Dying worms: To squash or not?

"The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" - Jeremy Bentham
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Brian Tomasik
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Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Thu Dec 09, 2010 5:27 pm

During and after rainstorms in the spring time, I encounter many dozens of worms washed up on the sidewalks. Some of them look healthy as they vigorously wiggle their way along the pavement, but many others appear helplessly trapped and unable to move. I often wonder whether it would be merciful to quickly squash the latter worms, in order to hasten an otherwise protracted death.

Out of selfishness, I would prefer the answer to be "No, it doesn't prevent suffering to squash the worms instead of leaving them to die," because this would exempt me from compunction about not spending more time to help them. However, I'm curious to hear an honest answer. If worms can suffer meaningfully (my probability is > 0.2 that they can), and if quickly squashing a dying worm would prevent several minutes or hours of severe pain, then I could directly prevent a fair amount of suffering by spending some time walking around to kill them.

A small proportion of the dying worms are actively thrashing about, and these seem fairly obviously to be in pain (if worms can indeed feel pain of the type we care about). But most lie relatively still, seemingly unable to finish a journey across the pavement that they tried to begin. However, they seem to have enough hours of life left in them that I would guess that squishing them is less agonizing than letting them remain as they are.

To quote Jeff Lockwood from the comments of my earlier blog post on this subject:
I’d concur that it is ethically sound to kill a partially crushed worm (there is even some biochemical evidence that worms can suffer, as they possess serotonin and endorphins). They writhe and appear to exhibit behaviors that a compassionate and reasonable person would justifiably conclude are evidence of suffering (the issue being—if you are wrong and the worms aren’t suffering, then nothing has been lost by your action, other than a moment of time and the angst of mistaken empathy, but if you are right, then those who don’t take a second to act compassionately lose a great deal as does the worm). My sense is that it takes a rather long time for a partially crushed worm to die, as its physiology and anatomy are such that death would not follow nearly as quickly as it would for a mammal with a more complex and concentrated set of vital organs.
Because I don't enjoy the process of spending time to crush worms, I would be grateful to discover that they're better off being left alone; but I doubt this is the case. I wonder: Is there a more systematic method that people could use to prevent worms from suffering like this?

Thanks for the comments!

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by davidpearce » Thu Dec 09, 2010 7:12 pm

Other things being equal, a sentient being whose life has irreversibly fallen below hedonic zero should be swiftly euthanased IMO. But the "other things being equal" condition clearly carries a lot of weight here. Thus how does one guard against the coarsening and brutalizing effect of killing, which may spill over into other areas? In the case of dying worms, I'm not clear there is a unitary subject who is in agony, as distinct from individual ganglia each undergoing discrete pains. This observation isn't intended to trivialize invertebrate suffering, just to indicate why I think a principled case can be made for our prioritizing the plight of vertebrates with a central nervous system - a plight that coincidentally is more accessible to intervention with existing technologies.

More generally, I think the only way to make a significant impact on wild animal suffering is to tackle the problem systematically - i.e. via compassionate ecosystem redesign, cross-species fertility control, global GPS tracking and surveillance, neuro-implants, population management etc - rather than piecemeal initiative. And the biggest obstacles here will be ideological not technical.

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Thu Dec 09, 2010 7:35 pm

a unitary subject who is in agony

I think that's a nice way to phrase what we mean when we say "an organism feels pain in an ethically relevant way." It seems an open question whether that applies to worms. Thanks for the reply, Dave!

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by davidpearce » Fri Dec 10, 2010 11:36 am

It is sometimes observed that one withdraws e.g. one's hand from a hot stove before one actually experiences the phenomenal pain. This might seem to show, trivially, that [the neurophysiological substrates of] phenomenal pain didn't cause one's hand to withdraw. But this inference is too quick. Maybe peripheral nervous system ganglia did experience phenomenal pain, but one's CNS had no access to that pain, merely its causal effects. On this conjecture, there are (at least) two pains; the extra-cranial original and - after subsequent neurotransmission - the sharp pain in one's CNS a hundred or so milliseconds later - which one locates in [the somatosensory representation of] one's hand.

On this story, do some of one's peripheral nerve ganglia therefore potentially have independent moral status? If one is a utilitarian, ultimately yes - but presumably an attenuated moral status because such "encapsulated" raw pains lack the complex spectrum of affective experience that accompanies raw pain as experienced in the CNS.

Anyhow, assume for the sake of argument that something like the above conjecture is true. Are, for example, the nerve ganglia in each of the segments of segmented worms potentially objects of moral concern? A severed octopus arm? ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/nort ... 498291.stm ) How about the detached tail segment of an injured lizard ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIQi-OSU1VE ) and not just the injured lizard himself?

I suspect some readers will find such speculations fanciful and/or ethically trivial compared to our other priorities. Maybe so. But within the next century or so we'll have the capacity computationally to monitor and micromanage every cubic metre of the planet in exquisite detail. And if we're serious about getting rid of unpleasant experience altogether, the option will be available - and well worth planning in advance.

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Fri Dec 10, 2010 1:57 pm

My position is actually more conservative. I think I only care about the awareness of the pain by the CNS, not the peripheral nervous response. For instance, I don't care if my body has nociceptive reactions when I'm under general anaesthesia -- I just care that I'm not consciously suffering. Still, it's to me unclear whether worms and other invertebrates might have some sort of conscious awareness of pain.

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by Arepo » Fri Dec 10, 2010 5:44 pm

Alan Dawrst wrote:a unitary subject who is in agony

I think that's a nice way to phrase what we mean when we say "an organism feels pain in an ethically relevant way."
Is it? The way Dave himself used it doesn't sound that ethically relevant to me - qualia-experiencing ganglia seem as relevant as suffering unitary consciousnesses to me. 'Can they suffer?' and all that...
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"You ought to have put on an old pair, if you wished to go a-diving," said Professor Graham, who had not studied moral philosophy in vain.

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by RyanCarey » Sun Dec 19, 2010 1:57 pm

I'll second some of the comments made so far. Firstly, it seems greater than a 10% chance that worms can suffer. It's hard to say what the magnitude of the suffering is, or who it's experienced by. As Arepo says, only the magnitude of the suffering matters, not whether it's integrated into a whole, as David suggested. Now should we euthanase worms whose lives are worse than a life not lived at all? All other things being equal, yes. But all other things are not equal. A campaign for euthanasia of worms would be met with riducule. It's decades ahead of its time, at best. And being decades ahead of your time, although retrospectively prestigious, is not constructive! What's needed is people who will be five to ten years ahead of their time. We need people to actually make a difference to the compassion of our society, and that's not going to happen by promoting the squashing of worms. If I've given off an air of ridicule, well I can explain. The idea that squashing worms is helpful is greatly out of touch with society. That is, it is ridiculous. It may yet be true. But what it will not be, is constructive. It's not something we can go around telling non-utilitarians.

Hope that's a helpful perspective.
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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Mon Dec 20, 2010 2:08 am

RyanCarey, thanks for that reply. You make an excellent point that it would be less than optimal to promote this particular cause now, since it's too inferentially distant for most people.

Still, I struggle with the question of whether I should feel sorry about not spending an extra few minutes to kill the worms myself in private. If I could euthanize them entirely painlessly, squashing would be unambiguously a good idea. But in practice, squashing probably involves some pain, and I can't tell if the worms would actually suffer less if I left them to die on their own.

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by RyanCarey » Mon Dec 20, 2010 1:58 pm

So I would speculate that pain is present because it teaches us to avoid something. When we touch a flame, we feel our hands being burnt and we withdraw them. Similarly, the sensation of drownin gdiscourages us from staying underwater. Pain seems to be put their by evolution. It discourages us from damaging our tissues, so that they will remain and allow us to survive, and later reproduce. Note that a kick in the groin is an event that is evolutionarily not supposed to happen. So the question is, how can you outsmart evolution? Drowning will hurt. Squashing will hurt. Carbon monoxide poisoning will not hurt. Evolution doesn't anticipate that sort of death because worms don't encounter carbon monoxide poisoning in nature and even if they did, they wouldn't be able to avoid it. So my speculation leads us to the point that if you want to really reduce pain, you need to kill the worms in a way that does not resemble a natural death of a worm, and that could not naturally be avoided by a worm.
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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by Brian Tomasik » Tue Dec 21, 2010 5:31 am

Nice point. Of course, many non-natural ways of dying do entail pain as a byproduct (due to tissue damage, etc.), but some don't. Research on humane methods of killing is very valuable, both for worms and other animals.

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Re: Dying worms: To squash or not?

Post by RyanCarey » Tue Dec 21, 2010 4:13 pm

Of course, many non-natural ways of dying do entail pain as a byproduct (due to tissue damage, etc.)
Yes, exactly. That's a tricky part.
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