How Should We Care About Insects?

Last summer, a cabbage white butterfly laid its eggs on an arugula I was growing. Before long, the plant was swarming with green caterpillars, well disguised against the green leaves. I had other arugula plants, some distance away, that would give me plenty of leaves for our salads, and I didn’t want to use an insecticide, so I just left the caterpillars alone. Soon, every leaf was eaten down to the stalk. With nothing left to eat, the caterpillars, not ready to begin the next stage of their life cycle, all starved to death.
— Peter Singer https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/are-insects-conscious-by-peter-singer-2016-05

Though it is still relatively unclear to what extent insects experience consciousness, there is the chance that they have the ability to suffer in a physical and emotional sense. Additionally, given the number of insects that exist, it seems sensical to consider them, as a group and as individuals, in a moral sense (Tomasik, 2015).

The question is then what is the best way to care about them? Obvious things like not breeding them, farming them, or eating them seem to be like a good place to start (Tomasik, 2015). But what if our compassion and ethics should extend further and in a more proactive way?

One activity we can do is to raise general awareness of the importance of insect suffering. However, the way to go about doing that is not always clear, especially when many people have trouble caring for vertebrate suffering. If you are reading this you likely care about animals to some degree, so examining how to extend that ethical compassion is worth considering.

An uncomfortable fact for vegans is related to animal and insect deaths during crop farming. It's easy and factual to say that the average consumer in an industrialized country causes more insect deaths and suffering than the average vegan. Yet, that counterargument doesn't necessarily sit well with me.

Though of course reducing harm is a very good thing to do, and is a lot easier than reducing insect suffering through farming, the fact that a harm is hard to avoid does not necessarily make the suffering of those insects any less unfortunate. 

It would seem that this is where the necessity of proactivity comes into play. Many people, including myself, donate to effective animal charities or meta-charities like Animal Charity Evaluators. This is a great thing, and it is proactive in the sense that it's not just opting out and reducing suffering, but taking our relative resources and multiplying our impact beyond what personal dietary or lifestyle changes we can make.

If we help farmed animals in this way, would it also make sense to help insects? Unfortunately an insect charity does not exist. If such an organization did exist it might then make logical sense to donate money to it as a way of being proactive regarding insect suffering.

In the meantime, we can continue to help farmed animals by leading by example, doing effective activism (like giving money to effective charities) and sharing articles and videos that highlight the suffering associated with animal agriculture (especially chicken meat and eggs).

However, the next step beyond that might be to also advocate for insect well-being and reducing their suffering. Some organizations like Sentience Politics have work related to insect considerations (like this policy paper). Others like Brian Tomasik have essays and research on insects and how to best help them.

Questions like these do not have easy answers, often the bigger the problem, the more complex it is to solve. But if we take our values and extend them to all who matter and in a proactive way, then there is that chance we can make the world a better place, and that's a chance worth betting on.

Notes and further reading:

Tomasik: The Importance of Insect Suffering.