Friday, March 4, 2016

They called it puppy love

      Even those of us who may not be pet owners generally will go "Aawww" when we're presented with a photo of a puppy, or a kitten, or BOTH.  Put a picture of those cute animals behind bars (i.e., in a shelter), and the heart-strings are tugged even more. There's something about the eyes, I think. And the fluffy fur. Most of us turn into some kind of puddle of goo. Marketers CERTAINLY know this, and they play upon it -- just remember the animal-themed commercials from the Super Bowl. And it's not just puppies or kittens in television commercials. Those same marketers know that animals as part of a logo increase purchases.
      The larger story is that marketers (and others who want our attention) recognize that playing to our hearts is an effective way of claiming our allegiance. So, whether it's putting an animal on the tail of an airplane, OR a sad-eyed child in an appeal for donations, OR an incredibly polluted (or incredibly beautiful) river asking for letters to a legislator, the visual--as well as the thoughts evoked by that image--seems to have a direct effect on creating an emotional response.  And the hope is that that emotional, internal, response will lead us to a REAL, external, response:  buying, donating, lobbying, voting, etc.
      I certainly fall prey to this. Appeals to my "animal" nature work. But so do appeals to other loyalties:  certain religious causes, various alma maters, favorite sports teams. My susceptibility, however, was challenged this week as I read, and then discussed, noted ethicist Peter Singer's The Most Good You Can Do:  How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (Yale, 2015).* Singer argues very persuasively that, if we want to do the "most good", we should follow our intellect, and not our hearts. We should do research on various "charities" before donating, to ensure that they are actually DOING good. We might even consider taking very lucrative jobs so we'd have MORE money to give away. We should count all lives as having equal value, regardless of whether they're next door or half-way around the world, and, therefore, send our money to help the MOST people.  Much of what Singer says make a lot of sense!
      It makes a lot of sense, yes!  And I've checked out some of the websites he suggests (;; they are ALL very interesting and compelling (and they do so WITHOUT pictures of puppies--although Animal Charity Evaluators uses farm animals). So, as far as I'm concerned, Singer's made his case. But I still can't quite go the whole way with him. In his commitment to valuing all lives equally, he finds little justification in support for the arts.  Logically, I suppose, this makes sense (and he has a good argument about WHY he thinks this way). But, to me, the arts (broadly conceived) can inspire, can cause reflection, can soothe in such ways as to help me do more good.
      So, I'm torn, but I'm not alone. Singer admits in his TED talk, that he falls short of his own ideals as well. But he challenges us -- he challenges ME -- to consider how I might do the most good. A similar call is found in the words attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6.21). Is my heart--my whole being and commitment--REALLY in the places where I devote time and money. Or am I allowing myself to be swayed by puppy-love?



*  In case you don't have enough time to read Singer's book, or you're more visually oriented, here is a link to his TED talk on the subject.

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