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Works of art that engage us, directing our sense of what is important and inviting us to see the world in a new way, are sometimes described as appealing to “moral imagination.” These works are often employed in animal advocacy, yet they present something of a mystery from a philosophical perspective. Documentaries, for example, clearly impart information. But something would be lost if they simply presented the bare facts like a lecture. The puzzle concerns the nature of this artistic remainder, this appeal to our imagination. Does it merely shape our feelings, or can it as such give insight into the way things actually are?

Take James Marsh’s 2011 film Project Nim, which concerns the extraordinary life of a particular chimpanzee. Born in 1973 at the Oklahoma Institute for Primate Studies, the newborn Nim was taken from his mother and loaned out to a Columbia University psychology professor, Herbert Terrace, who hoped to demonstrate that chimps’ capacity for learning human sign language was greater than generally believed. For nearly five years Nim lived in different human households, and during this period he was treated like a human child and taught to use many signs. But when Nim bit and badly injured one of his student handlers, Terrace unceremoniously deposited him back at the Oklahoma Institute for Primate Studies. Thanks to the care and attention of a research student named Bob Ingersoll, Nim, who had never before seen a member of his own species, eventually adjusted to life with other chimps. This was not, however, the end of his troubles. A few years after Nim’s return all of the Institute’s chimps were sold to the NYU Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) where, among other things, they were used to test vaccines for humans. Ingersoll worked hard to publicize Nim’s plight, and eventually Nim was moved to an animal sanctuary in Texas called the Black Beauty Ranch. There Nim was given a relatively large concrete compound with a porch, but he lived alone. Ingersoll intervened again and arranged for two other chimps to move in with Nim. These chimps were Nim’s companions for five years until his death in 2000.

The film that Marsh made about Nim deals with these and other events in Nim’s life. Marsh made Project Nim because he wanted to understand the life of a particular chimp. But he didn’t limit himself to the plain recital and visual presentation of facts. He does rely heavily on archival material such as movies and photographs taken by people who knew Nim. At the same time, he employs various methods that invite us to enter into and explore different perspectives on what happened to Nim. He employs images from the archival material in an expressive manner; he stages and films a number of reenactments, using them in a similarly evocative style; he adds his own formal interviews with some of the individuals who interacted most closely with Nim; and he uses music to capture the most psychologically and emotionally salient aspects of Nim’s story. These different techniques shape our attitudes, inviting us to place importance on particular aspects of Nim’s life, and a good case can be made for saying that they are essential to Marsh’s goal of conveying an understanding of what that life was like.

Consider how the film brings out the magnitude of the wrong that was done to Nim and the other chimps when they were sold to LEMSIP and used for testing vaccines. Relevant here are not only the parts of the film that are specifically concerned with LEMSIP but also the parts that show Nim in happy times. Some of Nim’s happy times were at the Institute for Primate Studies. During the day he and his friends had access to an indoor compound with toys and climbing surfaces, and Nim himself also had Ingersoll, who took him for walks, roughhousing and simply hanging out with him. In one sequence, we see Ingersoll and Nim heading out of the compound, signing to each other in a relaxed manner. Ingersoll signs “where?” to Nim, and Nim responds by making the sign for “walk.” Nim turns to Ingersoll, makes the sign for “play” and sprints energetically off across a field. As we see these images, Ingersoll tells us: “Chimps aren’t humans. You have to kind of understand chimps to be able to … work with them and be with them.” We also hear a folksy musical phrase played repeatedly on an acoustic guitar, a melodic fragment that differs notably from the menacing riff that shows up when Nim is living with humans and threatening physical violence. The different techniques Marsh uses to show us Nim’s life with Ingersoll thus position us to look at Nim’s gestures and antics in an ethically non-neutral manner, so that we see in them the pulse of flourishing chimpanzee life and perceive in them a kind of vital glory.

These happy days form the background to Nim’s time at LEMSIP, where individual chimpanzees are separated from each other and confined to small barren cages. Traumatized by what was done to them, they appear alternately groggy and frenzied. A veterinarian from LEMSIP explains that since he and his colleagues knew that some of the chimps could sign they posted pieces of paper with pictures of signs so that everyone in the lab could learn them. As this vet is speaking, the camera turns and—in what is evidently a re-enactment—scans a series of pieces of paper with drawings of signs on them, coming to rest briefly on a drawing of the sign for “hug” and then, after a brief interval, lingering on a drawing of the sign for “play.” It is in this way—by means of a series of expressive techniques—that Project Nim conveys an understanding of the awfulness of what happened to Nim at LEMSIP. And what is impressed on us is a contrast with Nim’s former life that could not be more poignant: however much the lab workers may want to sign meaningfully about hugging and playing with their chimp subjects, the magnificent chimp form of life to which hugging and playing belong has already been cruelly extinguished.

Do Marsh’s expressive techniques contribute directly to ethical understanding of Nim’s life? Might they, or something like them, even be necessary for such understanding? It might seem unlikely that moral imagination could have such power. As well-educated people alive in the twenty-first century, most of us believe that human beings are at bottom a kind of animal and that, like other animals, we are essentially subject to the conditions of physical existence. There is nothing about this image, considered by itself, that obliges us to deny that moral imagination is essential for understanding our worldly lives or the worldly lives of other animals. But when, in thinking about the ways in which humans and animals are natural creatures, we wax philosophical, we frequently assume that the natural world is ethically neutral or, to use a bit of philosophical jargon, “hard.” And this seems to rule out the possibility that moral imagination might be required to illuminate aspects of this world and of the creatures that inhabit it.

However appealing this “hard” outlook may be in general, it is harmful for those who want to advocate on behalf of animals. Animal advocates want to show that animals merit certain forms of treatment in themselves, rather than in ways that are functions of treatment owed to human beings—and that, say, tying a hedgehog up in a ball and playing croquet with it on my lawn, as a fictional Alice once did, is an abuse in itself, regardless of whether it hurts or offends humans. It is very difficult to defend this view this while maintaining that the natural world has value only insofar as we project value onto it. Yet many animal advocates attempt just this feat.

Some of the most prominent, such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, James Rachels and Jeff McMahan, flag their exclusive reliance on “hard” concepts of human beings and animals by declaring that, as they see it, the mere fact of being a human or an animal is by itself ethically unimportant. Singer and the others tell us that what makes a human or an animal deserving of moral consideration is its possession of certain individual capacities. While these thinkers disagree about which capacities are morally relevant—the capacity to suffer and the capacity to direct one’s own life are the leading candidates—they all claim that, if we take a given capacity to be morally significant in human beings, consistency obliges us to treat it as morally significant in whichever animals also possess it. And then they claim that there are no morally significant capacities that are possessed by all humans and no animals. This is indeed a strategy for showing that some animals matter. But it has famously disturbing consequences that speak strongly against it. It implies, for example, that severely retarded and extremely senile human beings have diminished claims to consideration and that mocking or abusing them isn’t all that bad.

Singer and company aren’t the only animal advocates who limit themselves to hard concepts of human beings and animals. A second group is an idiosyncratic collection of Kantian moral philosophers, the most prominent of whom is Christine Korsgaard. Korsgaard combats Kant’s notoriously indifferent attitude toward animals with ideas found elsewhere in his thought. Kant’s official view was that animals are mere things and that we should treat them well not because we owe it to them but because we owe it to our own moral characters. There isn’t anything terribly striking about the fact that Korsgaard challenges this view, for so do Singer et al. What is striking is the fact that, when Korsgaard challenges the view, she claims that the plain recognition that a creature is a human or an animal (i.e. independently of any thought about its individual capacities) is inseparable from seeing it as meriting forms of respect and attention. Because Korsgaard makes this claim her work doesn’t have the disturbing consequences that moral individualisms do. But the claim might appear to commit her to concepts of human beings and animals that are “non-hard” in the sense of being incompatible with an understanding of the world as ethically neutral. After all, how could we represent merely being a human, or merely being an animal, as ethically important without assuming that human beings and animals are intrinsically ethically significant things?

Korsgaard gives the following answer to this question. She insists that to recognize a creature as an animal or a human being is to adopt an exclusively practical attitude. This strategy allows her to depict animals as ethically interesting things—things that matter—while preserving an image of them as inhabitants of a hard world. And insofar as Korsgaard preserves this image, she limits herself to hard concepts of human beings and animals. So, like Singer, she is committed to a restrictive view of the methods appropriate to illuminating humans’ and animals’ worldly lives in ethics, specifically, one that cannot give moral imagination an essential role. And this constrains her ability to advocate on behalf of animals.

Why do animal advocates tend to equate “natural” with “ethically neutral”? Some help themselves to an understanding of the natural world as hard, together with all that goes with such an understanding, without registering the fact that they are thereby adopting a substantial philosophical position. But there are also animal advocates—such as Singer and Korsgaard—who are self-conscious about adopting hard metaphysical postures. Yet even these thinkers feel no need to explicitly defend their outlooks. One possible explanation is the assumption, widespread among philosophers, that to give up the idea of a hard world is to give up the idea of a world that is objective and that can support the idea of truth and falsity.

This assumption may seem to receive a sort of confirmation in the writings of Jacques Derrida, one of the most prominent contemporary European philosophers to discuss the lives of animals. Derrida wrote a great deal about animals during the last years of his life, and he consistently oriented his remarks by referring to passages in his early publications in which he attacks an understanding of the world as hard. He also consistently suggested that if we abandon such an understanding, as he thought we should, we thereby abandon the idea of full-blooded objectivity. He thus in effect defended the assumption, also cherished by many philosophers who are fans of a hard metaphysic, that the only alternative to a hard vision of the world is some sort of skepticism about objectivity.

But this assumption is false. To say that the natural world is hard is to commit oneself to speaking of nature only in reference to the subject matter of natural-scientific and other ethically neutral disciplines. There is, however, room for intelligent philosophical conversation about whether the concept of nature applies more widely, so that its extension includes some ethically non-neutral things. Within philosophy today there are well known debates about whether we ought thus to broaden our construal of the concept of nature. A handful of moral philosophers who write about the relationship between humans and animals—most prominently Cora Diamond and Raimond Gaita—effectively lay claim to this broad understanding of nature, representing humans and animals as natural, worldly beings that we require moral imagination to understand. And these moral philosophers are in the company of a wide range of artists—think, for example, of literary authors such as J.M. Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson and W.G. Sebald, filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Marsh, and painters such as Sue Coe—whose work demonstrates the cognitive power of moral imagination, its necessary relationship to ethical understanding of humans and animals. The work of these moral philosophers and artists represents a direct challenge to the work of animal advocates who restrict themselves to hard concepts of human beings and animals. Yet these animal advocates rarely discuss or even acknowledge the challenge.

To see the point, consider a further example: Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book Eating Animals. Safran Foer’s book has a clear political agenda. He undertakes to expose the brutality of the industrial farming of land and sea animals and to convince readers that support for such farming is unacceptable. But he also praises a number of farmers who attempt to preserve traditional methods of animal husbandry. Although he doesn’t endorse any particular methods of raising and killing animals for food, he also doesn’t exclude the possibility of finding methods he can wholeheartedly sanction. This openness makes his position insupportable to those activists who advocate the complete abolition of relationships in which animals are treated as things that can, for instance, be eaten. But what matters for my purposes is not whether his political agenda is radical enough but the range of methods he uses to open our eyes to features of animal life to which many of us are blind. Along with statistics and other information, Eating Animals also contains many literary devices designed to engage readers’ moral imaginations. At one point Safran Foer tells us that while the details about the contemporary meat and seafood industries “are important … they won’t, on their own, persuade most people.” Referring to the sorts of literary gesture characteristic of his own writing, he then adds, “something else is needed.”

In one passage, Safran Foer presents a traditional Filipino recipe for stewed dog. Just before this passage, Safran Foer has been describing scenes from his life with his own pet dog George. He acknowledges that different cultures form tight bonds with different animals, and hence that he is taking for granted the perspectives of his own culture, in which dogs are looked upon as having a kind of precious vitality.

The recipe for stewed dog starts like this. “First kill a medium-sized dog, then burn off the fur over a hot fire. Carefully remove the skin while still warm and set aside for later use.” These lines depend for their power and interest on our already regarding dogs in the non-neutral manner just mentioned. They encourage us to think anew about familiar conventions for preparing meat by getting us to contemplate them in reference to what we already recognize as the precious lives of dogs. “Cut meat into 1 inch cubes,” the recipe continues. “Marinate meat in mixture of vinegar, peppercorn, salt and garlic for 2 hours.” This recital is supposed to get us to shudder at the thought of cubing and marinating the flesh of dogs. At the same time, it invites us to look upon other animals as we look upon dogs, so that we are struck by the idea that when we eat other meat we are doing something analogously shocking to what we would be doing if we cooked and ate dogs. Safran Foer’s efforts here are directed toward imparting a certain cognitive content—namely, that what we are doing when we eat animals is this shocking thing—and his efforts depend for their success on eliciting a certain activity of moral imagination. Like Marsh, then, Safran Foer appeals to moral imagination as a way of helping us to understand aspects of the lives of animals.

Not every appeal to moral imagination succeeds, of course. There are plenty of stupid, manipulative and even corrupt works about animals. On the other hand, even animal advocates who remain committed to viewing the world as “hard” can admire the output of a Marsh or a Safran Foer. What they cannot do, though, is conceive of imaginative artistry as anything more than a flourish that, however provocative, is in principle separable from a work’s underlying content. And that is what I am urging. We should break from these thinkers in allowing that works like Project Nim and Eating Animals—works that call for the exercise of moral imagination in reflection—may directly contribute to our understanding of animals’ lives, thereby laying the groundwork for more effective and clear-sighted animal advocacy.

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