Adventures in Ethics and Science

When I told you about the infuriating tactics extreme animal rights activists are turning against Dario Ringach for even daring to express his view that animal research can be important, a number of you asked in the comments, “What can we do besides signing petitions and writing blog posts?”

David Jentsch offers some concrete ideas about where to start making your stand:

For those that support research or researchers, I offer a number of possibilities that will allow you to become involved in this struggle:

1) Participate however you can in supporting science and scientists. This may include forceful statements about the values of academic freedom and calls for your University administration to make categorical statements about threats to controversial research. Get ahead of the curve and condemn it on principle, not just because someone in your University is being threatened.

2) Write letters to the editor of your local papers about your position on research. Promote science education and an understanding of biomedical research through presentations about science at your children’s school.

3) Speak to your friends and family members who hold views critical of research. Open a dialogue with them. Compare notes about what you feel the ethical basis for conducting animal research is and why you think it is justifiable. Try to achieve an agreement that they should condemn those in their movement that support “direct action” (which is a barely concealed attempt at rebranding criminal behavior).

4) Write to your Congressperson and Senators and demand that they strengthen and support legislation that increases civil and criminal penalties against activists who go beyond Constitutionally-protected speech and begin resorting to criminal harassment and stalking. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism act is under judicial review. The House and Senate need to consider revisions and extensions now.

5) If anti-research activists show up on campus or in your community with their dated pictures and slogans, show up as well and present your own perspective forcefully but articulately.

6) Foster your own campus dialogues with animal rights activists, but refuse to respond to, engage with or involve persons unwilling to PUBLICLY condemn people that support or apologize for direct action campaigns.

I’ll offer one more: Be that person, in your everyday interactions, who consistently calls out the tactics of intimidation, no matter who’s using them. Make sure your family, your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors, have no doubt that you prefer a society where we deal with each other on the basis of reason, not fear.

Commenters with other suggestions about how to take a stand against over-the-line tactics, no matter where you stand on the question of research with animals, are invited to share them in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Anon
    February 24, 2010

    Re #5: Is there a place where incidents like the mistreatment of Ringach are archived? Being well informed is a tremendous advantage; in this case, the anti-research activists are relying on emotional messages, and on attempting to take the moral high ground. Stories like that of Ringach do not invalidate a logical argument, but they do not have to; they undercut the moral high ground and bring the activists back to mud-level.

    I know it is not a tactic for everyone, but it is a tactic that works on occasion, and works better when it it well informed.

  2. #2 Bijan Parsia
    February 24, 2010

    First, I want to offer my support. It seems to me that you are doing great things and getting some crap for it.

    But I’m not super comfortable with Jentsch’s recommendations.

    To get started, Where do you stand on John Brown? I found Erik Loomis’s take interesting (cause was right, but he was a terrorist and should be condemned as such, i.e., as a serious wrong doer). But his argument seems to be instrumental: Even if it were morally justified, we should condemn it since people will always appeal to moral reasons to justify their violent actions, and, right now, the people inclined to violence have substantively wrong moral views.

    If there were people kidnapping 2 year old, healthy, mentally competent children and torturing them for fun, I presume that you would agree that violent intervention (proportionate and merely sufficient, of course) to free the children would be appropriate, perhaps even required? If the state legalized this practice, I trust you would endorse violating that law (at least directly, to rescue said children)?

    Would you support armed resistance to that law?

    I ask all this because I’m unclear how to systematically condemn the “tactics of intimidation” without some appeal to the substantive moral situation. I find pure pacifism appealing and coherent, but I don’t think there’s a strong case for imposing it on people. That is, I can’t condemn slaves who fought for their liberation (though I might question specific tactics; intimidation, however, might be better than many things e.g., slaughter).

    Is there no moral situation in the 21 century US that would justify such actions? What about the Iraq War? Or another Cambodian like action? How about plans to nuke Iran?

    (That all being said, these folks are wrong, offensive, nuts, and very very morally wrong and I have no problem calling them out. But I’m not sure why one shouldn’t engage with people who refuse to PUBLICLY condemn people who support or apologize for direct action campaigns. It’s not enough for them not to endorse the campaigns, they have to PUBLICLY condemn those who, perhaps among other things, do apologize for such campaigns? Really? That seems rather a strong burden. Would you debate Ted Honderich on Palinstinean terrorism?)

  3. #3 Paul Browne
    February 24, 2010

    Bijan, an important question you have to ask yourself is what other avenues are available to people who wish to change society.

    America is a democracy were all adult citizens have the right to vote (with some exceptions such as incarcerated felons and the mentally ill), and there is a free press and a constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. Add to that the principle of equality before the law and it is clear that if there is enough support from the population for an idea and/or a strong enough legal case can be made for it then it is clear that there is no moral justification for resorting to harassment, intimidation or violence in pursuit of a social or political change. That’s one of the points of having a democracy (however imperfect in many respects), nobody gets everything they want all the time but that’s what you have to put up with if you don’t want to live in a state where those prepared to be the nastiest prevail.

    This applies equally whether the threats are coming from anti-abortionists or from animal rights fanatics. Heck even though I’m a strong supporter of same sex marriage I was disgusted at some of the attacks on Mormons because of their support for Proposition 8. While I can understand some of the anger and frustration behind those attacks I can nevertheless see that they were immoral.

    I also recognize the need to differentiate between condemning a movement as a whole and condemning certain actions committed by supporters of a movement. For example at one I frequently see is the example of the Suffragettes, where animal rights activists claim that because we condemn some forms of “direct action” we condemn the suffragettes, when it is obvious to most people that it is perfectly possible to approve of the aims of the suffragettes (as I do) and many of their direct actions while still condemning some such as arson and bombings that were IMHO immoral (and probably counter productive).

  4. #4 Bijan Parsia
    February 24, 2010

    Paul, I do agree that avenues of change are relevant.

    But then consider a slave in pre-civil war south. Ok, they didn’t have the right to vote, so maybe that’s the source of their right to violently resist (do you think they had one?). But would it be wrong for me to violently intervene in someone beating a slave? A child? Even if I had the right to vote?

    Consider the My Lai Massacre. Wouldn’t Hugh Thompson have been justified in using force to stop the massacre even if it had been legal?

    I’m not arguing that animal rights activists are correct that the cases are relevantly similar. I certainly don’t believe that for anti-abortionists! But I don’t see how the blanket “condemn all tactics of intimidation” excuses the above cases and it seems plausible that they should. Now you might bite the bullet and condemn them all, even the morally right ones. Or you might bite the bullet and be an obligate pacifist. (Are you?)

    And really. Just because we are in a democracy, I would have to tolerate slavery? Of me? (So long as I have the right to vote?) How about obligatory organ harvesting (e.g., every philosophy phd must donate a kidney while still alive.)

    I really suspect that you are concealing a substantive moral view in there, e.g., that abortion, animal rights, and gay marriage don’t justify violence in our society (or ever). But that’s different than saying that nothing justifies violence in our society. (Would interned Japanese be justified in resisting internment?) And even then, anti-abortionists claim to think that abortion is murder. If the government sanctioned killing 12 year old children by their parents for whatever reason are you committed to saying that people are obliged to work through the democratic process?

    I feel the sting of not wanting to endorse violence and wanting to have a big stick to condemn it. But this stick seems incorrect.

    If you really think that any violent direct action is immoral, that’s fine. You can be consistent there. I trust you also condemn the Revolutionary War and the French Resistance. (Or are they ok because of lack of democracy? But all governments evolve, so why not just wait it out?)

    Efficacy is a different consideration, although worth doing. I’ll note that being counterproductive is a charge mobilized against non-violent movements as well (and abolitionists). So we have to have some pretty objective criteria there.

  5. #5 Ian Musgrave
    February 24, 2010

    Thanks for that Janet, I sort of already do 1-3 and 5 (4 is irrelevant being as I’m not in the US, and the federal/state rule here regarding animal welfare are somewhat different), but I can do it better.

    However, I was thinking more of action to directly help Dario. Can, for example, I get the Australian Society for Medical Research to write to Dario’s home institution offering support or what? What is the most effective way to get his kids safe?

    And Janet, I know you are getting flak for just raising this subject. You have my admiration and support as well.

  6. #6 tootiredtospell
    February 24, 2010

    Replying to Bijan Parsia:

    “But then consider a slave in pre-civil war south. Ok, they didn’t have the right to vote, so maybe that’s the source of their right to violently resist (do you think they had one?). But would it be wrong for me to violently intervene in someone beating a slave? A child? Even if I had the right to vote?”

    But violent resistance, or violent defense, differ significantly from violent harassment and intimidation. Slaves rebelling are fighting back directly against the masters who are harming them. Your intervention would attempt to stop the person who is beating another.

    A better comparison would be if you located a person who gave up owning slaves years ago, harassed him at his job, threatened his kids, and organized gangs to do the same. Or if you chased down someone who was beating a child, and after stopping the beating and seeing the child to safety, you followed her around for a few weeks screaming “Child-beater!” every time she tries to speak. Those are revenge fantasies, not attempts to fix the problem.

  7. #7 Bijan Parsia
    February 25, 2010

    tootriedtospell,

    There’s two different aspects here: Differences in the kinds of violence and differences in the *timing*.

    I trust that we agree that, at least in the typical case for like “quantities”, intimidation or harassment is less harmful than, say, physically injuring or killing. In other words, if violence is justified we prefer the least necessary violence and, in at least some cases, intimidation tactics are less violent than alternatives. Threat of force generally are better than the force itself.

    So, I don’t see that anything that would justify an attack would not justify lesser violence. We might have to take care in comparing likes to likes (e.g., a long slow harassment might have culmative effects that a punch in the face wouldn’t). But this all tells against a blanket condemnation: You have to look at the specifics of both the justification and the degree/form of violence.

    (Putting aside tactics! I’m ok with overstating in the face of ongoing wrongdoing. But that’s just *moral* intimidation, albeit of a much less serious form. “I cast you out of the circle of people with whom reasonable discussion is possible and warranted unless you vocally and publicly condemn your nasty fellow travelers” seems to be pretty hardnosed (though perhaps justifiable). I don’t think Socrates, for example, would countenance that.)

    In both your examples, the problematic action was over, indeed perhaps long over. But then this just aren’t apt comparisons. AFAICT, the main foci of direct action is occurrent putative wrong doing or, perhaps, likely near term future wrong doing, not long past, unlikely to recur wrongdoing. (Well, it also targets “enablers”, but that’s a slightly different issue. Some of it targets unrelated innocents, which is yet another issue, but about whether *this* or *that* particular violent is justified/proportionate/effective.)

    To amend your examples, imagine you had credible reason to believe that this “reformed” slave owner secretly had slaves or was planning to start up again. Similarly with the child beater: You had some circumstantial evidence that they were starting or were inclining that way.

    Perhaps that relies too much on uncertainty or pre-emption (though note that the problem would be the *uncertainty*), so imagine that the slave owner was currently owning slaves but in a completely secure-from-me location (so directly liberating the slaves was impossible). Would I be justified in killing the slave owner (if killing them would make it possible to free the slaves)? If so, would it be worse to harass them at work and organize gangs to do the same? (What’s the level of harassment. Public criticism surely is ok, right? So we’re talking about picketing or above (e.g., vandalism). I find it hard to object to vandalizing e.g., the door of a slave owner. I might not do it, but I hardly think it’s huge on the scale of things. What about a sit in? Or a boycott?)

    This is all presuming a failure of state intervention. Obviously, if a 20 second phone call would get the state to apply it’s force to liberate the slaves, I almost certainly should do that instead. But aren’t we exactly talking about occasions of systematic state failure?

    BTW, I am highly aware of the trickiness of even making these arguments, here. After all, this isn’t just hypothetical, but an occurrent situation with our host involved and targeted (which is awful!). So, perhaps I’ll stop for now so as not to seem to (or in effect) pile on.

    However, it might be nice to have such a discussion in the future. I’m really puzzled about what to say about John Brown, even from a moral level, much less from a tactical level.

  8. #8 Paul Browne
    February 25, 2010

    Bijan you are missing a couple of key points.

    1) Legalized slavery is not compatable with modern ideas of democracy.

    2) In the French resistance and (more questionably) the Revolutionary war there was no alternative to violence. In the USA today there are plenty of alternatives to violent means, democratic voting, the law etc., this is what makes violence or the threat of violence immoral.

    Of course even in a non-democracy a cost/benefit analysis might rule out violence in support of a particular social or political goal. Deliberately and with full knowledge blowing up a train carrying 100 french children to kill one Nazi private would not be a moral act. Even killing that private in the knowledge that the retaliation would doom 100 children would be very morally dubious.

    What you are doing is attempting to use extreme hypothetical cases to rationalise the use of violence by the supportters of minority viewpoints in a democracy, and then to apply this justification to less extreme cases. Sorry but it won’t wash.

  9. #9 Bijan Parsia
    February 25, 2010

    Hi Paul,

    I’m a bit reluctant to continue because I don’t want to have the negative effects I mentioned in my prior comment. I’ll happily take it offline or continue here if our gracious host indicates it’s acceptable.

    However, I don’t think you are correct in characterizing what I’m attempting to do. I’m attempting to understand what differences make a difference in our judgments about the moral acceptability of certain classes of violence. I am definitely not rationalizing these particular acts: Indeed, I outright condemned them. But my grounds are that they are substantively wrong on the basic judgments, for example, I believe that abortion is not murder, and, indeed, that its morally neutral (ceteris paribus). Killing someone to prevent a morally neutral act is obviously wrong as is harassment in that cause. But that’s not the same as saying that killing or harassment is in principle wrong even in our democratic society.

    Let me be crystal clear: You are accusing me of doing something that I think I’m clearly not doing. I do not think that either anti-abortion activists or animal rights extremists are correct to engage in their violent behavior and condemn it utterly. The point of my discussion is to try to understand the proper grounds for that condemning.

    I don’t think your responses to (parts of) my analogies catch the right bits. Slavery is incompatible with modern democracy, but what if animal experimentation is a moral wrong as bad as slavery (which I don’t think it is), what then? Argh. Now I’ve gone on. Feel free to email me (bparsia@cs.man.ac.uk) if you want to take it further.

  10. #10 Allyson J. Bennett
    February 25, 2010

    Janet, thanks for your posts and for providing a place to share information and ideas on ways to speak up.

    I’d echo David’s point #2. There are many scientists, research advocates, and great programs out there providing avenues for interaction and education about animal-based research. People who want to get more involved might start by checking on what programs exist in their community or institution. Many research institutions have ongoing community outreach and education efforts that welcome volunteers.
    http://speakingofresearch.com/2009/11/30/who%e2%80%99s-afraid-to-talk-about-animal-research/

    If there are no organized efforts in your community and you want to develop your own, there are a number of great resources out there to help. One place to start is with materials and information provided by Speaking of Research, Americans for Medical Progress, Understanding Animal Research, or any number of the scientific professional societies whose membership is actively engaged in animal-based research (Society for Neuroscience, American Physiological Society).

    Also reach out to others who are involved in research advocacy efforts. Many of the people actively engaged in outreach and education programs are happy to share their ideas and experiences and can provide help in developing new initiatives.

    Engaging the community in learning more about how animal-based research contributes to our knowledge and progress in animal and human health is important for many reasons and should be encouraged

    http://speakingofresearch.com/2009/09/14/raising-voices-animal-research-advocacy-and-community-engagement/

  11. #11 JIA
    February 25, 2010

    Bijan, thank you very much for your comments. I do follow your reasoning, and I think the question you raised matters very much. Can we and should we condemn ALL harassment and intimidation tactics, a priori, without respect to the moral rightness of the change the harassers are trying to effect? More classically – can the ends sometimes justify the means?

    I don’t know. I think you can propose a lot of extreme edge cases that would not be amenable to a yes/no answer.

    But in this particular case, I think we can say yes, harassing and intimidating the family members of someone whose actions you are trying to change is wrong. Those spouses and children are not the ones carrying out the action you are trying to change. Even if you believe they suffer from guilt by association, non-violent means of pursuasion (such as shunning) would be the way to go here.