Ants for the New Year

What better way to begin the new year than by reading about ants? I spent New Year's Eve parked in front of the fireplace with The Superorganism, by Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson, while my husband and kids and some of their friends played tennis, courtesy of our new Nintendo Wii. Though a little technical, the book is wonderfully thought-provoking.

Lately I've been pondering what you might call "the paradox of animal rights"--if you were in a pretentious mood. You start out wanting to think and act morally toward animals. You want to give them no less than the status they deserve. This ethical starting point leads you to start doubting the way we have traditionally drawn lines between humans and other animals. You start seeing similarities, where before you only saw differences. This elevates animals in your eyes.

Soon, though, you start wondering about human morality and its animal analogues and precursors. Morality starts seeming less like a fixed part of reality, and more just a feature of "the way we are" as one particular species. But then fairness, respect, compassion, individual rights, and their ilk, start seeming less necessary, more contingent. They are elements of our phenotype, like upright posture, and possibly not suitable for our dealings with other species. This line of thought threatens to lower animals in our eyes.

As for ants. If Holldobler and Wilson are correct, an ant society is a superorganism, with individual ants related to the whole in the way that the organs of our bodies are related to our whole bodies. Worker ants know their place. They have various functions in the colony, and don't compete with each other to become a reproducing queen. By contrast, humans do compete with each other. We each expect to have a full life, complete with mating and child-rearing. We are unlike ants, and also unlike wolves--who leave reproduction to an alpha-male and alpha-female.

Part of human morality (at least post-enlightenment) is the idea that each individual counts. Martha Nussbaum, for example, offers the principle of each individual as an end. A society can't give subservient roles to women, or lower classes, or particular castes, in the name of the overall good of society. Every individual must have access to a life that's good in itself. In the animal chapter of Frontiers of Justice, she seems to extrapolate the same idea into the world of animals. Every animal counts, every animal must have a chance to live a good life.

That idea is to found in all the leading pro-animal philosophers. Every individual counts. There are no animal castes--the cows don't exist to be our food, the horses don't exist to carry us into battle or entertain us. Fair enough. The roles we assign to animals are obviously self-serving. But in thinking of each individual animal as an end, are we actually exporting a peculiarly human morality beyond the realm where it makes sense?

There are ant castes. There are wolf castes. Should we nevertheless view every individual ant and every individual wolf as an end, insisting on a good and complete life for every individual? Should we think every individual animal counts in just the way every human counts, or should we see each species as having its own built-in morality?

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