Consider the Cockroach
Humans tend to believe that our fellow earthlings are worthy of compassion if we think they’re cute or beautiful. Puppies and kittens push all the right buttons. Even some insects, like butterflies and bumblebees, hit the proper notes.
But that is a poor standard for extending our compassion. That a creature may lack subjective beauty doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of our consideration. Take the cockroach, for example. They don’t have soft features, fuzzy faces, or juvenile characteristics. They tend to be associated with dirty places. And they’re routinely killed without a moment’s hesitation.
In fact, we once went out to eat at a San Francisco vegan restaurant. This particular restaurant had a small literature area near the front door boasting of its “do no harm” philosophy. As the waiter was taking our order, a little roach scurried across the table. The waiter quickly smashed him. The “reverence for life” philosophy, it seems, did not extend to the “lowly” cockroach. But it did to my daughter, a pre-teen at the time, and vegan since birth.
Riley started crying. More than crying, she was inconsolable. As someone who was never raised with prejudice, never heard anyone say “Ewww” rather than “let's help him,” and had never experienced the impulse towards harm, she saw it as an atrocity; unthinkable. We ended up leaving.
But was Riley’s reaction reasonable? Do cockroaches matter? The answer to that question depends on whether or not they can suffer. And we start with what the science shows.
We know that cockroaches can physically suffer. They have a central nervous system (brain and nerves), peripheral nervous system (which connects the brain and spinal cord to the outside of the body and is what allows us to feel pain and other sensations), and sympathetic nervous system (responsible for autonomic responses, such as the fight or flight response). And if they can physically suffer, can they psychologically suffer, too?