We recently had an ant problem in our home. Without thinking too much I purchased an ant-rid product and placed a handful of bait traps near where they seemed to be coming inside. The traps contain a delayed reaction poison within sweet ant food which worker ants take back to the nest and pass on to others - including the queen - before dying.
I now feel a tremendous amount of guilt for the eventual mass extermination I will be causing, especially now at this time of the year around Holocaust remembrance and thinking about the correlations. I can't help but think of how easy it is for so many of us all to use pest control methods of this nature without blinking an eye.
With issues like this, we need to take a step back and analyze the basic axioms that form our morality. Where do we get our view of right and wrong from? What makes something moral or immoral? Who decides the definition of good and evil?
There can be only two answers to this. Either G-d decides, or each person for themselves. Either there is an absolute definition of right and wrong, or it is a matter of personal taste - whatever I think or feel based on whatever influences I have in my life.
The choice between these two answers has major ramifications. If G-d determines morality, then morality really exists. It is unchanging. It is absolute. But if morality is something that we determine, then there is no real morality, just opinions. It is all relative. What is evil for me may be righteousness for you. And neither of us can say I am right - it is just what I think.
Judaism says that there really is right and wrong, and that an unchanging divine code of morality has been communicated to us through the Torah. And so in questions of morality we need to explore what the Torah says, rather than what popular opinion or my feelings say.
The Torah is clear that a wanton act of cruelty towards an animal is forbidden. We are to treat every living being with compassion.
It is also clear that human life and animal life are not equal. Every life deserves to be respected because every life has a purpose. But only humans are created in G-d's image, and thus have eternal and intrinsic worth.
This means that humans have the ability and responsibility to live morally and increase goodness in the world. Animals do not have this responsibility.
Humans have the right to utilise the animal, plant and mineral world to help us actualise our mission. We have the right to eat other life forms if we will use the energy thus absorbed for doing good and furthering the world. But we have no right to kill an animal or destroy a plant for no productive purpose.
So too when it comes to insects, it would be forbidden to kill them for no good reason. But if an insect is negatively impacting human life, by spreading disease, disturbing sleep, causing pain or ruining food, then it is permissible and even moral to get rid of that insect, as it is preventing us from doing what we need to do.
Now indeed, it would be preferable to remove the insect without killing it. But only if that option will not entail wasting a large amount of precious human time, and will not be making the insect someone else's problem. Catching individual ants and transporting them over a river would be a valiant act, but would also be a full time occupation. And sending them to the neighbours is not nice. So until a repellant is invented that will banish ants to roam free in the remote outback, we should use the simplest and quickest method to get rid of them so we can get on with our mission to improve the world.
One last point. It is an alarming feature of modern thinking that human life and animal life are increasingly seen as equal. I am sure you didn't mean to say this, but it is dangerous and immoral to see spraying insects as in any way equivalent to gassing Jews in the Holocaust. It was the Nazis who compared Jews to vermin. The easiest way to justify hurting someone is to dehumanise them. As well meaning as some activists may be in trying to elevate animal life to the same plane as human life, they are inadvertently demeaning human life to the level of animals too. The logical consequences of such a blurred moral outlook are frightening.
I thank G-d that we as Jews have the clear moral compass that is the Torah. Our morally confused world needs it now more than ever.