Adventures in Ethics and Science

On my earlier post, “Dialogue, not debate”, commenter dave c-h posed some interesting questions:

Is there an ethical point at which engagement is functionally equivalent to assent? In other words, is there a point at which dialogue should be replaced by active resistance? If so, how do you tell where that point is? I think many activists fear that dialogue is a tactic of those who support the status quo to co-opt them into a process that is unlikely to lead to any real change because the power is unevenly divided.


What the commenter says about the activists’ fears sounds about right to me. If the other side is committed to pursuing activities that your side views as utterly unacceptable in any circumstances, then what’s the point of talking with them? Your side’s goal is to stop them. Sure, it would be nice if you could get the other side to stop these utterly unacceptable activities by persuasion, but any conversation with the potential to change their minds would have at least the theoretical potential to change your mind, too. That could sidetrack your progress in putting a stop to the utterly unacceptable activities.

More generally, you might decide dialogue is a bad idea if you’re convinced the other side will not argue in good faith, or if the other side completely controls the terms of the dialogue (thus setting up a situation where they win points for deigning to engage with you while you gain no points, and possibly even lose points, for engaging with them). Alternatively, you might completely reject dialogue with a party that has repeatedly used force (whether officially sanctioned legal force or illegal means like firebombs) to try to advance its cause — essentially, deciding not to negotiate with terrorists.

But I’m inclined to think that if the concern is that there won’t be any real change, that the status quo will stay stuck where it is, then not engaging in dialogue also runs the risk of leaving you stuck where you are. If your current plan of attack hasn’t shifted the status quo, then a dialogue that you fear won’t shift the status quo, either, doesn’t introduce much risk. You’d pretty much just be risking the time and effort you put into a dialogue.

Unless engaging in dialogue actually set back your cause, what would be the harm?

Indeed, there are only two basic ways I can imagine where participating in a dialogue could lead to your side losing ground. One would be if the dialogue exposed your goals to be unsupportable or your methods in pursuing those goals to be indefensible. (In this situation, if you valued intellectual honesty as well as your goal, presumably you’d want to know about these problems so you could address them.) The other would be if the people with whom you were engaging in dialogue were clearly monsters, since this might blow your credibility with the larger public you’re trying to win over to your side.

Again, though, I think we need to emphasize that a dialogue is very different from a debate. Having a dialogue does not mean abandoning the goals you’re working to accomplish, but, for the duration of the dialogue, you are pursuing a different set of goals. These goals can be more modest, and more than that, they can be ones that you and people on “the other side” can reasonably share — like understanding each other better, or figuring out ways your two sides can interact without risking harm to members of either side. It’s an unreasonable goal to expect that your dialogue with researchers will bring about an end to all animal experiments. It’s a more reasonable goal to hope that engaging in such a dialogue will help you be taken more seriously by people who value rational arguments.

Moreover, a dialogue needn’t be a big public spectacle. If all the participants agree that it should be private, it can be private. If all the participants agree it should be public, it can be public — although if all the details of the dialogue itself are not available for public inspections, it seems like a good idea for the participants to decide in advance how to communicate the outcomes of the dialogue (as seen by each of the dialogue’s participants) to the public. Here, while the hope might be that sharing the outcomes of the dialogue, or the fact that you entered into the dialogue in the first place, will help you win over the public and advance your larger goal, that can’t be what drives the dialogue — at least not if you want the dialogue to be successful on its own terms.

The short answer to the question, then, is that engaging in dialogue is not assenting to your opponent’s goals nor to the status quo. Rather, it is assenting to the more limited goal of creating a space in which you and your opponent can engage with each other outside the framework of scoring points. This does not take active resistance off the table during the time you are not engaged in dialogue, nor does it constitute surrender. What it does instead is open a mode of engagement that divides power equally between the participants.

Real dialogue, then, is not something to be feared.

Comments

  1. #1 Dario Ringach
    October 1, 2009

    In our specific case, I feel initiating the conversation of animal research in “dialogue mode” is important for various reasons. First, it will allow us to talk about our different views of animal research from a scientific and ethical perspective. Second, it will allow us to listen to what each other has to say. Finally, it will help us to identify the fundamental points of disagreement that can serve for future conversations.

    As this dialogue moves forward, and following the suggestions of Carl Sagan’s famous “Baloney Detection Kit”, I can certainly see a more substantive debate developing around specific issues.

  2. #2 Cleveland
    October 2, 2009

    Dr Ringach if the fundamental point is that the ARA types think there should be no animal research, how does hearing this lead to future conversation?