Kantian vs. Utilitarian Ethics: a Life Lesson from Dead Cicadas

June 16, 2021

minute READ 

“You're not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximising happiness is all that matters.”

Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

The other day, a friend excitedly told me about the survival strategies of Cicadas.

If you don’t know what Cicadas are, let me enlighten you! They are loud, big-bodied, ungainly flying insects who are currently invading parts of the US and making a ruckus outside my window. They are very tasty for birds, cats, dogs, and many other animals. Pretty much every species — other than humans who have hugely divergent opinions on the matter — seems to like eating them.

As NBC News put it, Cicadas spend

“either 13 or 17 years underground, then emerge nearly simultaneously in densities that can exceed 1 million per acre… They do little to defend themselves. They fly poorly, don’t fight and taste great. In the parlance of animal behavior, cicadas are predator foolhardy’ — they are always available for lunch.”

How then, do Cicadas survive?

The survival strategy of Cicadas is Utilitarian

Cicadas survive through a crazy strategy called “predator satiation.”

As my excited friend explained it: “They emerge in such large numbers that predators simply can’t eat all of them. Isn’t that a fascinating strategy?”

Me: “Not if you’re a Cicada who gets eaten!”

Friend: “Yes, but what if you’re the one who survives?”

It occurred to me that Cicadas are a great example of Utilitarianism in action. Utilitarianism is “based on the principle of utility, which emphasizes on the idea of being more useful and beneficial for a majority.” In other words, this ethical strategy is all about the potential consequences of actions.

This appears to be what’s going on with Cicadas: Sure, many get eaten. But enough of them survive to make it worth it. This strategy works for the majority but it definitely does not work for all the Cicadas who end up as dog food.

Contrast this survival strategy with the human survival strategy in 2020, which I would call Kantian.

The survival strategy of humans is Kantian 

Unlike Utilitarians, Kantians don’t think something is morally justified just because it creates positive results for the majority.

As Rachel Sirotkin explains this moral theory:

“According to Kant, we should look at our maxims, or intentions, of the particular action. Kantians believe ‘human life is valuable because humans are the bearers of rational life’(O’Neill 414). In other words, humans are free rational beings capable of rational behavior and should not be used purely for the enjoyment or happiness of another.”

Perhaps that belief has allowed us to make advances in medicine and safety. In the process, we have done things such as

  • drastically lowered child mortality,
  • created international laws and institutions to reduce the likelihood of war (which leads to a loss of life), and
  • eradicated certain diseases such as Polio.

From the viewpoint of a Cicada, this doesn’t make sense. Cicadas know that for some of them to survive, others have to die.

In contrast, most of us are appalled by the idea to sacrifice some humans to benefit the whole. Generally, we are only okay with it if someone deliberately and freely decides to give up their own life for a greater good — in which case we call them a hero.

(When Cicadas do it, dogs call them food.)

Takeaway

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that many humans are willing to make sacrifices (for instance, by practicing social distancing and wearing masks) to save human lives.

Perhaps that is partly due to biology: compared to many other animals, humans don’t have much offspring. And, as we can learn from biology class:

“Organisms that make few offspring usually make a large energy investment in each offspring and often provide lots of parental care. These organisms are effectively ‘putting their eggs in one basket’ (literally, in some cases!) and are heavily invested in the survival of each offspring.”

If that’s the reason we humans seem to lean more towards Kantian Ethics, I’m grateful for it.

Unlike Cicadas, many humans don't like Utilitarian survival strategies. It’s why we locked down half the planet to protect vulnerable populations from Covid-19.

Some people weren’t happy about lockdowns. To those people, I would say: “What’s the alternative? Would you really prefer we adopt the survival strategy of Cicadas instead and sacrifice some humans for the benefit of the rest (or the economy, as some politicians suggested)?”

Utilitarianism is more of a gamble than Kantianism because whenever you say it’s okay that some people get sacrificed, you run the risk that you end up as one of them. And generally, people are only willing to take that risk if they’re certain they or their loved ones won’t be the ones to die.

The dead Cicadas on my sidewalk tell a different story.

Join my email list if you’d like to (re)connect with your passion and purpose.

Sign up to receive my emails that will help you live a life of productivity, passion and purpose.

I'll get you started with a free mini-course (3 short videos, delivered over a few days) that will show you the path to doing what you love. 

I respect your privacy


About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

You may also like

Jesus Has a PR Problem: “Christians”
  • WOW, boy, am I glad I was not born a cicada 🤔

    Somewhat in line with the cicada example (yet way off), I heard a few times that wars and pandemics are useful for our planet, as we are like some plague on this beautiful “star,” slowly devouring it… and these large calamities do reduce the stress on our planet.

    While in theory I agree with this view… hmm… ok, this is harsh – I should not agree at all with it… but we should all pull our sh#t together and take better care of our planet, so theories like that wouldn’t make sense to anyone.

  • Yeah – I remember the cicadas from when I lived in DC… I would say that yes mostly humans will err on the side of protecting one life because we don’t have many to throw away – but not always… thinking about China… India where there are many more people and much more poverty, etc.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Find your SUPERPOWER with a short, free quiz!

    >