(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

I. The ants

Recently, my housemates and I started seeing a lot of ants in the house. They marched in long lines along the edges of the basement and the bathrooms. A few showed up in the drawers. My girlfriend put out some red pepper, which was supposed to deter them from one of their routes, but they cut a line straight through.

We thought maybe they were sheltering from the rain, which had become more frequent. We had had ants before; we’d talked, then, about whether to do something about it; but we hadn’t, and eventually they disappeared. We thought maybe this would happen again.

It didn’t. Over weeks, the problem got worse. There were hundreds of ants in the upstairs bathroom. They started to show up much more in the kitchen. We threw out various things, sealed various things. They showed up in beds. Kitchen drawers were now ant territory.

We talked about what to do. We were reluctant to kill them, which was part of why we had waited. But a number of people in the house felt that the situation was getting out of hand, and that we were on track for something much harder to control. I thought of a house I had stayed at, where the ants swarmed over the coffee maker every morning, and efforts (I’m not sure how extreme) to get rid of them had failed.

The most effective killing method is to poison the colony as a whole. The ants are lured into a sugary liquid that also contains borax, which is poisonous for ants, but relatively safe for humans. They then track the poison back to the colony. We talked about how bad this would be for the ants — and in particular, the fact that the poison is slow-acting. Crushing them directly, we thought, might be more humane; though it would also be more time-consuming, and less likely to solve the problem.

Eventually, though without resolving all disagreements amongst housemates, we put out the poison baits (my girlfriend also tried cloves, coffee grounds, and lemon juice around that time, as well as luring the ants to some peanut butter and honey outside, away from the house). The ants in the kitchen disappeared. There are still a few in the upstairs bathroom; and inside the clear plastic baits, you can see ant bodies, in the syrup.

II. Owning it

At one point, on the topic of the ants, I said, in passing, something like: “may we be forgiven.” My girlfriend responded seriously, saying something like: “We won’t be. There’s no forgiveness.”

Something about her response made me realize that the choice to kill the ants had had, for me, a quality of unreality. I had exerted some limited advocacy, in the direction of some hazy set of norms, but with no real sense of responsibility for what I was doing. There was something performative and disengaged about it — a type of disengagement in which one, for example, “feels bad” about killing the ants — and the question of whether we were doing the “right thing” was part of that. I was looking at the concepts. I was hoping for some kind of conformity, some kind of “pass” from the moral “authorities.” But I wasn’t looking down my arm, at the world I was creating, and the ants that were dying as a result. I wasn’t owning it.

Regardless of whether our choice was right or wrong (I’m still not sure), we chose for these ants to die. We killed them. What we got, when we chose, was not a “good job” or “bad job” from the universe: what we got was this world, and not another. And this world was right there, in front of me, whether we should be “forgiven” or no.

Not owning the choice was made easier, I think, by the fact that the death of the ants would mostly occur offscreen; outside of my “zone”, and not, directly, by my own hand. Indeed, I had declined to crush the ants myself, and I hadn’t been the one to put out the baits, or to push for getting them. I’d said OK to a plan; the baits went out; the problem disappeared. It would have been very possible to let the incident leave barely a trace on my mind. It happened at the edges of my awareness. In a sense, I barely noticed.

There is some sort of virtue in the vein of: “if you kill something, look it in the eyes as you do.” (This is related to a virtue prized by someone I know, but which he characterizes as “looking your enemies in the eyes as you kill them.” I much prefer my version, though, which doesn’t assume that you’re killing things, or that they’re understood as “enemies.”) If we harm some creature for the sake of something else we value, or if we risk doing such harm (and we are basically always risking harm — see MacAskill and Mogensen (unpublished) for some discussion), or if we choose our own goals and values and beliefs over those of another, we should own that we are doing it.

It’s easy to push the harm we do, or that we risk, outside of our zone of awareness; to live with, or to strive for, a false sense of purity, propped up by attention only to what can be readily seen, or to what registers, by the standards of everyday conscientiousness and social reproach, as “intentional.” On killing insects in particular: when you wash your sheets, you kill large numbers (thousands?) of dust-mites; when you walk on the grass, you crush insects under your feet; when you drive, bugs splatter against your windshield. But more broadly: the things we use and consume, the institutions and systems that structure our lives, the resources we trade and inherit, the causal sequences we casually initiate — all are tangled in intricate webs of harm; and everyday, always, there are things we leave undone; things that we let die, or let suffer, because we are prioritizing something else.

I’m not saying we need to dwell on these things all the time; or that emotions that are in some sense “fitting” should always be felt. But we should live in the actual world, that includes the full consequences of our actions. We should look ourselves in the eye, too. We should know who we are.

III. Paying attention

Later, thinking about the ants, I thought of some videos in which Brian Tomasik films the insects he finds in his house, to document and understand the harms they undergo. In one, he examines, using a microscope camera, the bugs that are crushed when he scoops compost with his hands; in another, he films the flies that buzz against a window in his attic; in another, the bugs he finds in the dirt of a potted plant. The videos I’ve seen (I’ve watched maybe four or five) have a tone of matter of fact-ness and muted sadness. They end, often, with extended footage of the insects in question, without narrative.

I was first introduced to these videos — in particular, the compost one — by someone who was suggesting that I laugh at them. “Isn’t this ridiculous?”, he was saying. It didn’t seem that way at all to me. Rather, it seemed like an example of someone who was really paying attention. Tomasik was looking, directly, at something we normally leave outside our zones; something we barely notice, and that our minds bounce off of when we do.

Many of Tomasik’s views and practices — including the policy responses he endorses in those videos — are extreme and unusual. I disagree with him on a lot of important things, and I’m not trying to debate them here. Nor am I assuming answers to the question of whether insects of various types really have any moral weight (see Muelhauser here, and here); if so, how much; or what, if anything, it makes sense to do in response. Indeed, answering such questions with any confidence seems a daunting challenge.

What I want to point at is the type of attention that it seems to me like Tomasik is paying to the world, in those videos. It seems related to the type that I wasn’t paying to the ants in my house.

IV. “What one does”

Bugs generally lack the charisma that benefits other animals in human moral discourse. They’re gross, small, slimy, invasive, disease-y. Indeed, I expect that part of the unreality of the decision about killing the ants, for me, stemmed from the fact that our social world doesn’t treat such decisions as morally stakes-y. We disapprove of people frying insects with magnifying glasses just for fun; but in other contexts, and especially in the course of doing other things, we kill insects with little thought; and sometimes, with zeal.

Indeed, it seems easier to see an ant as an intricate biological machine, devoid of consciousness and moral value, than to see a pig that way, or a cow — despite the fact that pigs, cows, and, indeed, humans are all, equally, biological machines, albeit of differing size and complexity. And perhaps there really are qualitative differences — or sufficiently large quantitative ones — in how much what we would care about on reflection is at stake in the lives of insects vs. other animals (though here our uncertainty about consciousness and its relation to value looms large). At the least, we tend to act that way.

But would we act differently, if the truth about the moral status of insects were otherwise? Consider the dust-mites we kill when we wash our sheets. If you’re like me, you were choosing to wash your sheets long before you knew that dust-mites existed. Indeed, perhaps you’re only learning about it now (I think I only really learned about dust-mites a few years ago).

It’s easy, upon learning about dust-mites, for the question of whether to adjust one’s sheet related practices, in view of these mites, to never get genuinely asked. Washing one’s sheets is “what one does.” If we learn that it kills thousands of tiny creatures we didn’t know existed, it’s easy to conclude that apparently, killing these creatures is OK; it’s also, apparently, “what one does.” The idea that we might better protect and promote what we care about by changing our sheet related practices (Tomasik reports: “To be safe, I daily flap out my bed sheet into an unused area of my house in an effort to remove some of the dead skin on it”) is treated as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that the welfare of the mites justifies such a change. We are traditionalist sheet-users first; philosophers, second — or not at all.

Indeed, threatened by the burdens of new obligations, it’s possible greet reductios of this kind with a type of relief. On the topic of the ants, for example, I noticed some sort of relief in relation to the idea that I was already killing bugs when I drove or walked on grass: “No one’s going to say we should stop driving or walking on grass, right? So killing these ants must be OK, too.” If a candidate norm is seen as externally imposed, rather than grounded in something one cares about wholeheartedly, one greets evidence that abiding by the norm is impossible or extremely burdensome with enthusiasm, rather than sadness. 

V. If dust-mites were different

Imagine a world in which humans were the only macroscopically visible species. For centuries, these humans lived wonderful lives; dancing in the grass, cooking delicious meals over open fires, playing music together — all under the assumption that they were the only sentient creatures in existence.

Then one day, a scientist invents a microscope, and begins examining the world with it. She finds, to her surprise, that the surface of everything is covered with a thin film — invisible to the naked eye — of something that looks like a civilization all unto itself. The creatures in this civilization are made of a type of intricate slime, but their nervous systems are incredibly complex — much more complex, indeed, than human nervous systems, and made of superior materials. These slime, it seems, have a kind of art, language, and religion; they, too, engage in a type of dancing. And they do much else besides, which human scientists cannot, at present, understand (let’s imagine that communication remains, for now, impossible).

What’s more, the humans realize, whenever humans walk or dance on the grass, they crush this slime civilization under their feet; whenever they make an open fire, the slime civilization burns; whenever they pluck the strings of a guitar, slime creatures are thrown into the air and killed. For centuries, they realize, they have been devastating a sophisticated and invisible civilization; with no knowledge that they were doing so.

What, then, do they do? Do they argue that the slime civilization can’t be worthy of care, because changing practices of dancing, cooking, music-making, etc would be too demanding? Do they start looking for ways to protect and understand the slime? Do they start wondering about future conflicts with the slime? If there was a pill they could take, that would allow them to forget about the slime, and go back to how things were before they had microscopes, would they take it?

The point of the set-up here is not to force or pressure the humans to give up their beautiful lives, on pain of being bad. They’ve learned something new about the world they’re living in, and the consequences of their actions, but it’s up to them how to respond. The point is that the real world — the world they’ve always been living in — stays real regardless. Whatever the truth was about slime art, and religion, and music — and about the damage that dancing and fires and guitars do — that truth stays true.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:43 AM

I really enjoyed this post. No assumptions are made about the moral value of insects, but rather the author just points out just how little we ever thought about it in the first place. Given that, as a species, we already tend to ignore a lot of atrocities that form a part of our daily lives, if it WERE true, beyond a reasonable doubt, that washing our sheets killed thousands of sentient creatures, I still can't imagine we'd put in a significant effort to find an alternative. (And it certainly wouldn't be socially acceptable to have stinky sheets!) I think it would be healthy to cultivate genuine curiosity and caring about these things, rather than ridicule people who depart from social norms. If insects do deserve moral weight, I'd like to be the sort of person who, and a part of a community that, would notice and take that seriously.

I find this completely and utterly ridiculous. From a relative outsider perspective, letting an ant problem get out of hand because you have moral reservations about killing them is the sort of thing that's the problem with people in this community. For one, letting the problem foster means that they probably had time to reproduce, meaning you ended up killing more than if you had just killed them at the beginning. Second, I think that most of the moral value of ants is in the fact that humans appreciate them, by far the greatest moral suffering here is your suffering at having killed them. The time spent thinking about this could have been spent making money and donating to save the ants, or any of the other things that are more valuable than they are. Considering the inevitability of suffering in our world is something that makes sense to do once a year, when you make sure that your life plan is right, the opportunity cost in thinking about the ant's suffering is bigger than the moral cost of their suffering.

I'm perplexed by the appeal to opportunity cost because it seems unlikely that in the world where OP decided not to care about the ants, he would have used the time to make money to donate to effective charities instead. More broadly, I worry that it's easy to appeal to opportunity cost without demanding sufficient rigor of the alternative. For instance, people often say that avoiding causing animal harm through poultry and egg consumption is inefficient without seriously investigating the counterfactual. At least some of these people are wrong about how much suffering their decisions could avert and how little the changes would cost them. 

It seems to me much safer to lay the burden of proof on the moral indulgence--at very least, the burden of proof shouldn't always rest on the demands of conscience. 

>It seems to me much safer to lay the burden of proof on the moral indulgence--at very least, the burden of proof shouldn't always rest on the demands of conscience. 

I think I disagree. It seems to me that moral claims don't exist in a vacuum, they require a combination of asserted values and contextualizing facts. If the contextualizing facts are not established, the asserted value is irrelevant. For instance, I might claim that we have a moral duty not to brush our hair because it produces static electricity, and static electricity is a painful experience for electrons. The asserted value is preventing suffering, which you might agree with, but my contextualizing facts are highly disputable, so you're unlikely to shave your head and never wear another wool sweater just to be on the safe side. 

It seems to me the burden of proof lies with the side making a claim further away from the socially established starting point, not necessarily either the conscience claimer or the indulgence claimer. In the case of animal welfare, I think most people already believe all the facts they need to conclude that harming chickens is morally bad and thus it makes more sense to ask them to justify the special pleading on behalf of the poultry industry.

It seems to me that a great many problems that we humans have come from this type of moral 'arrogance?'. That is, assuming ourselves to be the most important moral agents on this planet and disregarding the preferences of any other beings.  It's easy to ignore whichever being is right there in front of you, and conjure up a story about how you are doing a more important thing somewhere else. But actually, that specific being is the only agent you can reasonably have any hope of morally impacting at that moment in time. 

E.g., this type of attitude lets you to do things like ignore your family because you are trying so hard to 'save the world'. Furthermore, the type of mental state that makes Jospeh reflect like this is inherently wholesome I would say. If we'd all continuously gave as much thought to ants as Joseph has done here, that would at least mean we'd all have much more compassionate states of mind as a baseline and the world would be in a much better place overall.

Personally, I do go out of my way to save insects. Sometimes when I want to shower there is a spider in the shower basin which would die if I turn on the water.  I do tend to pick them up and set them outside. I'm a completely moral prick in other ways, but this type of behaviour and thinking comes from a state of mind that finds the wellbeing of other beings important, i.e., compassion, and I hope to become a more compassionate person.  

I completely agree about compassion, and I regularly dedicate a part of my meditation practice to metta, but there is a tension here between cultivating a compassionate mind-state and being effective enough in the world to act on that compassion, I think OP's situation is firmly in the "too compassionate" camp. The mind-states of Tibetan monks in Himalayan caves might be sublime beyond belief, their minds containing gigantic amounts of compassion, yet they have no meaningful effect on the world outside their cave. Saving insects to cultivate compassion in yourself does make sense, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that saving them is the best thing to do from a moral stand-point.

One human's moral arrogance is another human's Occam's razor. The evidence suggests to me, on grounds of both observation (very small organisms demonstrate very simple behaviour not consistent with a high level awareness) and theory (very small organisms have extremely minimal sensory/nervous architecture to contain qualia) that dust-mites are morally irrelevant, and the chance that I am mistaken in my opinion amounts to a Pascal's Mugging.

From Ozy:

"I recently read an essay by Peter Singer, Ethics Beyond Species and Beyond Instincts, in which he defined the moral as that which is universalizable, in this sense: “We can distinguish the moral from the nonmoral by appeal to the idea that when we think, judge, or act within the realm of the moral, we do so in a manner that we are prepared to apply to all others who are similarly placed.”

I read that, sat back, and said to myself: “I cannot do morality.”

I cannot do it in the same sense that an alcoholic cannot drink, and a person with an eating disorder cannot go on a diet. I am incapable of engaging with universalizable morality in a way that does not cause me severe mental harm. While I can reject a universalizable moral claim on an intellectual level, I am incapable of rejecting them– no matter how absurd or contradictory to other things I accept– on an emotional level. If I fail to live up to such a claim, I will hate myself and curl in a ball and be utterly nonfunctional for a few hours, causing harm to both myself and those who have to put up with me.

So (with much backsliding) I have started to make an effort to weed out the universalizable morality from my brain. I do things I want to do, and I don’t do things I don’t want to do."


You and your girlfriend seem to have adopted a philosophical standard of morals which humans cannot uphold. I happen to believe that the case for the moral weight of organism lacking central nervous systems is extremely weak, but resisting the temptation to dismiss your position on those grounds alone I would say that if your slime civilization was proven real tomorrow, then there would be nothing to do except acknowledge the tragedy and move on with life. It's not like human-dominated environments make up a majority of those that are so theoretically miserable for ants and dust mites and the bugs in Brian Tomasik's compost, so even radical anti-natalism would accomplish a statistical nothing. If the ants suffered as you killed them, then the tragedy is not that you did it but that those ants were born into a world so hostile that if you hadn't killed them because they can't live in your apartment, then they would have been eaten by birds, or at war with other colonies, or frozen/drowned/dehydrated by the millions thanks to the weather.

Thankfully I do believe the case for the moral worth of ants is weak, so I hope you will consider seeking out counselling on how to reduce your/your girlfriend's apparent feelings of shame for the largely hypothetical moral suffering you worry about causing.

I went back and forth on this post a lot. Ultimately the writing is really fantastic and I appreciate the thought and presence Joe put into it. It doesn't help me understand why someone would care about ant experience but it does help me understand the experience of caring about ant sentience.

This was pretty interesting, and pretty different from the kind of content you usually find on LessWrong.

I often see arguments against "spontaneous inconvenient moral behaviour", such as worrying whether to kill ants infesting your house or stop eating meat, that advocate these behaviours should be replaced with more effective planned behaviours, but I don't really think most of the first behaviours prevent the others.

Suggesting that someone currently in his house should stop thinking about how to humanly get rid of ants, start working for an hour and using those overtime moneys to donate to ants charity isn't a feasible model, since most people wouldn't have a job where they can just take an hour of spare time whenever they want and convert it to extra money. You are converting "fun time" into "care for the ants time". 

Thinking about how you can be more effective to produce charity or moral value is certainly a good idea, 15 minutes of your time can easily improve the charity you can output in the next years by ten times or more without any real drawback, but the kind of "moral rigor" that's required when one wants to contest a behaviour he doesn't want to adopt it's usually the level of rigor that requires someone to drop his career, start working on friendly AI full time and donating every material possession that he doesn't think it's needed to keep his productivity high to friendly AI research.

You'll need a Schelling point about morality if you don't want to donate your every value to friendly AI research ( if you want to I won't certainly try to stop you), at some point you have to go "screw it, I'll do this less effective thing instead because I want to", and this Schelling point will likely include a lot of behaviours that are spontaneous things you care about but are also ineffective. 


Also the way some critiques try to evaluate  non-human lives doesn't really make sense. I agree on a "humans > complex animals > simple animals logic", but there should be some kind of quantitative relations between the wellbeing of the groups. You can argue that you would save a human over any number of cow and I guess that can sorta makes sense, but there still should be some amount of human pleasure you should be willing to give up to prevent some amount of animal suffering, or you might as well give up on quantitative moral at all.

If one's suggesting a 1:1000 exchange of human pleasure:animal suffering, you can't refuse by arguing that you'd refuse a 10:10 exchange.

We talked about how bad this would be for the ants — and in particular, the fact that the poison is slow-acting. Crushing them directly, we thought, might be more humane; though it would also be more time-consuming, and less likely to solve the problem.

As long as the queen lives, she will keep sending new ants to you. Unless you can kill them faster than she can collect nutrients to produce new ones (seems unlikely), in which case she will starve to death. So, unless you can find the queen and crush her directly, there is no more humane solution.

I don't think it is possible to teach the ant colony to respect the boundaries of your house. (Someone please correct me if I am wrong.) The case you mention, where the ants disappeared spontaneously, I suspect that most likely their queen simply died for reasons unrelated to you (predator, sickness...).

"It’s easy to push the harm we do, or that we risk, outside of our zone of awareness; to live with, or to strive for, a false sense of purity, propped up by attention only to what can be readily seen, or to what registers, by the standards of everyday conscientiousness and social reproach, as “intentional.” "

Small-animal deaths matter as much to me as whether I have an odd or uneven number of hairs on my head.
Certainly, something I could pay attention to as an intellectual exercise, but it's not something that naturally registers as being related to right or wrong action.

You should not claim that people are this way because they strive for a sense of "false purity", though.
This "sense of purity" (or a feeling desire for it, or feeling a lack of it) is simply not a universal human experience.

I think your last sentence is a good summary of my position on this matter: you have a moral duty to all moral agents in general - but only to moral agents. Non-moral agents are out of bound (although you can still exert charity toward them if you want, it's just not a moral duty).

Does the category of "moral agents" include babies? Just curious.

Yes it does, as they are future moral agent. To be precise, I think that the potentiality to be a moral agent is enough, so babies (even unborn) and cryonic patients are covered. (in fact if one particular animal showed sign of being a moral agent, that would be enough for me to grant the status to its whole species).

in fact if one particular animal showed sign of being a moral agent, that would be enough for me to grant the status to its whole species

Agreed. By the way, I am just watching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. :D

I recommend using distinct phrases for "moral targets", those entities you morally consider in your actions, and "moral agents", those entities which make decisions you evaluate in a moral framework.  

Babies are moral targets, they are in the process of becoming moral agents.  IMO, both are quantities rather than binary classifications - some moral agents are more culpable than others for the same actions, and some moral targets get more weight than others in evaluating actions.  I recognize this isn't universal, but I have yet to have a productive cruxing session with anyone who claims absolutes on this topic.

I recommend using distinct phrases for “moral targets”, those entities you morally consider in your actions, and “moral agents”, those entities which make decisions you evaluate in a moral framework.

The traditional term is "moral patient".

I have a strong feeling of déjà-vu. I witnessed a similar discussion happen a few years ago, but was it here?

Excellent post. I sometimes think about the small mammals and insects that must inevitably die when a field of crops is harvested, but I now see that is only a small part of the attention I could have been paying.

Someone who didn't face tradeoffs in their value system would be a monster, a human paperclipper.

Of course. In general, you can't optimise different things, beyond a point, without running into trade offs. And, specifically, there will be trade offs between maximising diversity and maximising my values.

So you are withdrawing your claim that variety matters?

Moral space is combinatorially vast and even increases as population of moral agents increases so it can never be filled up

You are now running on two different theories: that you need to reproduce yourself, to show that you value yourself, and that you need to generate novelty to "fill in gaps".

Not all value is the same. In particular, it's is not always the case that having more of something is unconditionally better. There is value in climbing everest once, but there is no value in everyone living on the peak of everest.

I want to point out regarding first paragraph that 'yourself > others' and 'others > yourself' are not the only options--I think it is generally possible to ascribe approximately equal moral value to yourself and to all other morally-relevant organisms.  This is obviously difficult to do in practice (as is much of morality), but tenable as an ideal.  

Furthermore, even if you do value yourself more than others, I don't think it necessarily follows that you'll rank other morally-relevant organisms based on their similarity to yourself.  E.g. I don't ascribe different moral value to an educated European adult than to a San child, even though I'm far more similar to the European person in terms of cognitive development and genetics.

This is why I don't feel bad about eating pork and chicken. The only consistent morality is that We > Them in direct proportion of how close They are to Us. Perhaps we should minimize the difference in treatment, but the gradient always exists.

Given that "Bob" has chosen a standard of living that includes a coffee pot implies, using the transitive property (if a>b and b>c then a >c, where b is the environmental and human costs of coffee making) that the lives and dignity of an ant colony are worth less than his day-to-day comfort.

But, Bob might say, the ants are geographically closer than all the damage in Brazil. I acknowledge that geography does play a role in how "close" They are to Us, but it is generally accepted that locarion is the tiebreaker after Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species, to be considered alongside Tribe, DNA, and Personal Connection.