Today, at R.E.S.E.A.R.C.H.E.R.S., Dr J. posted a picture of a charming looking cat with the following text:
As little as I can do to push back against the sick minded evil mo-fo bastards who think animal testing on cats is ok….from now on I will post occasional photos of cats as a reminder that these animals are infinitely better than the low life scum that would put them in a lab and murder them, or would sit on an animal experiments committee and authorize their use in any such way, or cite papers involving their research or in anyway devalue them…I think you are debasing and damaging science by doing so and your moral fabric is in shreds and it is time to get it sorted, there is no acceptable justification.
Along with some of the follow-up in comments on that post, Dr. Isis finds this alarming:
In response to being asked how Dr. J would draw the seemingly arbitrary line between animals that are acceptable to experiment on and those that are not, Dr. J throws us the following abhorrent strawman:
I do not have to be either for or against animal experiments. To be the former is to give carte blanche to anything. Well if you want that, why not add in all the dependents in society – you know babies and criminals etc. I put cats in the category as babies. People who abuse them are in my book as bad as paedophies.
This is where things start to get scary. The notion of animal researchers equated with those who rape and sodomize children is pretty disturbed. I won’t lie, it left me feeling squeemy inside. The idea that human babies and cats deserve equal ethical consideration is beyond reproach.
But, if that wasn’t enough, the real lunacy comes out to play when Dr. J says this:
As for cats. I’ve known and lived with many. I’ve made clear all along that one reason is that abuse of them is not something I think will be tolerated by the public, along with dogs and other things. Clearly it depends on what is being done. But the default disposal of ‘sacrificing’ or ‘euthanising’ is not acceptable. Why not cats specifically? They have a superior intellect, they reason, they feel, they love, they care. They are a dignified species with a lot of self respect and they deserve better treatment than this and if I thought anyone strapped one of my cats down and did to them some of the things that apparently go on, I would have no hesitation in what I would do them – it would be extreme but proportional. (Emphasis a la Isis)
This comment frightens me because it is a reminder to all of us that violence may not necessarily be perpetrated by uneducated outsiders. These notions may be harbored by those within our scientific spheres. Now, granted that Dr. J may never actually blow up a car, but what do these words say to someone who might? The knowledge that our fellow scientists may harbor these violent notions is the reason so many scientists are wary of taking unvetted students into the laboratory. It puts one on guard toward protecting the people that are already in the lab. It puts one on guard toward protecting the safety of their family. It’s the reason that scientists may be wary of publicly sharing their findings. When you can’t trust your safety to your peers, then who can you trust it to?
I’m inclined to say that attitudes like Dr. J’s throw up another roadblock to dialogue. As I read it, Dr. J is essentially admitting an inability to be rational about the use of cats in research. The cat-line is non-negotiable to Dr. J, no matter what the potential payoff in terms of knowledge that might be usefully applied to human (and even feline) flourishing.
I’m also inclined to think it’s better to be able to recognize subjects on which one cannot be rational than to kid oneself that one can be detached about them. It at least saves you the trouble of laying the groundwork for a reasoned dialogue only to flip out when the non-rational line is crossed. I won’t pretend I could have a rational dialogue about the Yankees. Dr. J won’t pretend to be able to have a rational dialogue about the use of cats in scientific research.
This doesn’t mean that no one could have such a rational dialogue. Nor does it mean the people who could have that rational dialogue are moral monsters. They may just be better at acknowledging that their feelings, while deeply held, need not be binding on everyone else.
Finally, I don’t think having a line like Dr. J’s cat-line is necessarily a defect (at least, to the extent that you can acknowledge it is not grounded in rational arguments, nor need it be binding on others, although your feelings about others not bound by it may not be wholly rational, either). I think it speaks to something that it’s important for those who do research with animals to have: empathy. Part of why animals are used in research is because they are like us in important respects. That our recognition of similarities can trigger in us something like fellow-feeling is a good thing. It makes it harder for us to take animal use lightly, and easier for us to prioritize reduction of animal discomfort and distress.
Dr. J should not do research with cats. Other researchers should recognize and respect their own lines (and the non-rational lines their colleagues draw for themselves).
But at the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to press Dr. J to recognize that this particular manifestation of empathy is very personal — that it is grounded in a feeling that other ethical scientists might not share, and that their different view on the ethics of research with cats is not prima facie wrong. To decide that it is — to consider those who care deeply about animal welfare yet see compelling reasons to use cats in (humane) scientific research as “scum” with whom one cannot reason — is to let empathy for the cats cut off empathy for fellow scientists.
And cutting off empathy for fellow scientists makes membership in the tribe of science extremely problematic.