To Kill or Not to Kill That is the Question 2

Friday 3rd October 2014

Part 2 – I didn’t mean it

We all do it, we all kill bugs, but what are the ethics of doing so.

In ‘Part 1 – The Value of Life’ I explored the value that humans put on the lives of animals.  It is clearly not a level playing field.  Generally people do not treat a kitten’s life in the same way that they treat a mosquito’s life.  Indeed there are factors that we can identify, mostly rooted in our sense of empathy, with some additional elements relating to a belief that the lives of endangered species have a special value and that killing another person’s property is additionally bad.  These factors are represented in the different levels of protection that we give the lives of animals.

However the severity with which an individual, and collectively society, judges the taking of an animal life is a playing field with an even greater slope.

Let’s take the life of an earthworm as a measure.  If you saw someone walking around the local park catch an earthworm, throw it on the ground and stamp on it, you would probably be at least a bit outraged, and maybe also fearful of the potential mental health issues at play.  If you were walking behind someone in the same park after a shower and they accidently trod on an earthworm, you may feel remorse but you would probably feel more empathy for the walker than antipathy.  If you see someone purchase a loaf of bread you can be sure that the plough will have killed many worms to enable the growing of the wheat to make the bread, but you would not consider the purchaser to have thereby committed an ethically questionable act.

So intent is really important in how we judge the taking of animals lives. Close call for this worm © Billy V. Flickr CC

The contrast can be stark, some people react very strongly to the idea of a single life of an insect being deliberately taken, but do not themselves bat an eyelid when on a single drive they recklessly splat hundreds or thousands of bugs on their front bumper, leaving it adorned with various macabre little smudges with awry legs and wings.

There are parallels here between how we treat manslaughter and murder in law.  Sentencing guidelines around taking a human life reflect the carefully considered and long established judgement of society.  The moral importance attached to intent is clear for these crimes, sentences for attempting a murder are long and can be 35 years, while sentences for actually causing death by dangerous driving are much lower – max 14 years. 

In wildlife law there are also distinctions made, in many cases the unintentional (e.g. accidental) killing of an animal is not illegal at all, sometimes recklessness has to be proven, and in some cases only intentional or deliberate killing is against the law.

So what do these categories mean:-

  • Reckless – careless to the point of being heedless of the consequences – either the consequences were predicted and ignored, or the consequences were predictable but not assessed.
  • Deliberate – done with care and intention or premeditated – but perhaps without full knowledge of the consequences.
  • Intent – a mental desire and will to act in a particular way – usually with the consequences as the intended or accepted outcome.


As an example the Wildlife and Countryside makes it illegal (with some caveats) to intentionally kill wild birds in England and Wales; whereas in Scotland both intentional and reckless killing are illegal.

For invertebrates it is a much more limited list of species whose lives are protected and they are only protected against intentional killing, unless they are protected also by European legislation, in which case they are protected by the slightly broader term of deliberate killing.  Interestingly the destruction of any structure or place that a Wildlife and Countryside Act protected animal uses for shelter or protection, or the disturbance of an animal while using the shelter is illegal, even if only done recklessly.

In the next instalment of this little series I will investigate in more depth the various intentions that people have when killing invertebrates and how we view these very differently.