Robot Has No Heart

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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

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