Last updated: 10.12.2022
Published: 02.07.2021

Killing the ants

Podcast version here, or search “Joe Carlsmith Audio” on your podcast app.

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.