assumption that killing is the factor sought to be minimized, but as
explained in question #18, killing is not the central concern of AR; rather,
it is pain and suffering, neither of which can be attributed to plants.
Second, the questioner overlooks that livestock must be raised on a
of plant foods, so consumption of animals is actually a once-removed
consumption of plants. The twist, of course, is that passing plants through
animals is a very inefficient process; losses of up to 80-90 percent are
typical. Thus, it could be argued that, if one's concern is for killing,
per se, then the vegetarian diet is preferable (at least for today's
predominant feedlot paradigm).
see also question 18, 28, 45
Question 47: Nature is a continuum; doesn't
that mean you cannot draw a line, and where you draw yours is no better
than where I draw mine?
Most people will accept that the diversity of Nature is such that
effectively faced with a continuum. Charles Darwin was right to state that
differences are of degree, not of kind.
One should take issue, however, with the belief that this means that
line cannot be drawn for the purpose of granting rights. For example,
while there is a continuum in the use of force, from the gentle nudge of
the adoring mother to the hellish treatment visited upon concentration
camp prisoners, clearly, human rights are violated in one case and not
other. People accept that the ethical buck stops somewhere between the
Similarly, while it is true that the qualities relevant to the
attribution of rights are found to varying extents in members of the
animal kingdom, one is entitled to draw the line somewhere. After all,
society does it as well; today, it draws the line just below humans.
Now, such a line (below humans) cannot be logically defensible, since
some creatures are excluded that possess the relevant qualities to a
greater degree than current rights-holders (for example, a normal adult
chimpanzee has a "higher" mental life than a human in a coma,
yet we still
protect only the human from medical experimentation). Therefore, any line
that is drawn must allow some nonhuman animals to qualify as
Moreover, the difficulty of drawing a line does not by itself justify
drawing one at the wrong place. On the contrary, this difficulty means
that from an ethical point of view, the line should be drawn a) carefully,
and b) conservatively. Because the speciesist line held by AR opponents
violates moral precepts held as critical for the viability of any ethical
system, and because some mature nonhumans possess morally relevant
characteristics comparable to some human rights-bearers, one must come
the conclusion that the status quo fails on both counts, and that the
arrow of progress points toward a moral outlook that encompasses nonhuman
as well as human creatures.
In addition, it should be noted that when a new line is drawn that is
more in step with ethical truth (something quite easy to do), in no way
should one feel that the wanton destruction of non rights-holders is
thereby encouraged. It is desirable that a moral climate be created that
gives due consideration to the interests and welfare of all creatures,
whether they are rights-holders or not.
The idea that a continuum makes drawing a line impossible or that one
line is therefore no better than another is easily refuted. For example,
the alcohol concentration in the blood is a continuum, but society draws
a line at 0.10 percent for drunk driving, and clearly that is a better
line than one drawn at, say, 0.00000001 percent.
see also question 22, 39-41