I am writing in response to the animal liberation exhibit sponsored last week by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the uproar on campus that ensued. For the record, I am not a member of PETA; nor do I agree with them on all ethical and political issues. Moreover, I never actually saw the exhibit – being home one of the three days it was on display and very busy with classes the other two days. Nevertheless, I have a flyer depicting the same scene that, according to students, caused most of the uproar – and I would like to comment on the matter.
Two images appear next to each other: one of the lower portion of the leg of a human being, apparently a slave, in shackles; the other of the lower portion of an elephant’s leg in shackles. The juxtaposition of these images suggests that the two scenes are analogous or similar in one or more respects. My understanding is that quite a few people were offended by the juxtaposed images and the suggested analogy. “How can you say that the two situations are the same?” was a frequent rhetorical refrain.
Let’s consider this. The display suggests an analogy – meaning that the two images are presented as similar in some important way. Contrary to an assumption underlying some objections, the suggestion of analogy did not imply that the two scenes are alike in every way. After all, analogies are always partial: the highlighting of certain similar features. Analogies never suggest that two things are alike in every respect; two things alike in every way would be qualitatively identical, not analogous. So nothing in the juxtaposed images suggested that human beings and elephants are exactly the same (whatever that might mean), that human beings and elephants are alike in every moral respect, or even that the degree of wrongness in the two scenes is equal (however one might measure degree of wrongness).
What does the picture suggest? Here’s how I read it: Both scenes depict not only cruelty but a terrible wrong, an injustice. Every morally serious person knows that slavery is an abomination. PETA is suggesting, I think, that treating elephants as property – as resources for human use or playthings for human amusement – is also a terrible wrong however accustomed we may be to thinking otherwise. The shackle around the elephant’s ankle makes me think of elephants in circuses. If part of PETA’s message is that it is wrong to break up elephant families, force elephants to live in conditions unsuitable for their species, physically abuse them in training them for circus stunts, and the like, I wholeheartedly agree. And I assume many other people would agree as well.
But, for immediate purposes, it doesn’t matter how many people would condemn the way circus elephants are commonly treated or embrace the more general idea that elephants should not be regarded as property. What does matter is that individuals and organizations have a right to express such convictions – and that the issues raised by such free expression are worthy of serious consideration. By a strange coincidence, the unit on animal ethics in my ethics class has overlapped with the PETA exhibit and the ensuing discussion. The intelligence, open-mindedness, and civility with which my students are exploring and discussing these issues gives me confidence that not all exchanges about animal ethics need be polarized. But the price of an honest discussion about difficult topics – like the price of moral progress – is a willingness to consider ideas that are initially troubling and to engage in critical moral self-examination. I believe that the price is worth paying. Accordingly, I support activists’ and everyone else’s right to display images that are controversial and potentially uncomfortable for some viewers.
-The writer is a professor of philosophy at GW.