Philosophy Phriday: Do Ants Do Things for Reasons?

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the sixth contribution in the series, submitted by Keshav Singh.

Do ants do things for reasons?

Ants are creatures that seem to do a lot of things. When you see an ant, it is likely either scurrying around in the midst of some task, or dead. One question we might ask when we see an ant doing something is: why is the ant doing that?

However, it is often not clear to the average observer exactly what task an ant is in the midst of; without knowing what an ant is doing, we clearly can’t explain why it is doing that. On the other hand, myrmecologists spend their lives figuring out what ants are doing and can offer plenty of explanations of why they do what they do.

Myrmecologist Bonnie Blaimer collecting ants. Photo: Alex Wild

When explaining why something happened, we often give causal explanations. For example, if a tree falls on your car, cracking the windshield, we might explain the fact that the windshield cracked by citing the fact that the impact of the tree caused it to crack. We also often give another kind of explanation, called a teleological explanation, where we cite some end served by the event in question. For example, if a tree releases a cloud of pollen, we might explain that event by saying that the tree released the cloud of pollen in order to reproduce.

We might rely on both of the above kinds of explanation to explain why ants do things. But there seems to be another kind of explanation we rely on when we try to explain why humans do things. When a human does something, we often try to explain why she did by citing her reason for doing it. For example, the reason for which I’m writing this article is that the editor of The Daily Ant asked me to.

It seems like when we cite the reason for which a person did something, we’re doing something different than when we explain why your windshield cracked, or why a tree released pollen, even though we might use the word ‘reason’ in the latter cases. We might say that the reason my windshield cracked was that a tree fell on it, or that the reason a tree released pollen is that trees need to release pollen in order to reproduce.


But when we cite the reason for which a person did something, we provide an explanation of her action that renders it intelligible in the particular way that it allows us to evaluate that person as reasonable or unreasonable. A common way in which we evaluate whether someone (or what she did) was reasonable is to try to figure out whether she did what she did for a good reason, or a bad one.

By contrast, we can’t say that a tree fell on your car’s windshield for a good or bad reason, or that a tree released pollen for a good or bad reason. The sense in which we’re using the word ‘reason’ when we cite the reason for which someone did something seems to be reserved for what we might call agents – roughly, beings who act.

The reader may be wondering at this point what this talk of reasons has to do with ants. Well, here is an interesting question about ants: do ants do things for reasons in the robust sense that people do, or only in the sense that trees do? In other words, can we explain what an ant does in the same way we explain what a human agent does, or can we merely explain what an ant does in the way we explain what a tree does?

Ants in a mutualistic relationship with a tree. Photo: Alex Wild

The question of whether an ant does things for reasons might come down to the question of whether an ant is an agent. Earlier, I roughly defined an agent as being who acts. Do ants act? It depends on what you mean by ‘act.’ They certainly are not hired to perform in plays, television shows or movies. But we have been this whole time writing about ants doing things. Why isn’t this enough to say that ants act? The problem is that we talk about all sorts of objects doing things that are nevertheless not agents. In earlier examples, we discussed a tree falling on a car, or releasing pollen. These are two things we would ordinarily say a tree does. But a tree is not an agent.

What makes a person, and not a tree, an agent? This is a difficult question to answer. It isn’t being a living creature, because a tree is a living creature too. Perhaps what makes a person an agent is that people have mental states like beliefs, desires and intentions that lead them to do things. While we might metaphorically ascribe such states to trees, we generally don’t think they actually have them. So perhaps the answer to whether ants are agents, and, therefore, whether they do things for reasons in the relevant sense, depends on whether ants have these mental states. This would be a difficult question to answer, even for someone who (unlike me) knows a lot about ants, so I won’t attempt to answer it here.

Another strategy we might pursue in trying to figure out whether ants do things for reasons in the relevant sense is to test our intuitions about whether they can do things for good reasons. In our examples involving the tree, the fact that it seemed inapt to ask whether the tree did what it did for good or bad reasons showed that trees don’t do things for reasons in the relevant sense. So, to pursue this strategy, let’s consider an example involving ants.

Two ants engaged in a thought experiment. Photo: Alex Wild

Imagine you have ants in your house, so you put down some ant stakes. The substance inside the ant stakes is sweet, and so it attracts the ants, but also poisonous, so it kills them. Now, imagine a particular ant approaches the stake and eats the poison inside. This ant has done something. We can certainly explain what it did by saying that the sweet smell of the poison caused it to approach the stake, or that it approached the stake in order to eat what was inside. But this would be only to give the kind of causal or teleological explanation that could be given of what a tree (or even a nonliving object) ‘did.’

Can we say there was a reason for which the ant approached the stake and ate the poison? Perhaps the reason for which the ant approached the stake and ate the poison was that the substance inside seemed sweet. Now, to apply our test: assuming this was the ant’s reason, does it make sense to ask whether this was good or bad reason? I lean toward thinking that it doesn’t make sense; this would imply that ants do not do things for reasons in the relevant sense. However, I’m not by any means confident about the answer I lean toward. I take this to reflect a difficulty for us, which is that it isn’t entirely clear whether ants are more like people, or trees.

It may even be that my intuitions are polluted by my being steeped in the philosopher’s methodology, so I will leave the reader to come to her own conclusions about the case at hand, and furthermore, about whether ants do things for reasons in the way people do. Frustratingly, I’ve raised the question of whether ants do things for reasons, only to conclude that I’m not sure of the answer (this is something that philosophers sometimes do, and should perhaps do more often). Instead, what I hope to have accomplished is to clarify what the question of interest is when we ask whether ants do things for reasons and show that it is not easily answered.

keshavKeshav Singh is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works on ethics, epistemology and, for some reason, reasons. In his spare time, he enjoys a variety of unremarkable activities, including watching sports and writing guest posts for The Daily Ant.