When do animals become spare parts?
©2012 Michel M. Maharbiz
For some time, I have been grappling with aspects of the ethics of the insect work we do in my lab. Historically, I had taken the point of view of the “amoral scientist”. Put bluntly, this says “look, humans are very bad at predicting how technology gets used after its creation. My job is to innovate and I will stay out of philosophical discussions about technology creation or use in my role as an innovator.” As time has gone on, it has become increasingly clear to me that technology development is far from value neutral [Winner 1980].
This line of inquiry – the ethical use of technology, the lack of value neutrality in technology development, etc. – is well-trodden ground [Zerzan 2005, Winner 1980]. What kept me up most at night, however, was not the ethics of what we did with the constructs made in the lab, but the ethics of what we did to the insects. This did not arise from a sense of direct empathy with the insects, to be honest; we were working with insects that do not have, to the best of our knowledge, anything resembling meta-cognition, self-awareness, complex emotional states and even rather different responses to pain [Eisemann 1984]. In a strange way, the issue built gradually because insects seemed a kind of gray ethical area: they are not trees (which, at worst are covered by deep ecology and environmental ethics) and they are not non-human sentients (like, say, an ape). Where does that leave us?
I also came to realize how increasingly accessible these types of interventions can be (in terms of cost, technological accessibility, etc.). It is at that point that I decided to try and clear up my own thinking on the matter. The blog posts that follow are my attempt to structure my opinion on this issue. As I am, at best, a well-read amateur on the subject, I decided to write everything out and, once I did, I thought it might be constructive for me to share (within my group and then outside). I certainly make no claims to originality here; this is me thinking out loud on paper.
In the end, I think this issue in the end boils down to how we define moral agents and, further, how we deal with power asymmetries among moral agents, a topic of constant interest, but it’s fun to think about it from our technical perspective.