Filtered for ants and laws

21.20, Tuesday 17 Jan 2023


Let’s say we could chat with ants. Could we trade with them? What would we want from them?

Read: We don’t trade with ants (Katja Grace).

Ostensibly this is a post critiquing the idea that super intelligent AIs would have nothing to do with humans. But actually it is an awesome list of things that we should be asking ants to do.


Cleaning things that are hard for humans to reach (crevices, buildup in pipes, outsides of tall buildings)

Digging tunnels (e.g. instead of digging up your garden to lay a pipe, maybe ants could dig the hole, then a flexible pipe could be pushed through it)

Participating in war (attack, guerilla attack, sabotage, intelligence)

Producing and delivering nitrogen to plants

It’s a big list! And we could pay them!

A single ant eats about 2mg per day according to a random website, so you could support a colony of a million ants with 2kg of food per day. Supposing they accepted pay in sugar, or something similarly expensive, 2kg costs around $3. Perhaps you would need to pay them more than subsistence to attract them away from foraging freely, since apparently food-gathering ants usually collect more than they eat, to support others in their colony. So let’s guess $5.

My guess is that a million ants could do well over $5 of the above labors in a day.

The argument is that we don’t trade with ants because we can’t communicate with them… but interspecies communication is an active field of study now?

No, I think the big problem will be that legal system only works for humans.

How do you hold an ant accountable if they fail to deliver on a contract? Do individual ants even have agency? Can we require an ant colony to purchase public indemnity insurance?

PREVIOUSLY: Animals driving cars and other jobs (2021).


Let’s say you want to to stop eating cows and chickens, and instead eat insect-derived protein, e.g. from mealworms (which is a thing which has recently been approved).

Is that ok?

From a moral perspective, perhaps not: I Will Not Eat The Bugs (Astral Star Codex).

In order to produce a kilogram of bug-based food, you need about 10,000 bugs (mealworms weigh about 100 mg). On the one hand, bugs probably don’t matter much morally. On the other hand, 10,000 is a lot.

It adds up.

Risk: even if there’s only a 50-50 chance insects have moral value, or a 1% chance, still seems like you should avoid factory-farming and killing ten trillion of them, which is about how many we currently farm.

10 trillion tiny souls sure adds up.

Moral calculus: 10 billion kg of chicken is consumed in the US every year. If that were replaced by mealworm protein, is that better or worse? What’s the karmic exchange rate between birds and bugs? How does their moral worth compound?


Here’s a cracking paper: Corporate insecthood.

In short: people treat almost everything as people, at least a bit, including companies.

People readily find humanity in the unlikeliest of places, from frogs to gods to gusts of wind, a phenomenon known as anthropomorphization.

… empirical work indicates that corporations are afforded at least some of the features of persons. People spontaneously attribute mental states to corporations, particularly agency.

But it hasn’t been studied.

We are given little sense of how these whiffs of personhood stack up against other entities: How does Google’s personhood compare with a fetus, a robot, a tree?

So they studied it!

“Personhood” for the purposes of this study includes characteristics like self-awareness, moral rights, humanness, etc.

I URGE YOU GREATLY to check out the diagram on page 6 of the PDF.

Some highlights so you get the gist.

  • 100 (max personhood): Infant and adult
  • 66: dolphin
  • 50: deceased man
  • 35: robot
  • 31.5: bird
  • 30: Disney
  • 20: ant and Amazon
  • 8.5: microbe
  • 2.5: computer and Exxon
  • 0: rock

Personhood is a spectrum!

At least in the folk understanding, that’s what this study reveals; that’s our felt morality.

And I would say that our laws ought to be downstream of our moral frameworks, right? So our legal system should handle fractional personhood too. Somehow.


Strohminger, N., & Jordan, M. (2022). Corporate Insecthood. PsyArXiv.


From The History of Magic, which I read last year, a special court in Ancient Greece for holding accountable lifeless things:

That statues were seen to act on their own might be seen as fanciful were it not for well-known instances. Theagenes of Thasos was an athlete. Part of his demonstration of strength was to carry a very heavy bronze statue from the marketplace to his house and back again. After Theagenes died a bronze statue of him was put up. An enemy of his took to flogging this statue at night, as a substitute for hitting Theagenes himself. The statue ended this practice by falling on the man and killing him. The statue was then tried for murder in a special court, the Prytaneum, reserved for the trial of what we would see as inanimate objects, although clearly the Greeks did not place the boundaries between living and lifeless where we do. The statue was found guilty and ordered into exile, which, in its case meant it was thrown into the sea.

I read a paper that also mentions this: The Prosecution of Lifeless Things and Animals in Greek Law: Part I.

Far from being a quirky hey let’s take a statue to court, it seems that lifeless things and animals were regularly put on trial.

One of the important features of the Prytaneum was the curious murder process held in its immediate neighborhood. … In the first place, if a murderer was unknown or could not be found, he was nevertheless tried; also lifeless things, such as stones, beams, pieces of iron, etc., which had caused the death of a man by falling upon him, were tried here, as well as animals which had similarly been the cause of death.

imo it’s not quite as the book says, a belief that statues can act on their own.

Rather the underlying view seems a bit like root cause analysis in engineering where you keep on asking why.

Here the mechanism is that if a crime is committed, then it must be resolved.

…if the human murderer could not be found, the thing or animal that had been the agent in the slaying, if it could be found, had to be tried. For the idea was that, in case of a murder, not only a crime had been committed, but also a pollution had been caused in the community and some person or thing was to blame and must be punished to rid the state of defilement.

Which makes sense!

So while we, in the 21st century, are tying ourselves in knots trying to figure out the appropriate remedy when civil unrest caused by a social media app leads to deaths, maybe in Athens how ever many millennia ago they simply would have sunk a few of the servers in the Aegean.

I don’t know what the process is for requesting that we have a revolution in philosophy that upgrades the foundations of our moral frameworks to make them fit for purpose in the 20XXs, somehow incorporating fractional personhood and agency of the lifeless too, cascading into upgrades for our constitutions and legal principles, but I feel like I need to file a ticket.


Hyde, W. W. (1917). The Prosecution of Lifeless Things and Animals in Greek Law: Part I. The American Journal of Philology, 38(2), 152-175.

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