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On Small Increments of Success (?)

Steve Ross, the supervisor of behavioral and cognitive research at the Lester Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo, is pleased that a growing number of companies have said they will stop using primates in advertisements. He explains why in "Chimps Aren’t Chumps" in today’s New York Times.

I assume no one reading this wants primates to be used in advertisements. Ross says that having companies pledge not to use them is some sort of progress: a small increment of success.

I also assume that some people are going to say it’s not progress because it’s based on a speciesist premise (it absolutely is). In addition to how exceptional (and exceptionally like us) chimpanzees are, Ross refers to the public’s "dangerous impression that chimpanzees have a safe and comfortable existence" because of their use in advertisements. This is very much like yesterday’s post about orangutans no longer being forced to "act."

Ross writes: "Misrepresentations of chimpanzees may not be as repugnant as racism, bigotry or sexism. But they can still serve as a benchmark for our society‚Äôs moral progress." I do want to ask him why he stops at misrepresentation and doesn’t consider the idea of holding them captive in a zoo and using them for entertainment. Perhaps then his sense of repugnance might rise. I also want to ask him why being like us is so darn important that it appears to be one of two reasons they deserve respect (the other is that they are in danger in the wild–as presumably captivity isn’t a problem for them).

Given the myriad points of disagreement I have with Ross, part of me wants to make it simple and object to everything he says and stands for. And I can come close. But it’s not that tidy, as I can agree that ceasing the use of chimpanzees in advertising is indeed a small increment of success. (Got a microscope?)

I’d imagine that any time we stop using a sentient nonhuman, in the beginning (i.e., now), the reason will be either that they’re so much like us or that the use causes them too much suffering. Discontinuing the use of any species isn’t likely to happen because it’s not right to use them–at least not in 2008. This doesn’t mean we change what we say or what we want, but it does mean we have to address what others will believe are successes and decide where we stand.   

Is it a small increment of success that chimps won’t be used in advertisements and orangutans will no longer be forced to "act?" What do you think?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, I think it's a success.

    July 21, 2008
  2. A success? No I don't think so.

    Will this result in less primates being held in captivity? Will the future ads be devoid of all animals? This is not a prohibition on using sentient beings for a purpose (which would be a success), instead it simply asks those who want to exploit nonhuman animals not to exploit a particular species in a particular way. Worse yet it's only a subset of those that might exploit a particular species of nonhuman in a particular way pledging not to do so with no assurance that they will even keep their word.

    Furthermore his concern seems to be on the way chimps are represented, which doesn't necessarily mean they are being exploited. What if I create an animated ad, or a silly drawing with a chimp. It seems to me he would object since it misrepresents the tragic situation chimps are in. So his ends, even in this very narrow framework, are not the same as the abolitionist's.

    I fail to see how this can be characterized as a success in any way at all.

    July 21, 2008
  3. Angus #

    I think we have to face the facts (1) that change, when it comes at all, is more likely to be incremental than sudden, and (2) that most people are motivated more by concern for personal health, money, the environment, etc., than by concern for animal well-being. At least people are talking.

    July 21, 2008
  4. I agree we should face the facts!

    What this person is suggesting is in no way an incremental change that we should support. They are not suggesting that chimps deserve our moral consideration, and they are not suggesting that we should not use or own chimps. They simply want chimps not to appear in advertisements because it makes some people forget that they are an endangered species.

    The fact that chimps are being abused by humans by holding them captive in zoos and laboratories, and by performing experiments on them is not an issue. They support our instrumental use of these animals, they just want to raise awareness about the plight of wild chimps, which are endangered largely due to human activity.

    If we can not motivate people to do the right thing for the right reasons then we're doomed. A vegan interested in ending the exploitation of animals does not appeal to issues of health, money or the environment, because even if these issues were not improved my going vegan we should still do it. Appealing to these issues allows the point of veganism to be lost, it can severely hurt your ability to put forward a clear an consistent argument for veganism. If I offer health as a reason to go vegan someone can debate whether or not vegaism is more healthy, if I instead argue that nonhumans are sentient which implies that they value life, the person has to justify excluding them from moral consideration… that is the argument for veganism… that is how you get people to go vegan for the right reasons.

    July 24, 2008

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