Chimp Riding Goat
Purchase Models for Games

I Kill Mosquitoes

mosquito All my life, mosquitoes have sought out the deep echo of my heartbeat and feasted upon my blood. This leaves me with itchy welts and a resentment towards an insect some say has been responsible for more human deaths throughout history than any other cause. For this reason, I kill any blood-sucking bug I find at home. The sentence for even looking like a mosquito in my house is death.

What interests me about my feud with this particular insect is what this says about my relationship with the natural world, and what this implies about everyone else. I am a vegetarian by diet, and by intention kill no animal for any reason. Only the mosquito is excluded. Although I would draw the line at some insane plan to eradicate all mosquitoes (perhaps by a viral agent or genetic engineering) I feel moral obligations not to kill every other creature. I would never expect anyone else to believe or behave the same way, yet I do consider my moral stance to be sound.

How can this be? How can I defend my own ethic of nature when it conflicts with everyone else’s? The presumption of a moral law requires a clear right or wrong on such issues, and although I support anyone whose ethics are based on a law-conception – and believe law ethics has contributed considerably to our contemporary moral viewpoint – my own beliefs admit a tremendous variety of moral positions. This is the nature of chaos ethics – not a nihilistic denial of the validity of all values, but an acceptance of the myriad ideals that can motivate moral behaviour. Not everything is permitted in such a view, but nothing is given in advance.

Consider the moral tenet that connects to my opening theme: don't kill. For me, this applies to all animal life except the mosquito. Others bound their moral community at their own species – a view grounded in many different ways, from claims about souls to attributions concerning our faculty of reason. For me, however, this boundary is essentially arbitrary. I've met dogs, cats and squirrels that struck me as more rational than some humans I know, and this is not meant as an insult to the latter. It is simply unavoidable that we are a wonderfully irrational animal, and thus suggesting that we can ground our obligation to one another in our capacity for logic seems quite ill-considered (although still theoretically plausible).

Philosopher Mary Midgley makes the point that we are all embedded in diverse communities of concern that are like a series of concentric circles. In the centre, ourselves and our loved ones; our community outside this; and other humans within a still wider circle. Some animals receive better treatments than others within this metaphorical scheme – cats and dogs usually enjoy a closer position to the middle than, say, farm animals, and vermin lie far from the safety of the centre. Vegetarians cast their border wider than most, vegans wider still – except for those who choose to value wildlife above humanity in an odd inversion of the expectations of care. The boundary of respect is not fixed, but shifts according to the ideals of the individual, and while there is some commonality of belief there is no unanimity.

Is there a minimal case, some moral position we all must abide by? If there were, this would be a major concession to moral law since it would mean there are at least some ethical rules that we all should abide by. Venturing towards this goal, Derek Parfit quite plausibly suggests that we all have valid reasons not to wish for suffering, and that this demonstrates that there must be at least some moral principles we would all have reasons to consent to. (Remember that the masochist does not suffer when enjoying pain.) Parfit’s claim may be true, but it could also be trivial, since ‘suffering’ embeds a value judgement that presumes a particular interpretation. So, for that matter, does ‘murder’: I do not claim to murder mosquitoes because this would be tantamount to admitting that what I do is wrong.

Like words, morality finds its grounding in the community it exists within. Just as Wittgenstein likened our use of language to moves in a ‘language-game’, in which the meaning of a word is how it is used within its expected context. Similarly, our moral positions can be compared to ‘moves’ in an ethics-game. It is not a coincidence that one of the more popular approaches to ethics is couched in terms of rules (of which ‘rights’ conceptions, being positive claims, are the most popular modern form). What we are now beginning to explore is the extent of the different ways to play this game – the possible moral chaos ideals available to us. These may not be infinite, but they are more diverse than moral law conceptions suggest.

I kill mosquitoes because they are outside of my community of concern. We have words, like ‘vermin’ and ‘exterminate’ to address our willingness to kill those creatures that lie beyond our threshold of care, and revile those who would take this view on other humans. The triumphant prize of the bloody carnage of the twentieth century was the ideal of the human as the boundary condition for concern – hence ‘human rights’, a concept with an immeasurable debt to Kant, and indeed to the religious traditions that inspired him. Even this ideal is still only provisional, subject to cultural acceptance and potentially open to revision by mutual consent. Morality is not static – it never was. However, that does not render it a mere illusion. The rules of this game are simply subject to perpetual change.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I would argue that the answer is something simpler and more basic:

Mosquitoes are the aggressor. You merely defend yourself.

Ants, cows, cats, dogs -- these creatures do not attack you. They do not attempt to sup on your body. Or poison you. Or possibly give you malaria.

As you say, it is not murder. But neither would it be murder for you to kill a human being who attacked you to try to feed off of you.

Rather than concentric circles, perhaps a 3D landscape with the peak being oneself. As you descend from the peak you come across other creatures at differing levels and distances.

Complicate it further with the morals of close family members and you'd end up with a 3D Venn diagram.

Chairman: Trust you to complicate a simple idea! ;)

Trevel: yes, I take your point but I think perhaps it's not quite so clean cut. Ants do occasionally "attack" me by invading my house and I am very, very reluctant to unleash toxic armageddon upon them when they do (although I have done so in at least once case). They are an aggressor here, but I don't want to kill them to defend myself. Similarly, dogs occasionally try to attack my dog - but I do not harm them in this situation.

It's easier for me to kill the mosquito than to escort it outside as I would do with other insects in my house, but this isn't why I kill mosquitoes: they exist for me in that space of creatures I am willing to kill, and they may be the only such creature that does.

All the best!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)