Today we discuss an impediment to dialogue about animals in research that seems to have a special power to get people talking past each other rather than actually engaging with each other:
Imprecision about the positions being staked out.
Specifically, here, the issue is whether the people trying to have a dialogue are being precise in laying out the relevant philosophical positions about animals — the position they hold, the position they’re arguing against, the other positions that might be viable options.
Why is imprecision about your philosophical position a dialogue blocker? It tends to muddy what you’re trying to communicate. What you say may suggest that your primary concern is X when it’s actually Y. Or, people may interpret your claims in light of the assumption that your primary concern is X when it’s actually Y. Or, you may get challenged as to how you can be committed, as you say you are, to Z (which is compatible with Y but not with X) because you are taken to be supporting X. Being clear that your position is Y, not X, can head off arguments based on miscommunications and misunderstandings of this sort.
Another possible source of imprecision, though, can be that you haven’t yet worked out what precisely your position is. In this case, it’s a good idea to devote some reflection to working out your position — or at least to own up to being in the process of working out your position. Right or wrong, your partners in dialogue will likely regard you differently if you present yourself as having a position that’s still being worked out than if you seem confident in your commitment to an apparently incoherent position.
Of course, it’s also possible that someone’s position is unclear because he or she is purposely hiding or misrepresenting his or her view. But this would not be arguing in good faith, and this would throw us back to the impediment of presumptive mistrust.
In the quest for a real dialogue about animal research, there are a number of philosophical positions available, positions that sometimes get conflated. These include animal rights positions and animal welfare positions. Undoubtedly, people come to these positions by different routes, and accordingly there may be various flavors of these positions represented, so my characterizations of them shouldn’t be assumed to be definitive.
First let’s consider animal rights positions. Philosopher Tom Regan asserts that human and non-human animals have inherent rights. Prime among these is the right not to have one’s body transgressed for any reason — even to produce medical knowledge (for example) that might result in much good. Regan’s view seems to stretch a Kantian approach to ethics (where one respects humans as ends in themselves, never as mere means) to cover non-human animals as part of our moral community.
Peter Singer, another philosopher whose name is closely associated with animal rights positions, comes at the question of our ethical duties from a utilitarian approach instead. Like humans, Singer sees animals as creatures with a capacity to feel pain and with an interest in not feeling pain. Thus, in utilitarian calculations to maximize good (including pleasure) and minimize evil (including pain), we need to take account of the pleasure and pain not just of other humans but also of non-human animals. If we would regard certain kinds of treatment as unethical when applied to humans on account of the suffering they would produce, then is is “speciesism” not to judge as unethical the same treatment applied to non-human animals who would experience similar suffering.
It may be tempting here to return to the distinction between pain and suffering, where suffering requires something like self-awareness. However, Singer will challenge this move by pointing out that some humans may lack the required self-awareness (whether due to their age or to mental impairment) while some animals seem to display outward signs that are at least compatible with self-awareness. Specify where to draw the line and apply those criteria consistently across species, and Singer will credit you with a defensible ethical system.
Animal welfare positions are distinct from the position that animals have rights. These positions hold that animal suffering matters — that it is something to be avoided or minimized — but do not ground the ethical importance of animal suffering in animals’ status as right-bearers.
Often what grounds the claim that animal suffering has moral significance is that it matters to us — that humans recognize an interest in reducing animal suffering, that our awareness of animal pain can cause us emotional pain. This kind of grounding means that the moral significance of animal suffering is contingent, a state of affairs some find worrisome.
As it happens, though, in the U.S. this contingency of public sentiment is enshrined in law. The prevailing regulations covering animal use recognize animal welfare as something that must be protected.
Besides the animal rights and animal welfare positions, there is also the possibility of staking out a position that holds that animals and animal suffering have no moral significance, that animals are not deserving of any special regard. Given that the regulatory environment in the U.S. aims to protect animal welfare, however, people who hold this view are still legally bound to treat animals in accord with what would be required by an animal welfare position.
At this point, I should mention a related imprecision that can make dialogue harder, a muddiness about what is required, permitted, or forbidden by law or regulations and what is required, permitted, or forbidden by a particular moral view. We can acknowledge the possibility of unjust laws (whether they are unjust because they allow unethical treatment of animals, or because they put unfair restrictions on human freedom), but we may not agree on which particular laws we take to be unjust. Moreover, even if we agree that a particular law is unjust, we may disagree about the best way to respond (whether through political efforts to change the law or civil disobedience or violent rebellion). In any case, when claiming “You can do X” or “You shouldn’t do Y,” it is important to be clear about whether the force of the “can” or the “shouldn’t” is supposed to come from morality or from law.
When parties to a dialogue have articulated their positions — including the philosophical commitments they bring to the table — there can be a real engagement, possibly including why they hold the commitments they do and what else might follow from those commitments. On the other hand, when the positions are not set out clearly, parties can end up misrepresenting their own commitments and the commitments of others. Sometimes this sort of imprecision results in a conflation of animal rights and animal welfare positions, falsely recognizing only two options as logically possible: caring about animals as rights-bearing creatures, or not caring about animals at all. Such a move blurs important philosophical differences between animal rights and animal welfare positions — among these, that it is possible to value animal welfare and also to value scientific research with animals. Insisting that animal welfare and scientific research are incompatible amounts either to denying the details of the animal welfare supporters’ philosophical commitments, or to insisting on your own rules of logic for the exchange. Certainly, dialogue is impossible in the absence of a shared set of rules for logical inference, and arguably denying your partner in dialogue’s actual philosophical commitments is another dialogue blocker.
Laying your philosophical commitments on the table seems to me a necessary step in having a real dialogue about animal research, but not a sufficient step. This is because our moral views influence not just our thinking, but also our actions — and some of those actions put people with opposing moral views in contact with each other in frightening ways. Thus, in part 6 of this series, we’ll discuss how actions that seem justified by one’s position, and the tactics used to advance the position, can create impediments to dialogue.