Next Steps in Invertebrate Welfare, Part 3: Understanding Attitudes and Possibilities


Whether in­ver­te­brates have a ca­pac­ity for valenced ex­pe­rience is still un­cer­tain. Re­think Pri­ori­ties has been sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­plor­ing this is­sue dur­ing the past months. Here, in the four­teenth post of this se­ries, I ex­plore our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates, draw at­ten­tion to differ­ent pos­si­bil­ities of ‘in­di­rect ad­vo­cacy’ and sug­gest some ques­tions that de­serve fur­ther re­search. As re­marked in our pre­vi­ous post, even if we con­cluded that in­ver­te­brates are con­scious and even if we had the means to help them, we would still need to de­ter­mine how likely it is that spe­cific in­ter­ven­tions on their be­half will be sup­ported and adopted. Fu­ture re­search on this mat­ter will al­low us to bet­ter de­ter­mine the tractabil­ity of im­prov­ing in­ver­te­brate welfare.


In­ver­te­brates are com­monly as­sumed to be in­ca­pable of ex­pe­rienc­ing pos­i­tive or nega­tive states. In a se­ries of pub­li­ca­tions by Re­think Pri­ori­ties, we have been ex­plor­ing sev­eral rele­vant ques­tions and sur­vey­ing the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence about this mat­ter. In this se­ries:

But sup­pose we dis­cov­ered that some in­ver­te­brates are con­scious in a morally sig­nifi­cant way. Sup­pose, in ad­di­tion, that we pos­sessed the tech­ni­cal means to aid them. For at least some in­ter­ven­tions, we would still have to as­cer­tain the like­li­hood that they will be so­cially sup­ported, or sup­ported by key stake­hold­ers, and thereby, adopted.

Here I will ex­plore this topic and pro­pose some pos­si­ble re­search ques­tions in this re­gard. I will also ar­gue that pub­lic at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates and to­wards in­ter­ven­tions on their be­half are an im­por­tant el­e­ment to con­sider when de­ter­min­ing the tractabil­ity of in­ver­te­brate welfare. In other words, its tractabil­ity does not only de­pend on the availa­bil­ity of ad­e­quate in­ter­ven­tions, but also on what at any given time is so­cially and/​or poli­ti­cally pos­si­ble to im­ple­ment. Thus, the fea­si­bil­ity of a spe­cific in­ter­ven­tion can be un­der­stood as the in­ter­play of three fac­tors (see fig. 1): (i) de­sir­able in­ter­ven­tions on be­half of in­ver­te­brates, ac­cord­ing to a sys­tem­atic di­ag­no­sis, (ii) what is tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble to do, and (iii) what is so­cially and/​or poli­ti­cally pos­si­ble to do.

Fig. 1. Iden­ti­fy­ing a pos­si­bly fea­si­ble in­ter­ven­tion.

In this post, I will dis­cuss the third fac­tor.

Un­der­stand­ing our at­ti­tudes to­wards invertebrates

How do we per­ceive in­ver­te­brates?

The ma­jor­ity of the re­search on be­liefs, at­ti­tudes, and be­hav­iors to­wards an­i­mals is cir­cum­scribed to ver­te­brates (es­pe­cially mam­mals) un­der hu­man con­trol[1]. Con­trar­i­wise, lit­tle is known about our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates, al­though most an­i­mal species be­long to this cat­e­gory. In what fol­lows, I sum­ma­rize the ex­ist­ing knowl­edge about this topic in four brief sec­tions. First, I high­light that most of our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates are re­lated to feel­ings of aver­sion or dis­like. Se­cond, I will ex­plain why, nev­er­the­less, we tend to have a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­wards in­sects we con­sider ‘beau­tiful’. Third, I will ex­plore some hy­pothe­ses about our nega­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates and how malle­able they may be. Fourth, I will draw at­ten­tion to how our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates vary among differ­ent con­texts and so­cial groups. Fi­nally, I will point out that our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates may be su­perfi­cial and not in­te­grated into a co­her­ent be­lief sys­tem.

We tend to have nega­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards invertebrates

As pre­vi­ously stated, our per­cep­tions and at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates is an un­der-re­searched topic. How­ever, the scant ex­ist­ing stud­ies co­in­cide in point­ing out the nega­tive per­cep­tions sur­round­ing in­ver­te­brates –es­pe­cially in­sects– in Western so­cieties.

Re­gard­ing our at­ti­tudes to­wards wild an­i­mals, so­ciol­o­gist S. Kel­lert is con­sid­ered to be one of the most promi­nent au­thors in the field. In a gen­eral study of at­ti­tudes to­wards an­i­mals, he found that peo­ple were least knowl­edge­able about in­ver­te­brates, and that they were among the least-liked an­i­mals (Kel­lert, 1985, in Fox & Mick­ley, 1985). Later, in a spe­cific in­ves­ti­ga­tion about per­cep­tions of in­ver­te­brates (N=214), a siz­able ma­jor­ity of the in­ter­vie­wees in­di­cated a dis­like of ants, bugs, bee­tles, ticks, cock­roaches, fleas, moths and spi­ders, as well as a per­cep­tion of oc­to­puses and cock­roaches as highly unattrac­tive an­i­mals (Kel­lert, 1993). More re­cently, an­other study also found that earth­worms are con­sid­ered re­volt­ing (Almeida et al., 2017). Broadly, in­ver­te­brates of sev­eral species, es­pe­cially in­sects, seem to be con­sid­ered “dis­gust­ing” due to their ap­pear­ance and/​or to their habits –like feed­ing from fe­ces or rot­ting fruit. Be­cause of this, they may gen­er­ate feel­ings of anx­iety, fear or re­vul­sion and peo­ple tend to sup­port their ex­ter­mi­na­tion (e.g., de Pinho et al., 2014; Knight, 2008; Sevillano & Fiske, 2015, Sevillano & Fiske, 2016). Still, given the method­olog­i­cal limi­ta­tions of the few ex­ist­ing stud­ies, fur­ther re­search is needed about our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates and our per­cep­tions of in­ver­te­brate pain or con­scious­ness.

More­over, nega­tive at­ti­tudes may be as­so­ci­ated to in­sect con­sump­tion in sev­eral Western coun­tries. In gen­eral, there is a nega­tive con­sumer per­cep­tion of in­sects as a food source (Ger­hardt et al., 2019; Looy et al., 2014; Schösler et al., 2012; Ver­beke, 2014), and con­sumers’ will­ing­ness to try in­sect-based food seems to be es­pe­cially driven by be­liefs about their ‘dis­gust­ing’ prop­er­ties (Van­honacker et al., 2013; Ver­beke, 2015). Given our gen­er­al­ized hos­tile at­ti­tudes to­wards in­sects, the main challenge to in­sect-based food in most Western coun­tries is re­lated to this per­cep­tion of dis­gust, rather than moral con­cern for in­sects.

We like “beau­tiful” invertebrates

A limited re­view of the liter­a­ture largely cor­rob­o­rates that pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates seem to be an ex­cep­tion (e.g. Batt, 2009; de Pinho et al., 2014; Driscoll, 1995; Kel­lert, 1993; Knight, 2008; Lock­wood, 1987; Sevillano & Fiske, 2016). How­ever, we are not afraid of but­terflies as we are of cock­roaches, be­cause we con­sider the former ‘beau­tiful’. As it hap­pens with other an­i­mals, pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes are more likely when the in­di­vi­d­ual in ques­tion is con­sid­ered aes­thet­i­cally valuable (Kel­lert, 1993; Wa­gler & Wa­gler, 2012; Knight, 2008). Is aes­thet­ics an im­por­tant pre­dic­tor of sup­port for in­ter­ven­tions on be­half of in­ver­te­brates? Cur­rently, we do not have a clear an­swer to this ques­tion.

Ap­par­ently, we also like in­ver­te­brates which perform an ecosys­tem ser­vice for hu­mans, most no­tably pol­li­na­tion –e.g., bees (Coon et al., 2018). In gen­eral, de­scribing an an­i­mal species as “use­ful” paves the way for its pro­tec­tion, but not nec­es­sar­ily to the moral con­sid­er­a­tion of the in­ter­ests of its in­di­vi­d­ual mem­bers (Opo­tow, 1993).

How malle­able are our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates?

Ex­ist­ing re­search sug­gests that our hos­tile at­ti­tudes to­ward in­ver­te­brates—es­pe­cially arthro­pods—con­sti­tute a formidable challenge to de­vel­op­ing an effec­tive strat­egy for pro­mot­ing in­ver­te­brate welfare. Cur­rently, it is not clear how to ex­plain this pat­tern of aver­sion, dis­dain, and avoidance. Some spec­u­late about an in­nate fear of po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous in­sects, gen­er­al­ized to other in­ver­te­brates (Adams, 1981). Others sug­gest a pre­sumed and per­sis­tent con­nec­tion be­tween many arthro­pods and hu­man dis­eases (McNeill, 1998). If that were the case, are these at­ti­tudes re­sis­tant to change?

Another pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for hu­man avoidance of in­ver­te­brates is how differ­ent these an­i­mals are from our own species, mor­pholog­i­cally and be­hav­iorally. As Kel­lert (1993) high­lights, they have rad­i­cally differ­ent sur­vival strate­gies, they live in ex­tremely differ­ent en­vi­ron­ments than ours, and have ‘alien-look­ing’ mor­pholo­gies.

Our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates vary across differ­ent con­texts and so­cial groups

In­ver­te­brates are a very di­verse group of an­i­mals. Usu­ally, we com­part­men­tal­ize them into differ­ent so­cially con­structed cat­e­gories (e.g., some are con­sid­ered “pests”, oth­ers “food”), which, in turn, vary across differ­ent cul­tural con­texts. Oc­to­puses and snails, for ex­am­ple, are seen as ‘food’ in many Med­iter­ranean coun­tries, whereas they are not in other re­gions. Similarly, at­ti­tudes to­wards eat­ing in­sects, for ex­am­ple, are not the same in In­dia as in a ‘typ­i­cal’ Western coun­try like Belgium (Ver­beke, 2015). Fur­ther­more, our in­ter­ac­tions with in­ver­te­brates are in­fluenced by his­tor­i­cal fac­tors and differ across bio­geo­graphic re­gions. Fu­ture re­search should be sen­si­tive to these differ­ences and iden­tify to what ex­tent its find­ings may or may not be gen­er­al­iz­able.

In ad­di­tion, if we want to pro­mote spe­cific in­ter­ven­tions, it should be noted that our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates may also vary ac­cord­ing to cer­tain so­ciode­mo­graphic fac­tors —e.g., age, sex, and ed­u­ca­tional level[2], ac­cord­ing to Kel­lert’s (1993) find­ings. How­ever, the is­sue re­quires fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Similarly, in some Western coun­tries, our will­ing­ness to eat in­sect-based food may vary across differ­ent so­ciode­mo­graphic groups. In par­tic­u­lar, males seem to be more likely than fe­males to eat in­sect-based food (Megido et al., 2016; Schösler et al., 2012; Ver­beke, 2015). Ad­di­tion­ally, in two stud­ies, con­sumers who planned to re­duce meat in­take and younger con­sumers —when com­pared to older ones– ap­pear to be more will­ing to eat in­sects (Schösler et al., 2012; Ver­beke, 2014). Hence, it is plau­si­ble we may need to tar­get differ­ent de­mo­graphic groups differ­ently.

Our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates may be superficial

In gen­eral, ex­ist­ing knowl­edge about our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates is not only limited in terms of the taxa stud­ied, but also in terms of the at­ti­tudes sur­veyed. They mostly look into oc­cur­rent, spon­ta­neous or su­perfi­cial re­sponses that peo­ple tend to ex­pe­rience in the course of their ev­ery­day life. But, im­por­tantly, those at­ti­tudes do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect peo­ple’s views on the moral con­sid­er­a­tion of in­ver­te­brates, or their ac­tual be­hav­ior to­wards these an­i­mals. For ex­am­ple, even if some­one feels dis­gust to­wards in­sects, that does not nec­es­sar­ily en­tail that she be­lieves they are not sen­tient, that their pain does not mat­ter or that us­ing in­sec­ti­cide is morally in­nocu­ous.

In this re­gard, it is worth not­ing that our at­ti­tudes to­wards an­i­mals (in gen­eral) seem to be of­ten con­tra­dic­tory and do not nec­es­sar­ily form a co­her­ent be­lief sys­tem (Her­zog et al., 2001; Her­zog, 2011: 237-262). For ex­am­ple, a poll con­ducted by Sen­tience In­sti­tute in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ip­sos Group (see Reese, 2017) showed that al­most half of Amer­i­cans think that slaugh­ter­houses should be banned[3]. De­spite these re­sults, peo­ple do not make a cor­re­spond­ing change in their own diets and only 5% of Amer­i­cans claim to be veg­e­tar­i­ans (Gal­lup, 2018). Another com­mon ex­am­ple are peo­ple who con­sume meat and define them­selves as “an­i­mal lovers”. While there are ex­cep­tions, we tend to have at­ti­tudes about an­i­mals that are periph­eral and su­perfi­cial[4]. Th­ese be­liefs are col­lec­tions of largely un­re­lated and iso­lated ideas and opinions, and are of­ten in­con­gru­ent with each other.

Be­sides this am­bivalence, ap­par­ently, many peo­ple do not care about an­i­mal welfare (Her­zog et al., 2001; Her­zog, 2011: 237-262). If that is the case for an­i­mals in gen­eral the welfare of in­ver­te­brates, in par­tic­u­lar, is prob­a­bly of much less im­por­tance to most peo­ple. Pre­sum­ably, it is not even an is­sue. Thus, it can be hy­poth­e­sized that most peo­ple have not even thought about in­ver­te­brate welfare as a moral prob­lem.

Psy­cholog­i­cal bar­ri­ers to in­ver­te­brate welfare

Based on his find­ings, Kel­lert (1993) con­cluded that “it is un­likely that very many peo­ple will de­velop an af­fec­tion or af­finity for [in­ver­te­brates]” (852). Although Kel­lert’s work does not ad­dress our moral con­cern to­wards in­ver­te­brates, emo­tions like “af­fec­tion” or “af­finity” may play an im­por­tant role when try­ing to mor­al­ize an ac­tion or event in which in­ver­te­brates are in­volved. While af­fec­tion or af­finity can foster mor­al­iza­tion, at­ti­tudes of fear, an­tipa­thy and aver­sion may con­sti­tute bar­ri­ers to it.

Be­sides be­ing con­sid­ered “dis­gust­ing” due to their mor­phol­ogy and/​or to their habits, as well as be­ing as­so­ci­ated with dis­eases and other threats to hu­man health, there may be ad­di­tional fac­tors that pre­vent us from car­ing about in­ver­te­brates. I hy­poth­e­size that there are at least four other bar­ri­ers that make the moral con­sid­er­a­tion of in­ver­te­brates difficult for us. I briefly de­scribe these four points here­un­der.

In­ver­te­brate welfare is ‘weird’: it defies ex­ist­ing so­cial norms

As Lock­wood (1987) ad­mit­ted years ago, “there seems to be an over­all aver­sion to rec­og­niz­ing in­sects as or­ganisms de­serv­ing of moral con­sid­er­a­tion” (83). For many of us, the no­tion that (some) in­ver­te­brates may be sen­tient and may have a welfare we should care about is coun­ter­in­tu­itive. It defies cur­rent per­cep­tions of many in­ver­te­brates. It challenges ex­ist­ing norms in most so­cieties, where in­ver­te­brates are com­monly con­sid­ered un­de­sired vis­i­tors (‘pests’).

How in­fluen­tial are these so­cial norms to our in­di­vi­d­ual be­hav­ior? For ex­am­ple, if all of your friends are fas­ci­nated by a new se­ries on Net­flix, you will prob­a­bly at least have a look at it, even if you rarely watch se­ries. As so­cial an­i­mals, hu­mans have an ‘in­nate’ (and some­times, non-con­scious) dis­po­si­tion to fit with our group. We tend to con­form, that is, to act or think in ways similar to those of other mem­bers of the group we be­long to, sim­ply be­cause these other mem­bers act and think on those ways (Gavac et al., 2014).

This ex­plains why when it comes to chang­ing ideas or be­hav­ior —es­pe­cially at the in­di­vi­d­ual level– we find it difficult to de­vi­ate from so­cial norms. We are afraid of not be­ing so­cially ac­cepted. Hence, our need to be­long and our per­cep­tion of the ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers may dis­suade us from be­hav­ing or think­ing differ­ently than they do (Fein­berg et al., 2019; Willi­ams, 2007). In this con­text, it should be par­tic­u­larly difficult to per­suade oth­ers about ‘weird’ ideas, such as that in­ver­te­brate welfare is a mat­ter of eth­i­cal con­cern.

We are usu­ally re­sis­tant to ideas that con­flict with our beliefs

Psy­chol­o­gist Leon Fes­tiger (Fest­inger et al. 2008 [1956]) wrote that “[a] man [sic] with a con­vic­tion is a hard man to change. Tell him you dis­agree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he ques­tions your sources. Ap­peal to logic and he fails to see your point” (22). Th­ese words draw at­ten­tion to a com­mon pat­tern: we usu­ally re­fuse to ac­cept facts that con­flict with our be­liefs. Thus, even if there is suffi­cient ev­i­dence that some in­ver­te­brates are sen­tient, peo­ple may vi­gor­ously op­pose the idea that we should be con­cerned about their welfare.

Fur­ther­more, ev­i­dence sug­gests that if we feel pres­sured to think or act in a cer­tain way, we tend to think or do pre­cisely the op­po­site. For in­stance, warn­ings about the harms of smok­ing of­ten lead smok­ers to be less in­clined to quit and non­smok­ers to be more prone to smoke (Erceg-Hurn & Steed, 2011; Robin­son & Killen, 1997 in Fein­berg et al., 2019). This re­ac­tion usu­ally ap­pears when change is ad­vo­cated be­cause of moral rea­sons. This effect can be ac­cen­tu­ated if the mes­sage is highly dis­crepant from ex­ist­ing at­ti­tudes, which usu­ally leads to the de­vel­op­ment of more coun­ter­ar­gu­ments by the re­ceiver (Choo, 1964; Kaplow­itz & Fink, 1997).

How likely is it that some­thing similar will hap­pen if we di­rectly ad­vo­cate for in­ver­te­brate welfare? In this re­gard, Michael Greger (of Nutri­tion Facts) ar­gues force­fully that anti-honey ad­vo­cacy hurts the ve­gan move­ment. Many peo­ple ap­par­ently have trou­ble as­cribing morally valuable states to cows and pigs. The idea that bees might suffer (and that we should care about their suffer­ing) strikes these peo­ple as crazy. If an av­er­age per­son thinks that a small part of ve­gan ‘ide­ol­ogy’ is crazy, mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing will eas­ily al­low this thought to in­fect their per­cep­tion of the rest of the ve­gan wor­ld­view. Hence, the knowl­edge that ve­g­ans care about bees may lead many peo­ple to show less com­pas­sion to­ward cows and pigs than they oth­er­wise would[5].

Thus, in­ver­te­brate welfare is not only a ‘weird’ con­cern, but so in­com­pat­i­ble with our cur­rent at­ti­tudes that it can elicit a back­fire effect (Ny­han & Reifler, 2010). The back­fire effect is a phe­nomenon in which, un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, the pre­sen­ta­tion of ev­i­dence in fa­vor of some propo­si­tion p ac­tu­ally re­duces cre­dence in p. That is to say, re­gard­less of the ev­i­dence we face, our es­tab­lished be­liefs against p do not change but ac­tu­ally get stronger.

That does not nec­es­sar­ily sug­gest that it is not pos­si­ble to change our minds about in­ver­te­brates. It is just that we have other im­por­tant goals be­sides get­ting to know the facts about the world around us. One of these is con­firm­ing our cur­rent be­liefs, since that is a way to af­firm our iden­tity and to pro­tect our self-con­cep­tion.

How­ever, sub­se­quent stud­ies (i.e., Haglin, 2017; Wood & Porter, 2019) have not repli­cated Ny­han & Reifler’s (2010, 2015) find­ings. Hence, more work is needed to val­i­date the back­fire effect, and whether this phe­nomenon is ap­pli­ca­ble to the pro­mo­tion of in­ver­te­brate welfare.

In­ver­te­brates as food: plea­sure as a bar­rier to moral consideration

It is known that smok­ing is un­healthy. How­ever, the risks re­lated to this habit usu­ally do not suffice to en­courage smok­ers to quit their habit. Why? Are smok­ers es­pe­cially ir­ra­tional or ir­re­spon­si­ble?

Smok­ers think and be­have just like other hu­mans do. For some­one who smokes, warn­ing mes­sages link­ing cigarette smok­ing to lung can­cer elicit a clear dis­so­nance: their be­hav­ior is not con­sis­tent with the idea that smok­ing is dan­ger­ous. This is a con­flict that needs to be re­solved or eluded. Clearly, the most benefi­cial way to do so would be to give up smok­ing. But if for what­ever rea­son quit­ting smok­ing is not an op­tion for us, in all prob­a­bil­ity, we will try to sup­press the trou­bling idea that “smok­ing is un­healthy” –rather than chang­ing our be­hav­ior. Thus, we may con­vince our­selves that the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence against smok­ing is not con­clu­sive or that this habit “is not that bad” (Chap­man et al., 1993; Fest­inger, 1964; Fest­inger & Car­l­smith, 1959; Tagli­a­cozzo, 1981).

Like­wise, eat­ing lob­ster is pleas­ant for many peo­ple, and just as smok­ing, we may think that chang­ing our be­hav­ior is not an op­tion. The plea­sure in­volved in eat­ing in­ver­te­brates like crabs, squids, lob­sters and oth­ers can act as a bar­rier to the moral con­sid­er­a­tion of these an­i­mals (see Bas­tian & Lough­nan, 2017; Fein­berg et al., 2019; Pi­azza et al., 2015). Thus, in­stead of chang­ing a spe­cific be­hav­ior (not eat­ing lob­ster any­more), peo­ple may rather come up with all sorts of jus­tifi­ca­tions for it. For in­stance, they may claim that it is nat­u­ral for hu­mans to eat an­i­mals or they may deny that lob­sters are con­scious in a morally rele­vant way .

Nev­er­the­less, other fac­tors can come into play (see e.g. Lough­nan & Pi­azza, 2018 in Gray & Gra­ham, 2018). Those fac­tors may make peo­ple more likely to be con­cerned for lob­ster welfare than for other in­ver­te­brates such as in­sects.

Other challenges for con­sid­er­ing the welfare of in­ver­te­brates in nature

The situ­a­tion does not seem any eas­ier for in­ver­te­brates liv­ing in na­ture who suffer from nat­u­ral harms. In these cases, the ap­peal to na­ture fal­lacy[6] (see Moore & Bald­win, 1993: 47) may lead to the be­lief that suffer­ing caused by nat­u­ral fac­tors must be pos­i­tive, and, in turn, in­terfer­ing in those pro­cesses is not de­sir­able. How­ever, the role of this fal­lacy in how in­ver­te­brate welfare is per­ceived (if any) has not been em­piri­cally ex­plored yet.

Ad­di­tion­ally, when an­i­mals are af­fected by nat­u­ral events, there is ei­ther no in­ten­tional agent that caused the harm or its ex­is­tence is not ev­i­dent. Hu­mans, how­ever, seem to think of moral situ­a­tions and seem to per­ceive harms as dyads (or pairs) of vic­tim-per­pe­tra­tor (Gray et al., 2012; Gray et al., 2014). It is pos­si­ble that nat­u­ral pro­cesses that nega­tively af­fect in­ver­te­brates —where there is no in­ten­tion­al­ity— are in­ter­preted as “psy­cholog­i­cally in­com­plete” events and, thus, dis­missed as eth­i­cally ir­rele­vant, ex­empt­ing us of any moral obli­ga­tion. This phe­nomenon and other pos­si­ble el­e­ments of hu­man per­cep­tion re­gard­ing in­ver­te­brate welfare and in­ter­ven­tion in na­ture should be em­piri­cally ad­dressed.

As the situ­a­tion of an­i­mals liv­ing in na­ture illus­trates, car­ing for in­ver­te­brate welfare does not only im­ply that we have rea­sons to stop harm­ing these an­i­mals. If in­ver­te­brates mat­ter,, their in­ter­ests may place pos­i­tive du­ties of as­sis­tance on us[7]. In all prob­a­bil­ity, these moral de­mands will be ex­cep­tion­ally costly. Thus, ac­com­mo­dat­ing in­ver­te­brate in­ter­ests may re­quire es­sen­tial changes in hu­man ac­tivi­ties, in our so­cial norms and, at an in­di­vi­d­ual level, it may in­volve se­ri­ous cog­ni­tive costs.

Re­gard­ing the lat­ter, peo­ple usu­ally en­gage in “look the other way” strate­gies to avoid feel­ing sym­pa­thy for an­i­mals used as food, be­cause of the prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions of such feel­ings (Rothger­ber, 2014). Note that oc­curs even when the be­hav­ioral cost is as­so­ci­ated to stop do­ing some­thing that harms ver­te­brate an­i­mals[8]. Hence, it would not be sur­pris­ing that a similar pro­cess hap­pens when in­ver­te­brates are in­volved and, in par­tic­u­lar, when meet­ing their needs re­quire some pos­i­tive ac­tion on our part.

Fur­ther­more, in­ver­te­brates are the vast ma­jor­ity of ex­ist­ing an­i­mals. If they mat­ter morally, per­ceiv­ing that one must care for their welfare may trig­ger other psy­cholog­i­cal bar­ri­ers as­so­ci­ated with a prob­lem’s mag­ni­tude prob­lem (e.g., scope in­sen­si­tivity[9] and col­lapse of com­pas­sion[10]).

In sum, even if in­ver­te­brate welfare is a worth­while cause, sev­eral fac­tors may pre­vent us from con­sid­er­ing this is­sue prop­erly. Ad­di­tion­ally, there is the worry that rush­ing into a di­rect ad­vo­cacy cam­paign may cre­ate hard-to-re­verse lock-in effects. If the ini­tial mes­sage is sub­op­ti­mal, these lock-in effects can im­pose sub­stan­tial costs. Hence, di­rectly ad­vo­cat­ing for in­ver­te­brate welfare at this time might be ac­tively coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, both to the in­ver­te­brate welfare cause area and effec­tive al­tru­ism more gen­er­ally[11].

How are in­ter­ven­tions on be­half of in­ver­te­brates per­ceived?

In gen­eral, our at­ti­tudes to­wards an­i­mals and how we morally con­sider them is a com­plex is­sue. As it was pre­vi­ously sug­gested, most at­ti­tudes to­wards an­i­mals may be su­perfi­cial and in­co­her­ent. It can be hy­poth­e­sized that in­ver­te­brates are not an ex­cep­tion.

Hence, in spite of our pre­sumed nega­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates, peo­ple may not have strong opinions one way or an­other about spe­cific in­ter­ven­tions on be­half of these an­i­mals. How spe­cific in­ter­ven­tions (e.g., hu­mane in­sec­ti­cides, ban­ning lob­ster tanks in gro­cery stores, stun­ning crus­taceans be­fore be­ing kil­led and boiled) are per­ceived is an is­sue that mer­its fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion. In this re­gard, the study of at­ti­tudes to­wards tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble in­ter­ven­tions should be pri­ori­tized.

Ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ities of ‘in­di­rect ad­vo­cacy’

At pre­sent, we do not know if there are ways to over­come our psy­cholog­i­cal bar­ri­ers to in­ver­te­brate welfare. How­ever, even if peo­ple are not will­ing to rec­og­nize (some) in­ver­te­brates as in­di­vi­d­u­als de­serv­ing of moral con­sid­er­a­tion, they may still sup­port spe­cific cam­paigns on be­half of in­ver­te­brates for other rea­sons. In­deed, the ex­ten­sion of the move­ment on be­half of farmed an­i­mals and the in­crease in plant-based prod­ucts seem to have been driven, in an im­por­tant part, by con­sid­er­a­tions differ­ent from a con­cern for an­i­mal welfare. Sev­eral stud­ies point out that con­sumers have been choos­ing a plant-based diet or meal not nec­es­sar­ily out of con­cern for an­i­mals, but rather out of a con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment and their own health (Ceuta Group, 2019; Gal­lup, 2018; Lan­tern, 2019; NPD Group, 2019). Thus, it is rea­son­able to think that a similar ap­proach for in­ver­te­brates is worth ex­plor­ing.

We still know very lit­tle about which ar­gu­ments may be used for an in­di­rect pro­mo­tion of mea­sures that benefit in­ver­te­brates. How­ever, it is known that a com­pel­ling ar­gu­ment used to en­courage chefs to switch to the Crus­tas­tun elec­tri­cal stun­ning sys­tem for crus­taceans is that this method—un­like boiling crabs or lob­sters al­ive—pre­vents an­i­mals from re­leas­ing stress hor­mones, and, there­fore, “the flavour of the meat is en­hanced and the tex­ture be­comes more suc­cu­lent” (Mitchell & Cooper, 2019). This is not to say that such an ar­gu­ment should be used openly when ad­dress­ing the pub­lic at large (as­sum­ing that is some­thing we want to do). The point is rather that the types of ar­gu­ments em­ployed must be tai­lored to the differ­ent so­cial groups or stake­hold­ers. If suc­cess­ful, this can even neu­tral­ize their pos­si­ble op­po­si­tion or, at least, cre­ate di­vi­sion among them.

For their part, if the de­vel­op­ment of hu­mane in­sec­ti­cides[12] suc­ceeds, given our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­sects, they will pre­sum­ably have to be pro­moted un­der a fram­ing differ­ent from that of ‘in­sect welfare’. In this sense, if these new in­sec­ti­cides can over­come the prob­lems of con­ven­tional ones (i.e., in­sect re­sis­tance, con­tam­i­na­tion risks and po­ten­tial nega­tive effects on hu­man health, see Hen­drichs, 2000; Thul­lner, 1997), they could be more effec­tively pro­moted em­ploy­ing those ar­gu­ments.

Eco­nomic con­cerns can also en­courage spe­cific in­ter­ven­tions on be­half of in­ver­te­brates. On the one hand, eco­nomic pres­sure for im­prove­ments in an­i­mal welfare has be­come an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant driv­ing force for changes in han­dling and rear­ing con­di­tions of land ver­te­brate an­i­mals (Gib­son & Jack­son, 2017). If higher welfare stan­dards for, say, farmed crus­taceans are benefi­cial for pro­duc­ers, they are more likely to be adopted. In­deed, the new tech­nol­ogy for crab pro­cess­ing im­ple­mented by Hi­tra­mat, Nor­way’s largest crab pro­ducer, does not only stun the an­i­mals be­fore be­ing slaugh­tered but also au­to­mat­i­cally sorts out those crabs with the high­est meat con­tent —a pro­cess that was pre­vi­ously con­ducted man­u­ally (Berg-Ja­cob­sen, 2014).

On an­other note, eco­nomic con­cerns can also pro­mote spe­cific re­search on in­ver­te­brate welfare. For ex­am­ple, the in­creased oc­cur­rence of colony-col­lapse di­s­or­der in honey bees has led to more re­search into bee health and welfare, given their im­por­tance in pro­duc­ing honey and pol­li­nat­ing crops (Evans & Sch­warz, 2011).

Ap­peal­ing to other rea­sons, differ­ent from a con­cern for in­ver­te­brate welfare, will prob­a­bly re­quire link­ing spe­cific goals to the goals of other so­cial move­ments or or­ga­ni­za­tions[13]. Plau­si­bly, other so­cial groups might not be moved by the same mo­ti­va­tions as we are. How­ever, if they are brought on board a bud­ding move­ment, they usu­ally provide in­valuable re­sources and so­cial net­works to it. Hence, if a form of in­ter­ven­tion ap­peals to an­other group’s scope of ac­tion or fits into their pro­gram­matic goals, it will mo­bi­lize more re­sources, and gain more ad­her­ents. Gen­er­ally, the broader the base of a coal­i­tion is, the greater the chance it has of at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of in­sti­tu­tions.

In this re­gard, some forms of in­ter­ven­tion are likely to be en­dorsed if they co­in­cide with the agenda of, let’s say, con­ser­va­tion­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions. One ex­am­ple of this is To­masik’s (2017) pro­posal of re­duc­ing ir­ri­ga­tion sub­sidies and fer­til­izer use in agri­cul­ture (as­sum­ing that in­ver­te­brate lives are net-nega­tive and that this is a cost-effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion). Sus­tain­abil­ity and effi­ciency prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with oc­to­pus farm­ing (Jac­quet et al., 2019) can mo­bi­lize en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and, if the op­por­tu­nity arises, these ar­gu­ments can be used to dis­cour­age fur­ther pub­lic in­vest­ments in such pro­jects (e.g., as the Span­ish In­sti­tute of Oceanog­ra­phy is cur­rently do­ing in the de­vel­op­ment of oc­to­pus aqua­cul­ture).

In gen­eral, which ar­gu­ments may be used for an in­di­rect pro­mo­tion of mea­sures that benefit in­ver­te­brates is an is­sue that re­quires fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

De­spite the po­ten­tial benefits as­so­ci­ated with mo­bi­liz­ing coal­i­tions, this ap­proach has its challenges. First, even or­ga­ni­za­tions within the same move­ment that share broadly similar goals may hold ide­olog­i­cal po­si­tions ad­verse to form a coal­i­tion. Gen­er­ally, ide­olog­i­cal differ­ences can in­hibit coal­i­tion for­ma­tion or jeop­ar­dize their sta­bil­ity (Van Dyke & Amos, 2016). Se­cond, al­though shar­ing similar goals may be suffi­cient for an ad-hoc al­li­ance, the lack of a shared ide­ol­ogy can lead to a su­perfi­cial and re­stricted com­mu­ni­ca­tional strat­egy, that does not ap­peal to sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sions about the moral con­sid­er­a­tion of in­ver­te­brates.

Third, re­searchers on so­cial change state that the differ­ences men­tioned above may be over­come by mem­bers who con­nect the differ­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions or move­ments in­volved (“bridge builders”) (Bysty­dz­ien­ski & Schacht, 2001: 8-13; Rose, 2000: 166-186; Van Dyke & Amos, 2016). In this re­gard, how­ever, the an­i­mal rights move­ment does not have a rich his­tory of co­op­er­a­tion with other so­cial move­ments.

Fourth, the need for col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween differ­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions or move­ments is usu­ally mo­ti­vated by new events that con­sti­tute a threat –real or per­ceived– to their goals (Van Dyke & Amos, 2016). With a few ex­cep­tions (e.g., oc­to­pus farm­ing), the prob­lem of in­ver­te­brate suffer­ing can­not be de­scribed as a dis­rup­tive or ex­traor­di­nary event. In­stead, it is the re­sult of ei­ther es­tab­lished hu­man prac­tices or nat­u­ral events.


In gen­eral, the well-be­ing of in­ver­te­brates will in­creas­ingly de­pend on our will­ing­ness to help them. Nowa­days, hu­mans have a limited ca­pac­ity to do so. How­ever, our abil­ity to in­ter­vene on be­half of these an­i­mals will prob­a­bly in­crease in the fu­ture, as new tech­nolo­gies are de­vel­oped and knowl­edge of ecosys­temic re­la­tions im­proves (Horta, 2016). Hence, we need to un­der­stand hu­man at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates, as well as ex­plore other im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tions about so­cial change, in or­der to learn how to suc­cess­fully dis­cour­age harm­ful prac­tices to­wards these an­i­mals and how to de­velop and im­ple­ment pos­i­tive in­ter­ven­tions on their be­half.

In sum­mary, some ques­tions on this topic that we would like to see an­swered are:

  • How gen­er­al­iz­able are ex­ist­ing find­ings about our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates?

  • What are our at­ti­tudes to­wards spe­cific in­ver­te­brate species or fam­i­lies?

  • Which fac­tors shape our at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates? What are the most rele­vant pre­dic­tors of the moral con­sid­er­a­tion we as­sign to in­ver­te­brates?

  • Are our hos­tile at­ti­tudes to­wards in­ver­te­brates re­sis­tant to change? How malle­able are they?

  • What con­di­tions would make the mor­al­iza­tion of in­ver­te­brate welfare more likely?

  • How are spe­cific forms of in­ter­ven­tion per­ceived? Do these mea­sures have other benefits be­sides im­prov­ing the lives of the in­ver­te­brates in­volved?

  • How to frame a spe­cific in­ver­te­brate welfare prob­lem and its solu­tion so that they ap­pear com­pel­ling? Similarly, how is the in­dus­try fram­ing the pro­mo­tion of in­sect-based foods? Are there ways to counter their ar­gu­ments? Qual­i­ta­tive stud­ies are prob­a­bly a suit­able ap­proach to ex­plore these ques­tions.

We hope that fu­ture re­search fo­cuses on shed­ding some light on the prob­lems pre­sented above. That will al­low us to bet­ter de­ter­mine the tractabil­ity of in­ver­te­brate welfare.


This es­say is a pro­ject of Re­think Pri­ori­ties.

It was writ­ten by Daniela R. Wald­horn. Thanks to David Moss, Eze Paez, Jane Capozzelli, Ja­son Schukraft, Mar­cus A. Davis, and Ma­tias Vazquez for their con­tri­bu­tion.

If you like our work, please con­sider sub­scribing to our newslet­ter. You can see all our work to date here.


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  1. Speci­fi­cally, in psy­chol­ogy, some stud­ies ex­plore the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mans and com­pan­ion an­i­mals (e.g., An­der­son, 2008; Ser­pell, 1995; Zaw­is­towski, 2008). Others deal with the cor­re­la­tion be­tween cru­elty to com­pan­ion an­i­mals and vi­o­lence against hu­mans (e.g., Ar­luke et al., 1999; As­cione, 2001). Ad­di­tion­ally, there is a re­cent and ex­pand­ing in­ter­est in the psy­chol­ogy of eat­ing an­i­mals (e.g., Bas­tian et al., 2012; Joy, 2010; Lough­nan et al., 2010; Lough­nan et al., 2014). ↩︎

  2. Sch­witzgebel et al. (2019) also claim that ed­u­ca­tion may have a gen­eral in­fluence on real-world moral be­hav­ior. How­ever, other au­thors are scep­ti­cal about the in­fluence of ed­u­ca­tion on this re­gard (see Haidt, 2012; Sch­witzgebel & Rust, 2016). ↩︎

  3. The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­tural Eco­nomics at Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity (2018) repli­cated Sen­tience In­sti­tute’s sur­vey and found similar re­sults. Re­think Pri­ori­ties is work­ing on a forth­com­ing con­cep­tual repli­ca­tion of this study, ex­plor­ing the depth and un­der­stand­ing of the pub­lic’s views on this is­sue. ↩︎

  4. Struc­turally in­con­sis­tent at­ti­tudes tra­di­tion­ally have been termed “vac­u­ous at­ti­tudes” or “non-at­ti­tudes”. See Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Chaiken et al., 1995: 387-412. ↩︎

  5. I thank Ja­son Schukraft for these points. ↩︎

  6. The ap­peal to na­ture fal­lacy says that “a thing is good be­cause it is ‘nat­u­ral’, or bad be­cause it is ‘un­nat­u­ral’” (Moore & Bald­win, 1993: 47). ↩︎

  7. I thank Ja­son Schukraft for these points. ↩︎

  8. This pro­cess may be similar to the way peo­ple seek to avoid feel­ing em­pa­thy to­wards hu­man vic­tims be­cause of the costs and efforts that em­pa­thy is as­so­ci­ated with (see Cameron et al., 2017; Shaw et al., 1994). ↩︎

  9. Scope in­sen­si­tivity or scope ne­glect is a cog­ni­tive bias that con­sists in not re­al­iz­ing the real scope of a cer­tain quan­tity, usu­ally when those quan­tities are very large. Thereby, when we com­pare two differ­ent quan­tities we fail to no­tice the differ­ence be­tween them, and we tend not to ad­just our val­u­a­tion of an is­sue in pro­por­tion to the size or scale of it (Kah­ne­man, Ri­tov & Schkade, 2000 in Kah­ne­man & Tver­sky, 2000: 652-653). This phe­nomenon es­pe­cially im­pairs our judg­ments about helping an­i­mals be­cause of the mas­sive amount of an­i­mal suffer­ing and death. ↩︎

  10. Be­ing con­fronted with too much suffer­ing can lead to what is of­ten called the col­lapse of com­pas­sion, a defense mechanism that re­duces or elimi­nates our sen­si­tivity to the harms oth­ers suffer when we are faced with mas­sive amounts of suffer­ing (Slovic, 2007). So far, this phe­nomenon has only been em­piri­cally stud­ied when the vic­tims are hu­mans. ↩︎

  11. I thank Ja­son Schukraft for these points. ↩︎

  12. Chem­i­cal in­sec­ti­cides are likely to pro­duce high amounts of di­rect suffer­ing. If we have to kill in­sects, we should do it as painlessly as pos­si­ble. In this re­gard, Wild An­i­mal Ini­ti­a­tive (WAI) is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of hu­mane in­sec­ti­cides. WAI aims to iden­tify in­sec­ti­cides that kill faster, less painfully, or both, avoid­ing po­ten­tially nega­tive down­stream ecolog­i­cal effects (Howe, 2019). ↩︎

  13. In so­ciol­ogy, this hap­pens through what is called a frame al­ign­ment pro­cess (Snow et al., 1986). About fram­ing pro­cesses and so­cial move­ments see also Ben­ford & Snow (2000), Car­roll & Rat­ner (1996), McA­dam et al. (1996), and Tar­row (2011). ↩︎