Cockroaches and Morality

It might be pointless to ask the question – and further pointless to consider creating an answer – but it is true that the act of thinking itself, especially about questions of the kingdom around us, broadens the mind. Thus, I put it to you: does a cockroach have a sense of morality? And can we learn anything from its views of the world?

First of all, we have to approach the issue of what counts as morality. It is my automatic assumption, which I have experienced through life, that, in the same way that every human has a different view of right and wrong (such as Bentham’s Utilitarianism would look at the case of abortion in a completely different view to Aquinas’ Natural Law), each species has a different perspective on ethics.

From a Theological view of the Creation, one could assert that God gave each species a ‘sense’ of morality, but not in the way that we humans would understand it. Conversely, if we have been given the position of Steward over Creation, one could say that it is not necessary for single-celled and smaller-brained animals to have a moral set of rules within them, since humans were designed to look after the rest of the animal kingdom by also upholding their morality. We can stop a lion naturally eating a mouse, but, although Aesop[i] liked to think so, a lion has no moral code to make it think twice about consuming a mouse.
That’s not to say, however, that other species do not know when they have committed a ‘crime’ in their community. Animals, such as lions, know that there is a hierarchy in their pride; it is not ‘allowed’ or ‘accepted’ that a young male attack the alpha male. Perhaps this is ‘morality’ for lions, even if we might have some trouble applying our human ideas of morality to their ways of life. We are the same, through distant links: It is not illegal in Western culture to stand up to one’s boss, but, to keep one’s job, it wouldn’t be advised.

However, we have no way of knowing what a cockroach perceives. Through observing its behaviour and its treatment of other cockroaches and other animals, we can assume that it knows – or, at least, is conscious of – its surrounding, and knows whether to fight or fly. But, in a cockroaches actions, we cannot tell if it does these actions with regards to morality. It is in its nature to seek out leftover food that is not its own, but I don’t believe that a cockroach stops to consider whether it is ‘stealing’ or committing an ‘immoral act’. In this case, it may be that God has chosen not to assign the morality that we know to cockroaches, for the exact reason that they will not have to question what they do to survive.

[i] In Aesop’s fable, the lion and the mouse get along, arguing that little friends prove just as great as big ones.

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