To Kill or Not to Kill That is the Question 3

Friday 14th November 2014

Part 3 – I had a good reason

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 legal protection that we give the lives of animals.

Part 2 – I didn’t mean it’ explored the significance of intent and how we judge someone very leniently if they unknowingly kill a bug, or even a great many bugs, but hold them more directly accountable for the action if they act with intent and deliberation.

Now things start to get more complicated.  We also balance the value of a life against the value we place on other objectives, meaning that there are circumstances when taking a life is justified.  Not only are there many possible objectives, there is not agreement about how to value each one. 

Putting aside incidental killing, which can be the result of just about any motivation, the following list covers the commonest reasons used to justify killing.

 1) Protecting human life
 2) Protecting human health
 3) Halting the suffering an animal in plight
 4) Protecting or increasing food production
 5) Protecting possessions, structures or other goods
 6) Protecting or conserving wildlife
 7) Preventing nuisance
 8) Furthering scientific knowledge
 9) Education
10) Fostering aesthetic properties – beauty, cleanliness and other
11) Protecting the health and welfare of wild animals – disease or predator control
12) Enabling habitat destruction – ‘look no protected species’
13) Personal satisfaction or fulfilment
14) Amusement or entertainment

The order of this list is not random, I have roughly ranked the reasons by strength, or my opinion of their strength in any case. 

Few would argue against the top three reasons, particularly if there were few animal deaths involved and no easy alternative.  But even here there are limits, for instance there is current controversy around the control of the invasive Oak processionary moth, an animal whose tree living caterpillars shed hairs that can, albeit rarely, cause significant illness in people.  Butterfly Conservation and Buglife have opposed the wholesale spraying of woodland SSSIs with an insecticide, in the view of the wildlife charities more effective targeted control could be achieved for perhaps a little more cost, but vastly less killing.

Reasons 4 to 6 can be finely balanced, while most people would accept them as justifications for killing in certain cases, a tiny percentage of people would reject these reasons entirely, and almost everyone would not see these justifications as absolute, but factors to be assessed and balanced against other priorities and moral considerations.

Nuisance is a particularly questionable motivation, to what extend should humans be expected to tolerate the annoying aspects of the environment in which they live, considering that in some cases, such as midges in the Scottish Highlands, they can shape the economy.  In 2004 the UK Government brought forward a clause in a draft bill that would empower a local authority officer to declare any population of insects to be a statutory nuisance – a designation that would then require the land owner to prevent the ‘emission’ of said insects.  This draconian proposal was motivated primarily by mosquitoes emerging from sewage works, but would apply everywhere.  Buglife opposed the clause and managed to persuade Government to redraft the law to exclude the countryside – insect nuisances can only be emitted from farm and industry buildings.

Education and scientific understanding are interesting reasons as both can be further questioned – what would be the purpose or use of the education and knowledge.  Clearly if this information and its spread can contribute to another aim – such as conservation – then these can be strong justifications.  Where the the purpose of the information gathering is less morally robust, then the killing can be unacceptable.

Reasons 10 to 14 are justifications that I struggle with.  Personally I would hesitate to say that it is never justifiable to kill an insect sucking on your garden plant, but I do believe that it is never justifiable to apply an insecticide that will kill many animals simply so that the blooms in your garden are bright and abundant.  In the National Pollinator Strategy there are encouragements to gardeners to think carefully before they use pesticides and to leave areas of their lawns to grow and bloom.  These are important components of the Strategy as they are about changing values – leaning on the frivolous desire for superficial beauty and prim tidiness and emphasising the utilitarian functionality and deep beauty or creating space for nature.

Killing animals to protect the health and welfare of wild animals is an emotive topic.  Empathy for sick mammals and raptored birds lead many people to suggest that killing would create lower overall death.  In truth often this carnage would simply result in the winter taking the songbird not the hawk.  In any case this is rarely a reason given to justify bug slaughter.

When it comes to 12, 13 and 14 I wonder if any of these reasons, on their own, can ever justify the deliberate killing of a bug.

There have been reports of developers removing or spraying the habitat of an endangered bug and killing it so that it is no longer present when a survey is done and planning application submitted, thereby depriving it of the protection that it may have been provided by the planning process.  In my view this is deeply immoral and should probably be illegal. Chris Packham (c) Jo Garbutt.Wikicommons CC by 2.0 .jpg

Getting personal satisfaction or fulfilment from the killing of a bug may sound callous, but most people have had a sense of satisfaction after successfully expediting a noisy mosquito, and who would deny an entomologist the pleasure associated with identifying correctly a specimen under the microscope, when doing so is educational and that information is to be used to improve the conservation of wildlife habitats.  However, killing a bug solely for the purpose of personal satisfaction or fulfilment, with no other gain, does feel immoral to me.

The killing of bugs solely for the purpose of amusement or entertainment is plain wrong.  Worse than that, it is unhinged, it is well known that vindictive violence to animals is an indication of profound personality disorder, it is border-line psychotic.

This is why there has been such a strong reaction to Chris Packham’s recent call to Ant and Dec to stop the animal abuse that has seen contestants eating live bugs on the ITV series ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’.  The public knows that capitalising on the suffering and death of animals for cheap entertainment purposes is disgracefully immoral.

One has to wonder if such behaviour is so unacceptable that it should be made illegal? 

That will be the topic of the next blog on this issue – how well does, and indeed can, the law around intentional killing reflect the moral values of society.