In a post last month, I noted that not all (maybe even not many) supporters of animal rights are violent extremists, and that Bruins for Animals is a group committed to the animal rights position that was happy to take a public stand against the use of violence and intimidation to further the cause of animal liberation.
On Wednesday, Kristy Anderson (the co-founder of Bruins for Animals), Ashley Smith (the president), and Jill Ryther (the group’s advisor) posted a critical response to my post. In the spirit of continuing dialogue, I’d like to respond to that response.
AR activists can rightly accept praise and credit for encouraging the two sides to come together in what was an unprecedented public and civil dialogue. However, one glaring and rather twisted irony too often overlooked is the fact that those very same participants who speak against aggressive campaigns against the animal experimentation industry and who are quick to praise AR advocates’ stance on nonviolence are themselves engaged in (or are supporters of) violence and intimidation towards sentient beings on a daily basis.
I take it that this is one of the places that dialogue can help us to understand each other (although not necessarily to agree with each other), by exposing the ways in which our core commitments can make all the difference to how we understand the facts on the ground and their moral relevance to us.
I accept that, given the commitments of animal rights supporters, it does look like a glaring irony to decry violence and intimidation towards people while accepting, speaking in support of, or even conducting research with sentient animals.
Animal rights supporters are identifying sentience (the ability to feel pain) as the criterion of moral relevance. (There are doubtless some animal rights supporters who would also include other animals who have not been established as sentient as worthy of the same moral consideration, but the Bruins for Animals folks seemed to draw the line at sentience.) From their point of view, any use of non-human animals that subjects them to pain or stress is morally out of bounds — for just the same reasons that exposing humans to pain or stress would be.
I can understand this view even if I don’t share it. And, if I’ve misunderstood it, I’m hopeful that people who hold this view — many of whom are smart, and honorable, and serious about living ethically consistent lives, qualities I respect immensely — will help correct my misunderstandings.
However, given my commitments, this stand is not ironic — because I don’t think the criterion of moral relevance is sentience, I am aware of a great deal of animal based research that does not involve pain for the animals (and that I think is by any objective measure much less “violent” than medical procedures I have received or have sought out for my children), I am not sure that raw sentience is sufficient for a mental state that could properly count as “being intimidated,” etc. None of this is to deny that we have important duties to animals, especially those under our care. But, as I have explained before, my view is that these duties fall short of according animals rights — and these duties coexist with strong duties we have to our fellow humans.
I know that animal rights supporters do not share these views — and my respect for them is certainly not contingent upon their sharing them. But I hope that they can acknowledge that what they identify as irony here is irony from the perspective of their ethical commitments but not from the perspective of my ethical commitments.
It is not that I am acting inconsistently given my commitments, but that my actions are inconsistent with their commitments.
The Bruins for Animals piece continues:
Vivisection, industrialized meat production, fur production, and other such practices involve extreme violence and intimidation against animals. So, when headlines such as Stemwedel’s congratulate AR activists for “taking a public stand against violence and intimidation,” what the headline fails to address is the fact that a vast majority of AR supporters are against violence and intimidation of any kind, including (and most importantly) violence against and intimidation of innocents, including animals.
Make no mistake about it, vivisection is a form of violence, violence perpetrated against innocent sentient beings. Animals exploited in medical research fear for their lives and are denied all that is important and natural to them. These animals are terrorized in every sense of the term. Despite the fact that most animals used in laboratories are sentient and have rich, complex, emotional lives, many experiments involve the infliction of physical and emotional pain and harm upon them. When the reality of the situation is brought to light in this way so is the hypocrisy of those animal researchers who, on the one hand, congratulate animal activists who are against violence and intimidation, while on the other, participate in the violence and intimidation involved in animal experimentation practices.
It’s interesting to me in cases like these that sometimes we are able to focus on our common ground, and other times it is our differences that dominate the discussion — and I’m not sure it has much to do with the relative size of the shared or contested ground, either. My views on industrialized meat production, fur production, sport hunting, dog fights, puppy mills, and the like, are probably close to identical to those of most animal rights supporters, and I try to live a life that is consistent with those beliefs. (For example, I’ve been a vegetarian for more years than some of the members of Bruins for Animals have been alive, and I’ve raised my offspring vegetarian from birth.)
None of this erases a difference of commitments that is very important to me and to animal rights supporters like Bruins for Animals. Pointing out our agreement on a small but important issue — a rejection of the use of violence and intimidation against our fellow humans to support even a deeply-held view — was certainly not meant to paper over our fundamental disagreement about the place of non-human animals in our moral sphere. Indeed, I intended the close of my post to highlight the fact that despite significant differences in our commitments, we could identify important shared commitments, too:
Major props to Bruins for Animals in setting an example of how to stand up forcefully for what they believe without trying to silence people who hold differing views.
Being willing to listen to views they oppose, to meet those views with arguments rather than attempts to harm, with efforts to persuade rather than silence — this I find worthy of respect and praise even though I disagree with Bruins for Animals — and they with me — about the moral status of animals.
I hope, though, that they will recognize that what they identify as hypocrisy here is hypocrisy relative to the ethical commitments they hold, not relative to the ethical commitments held by those of us who judge animal research ethically permissible.*
Again, from the Bruins for Animals post:
To assert this point in no way denies or diminishes the fact that the recent UCLA event was important, fruitful and an extremely positive and informative discussion on the science and ethics of animal based research. However, the praise by PTS supporters of ecumenical dialogue and the admonishing of certain tactics should not go unnoticed, as we do appreciate the willingness for dialogue. However, as already stated, we find it perplexing that one would congratulate us for a position which they themselves do not hold in a consistent manner. Further, such praise should not be allowed to weaken or undermine the solidarity of AR activists, nor should we lose sight of our shared, fundamental goal, namely, animal liberation.
I too hold that the discussion we had was important, and hope that we will continue to have discussions with each other. One outcome I hope such discussions will bring about is the recognition that participants on each side are trying to live in ways that are consistent with our own ethical commitments. Where these commitments diverge, so will our judgments about the right thing to do.
I hope that I have not saddled with a charge of hypocrisy animal rights supporters who are acting consistently with their own views — even when those views do not agree with my own. In turn, I hope that animal rights supporters can accept that some of my actions which might be inconsistent with their ethical commitments are fully consistent with my own.
Returning to the question of the relative importance we place on our agreements and our differences, I respect that Bruins for Animals wants to stand in solidarity with other animal rights supporters against treatment of animals that they agree is unethical. Still, I hope it is possible for us to share honest criticisms with people with whom we share much common ground, to voice disagreements even with people we regard as on our own side.
Indeed, Bruins for Animals has voiced just such criticisms of extremist tactics while simultaneously reaffirming their commitment to animal rights. This is why, even though I am not a supporter of the animal rights position, and even though this difference is of the utmost significance to them and to me, I stand in solidarity with Bruins for Animals, at least as far as the kind of societal engagement they seem interested in building
*Of course, judging animal research ethically permissible is not the same thing as judging any given experiment on an animal ethically permissible. It is, instead, a recognition that our duties to animals coexist with other duties which sometimes demand more of us.