In considering whether it is right or wrong to harm or kill a (non-human) animal or even a bug, people may argue for criteria that distinguish between human beings and animals to justify the difference in treatment, like human beings are bigger, stronger, more intelligent, have language, have the ability to reason, or can manipulate their surroundings to their advantage over others. Even if the differences are true, how does the difference make it morally right to harm or kill another? Just because one person is more intelligent than another person, it does not make it morally permissible to kill the other person; so being more intelligent is not relevant to justify killing another. Generally, we would agree that differences within humans are acceptable, and we do not kill others because we respect their humanity and view other human beings as equals. If we agree that human beings deserve equal treatment and respect, then why does this reasoning not extend to (non-human) animals and even to bugs?
In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer argues that we do not have a good reason not to apply the same reasoning, and that is is wrong to kill animals for food, experimentation, or other human interests. Again, we may agree that all human beings deserve to be treated equally, and Singer argues that this is because each of us has interests that should be considered equally in making decisions about what is right or wrong to do, which he calls the principle of equal consideration of interests. In the excerpt, “Equality for Animals,” Singer argues that this principle can also be extended to non-human animals because non-human animals have interests too. In particular, non-human animals have an interest in being not feeling pain or avoiding suffering, just as humans do. Singer states, “Pain and suffering are bad and should be prevented or minimized, irrespective of the race, sex, or species of the being that suffers.” In the case of humans, just because someone is outside our community, race, or is less intelligent, this person should not be disregarded or treated any less, so similarly, just because animals are outside our species or less intelligent does not mean that we can treat them less.
This leads us to the debate about killing animals for food. Singer argues the principle of equal consideration does not account for major interests such as the lives of animals to be sacrificed for minor interests such as a human’s want to eat animals, as it is not a necessity. Similarly, when conducting experiments on animals, often times these experiments show little to no benefits to humans though the death of animals are certain. For that reason, experimenters fail to give equal consideration to all beings. If we do not extend the principle of equality to non-human animals, then we are speciesists. Singer, overall, argues for the need of all species to be treated equally despite either one lacking the ability to reason.
In regards to Hey, Little Ant, the young boy is faced with a dilemma to either squish the ant or to not. Singer would argue to not squish the ant as it would be a failure of the principle of equal consideration. No amount of pain or suffering should be inflicted upon any kind of species. Also, if a species is not within our own community, it is not enough of a reason to treat them any less, otherwise we are being a speciesist.
Note to Teacher: This story raises many philosophical questions, but this plan focuses on respect and animal rights. This is a suggested framework to guide new teachers to raise relevant questions, but it does not need not be strictly followed if the discussion is productive.
Lesson (40 minutes):
- (1 minute) Introduce the book
- Today, we are reading Hey, Little Ant. It’s about a boy and an ant, and we will look at the situation from their two different perspectives. I want you to pay attention to the reasons that they give for their perspective. After we read the book, we will have a discussion about what is the right thing to do in their situation.”
- (5 minutes) Read the book to the class
- (5 minutes) Start with a review of the reasons from each perspective and extend it to their own reasons. (You may even make two columns on the board, “To squish” or “Not to squish”.)
- Let’s now think about the reasons why the boy should squish the ant or not squish the ant.
- What are the reasons the boy gives to squish the ant? Are there other reasons to step on the ant?
- Follow-up question: Is this a good reason to squish the ant? Why?
- What are the reasons the ant gives to not be squished? Are there other reasons why the boy should not squish the ant?
- Follow-up question: Is this a good reason for not squishing the ant? Why?
- (10 minutes) After thinking about different reasons from each perspective, elevate their reasoning by considering the morality of the actions. Allow each student to share their thoughts in some capacity (like writing it down, sharing with a partner or small group, or sharing with the entire class).
- Is it right or wrong for the boy to squish the ant? What is your reason?
- Have you ever squished an ant? Why did you do this? Was this the right thing to do?
- Is it always wrong to kill bugs? Why or why not?
- (15 minutes) Some of the stronger reasons why the boy should not squish the ant may include: the ant does not deserve to die, the ant’s life is valuable, or we should treat the ant with respect. So, we can extend their thinking on concepts of value and respect for animals. Here are a list of potential questions:
- How is the ant different from the boy?
- How is the ant’s life similar to the boy’s life?
- Does it matter if the ant feels pain?
- Does it matter if the ant has a family to take care of?
- How would you feel if you were in the ant’s shoes?
- Is the ant’s life worth less than the boy’s life?
- Was the boy respecting the ant in this story? How do you know?
- How do you show respect to a person? To an animal? To a bug?
- What qualities does one need to have to be deserving of respect?
- Do bugs deserve respect? Why or why not?
- Should we respect these people, animals, or bugs equally (or in the same way)? Why?
- If an animal deserves respect, should we not kill it?
- (1 minute) Wrap Up Discussion
- With the story from Hey, Little Ant, we were able to explore questions about how ants should be treated, how ants differ from human beings, whether ants deserve respect, and what respecting ants means. I hope you continue to think about these questions and think about how we should treat other animals. What are your reasons to justify the way you treat them?
Optional Activity (for the classroom or homework):
Testing Your Actions-
- Give each student a plastic bag that contains a printed picture of an ant, spider, ladybug, and bee. (Alternatively, other pictures of animals may be provided.)
- Instructions to provide to students: Each of you has a bag that contains a printed picture of an ant, spider, ladybug, and bee. You can choose whether want to squish the insect by ripping them up or not to squish by leaving the picture intact.
- Extend their thoughts on the topic.
- In a classroom, continue the discussion with the new bugs and whether there are differences between how we treat different bugs and why. See more questions below.
- If this activity is for homework, give students a choice of questions and have them write down their reflections. Here are some suggested questions:
- Did you choose to squish the bugs? And why? Do you think you did the right thing?
- Did you treat all of the bugs the same? Or did you treat them differently? What are your reasons for different treatment of the bugs? Do you think your treatment of them is fair?
- Have you ever squished or harmed one of these bugs in the past? What did you do, and what were you thinking at that time? Do you think you will change your action in the future?
- Do these bugs deserve respect, and why? What does it mean to show them respect?
- Are there times when it is okay to kill bugs (or certain kinds of bugs)? What would be reasons to them?
Note to Teacher: Instead of reading the storybook, this activity can be used as a stimulus for discussion, especially with older students.