Adventures in Ethics and Science

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?

This kind of mistrust is just one of the impediments to real dialogue about the use of animals in research which we’ve talked about.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Isis the Scientist
    June 16, 2009

    No, no, no, Free-Ride. My ability to provide empathy ends immediately with this phrase, “f 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.” That is in every sense of the word a defect. There is one great big giant line that automatically puts the halt on the dialogue and Dr. J just pole vaulted herself over it.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 17, 2009

    Dr. Isis, I don’t disagree.

    I think Dr. J would have been fine stopping at, “The way I feel about cats, I cannot countenance the thought of any research with them.” Recognizing that non-rational, Dr. J-specific line seems do-able.

    That Dr. J expresses no empathy for fellow scientists who don’t share this line — indeed, expresses a lack of empathy for other scientists — is, as you note, a huge problem. It’s harmful to the community of scientists upon which the scientific enterprise depends.

  3. #3 Bijan Parsia
    June 17, 2009

    I’m missing the context of Dr. J’s original post, but I should point out that the actual specific quote “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.” is very specific. It says that Dr. J would attack someone who kidnapped (or confiscated) and experimented on his cats. They did not, in that sentence, advocate general violence on behalf of cats. Indeed, in the main post they ask about lawful organizations they can join to work against the practices they dislike.

    It does seem to make a difference both in action and in rhetoric if one is acting with regard to an animal with which one has a specific relationship.

    In the thread it seems to me that Comrade Physio Prof has the right end of the critical stick: Dr. J’s moral dictats are arbitrary (i.e., privileging cats and dogs over e.g., rats based on non-morally relevant features). I’m not (yet) convinced that Dr. J is guilty of supporting violence against animal researchers. I am convinced that their argumentation is a big muddle and not particularly interesting.

    I’m also not convinced by the “Dr J.’s ‘over’empathy for cats triggers a morally or (scientifically) pragmatically problematic underempathy for other scientists” line.

    First, I’m not convince that lack of empathy is a candidate for a problem. Lack of collegiality or respect could be I guess, but I don’t see that the scientific enterprise or the community of science depends on large amounts of mutual empathy, or, any, really. I’m not even convinced that very much mutual personal respect/collegiality is needed (or exists). It’s a good, I think, but I could imagine it being the case that more or better science got done with a certain level of nastiness, or that being a side effect of good science. (I don’t believe that, myself, but it does require some argument otherwise and many practicing scientists do believe it either explicitly, implicitly, or with some degree of joking.)

    Second, I don’t see the appeal to empathy is necessary to make Dr. Isis’s point. In a climate of violence it’s obvious that speaking violently, making overstrong analogies, and various sorts of venting can have extra effects. These effects may or may not be intended by Dr. J, but they are there. (The reverse is also true. In a climate of violence, it’s easier to read more into ventings than there is there.) If Dr. J welcomes those effects because of his feelings (or moral position) on cat research, that does, in fact, reveal something about Dr. J.

    I’m not sure that Dr. J’s comments per se should make an animal researcher inherently more wary. Feelings about animal research are probably more or less normally distributed over both the “educated” and “uneducated” population and irrationality (including severe mental illness) likewise. (Actually, it seems rather odd to talk about “uneducated outsiders” as if the only reason one might have a strong anti- position on animal research could stem from lack of education or lack of participation (after all, one could cast these as lack of indoctrination and lack of desensitization).) Given the general societal instability on this front, caution is worthwhile as are measures to reduce the appearance — as well, of course, the substance — of unjustified harm infliction.

    (One thing is evdience: Dr. J can be, at best, as far as I can tell, a source of data about people’s feelings about animals rather than a useful dialectical partner. Their discussion is so all over the place as to be barely coherent.)

    Finally, why is non-negotiability a marker of irrationality? This would make all rights based views inherently irrational. That seems too strong.

  4. #4 anonymous
    June 17, 2009

    No, no, no, Free-Ride. My ability to provide empathy ends immediately with this phrase, “f 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.” That is in every sense of the word a defect. There is one great big giant line that automatically puts the halt on the dialogue and Dr. J just pole vaulted herself over it.

    Could you please expand on what this giant line you are talking about is? What empathy would you have for someone on one side of it and lack for one on the other?

  5. #5 Paul Browne
    June 17, 2009

    Interesting, I notice that in an earlier post on embryonic stem cell research Dr. J wrote

    “I find that the issue of embryonic stem cell research is one that can be very illuminating indeed in ferreting out residual religious bias, even in scientists. If as a scientist, you find yourself conflicted over this issue, then I submit it is time to wake up and realise that you have allowed irrational and unsupportable dogma and doctrine to penetrate your scientific mind. ”

    http://2postdocswalkintoabar.blogspot.com/2009/03/embryonic-stem-cells-are-go.html

    Yet when it comes to research involving cata and dogs Dr. J displays exactly the attitude that he/she castigates in scientists who oppose hESC research.

    Research involving cats and dogs is never going to be nice, must always be justified by a strong scientific need and where possible replaced by, for example, the use of transgenic rodents. But such research has enabled some of the greatest medical advances of the past century, and is still necessary in some circumstances.

    If you are an American or working in the USA and would like to show support for animal research and the scientists who do it please sign the Pro-Test petition at http://www.raisingvoices.net

  6. #6 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 17, 2009

    In addition to inflammatory calls for physical violence against other scientists, Dr. J also continues to flat-out lie about the basis for her ethically framed conclusion concerning the use of cats for scientific research.

  7. #7 Lab Lemming
    June 17, 2009

    How is “real dialogue” about animal experimentation any different than “teaching the controversy” or the global warming “debate”?

    This person has half the denialist deck of cards on the table. She or he’s enabling, if not directly advocating, violence.

  8. #8 Dunc
    June 17, 2009

    Sorta playing devil’s advocate:

    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.

    So, has the whole utilitarianism vs. deontology debate been settled definitively then? Now, I’m not a medical ethicist, but I was under the impression that there are certain ethical standards in human-subjects research which were regarded as sacrosanct, and not to be breached for any conceivable gain. That’s a deontological position. Is it just for non-human subjects that utilitarianism is the only “rational” option? Why deontology for humans, and utilitarianism for everything else? What about higher primates? Or (to get really speculative) aliens every bit as cognitively capable as humans? What are the “rational” ethical standards there? Also, what exactly do we mean by “human”? Any definition I can think of off the top of my head has fairly obvious problems…

    Not playing devils advocate: I do not accept that deontology is necessarily “non-rational”. It just proceeds from different axioms.

  9. #9 Kate
    June 17, 2009

    Great post, Dr. Free-Ride, and an important contribution to the conversation.

  10. #10 Bijan Parsia
    June 17, 2009

    How is “real dialogue” about animal experimentation any different than “teaching the controversy” or the global warming “debate”?

    If the real dialogue is about the ethics of animal experimentation, then the main differences is that real dialogue about animal experimentation is about an ethical dispute that seems quite live (e.g., ethics professionals come down all over the place) where as in global warming we have a pretty good consensus on the science (with good ideas of what would reasonably change the consensus) with the call for “teaching the controversy” a fairly transparent attempt to elevate non-scientifically respectable arguments and denigrate respectable science.

    They blur a bit in various factual disputes about the necessity of animal experimentation wherein anti-animal experimentation people sometimes (often?) assert that we could do as good research (on specific questions) while dispensing with animal experimentation. That doesn’t enjoy any scientific consensus (among actual researchers in the areas) and, alas, doesn’t seem plausible. (I say “alas” because it would be, I trust everyone agrees, really awesome if we didn’t have to experiment on sentient creatures, all other things being equal.)

    But one could concede that that’s the best way to do that sort of science and disagree that that level of goodness of that sort of science is worth the cost. We routinely do this for human experimentation. That is, it’s almost certainly the case that if we could do certain sorts of controlled experiments on humans we’d learn a lot and save/improve a lot of lives. But, as we all say now, that would be wrong. So wrong as to be, I hope, unthinkable.

    It takes a fairly radical commitment to animal rights per se (I’d think) to think that we should stop all animal testing (or even most animal testing or all/most vertabrate testing) even if the alternatives were hugely less effective. For example, suppose given two regulatory regimes, one with pretty much the ethical guidelines we have now and another with no vertabrate testing at all. Let’s stipulate that the first regime is scientifically twice as effective as the latter (e.g., we get a drug, safely, in half the time; we have half the deployed bad side effects or ineffective cures, etc.) Regime 1 has X amount of animal suffering whereas regime 2 has 0. But Regime 1 has half the human suffering (eh, you know; it’s not exact…just intuition pumping).

    Overwhelmingly, people think that regime 1 is so much morally preferable to regime 2 that to think otherwise is grotesque. I don’t know if Dr. J would think so. I also don’t know if Dr. J has *some* threshold, e.g., if it would allow 100x the human suffering to do without cat testing, would they still ban it?

    Of course, this sort of thought experiment is not particularly dispositive as it’s not all that easy to predict what would happen one way or another (but maybe it’s not that difficult either? anti-animal experimentation folks could just fund non-animal studies and just *win* on the science front). Furthermore, these sorts of arguments are a bit vulnerable to resource allocation arguments. (It’s possible that we would do better overall by applying roughly what we already know more systematically instead of pursuing many sorts of new knowledge.)

  11. #11 pb
    June 17, 2009

    I would have no qualms doing research on babies, but cats are far superior.

  12. #12 Pat Cahalan
    June 17, 2009

    @ Dunc

    One can argue that the principle that certain standards for human subject research are sacrosanct *is* utilitarian. Most of the “great debate” points of utilitarianism vs. deontological trains of thought come down to semantics. Mill vs. Kant comes to mind.

    As to the question of “rational” ethical standards (speaking only as an armchair philosopher) I would say that pretty much all ethical schools of thought are rational; the real question is which ones are empirical vs which ones are conceptual.

    It’s all about how you define your axioms.

  13. #13 XZ\ CHSc
    June 17, 2009

    CK VDVFW B

  14. #14 fia
    June 17, 2009

    Great post! There is a difference between personal “lines” and the lines we as a society agree on. I think the main objective of Dr. Js post was to point our her personal line, and later she got cornered and couldn’t get out again.

    Everybody has different “lines”, but it is imperative that we have rules where everybody agrees on no matter whether it is a match with the personal opinion. This is why its an agreement. One can compare it with certain religious ideas (for instance, whether it is ethical to eat cows), which are followed by the members but normally these ideas are not forced upon bystanders. If that is the case, it is called fanatism.

  15. #15 notedscholar
    June 18, 2009

    Also, keep in mind that Doctor Jay is doing the same thing as anti-abortion activists. Parading around a bunch of cute baby pictures and expecting that to mean something to us. First of all babies aren’t even that cute. And they’re cuter than cats!

    NS

  16. #16 Richard
    June 18, 2009

    How does the argument here change if we replace ‘cats’ by ‘babies’? Compare:

    “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 [babies] is not prima facie wrong. To decide that it is — to consider those who care deeply about [baby] welfare yet see compelling reasons to use [babies] in (humane) scientific research as “scum” with whom one cannot reason — is to let empathy for the [babies] cut off empathy for fellow scientists.”

    Hmmm.

  17. #17 Samia
    June 18, 2009

    I’m never sure what to think of these types of posts…I never take anything away…

  18. #18 Mike Olson
    June 18, 2009

    Sure, but how does the argument change if we substitute, Supermodels for babies for cats.
    “…the ethics of research with (supermodels) is not prima facie wrong…””…to consider those who care deeply about (supermodel) welfare yet see compelling reasons to use (supermodels) in (humane) scientific research…””…is to let empathy for the (supermodels) cut off empathy for fellow scientists.”
    Hmmmmm.

  19. #19 mijnheer
    June 26, 2009

    Janet S. writes: “The idea that human babies and cats deserve equal ethical consideration is beyond reproach.”
    “Beyond reproach” typically means that no fault can be found with something. I suspect Janet S. means the opposite.

    But what exactly is the difference between “Babies and Beasts” (to use the title of a book by philosopher Daniel Dombrowski that examines what has come to be called “the argument from marginal cases”)?
    http://www.amazon.com/Babies-Beasts-ARGUMENT-MARGINAL-CASES/dp/0252066383

    It is difficult, if not impossible, to point to any rationally defensible, morally relevant distinction between, on the one hand, infants and the mentally handicapped and, on the other hand, the animals we eat and experiment on. What it comes down to is that humans typically have a sentimental preference for members of their own species. Whatever weight one may want to give to that sentiment, it has nothing to do with reason; rather, it is a bias, a prejudice. There’s a considerable philosophical literature on this subject; those who intend to pronounce on the treatment of animals would be advised to investigate it. Dombrowski’s book might be a good place to start.

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