The Neonicotinide pesticide debate: a new frontier of the ever-expanding ethical sphere?

Inspired by increasing public interest in the conservation of native invertebrates connected with the Neonicotinoid pesticides debate, I have taken a little philosophical meander through my observations about expansion in the inclusiveness of the public and personal ethical sphere.


Whilst the debate over whether to ban Neonicotinoid pesticides in Europe rages on with strong arguments on many sides, one benefit regardless of the legislative outcome is increased public interest in the decline and conservation of native invertebrates.  Scientific discourse regarding the negative effects of pesticides on pollinating insects has been drawn into the public sphere, with numerous newspapers [1,2], journals [3] and public blogs [4] arguing for the ban of Neonicotinoid pesticides not because of their possible influence on human health or larger vertebrates, but through their direct effect on non-target invertebrate species. Whilst concern for the well-being of charismatic or instrumental invertebrates is not that new [5], the growing popularity of invertebrates in the news and popular media, combined with scientific expansion in advocacy for their conservation [6,7,8], highlights a world that continues to expand its ethical sphere.

The principles that guide ethical choices are often centered around our perception of value, and how we ascribe value is often linked to how much we know about, or associate with, beings around us.  Pragmatists such as John Dewey and his contemporary ‘environmental pragmatists’ [9] argue that our ideas about right and wrong are not rigid nor eternal, but instead change from person to person and in time, with ethical ideals developing akin to scientific discovery, through successive tests, generations of evidence and increasing information.  Consider, at the center, is the self, ourselves, this is our first and primary level of ethical concern.  With time, information, and experience we may expand this sphere that once encapsulated only the self to include other humans – we see their propensity to suffer, their value and their rights are equal to ours due to our similarities and therefore cannot justify treating them in a way we would despise to be treated.  This sphere can be expanded further, with information and identification and changes in ideas of value, to other realms of non-human life.  Ethical pragmatists would argue that with ongoing developments in education and information we realise that those we once considered different are in-fact very similar, leading us to question whether they too should be tucked within our ethical sphere.


An expansion of the public ethical sphere many of us will be familiar with is the change in public policies and beliefs that fostered equal ethical consideration of all human beings.  To my generation, whether we are morally culpable to peoples of non-European decent or to women is not a question (or at least I hope it is not!).  But it was a genuine belief within European science and public ethics that due to observable external differences between subjects, the brain and related cognitive abilities of those that were not white males made them unable to feel or think at a level that made them worthy of ethical consideration.  Countless examples exist where this belief is used to justify behaviour, which, at the time, would have been considered un-ethical if applied to their ‘fellow men’.  Individuals outside the ethical sphere of those in power were maltreated or eliminated as ethnographic and documentary studies recorded their strange condition (Figure 1.), and those that highlighted and argued against ethical biases were mocked and humiliated (Figure 2.).  In each case, apparent differences were used to justify maltreatment of someone presumed ‘different’.  Only through education and enquiry into the truth of such statements, and the demonstration that ‘skin-deep’ observations did not reflect deeper differences in physiology or cognitive ability, did the public and political sphere come to expand its ethic to include all human beings.


Likewise, the growing popularity of animal rights symbolises a second expansion of the public ethical sphere.  Many people now incorporate non-human animals in the sphere of beings they believe are worthy of ethical consideration.  The key tenets for this expansion were fostered by people such a Peter Singer and Tom Reagan [10], who argued that, unlike the Descartes-esque ‘automaton’ view of animals as feeling-less machines [11], their propensity to suffer is no different from those we already behave ethically towards (other humans), warranting ethical concern for their wellbeing.  For some, this expands to those organisms they commonly associate with and feel for (e.g. domestic pets), and manifest in anti-cruelty movements such as anti-dog fighting, the activities of the R.S.P.C.A., or movements to ban steeple-chasing.  For others, it expands to other vertebrates within whom they see an identifiable ability to suffer which is worthy of ethical consideration.  This can include larger vertebrates such as livestock (e.g. movements to ban live-export, buying free-range eggs, vegetarianism), charismatic wild fauna kept in captivity (e.g. anti-zoo and animal circus movements) or wild animals treated in a fashion that promotes suffering (e.g. dancing bears, whaling, anti fox hunting movements)(Figure 3.).  Like the questionable consideration of non-European humans or women as beings of concern of the past, this contemporary change in the way we view non-human animals is stimulated and supported by information concerning suffering, pain and behavioural responses to these stimuli in beings we once considered irrevocable different.  By realising our similarities we again have expanded our ethical sphere.


Growing concern for invertebrates highlights a third expansion that, on the surface, seems different to these previous examples but in my mind seems to be following the same path.  When we expand our ethical sphere to a new ‘level’, it often begins with the simple consideration of life from the perspective of some target being.  Association with, sometimes expanding to empathy for, that being leads us to question why we may treat it differently to those already within our sphere.  Often, with consideration and observation comes a stimulation of interest in and eventual acknowledgement of value in that being, often in an instrumental or intellectual sense.  The being is still outside, but it is connected through the value it provides to those within our sphere.  With further observation however, we begin to realise that the line that separates us from the being in question is not as solid as we once thought –it blurs as we watch, interact and gather information.  Eventually, if we feel those lines are an artificial construct, and that the being in question is indeed worthy of ethical concern we will expand our ethical sphere to incorporate this once excluded level of life.

Obviously belief in this progression is completely subjective, and I only posit this idea because, as a student of ethics I feel pleasantly surprised in public concern for the wellbeing of invertebrates.  Whilst this is still focused on their instrumental value (e.g. their role as pollinators) it is acknowledgement, interest and concern none-the-less.  And perhaps, in time, this progressive expansion of the public ethical sphere that I feel is observable in the inclusion of non-human vertebrates may continue to eventually include invertebrates in a way that is not purely focused on their agricultural utility.  Some elements of the academic ethical sphere already include the invertebrates: experimentation upon Cephalopods (the group that includes octopus, squid and cuttlefish) and Decapods (members of the Crustaceans that include Lobsters and Crabs) now requires the approval of an ethical board, and the study of invertebrates with an eye specifically on their conservation is increasing in popularity [12] – signalling the expansion of interest and concern for invertebrates within the natural sciences.  This is translated into the public sphere by scientific journalists who aim at increasing awareness about the neat adaptations and private lives of charismatic invertebrates.


I also posit this idea because, as an invertebrate ecologist, my own ethical sphere has come to be expanded in this fashion to incorporate beings that for many are of no ethical concern.  When you spend enough time watching a snail moving about its’ environment you see it respond to stimuli, just as a bird would.  When you see it pursued and consumed by its snail predator you see it writhe and attempt escape, just as a antelope calf flees a pursuing cheetah.  Whilst the sensory and cognitive abilities of invertebrates may be different to those of humans, or non-human vertebrates, are the differences between them and those we already include in our sphere so expansive?  As the most obvious example, consider the behaviour of the cephalopods (Figure 4.); a brooding mother Giant Pacific Octopus fanning her eggs to ensure they’re well oxygenated [13], the Cuttlefish who quickly learns to navigate a maze [14], or the rumours of the sneaky captive Octopus who returns to her home tank (even closing the lid) after eating fishes in a neighbouring tank [15].  In my mind, ‘intelligence’ exists on a spectrum, and the ability to suffer is not phylum-specific, so why not use our beautifully human ability to observe and make moral choices to also include invertebrates in our moral sphere?  Or at the least, as ecologists and scientists, use our discipline to enquire as to whether their capabilities warrant our ethical consideration, and to investigate and disseminate the amazing and individual daily lives of invertebrate taxa that have not yet had their time in the limelight.

Maybe one day, insect collections will seem as bestial as halls of stuffed mammals and birds (Figure 5.)?




1.  The Guardian has had numerous features on the Neonicotinoid pesticide debate, including this article (accessible at and a beautiful photo album highlighting native bees of Europe (accessible at

2.  Also see The Independent (accessible at and the BBC (accessible at

3.  See Nature’s feature on the debate, ‘Europe debates risk to bees’ (2013) by Daniel Cressey accessible here

4.  There are a range of blogs that comment on the issue, the following are just examples I have stumbled across (,,

5.  For example, community led programs to conserve and study butterflies are well developed, see for example Butterfly Conservation in the UK accessible at

6.  Large numbers of scientific articles regarding invertebrate conservation have been published recently.  One of my favourites is this review Cardoso, P., T. L. Erwin, P. A. V. Borges and T. R. New (2011), “The seven impediments in invertebrate conservation and how to overcome them.” Biological Conservation 144(11): 2647-2655.

7.  Numerous books have been published on Invertebrate conservation, two of my favourites are ‘The Other 99%’ a conference proceedings from the Transactions of the Royal Zoological Society of N.S.W. edited by W.F. Ponder and D. Lunney and ‘An Introduction to Invertebrate Conservation Biology’ by T.R. New published by Oxford University Press.

8. ‘The Journal of Insect Conservation’ was launched in 1997 and is steadily growing in both the number of publications (<100 in 2003 and now almost 400 per 5 years) and the number of times papers within it are cited (from <100 to now >1000)(statistics found via ISI Web of Science)

9.  See the writings of John Dewey, and subsequent applications to the environmental sphere by ‘environmental pragmatists’ such as Anthony Weston ‘Beyond intrinsic value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics’ within Environmental Ethics: the big questions (Blackwell Publishing 2010) pp. 311-317 (or a similar argument here: and Andrew Light ‘Methodological Pragmatism, Pluralism, and Environmental Ethics’ within Environmental Ethics: the big questions (Blackwell Publishing 2010) pp. 318-326

10. See writings by Peter Singer, for example ‘All Animals as Equal’ accessible here ( or within Philosophical exchange, vol. 1 no. 5 (1974) pp. 103-116 or re-printed within Environmental Ethics: the big questions (Blackwell Publishing 2010) pp. 169-175 or ‘A Utilitarian defence of Animal Liberation’ in Environmental ethics: Reading in theory and application (Wadsworth, 2005).  Also see arguments of Tom Regan or Marie Anne Warren in the above addition.

11. Rene Descartes ‘Nonhumans as machines’ accessible here ( or within The Philosophical Writings of Descartes vol. III: The Correspondence (Cambridge University Press 1991), pp. 302-4, 365-7 or re-printed within Environmental Ethics: the big questions (Blackwell Publishing 2010) pp. 69-72

12.  One of my favourite examples recently is a some-what viral appreciation of the adaptations of the Mantis Shrimp (particularly the Peacock Mantis Odontodactylus scyllarus) which has over 3000 fans on Facebook (see and features on blogs (for example, this great thing on ‘Oatmeal’ with lovely little drawings to accompany and was shared via social media.

13.  For some great videos and images of the Giant Pacific Octopus see, accessible at

14.  For some information on cuttlefish intelligence and communication see this great interview with Jean Boal ( or the lab of Roger Hanlon at Woods Hole, accessible at

15.  I can’t find any hard evidence to substantiate this theory, only a lot of gossiping on blogs and forums.  So instead, watch this sweet video of an octopus taking a very respectful divers camera for a spin (with a great octopus song as backing track)


One thought on “The Neonicotinide pesticide debate: a new frontier of the ever-expanding ethical sphere?

  1. Some neat citizen science (as mentioned in my post on the Periodical Cicadas), this time for monitoring pollinating insects in Europe

    Also see this interview from 4ZZZ with Dr Ben Kefford (UTS) for a nice little easy to swallow summary of the situation:

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