Philosophy Phriday: On Blaming Ants

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 fifty-eighth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Craig Agule.


On Blaming Ants

Last week I made my favorite bean salad:  grilled green beans, red peppers, and radishes. I put the salad on the table outside for just a minute to finish preparing some other dishes before sitting down to eat, and when I returned, I discovered unwanted guests. Ants. Ants had found my new favorite bean salad, and they were busy carting it away as fast as possible. I was livid. I let fly a few choice, biting words, unappreciated by the ants, and I fecklessly waved my hands in fury. But I worried that it was all useless performance. What I wanted was not just to act like I was blaming, but to really, actually blame these awful ants who were barging in on my meal. But could I do that? Could I blame the ants?

Swarm21-L
A few choice, biting words in flight. Image: Alex Wild

I quickly realized that whether I could blame the ants might depend on which sort of blame I was considering. Sometimes when we blame, we are pointing out the cause of a bad effect. We blame a rainstorm for a canceled golf outing, and we blame a frayed wire for a power short. Could I perhaps blame the ants that way? Sure–the ants were part of the causal story of my meal’s being disrupted. But I quickly realized that this sort of blame would not be satisfying. The ants were part of the causal story, but so was I. After all, I left the bean salad out and uncovered when I returned into the house. And the bean salad was also part of the story. Had the salad been less tempting, the ants might not have bothered. But I wanted to blame the ants, not me, not the salad. Also, this causal sort of blame is too neutral. The rainstorm is not morally good or bad; it’s a storm. But I didn’t just want to attribute some descriptive causal role to the ants; I wanted to my blame them in all the nasty depth I could muster.

The ants were not just part of the story. The ants were at fault, and I wanted my blame to capture that disapprobation. Philosophers like J.J.C. Smart and Gary Watson point us to an appraising sense of blame: when we blame, we take someone else to measure up poorly against some sort of excellence, and we metaphorically place a black mark in their ledger. This kind of blaming is like grading. Wasn’t that what I wanted? I wanted to grade the ants! But presumably these are not bad ants as far as ants go. It wasn’t a particularly miscreant, bean-salad marauding bunch that had stumbled into my patio. They were presumably just ordinary ants. So what was the sort of excellence against which the ants fell short? Were ants bad animals in general? As far as I know, ants are quite successful at reproduction and propagation–there are ants everywhere! And I was begrudgingly impressed at their cooperation in their salad heist. I struggled to find any measure of excellence against which the ants fell short that made sense.

Maybe I wanted more than mere intellectual assessment. Maybe I needed to think of blame as changing my behavior or wanting the world to be different. I thought of T.M. Scanlon’s account of blame. Scanlon teaches us that, for an important kind of blame, we blame someone by changing how we relate to them. We blame by pushing people away, by rescinding trust, and by similar behaviors. Scanlon’s account of blame seemed promising. Before their invasion, I had not thought much at all about the ants, and I had practiced benign neglect. Now I was deeply invested in finding a satisfying way to condemn them. Our relationship had changed. But was this changed-relationship account of blame really enough? A number of philosophers have thought that Scanlon’s account of blame struggles in cases where there isn’t a particularly robust relationship for blame to impair. Was my prior relationship with these ants really rich enough for me to blame them by taking that relationship to be degraded? The ants probably never even knew my name! Scanlon’s blame also seemed not to be the right sort of blame.

At this point, I was really steamed. But feeling my anger prompted a thought:  maybe what I wanted was to direct an emotional response at the ants. I was angry with the ants. Wasn’t that anger a kind of blame? This thought seemed promising, especially as sharp philosophers like P. F. Strawson, R. Jay Wallace, Susan Wolf, and Macalaster Bell have thought about blame as an interpersonal, emotion-like attitude. We blame someone by resenting them. Resentment is a rich response with many dimensions. When we resent someone, we are responding to a judgment that the other is at fault (echoing the causal and appraisal stories above), we are prompted to act in certain ways (echoing the behavioral story above), and we often feel a certain way. This sort of blame was promising for me. I was angry at the ants:  I saw them as the cause of the ruined salad, I wanted to shoo them away and chastise them (as ineffective as the latter effort would have been), and I felt heated and enraged. I could blame the ants–by being angry at them!

There was one final thought that made me certain I could blame the ants. For Lucy Allais and Christine Tappolet, attention plays a central and important role in many of our emotional responses, including the resentment that marks interpersonal blame. When we blame someone for something, we see them in the light of their wrongdoing. The metaphor of the wrongdoing as a spotlight is powerful. Exacerbating facts are highlighted, and exculpatory facts are cast into the shadows. This role for attention fit my response to the ants perfectly. Although I know ants are complicated, fascinating creatures, I couldn’t think of any of that. I appreciated neither their complex path-marking and cooperation nor their display of strength in porting away the heavy components of the salad. Instead, I could only glare at the ants and at the polluted dish. I dwelled on the ants and their invasion, noticing each bit of purloined salad and thinking of the contamination of the portion that remained. I keenly felt the resulting incompleteness of the meal, and I thought of the time wasted in preparing the salad. My attention was captured by the bad thing the ants had done. That was how I could blame the ants:  by stewing on what they had done to my salad.


profileDr. Craig K. Agule is an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden. He works on issues in ethics and law, with particular interest in questions about blame and responsibility. He has written on the relevance of an agent’s past to her responsibility. In addition to that continuing research, he is currently working on projects about how blame and responsibility interact with attention and emotion.

Philosophy Phriday: Northwestern Prison Education Program

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 fifty-seventh contribution in the series, submitted by our editor-in-chief, Benjamin Blanchard.


Northwestern Prison Education Program

The ant content in this (Saturday!) post is far less than usual for the series, but the natural affinity between social insects and social justice warrants little explanation. Plus, as soon as I heard about program that serves as the topic for this post, I became increasingly antsy to feature it in the Philosophy Phriday series. What is the program you may ask? None other than that stated in the title: The Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP).

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: Northwestern Prison Education Program”

Philosophy Phriday: Speech Acts and Unspeakable Ants

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 fifty-sixth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Audrey Yap.


Speech Acts and Unspeakable Ants

At the annual ACP/CPA (Association Canadienne de Philosophie/Canadian Philosophical Association) conference, I encountered an ant-related speech act.

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: Speech Acts and Unspeakable Ants”

Philosophy Phriday: Personal Identity and Personal Idantity

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 fifty-fifth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Danny Weltman.


Personal Identity and Personal Idantity

In the movie Antz, the worker ant Z-4195 regards hundreds of ants all dully dancing in the same shuffling motion and moans “why does everybody have to dance the same way? It’s completely boring. It’s monotonous.” In the ant colony depicted in the movie, all the worker ants are more or less the same, which is why they only get numbers for names. But, of course, all the workers are different from each other, too. They each have their own number, at least. If they’re all basically the same, what makes them different from each other?

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: Personal Identity and Personal Idantity”

Philosophy Phriday: To Understand Ant Communication, We Can’t Forget What Ants Forget

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 fifty-fourth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Daniel Singer.


To Understand Ant Communication, We Can’t Forget What Ants Forget

It is well-known (to any reader of this blog, anyway) that ant communication is very complex and not entirely well-understood. Among myrmecologists, there is disagreement about how information is transferred (most think that pheromones play a key role, but some think there may be other mechanisms at play, including sound), what kind of information is transferred, and whether we should explain ant communication in terms of the communication behaviors of individuals or groups.

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: To Understand Ant Communication, We Can’t Forget What Ants Forget”

Philosophy Phriday: What Do (Ant) Emojis Mean?

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 fifty-third contribution in the series, submitted by Gretchen Ellefson.


What Do (Ant) Emojis Mean?

According to the reputable website emojis.wiki, the ant emoji, , is “a synonym for ‘hardworking.’” This came as a surprise to me; I, a proficient emoji user, have never used the ant emoji in that way (despite that I have used an ant emoji), nor have I ever interpreted an ant emoji sent to me in that way. More importantly, however, I’m not quite sure what it means for an emoji to be synonymous with an English word. Generally, we take two words to be synonymous when they have the same meaning. But what it takes for an emoji to mean something is rather different than what it takes for an ordinary word to mean something. Philosophers of language sometimes talk about sentences as having the same meaning when they have the same “truth conditions”—when the conditions under which they would count as true are the same—and bits of sentences as having the same meaning when they play the same role in contributing to the truth conditions of a sentence. So “My students are hardworking,” is true whenever my students have the property of being hardworking. What about, “My students are ”? Does this have the same truth conditions? Probably not. On the one hand, the association between ants and hardworkingness is sufficiently commonly accepted that I could certainly use “My students are ” to mean that they are hardworking. But it is just as likely that in saying, “My students are ,” I could communicate something else: that my students are very small, or that they can carry many times their body weight, etc. So what does “My students are meanPerson Shrugging on Apple iOS 10.2

image 2

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: What Do (Ant) Emojis Mean?”

Philosophy Phriday: The Formicid Mystique

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 fifty-second contribution in the series, submitted by Madeline Eller.


The Formicid Mystique: Embodied Social Norms and Common Sense

One of the reasons that I am happy to be a philosopher rather than a scientist is that I have never had to glue tiny stilts onto an ant’s legs. Some poor grad student presumably had this task when collecting data for Wittlinger et. al.’s “The Ant Odometer: Stepping on Stilts and Stumps”. In the 2006 article, Wittlinger et. al. argue that they have solved the long-standing mystery of how ants navigate to and from their nest without retracing their steps. Indeed, the Saharan desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, can explore the surrounding landscape in a roundabout, Magellanic adventure, and then find their way back to the mound using a direct route rather than retracing their steps. How? They use what Wittlinger et. al. call “a path integrator”, which employs directional data from the ant’s “celestial compass” and travel distance as gauged by an idiothetic pedometer (ibid., p. 1965). The pedometer is crucial for the ants to know how far they are from the nest; when stilts were attached to their legs, making their legs longer, the ants overshot the location of the nest, and when the ant’s legs were shortened, they undershot the distance.

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: The Formicid Mystique”

Philosophy Phriday: The Ants Who Prefer Not To

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 fifty-first contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Helena de Bres, with illustrations by Dr. Julia de Bres.


The Ants Who Prefer Not To

If there’s one thing we think we know about ants, it’s that they work hard. Ants are always dashing around, engaged in some urgent task—and they’re very efficient about it, too. Ant colonies involve a complex division of labor, in which each ant is assigned a specific role. Some are foragers, some gardeners, some soldiers, some carpenters. Others are babysitters, teachers, flood management experts or undertakers. Then you have the ranchers, who herd aphids in the fields, and my personal favorites, the “caterpillar massagers.” (What?) One consequence of all of this impeccably organized industry is that ants have colonized almost every landmass on earth. (Antarctica is a hold out, but you can bet they’re working on it.) Another consequence is that ants can make us humans feel bad about ourselves. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard,” says Proverbs 6:6, “consider its ways, and be wise.”

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: The Ants Who Prefer Not To”

Philosophy Phriday: The Puzzle of Inter-Group Cooperation

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 fiftieth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Helen De Cruz.


The Puzzle of Inter-Group Cooperation:
What Ants Can Tell Us, and What it Means for Brexit and Trade Wars

Humans and ants share a peculiar characteristic that is rare in the animal world: both are prone to habitually cooperate not just within their groups, but also between groups.

Between-group cooperation raises evolutionary and philosophical puzzles: Under what circumstances can inter-group cooperation arise? Why don’t individuals from different groups just fuse into one bigger group, if cooperation is so useful to them? How can we make sure that such cooperative ventures continue? I’ll here look at what we can learn from polydomy—the phenomenon of different ant nests that cooperate while maintaining separate nest identity—parallels between this and human institutions such as NATO, NAFTA, and the EU, and I will draw some implications for trade wars and Brexit.

Continue reading “Philosophy Phriday: The Puzzle of Inter-Group Cooperation”

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑