Robot Has No Heart

Xavier Shay blogs here

A robot that does not have a heart

Insect Marketing

Steve recently posted a link to a company promoting their brand by attaching business cards to flies and have them fly around the conference room. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch a short snippet of the video now, so you know what I’m talking about, when I say:

Using flies for marketing purposes is not morally acceptable.

I wish a preface wasn’t necessary, but I’ve seen one too many logical fallacy to avoid one. This article is about a relatively unimportant moral issue, and many non-vegans may even find it ludicrous. That’s OK. What’s not OK, is making the leap to “since you have to care about flies, veganism is ludicrous”. That’s a logical fail, and totally missing the point. There is interesting ethical material here, no matter which side of the line you fall.

Replace flies with a familiar mammal – say pigs, or dogs – and the above statement is not particularly controversial. What makes mammals different from flies?

Unsurprisingly, there is little animal rights literature afforded to the use of insects for marketing purposes. Instead we can turn to an analogous problem, one of the most heated areas of debate within the vegan camp – can vegans eat honey? Zealots will flat out reject this question – bees are animals too, they say, and as such we have no right to exploit them. Unfortunately, “animal” is a tricky definition. The ocean sponge, despite having no brain nor nervous system and for nearly all purposes resembling a plant, is classified by science as an animal. Intuitively we see bees as living things, but we need to be more rigourous in our thinking in order to afford them rights.

Bees certainly are exploited in industrial farming – in that their natural behaviour and environment is subverted – both for honey and for pollination of other crops. If they can not be found deserving of rights however, this exploitation is by the by. It is no more morally relevant than the farming of vegetables. Replace the flies with a tiny mechanical ornithopter.

The classic “test” for determining animalhood is whether a being can suffer from pain. Intelligence, though handy, is not required. Insects are quite far removed from humans physically and mentally, so unlike mammals where we can apply familiar criteria for pain (distress, avoidance, etc…), far more extrapolation is required for flies. It is only in the past decade that research studies have started to find that insects do exhibit responses best classified as pain. Capability for physical pain though doesn’t necessarily present a problem in this scenario however. An electric shock is a very different type of stimulus than the distress of having your natural movement inhibited. This distress is easily observed in mammals, however it is less clear in the case of flies, whose movements are erratic at the best of times. It seems the jury is still out, though given our woeful track record of reasoning about other living beings, even within our own species (racism, sexism, homophobia), all other concerns aside it is prudent to give flies the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps we can learn something from our everyday behaviour towards insects. A child pulling the legs off a spider is generally considered negative, not for the pain it causes the spider, but from the callous disregard and use of another living being that was causing the child no harm. Indeed, it is the same judgment that mistreatment of a dog would attract. It is seen as abnormal behaviour – we associate disregard for animals with disregard for other humans. Instinctively we apply Tolstoy’s observation that “as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.” The welfare of the spider may be disregarded, but perhaps we need to consider our own? On the other hand, many of us would swat a fly without a second thought. This is often justified by the inconvenience the fly is causing us – its buzzing wings, its tickling feet. Overall this is an interesting consideration, but not relevant to the topic at hand where there is no need for compromise. Indeed, we would first need to address the “compromise” of using higher-order creatures for food and labour, a topic outside the particular scope of this essay. Using flies for marketing is actively seeking out and exploiting them, a very different circumstance.

It’s impossible to go through life never hurting a fly, as it were. As mentioned above, bees are used commercially to pollinate a large proportion of our edible plants. The classic definition of vegan as “not using animal products” is more usefully replaced with “reasonably avoiding products that cause suffering to non-humans. ” In the case of honey, it is neither an essential nutrient, nor the only sweetener of its kind. It is trivial to avoid, and as such should be. Which brings us in a rather large circle back to the case of insect marketing.

It sounds absurd when stated so directly, but flies are clearly not an essential component of any marketing strategy. In this case it may appear unique and novel, but this bears no significance on the moral acceptability of the act. Steve’s followup question “How else could your startup be promoted by living things other than humans?” is not worth dwelling on – exploitation of living things, even if you assign a low likelihood to their ability to feel pain, is trivially avoided in your marketing strategy, and as such should be.

Photo is Fly by Reini68

  1. Pete Yandell says:

    "...a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer! Prove to me here and now, once and for all, that they do *not* feel...and I'll leave you be!" - Stanislaw Lem, "The Seventh Sally" in "The Cyberiad"

    I think empathy (and the lack of it) drives a lot of human moral behaviour. We don't want others to suffer because, when they do, we feel their pain to some degree. (A lack of empathy is what defines a psychopath.)

    For us to empathise with an animal's suffering, then, requires that it expresses pain in a way similar to ours. Does it cry out? Does it try to get away? Does it bleed?

    Even if there is a useful scientific way of classifying a pain reaction, I don't think most people will ever regard insects as capable of suffering. When you do horrible things to most insects, they don't react in any way that provokes empathy in most people. Hell, you can chop the head off a cockroach, and it just keeps on going.

    Where does that leave the morality of making flies carry your business cards, or having bees make honey for you? I honestly don't know where I stand, but I suspect that most people, unless they're deliberately reflecting on a rational moral framework, would not be bothered by either.

  2. Steve Sammartino says:

    I agree with you Xavier.... I can't remember if I said it was cruel on my blog.... but I'm about to go there now and adjust the article if I didn't.


  3. mister khan says:

    to be fair it does appear to be a german company, and compared to the sort of stuff they were up to 65 years ago, you have to give them some credit for the massive strides they've made in the way of progress.

    nevertheless. if i was the ceo i'd be looking out for jeff goldblum on the karma carousel.

  4. Andrew Grimm says:

    For the benefit of those not watching the video, does the marketing cause the insects death, pain, or humiliation?

  5. Xavier Shay says:

    Andrew, yes on at least the last two points. Humiliation is a tricky term to apply to insects though.

  6. williamsharkey says:

    There is a certain sloppiness to their technique which is off-putting. May I propose a different scenario?

    I would prefer something more intelligent. Like genetic modification to insects for marketing purposes. So long as it does not interfere with their health. For example, if the marketing company modified some butterflies' wings to have a URL appear on them, that would be novel and less harmful than attaching stuff to flies...

    One way for a species to gain earth-share is to be useful to a dominating species.

    So I will pose this:

    Is there an ethical difference between a species of butterflies flourishing because it randomly developed wings with the url: VS. Pepsi genetically modifying butterflies to have this url?

    I think that in the first case, we people would applaud these butterflies for their cleverness and ability to attract a wealthy patron, and in the second, people would characterize the genetic intervention by Pepsi as evil, which is interesting to me.

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