by Kieran Healy on June 23, 2004

There’s an “interesting article”: in the _New York Times_ today about “Elizabeth Willott’s”: work on mosquitos and the environmental ethics of wetland restoration. Elizabeth’s in the Entomology department at “Arizona”: Her other half is the philosopher “Dave Schmidtz”:, and when Arizona were recruiting “Laurie”: and me, we stayed with them. It was the middle of December. The first morning we were there, we picked a grapefruit from one of the trees in their yard and ate it for breakfast. This effective recruitment strategy is not often used by universities on the east coast, for some reason.



john s 06.23.04 at 10:59 am

Mosquitos are fantastically adaptable. Vicious ones thrive in the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle! Go see the midnight sun and you’ll get eaten alive by clouds of them.


Dan Simon 06.23.04 at 6:55 pm

At one time, it would have been the ultimate insult to suggest that someone thought no more of the lives of his or her fellow human beings than of the lives of so many mosquitoes. That this no longer holds true in the pages of the New York Times (or, apparently, at Crooked Timber) is as powerful a condemnation of a certain strain of modern “moral” thinking as I can imagine.


joe 06.23.04 at 7:52 pm

At one time, people still thought the earth was a flat area of infinite bound. Apparently many still do despite their nominal “earth is round” affiliations.

“The lives of so many mosquitoes” are a bunch of irritating bugs in a flat/infinite earth. But if the earth is round, and a closed environmental system, these mosquitoes might have a status in the larger mechanism that changes things.

Imagine a small shed in a severe thunder-and-lightning storm. The shed is the control location for water pumps that prevent flood damage to a village below. A Tough-Minded Realist, pursuing graduate studies in something unrelated, huddles in the shed, listening to “Radiohead” on his iPod. Technicians arrive and ask him to get the fuck out of the way. He says:

“You want me to move from my sheltered location so you can flip some switches? I could get hit by lightning if I go out there! You value human life less than you do the position of some switches? What is this switch obsession that you liberals have? ” Etc.


Markus 06.23.04 at 7:56 pm


Perhaps you’d like to offer any defence of your idea that the traditional morality is in some was superior to the ‘modern’ moral thinking. Otherwise your comment makes you seem an antiquated dolt.

I would suggest that the modern ethical thinking discussed in this article and throughout environmental ethics is in fact a reconstitution of traditional ethical systems that dissolve the moral boundaries of human/nature and assert the ecological human as both ethically and biophysically superior to the alienated ethics and ecology that you seem to proffer.


joe 06.23.04 at 8:48 pm

We don’t need a new morality, we just need to know what it is we are looking at when we apply the morality we’ve already got. I am not independent from the supply chain that brings my groceries to the local supermarket; if it collapses, so do I and all my neighbors with me. Now that I understand the sine qua nons of human existence are more extensive than I previously thought, my responsibility toward human beings is extended toward these support systems as well.

Therefore the opposition of “lives of mosquitoes” against “lives of fellow human beings” as a moral choice to make is in some cases a false dichotomy.
However, in Dan’s defense, his instincts are valuable: it won’t in every case be a false dichotomy, and we should therefore be sure that our unrecognized prejudices against people (who listen to “Radiohead” for example) aren’t coming into play if/when we write off nameless sub-populations as unavoidable ecological casualties.

Kind of like the point the Vatican makes by refusing to address the vitally important ecological issue of birth control unless related issues of income disparity and industrialization are also addressed, i.e. why should the poor of the Third World change their habits if the rich of the First World won’t change some of theirs as well? The advanced ecological insight of the First World is bundled with unstated prejudices in this case, and that is always a concern with “new morality”.


Dan Simon 06.23.04 at 11:31 pm

Perhaps I erred in using the word “modern”–rather than, say, “contemporary”. The idea of happily sacrificing human lives to appease the mosquitoes (or some other woodland spirits) is far more ancient than the idea of human life being sacred. And when I say “at one time”, I refer not to the Middle Ages, or even the Victorian era, but just about any time before the rise of the new environmental paganism.

I completely understand that human actions that affect nature may later result in harm to future humans, and I respect serious scientists who investigate possible examples of this. I saw no such hardheaded compassion for people in the article (possibly distorted, I grant) that Kieran linked to. All I saw was the contemporary equivalent of the wicker man.


Markus 06.24.04 at 2:59 am


You continue to assume a separation between human and natural that reflects upon your ‘modern’ dichotomy of human/nature. Your fundamental claim that humans are more deserving of ethcial consideration and policy action than ecosystems is premised on this false separation.

Even without this though, you continue to admit only instrumental value to the environment. The original article discusses instrumental versus intrinsic valuations of mosquitos.

You are also telling a eurocentric story of environmental concern, but that’s a different issue altogether.


Danny Yee 06.24.04 at 6:07 am

I’m not sure about “hardheaded”, but the notes for the course on environmental ethics certainly cover “compassion for peple”.


Dan Simon 06.24.04 at 8:29 am

Markus — The separation I make between “human” and “natural” is normative, not objective, and cannot therefore be declared “false”. Likewise my rejection of “intrinsic” valuations of mosquitoes or ecosystems that might result in their being valued on a par with people.

Again, I recognize that people can (and at various times, have chosen to) value humans no more highly than mosquitoes. Nor will I be so foolish as to claim objective refutation of their morals. However, I remain appalled at them. I can only ask, if your vision of morality allows for the forfeiting of millions of human lives for the sake of the mosquitoes, what other totems you will happily sacrifice millions of human lives for.


Markus 06.24.04 at 9:43 am

Dan- I’ve been warned about arguing with you too long, so here’s my final comment. The last word is yours if you want it.

Your dichotomy is false because it relies on a ontological misrepresentation of the relationship between humans and their environment. The separation you make is indeed normative, and epistemic. The distance between these claims and actual material relationships demonstrates the subjectivity (as you admit) of your moral claims. Is seems to convenient to claim that only the subject has the authority to make ethical claims, as this logically leads to the denial of intrinsic value. Has this tactic not been used for unfortunate ends before?

While I appreciate the hyperbole, I somehow doubt that including mosquitos in ecological restoration will cost ‘millions of human lives.’ Even a swift glance at recent history can demonstrate the rising hegemony of the human world over the natural. The point of the article is to use the mosquito as an interesting, and counter-intuitive, case of ecological ethics. By taking issue so strongly, I think you blind yourself to the intrinsic value of the orangutan, blue whale, hawaiian thrush, regal fritillary, and perhaps most importantly, the ecosystems that sustain them and us.

Be appalled if you wish, but I suspect that your practice of granting value to only that which is deemed important to the bearer of moral reasoning has done much greater ill than attempting to save the places and processes of nature.


eudoxis 06.24.04 at 3:34 pm

James Gorman in the NYT is completely at odds with Elizabeth Willott in his coy suggestion that mosquitos may have intrinsic value because they kill humans. Willott argues that wetlands have intrinsic value despite the mosquito and that current wetland restoration efforts do not address the real danger that mosquitos pose to humans.


Dan Simon 06.24.04 at 5:27 pm

Markus — Warned about arguing with me too long? Really? By whom? What are the adverse consequences? Frustration? Hives? Wholesale slaughter of mosquitoes? I’m dying to know. (Honestly. Please send email–my address is on my blog. I won’t reply–I promise.)

As far as I can tell, your point, shorn of its pretension, amounts to, “you devalue mosquitoes, but people used to do that to races of people, with awful results, so you shouldn’t.” A reasonable enough argument, but unless you’re prepared to give mosquitoes the vote, you’re going to have to acknowledge its limitations.

And yes, I mean millions of human lives. Have you never heard of malaria?


joe 06.24.04 at 6:51 pm

It looks like Markus is by temperament an Idealist and won’t trust anybody who lacks a logically-consistent set of defined concepts underlying their behavior; while Dan is by temperament an Empiricist and wants to start from practical bounds of action. This sort of doomed conversation is generally great fun for the onlookers, but the Seychelles are going underwater as we speak. Since Dan has agreed with me to respect the ecosystem on instrumentalist grounds (which are not my personal grounds, but it’s more important to me to see the ecosystem respected than to oblige people to do it my way) I will ask:

Markus, do you use antibacterial dish detergent? Do you deny the intrinsic value of staph colonies? Isn’t that a slippery slope that leads to denying the intrinsic value of Other People?

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