Bryan Caplan  

Lessons from the Yellowjacket War

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On July 13, I'm debating pacifism with Ilya Somin at the GMU law school.  (The debate's open to the public).  Yet last weekend I declared war on four nests of yellowjackets on my property.  I won, but one stinger pierced my protective glove.  My hand soon swelled up like a catcher's mitt. 

Question: Isn't there a contradiction between my pacifism and my war of choice against the yellowjackets?  Not really.  None of my arguments for pacifism apply.

1. The immediate costs weren't awful.  Like most people, I don't think dead bugs are a big deal.  And on the human side of the ledger, my swollen hand hurt, but a lot less than a bad sunburn.  Since I wore heavy winter clothing, my injuries couldn't have been much worse.

2. The long-run benefits were fairly certain.  Based on past experience, I saved my family about five stings in exchange for suffering one sting myself.  And there's zero chance that yellowjackets will join forces to get revenge, sneak attack me next week during my evening walk, or form an alliance with deer and squirrel to evict me.

3. To be morally justified, the long-run benefits of my war didn't need to substantially exceed the short-run costs.  Why not?  Because I was fighting bugs and, like most people, I don't think bugs have rights.  Since there was no need to avoid killing "innocent yellowjackets," I poisoned their nests with a clean conscience.

Final reflection: Yellowjackets are viciously territorial; they sting anyone who even thinks about getting too close to their nests.  If these insects could speak, I have no doubt that they'd justify all their actions as "defensive" and chant "If you want peace, prepare for war."  Which is precisely why I resolved to destroy them.  If yellowjackets imposed milder punishments on perceived trespassers, I would have left them alone.  If you think that violates the law of supply, think again.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Alex Tabarrok writes:

"The only good bug is a dead bug."

PrometheeFeu writes:

I don't think your getting stung should be part of the moral calculus. You freely made the decision to risk getting stung and so the cost is fully internalized by the actor. If you had sent out your wife to do it and she had gotten stung, now that would be a moral cost to take into account.

Mattheus von Guttenberg writes:

"Because I was fighting bugs and, like most people, I don't think bugs have rights."

The only relevant part of the post. Non-aggression only really applies to creatures with rights, and who can argumentatively support them.

Gian writes:

Since you are a pacifist, perhaps you can tell us why you think the Catholic Just War theory is insufficient or immoral?
Your conditions for yellowjacket war appear similar to the conditions for a Just War.

the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for "legitimate defense by military force":

* the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
* all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
* there must be serious prospects of success;
* the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

hamilton writes:

I understand your point, but as you're relying on the "most people" standard, let's play with it a bit:

1. The immediate costs weren't awful. Like most people, I don't think dead foreign aggressors or their families are a big deal.


3. To be morally justified, the long-run benefits of ... war didn't need to substantially exceed the short-run costs. Why not? Because I was fighting foreign aggressors and, like most people, I don't think foreign aggressors or their families have rights. Since there [is] no need to avoid killing "innocent bystanders," [as there aren't any] I bombed their cities with a clean conscience.


This is not meant to endorse either position. Rather, it is to highlight that really, your pacifism flows wholly and entirely from your position that "all people have rights and get equal weight in the social calculation of costs & benefits". It has nothing to do with what "most people" think, as, in fact, most people do not put equal weight on individuals in their country and individuals in other countries. If "most people" thought that yellowjackets had the right to live, you'd still have eradicated the bugs, provided the other humans didn't do too much to try to stop you.

Colin writes:


The issue isn't what makes a Just War.

The issue is that the costs of war are vastly underestimated.

Balloony writes:

Ah, fellow warrior! I poisoned a nest of the villains myself this weekend. Tonight we drink mead from their tiny skulls!

aez writes:

Since you anthropomorphize in your final reflection, I'll state my relative certainty that if they were hatched in certain areas of the Middle East, roughly speaking, or were influenced by such yellowjackets, they and their young would be chanting "Death to America and Israel!"

I don't think this would change the "ifs" you wind up with; they'd still hold, on my estimation.

Silas Barta writes:

I think your error lies, not in your conclusion, but in thinking that you had to reconcile your pesticide policy with your pacifism in the first place. Did someone actually use that argument?

ron writes:

I doubt Bryan thought he had to rationalize his pesticide policy. I imagine He thought he had to write an article and decided to talk about pacifism.

Evan writes:
most people do not put equal weight on individuals in their country and individuals in other countries.
In my experience most people try to have it both ways. They will usually state at one time that all people have equal moral weight, and at another time that people in your country deserve greater consideration, and then get embarrassed and evasive when you point out the contradictions in their thought processes.
sourcreamus writes:

The problem with this argument is that yellow jackets are not trying to keep you away they are trying to keep other animals away and are generally succesful at it. The relevant comparison would be to compare them to a species with equally tasty young who do not defend their territory.
This is the problem with a policy of pacifism generally, it only works if no one believes you. I know of someone who studied boxing as a young man and then would go to bars and get in fights. He said the best way to ensure yourself of getting in a fight with someone was as soon as the other person got agressive say" Look, I don't want any trouble". This would ensure a fight every time.

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