Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 1).

In a post last month about an animal rights group targeting a researcher's car with an incendiary device, I closed by expressing my profound pessimism at the prospects of having a serious dialogue about animal rights:

As a philosophical position, the case for animal rights is not completely empty or indefensible. However, as it's being propagated "in the wild", as it were, the case for animal rights is being made with lies and intimidation. Among rational people, this is a bad way to make a case for your position. Thus, it seems to me, people arguing in good faith for the animal rights position need to address the violence and the lies head on, not just disavowing them, but taking serious steps to counter them.

But as long as researchers who are doing research with animals that is legal and also designed to be as humane as possible are made the targets of violent attacks of people who say they are fighting for animal rights, we can't have a serious conversation about animal rights.

I reiterated my pessimism in a subsequent post:

[W]e can't have a serious discussion about the merits of the animal rights position while those who support that position are also supporting violence, whether with a wink and a nod or with the proceeds from the PETA cookbooks they buy. If there were a vocal segment of the PETA/PCRM membership railing against use of PETA/PCRM resources to support animal rights extremists, that would be one thing. But so far, there is not.

The burden is now on proponents of animal rights as a philosophical position worth taking seriously to join arms with the research community and fight the violence.

In the comments on both of these posts, some amazement was expressed that a professional philosopher would say a dialogue was out of the question. Shouldn't we be able to have a rational discussion of any philosophical position?

Believe me, I think it should be possible. However, it seems like every time we try, the attempt gets derailed. At the very least, this suggests that there are some reliable impediments to our having such a discussion.

Now, maybe it's the case that everyone who cares at all has staked out a position on the use of animals in scientific research and has no intentions of budging from it. But in the event that there still exists a handful of people who are thinking the issues through, or are interested in understanding the perspectives of those who hold different views about research with animals -- in the event that there are still people who would like to have a dialogue -- we need to understand what the impediments to this dialogue are and find ways to work around them.

To that end, I am writing a series of posts that examines the familiar dialogue blockers, one by one. My plan is to examine one impediment to dialogue a day, which will take us at least through April 22, the day when the new UCLA chapter of Pro-Test will be holding a rally in support of animal research. And, because I try to cling to optimism, I'll try to conclude the series with a sketch of conditions under which real dialogue about animal research could happen, and even be productive to all participants.

We'll get the series started with the impediment that can keep a dialogue from even starting:

Presumptive mistrust.

A dialogue involves different people putting forward their views for examination, and responding to what others have put forward, and responding to the responses, and so on. It is not just a matter of voicing your view, but also of thinking hard about how others are responding to it, and to the alternatives they offer.

As I've noted before, having a successful dialogue doesn't necessarily involve changing someone else's position, nor changing your own:

What you should get in a dialogue is the opportunity to have your say, a chance to articulate your reasons for your views. And those with whom you are in dialogue will hear your reasons and acknowledge them. After all this, they may still disagree with your point of view. Disagreeing with you doesn't mean they're doing dialogue wrong.

Of course, if you're committed to really engaging in dialogue, it means you hear their positions and reasons for them, too. Possibly, you even have occasion to change your stand, although you might not. Dialogues can end as they began, with disagreement, but there should at least be greater understanding of the source of the disagreement.

Having a successful dialogue does, however, involve taking the participants and their positions seriously.

Lack of trust -- at least a baseline level of trust -- is thus an impediment to dialogue. If your default position is not to trust me, it does not matter what claims I might make, nor what reasons I might offer, to support my position or to counter yours. If my default position is not to trust you, I will regard all the views, facts, and even logical inferences you present as suspect.

We will be stuck.

The presumptive mistrust is a problem on both sides of the issue of scientific research with animals.

Some come to the table committed to the view that all scientists lack empathy for non-human animals (and possibly for humans, too), or that they delight in causing animals harm, or that they cannot be trusted to make true representations of what is actually involved in their research (whether to the regulatory bodies overseeing that research or to the public) because their ultimate commitment is doing that research the way they want to do that research, come what may.

Others come to the table committed to the view that anyone asking questions or expressing concerns about how animals are used in scientific research necessarily has an agenda of stopping all scientific research with animals. Or, they believe that anyone who holds the view that it is wrong to use animals in scientific research is necessarily a violent extremist who spends each evening making incendiary devices and each morning stalking the children of researchers on their way to school. Or, they believe that those worried about how animals are used in scientific research have no comprehension of how scientific knowledge is produced, or that they are anti-science.

If your base assumption is that the other guy is evil, stupid, or unable to tell the truth, you can't even start a dialogue, let alone get something useful out of it. This means, if you're serious about a dialogue, you need to embrace the idea that it is possible that the people who hold the opposing view are not evil, stupid, or unable to tell the truth -- or at least, that these are not permanent conditions (in which case, it's probably more productive to regard "evil" as bringing about bad effects, "stupid" as lacking some important information, etc.).

Finding people on the other side who are committed to arguing in good faith -- and being committed to arguing in good faith yourself -- can help lower the baseline of mistrust to the point where you can get real dialogue off the ground. But once you've cleared this first hurdle, there are other impediments to tackle.

We'll consider the next one tomorrow.

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It's also an impediment to dialogue when even coming to the table makes you a target for violent action. The people you're discussing this situation with may not be violent extremists themselves (e.g., Ingrid Newkirk or whoever), but coming out on the side of animal research publicly makes the violent extremists aware of you, and probably angry at you. And if you do animal research yourself, although that makes you a better proponent of animal research (because you presumably understand it pretty well), that makes you even more of a target.

You're right, Brian -- I'll be taking that impediment up in part 5 (plus or minus 2).

Here's one that may or may not be on your list.

In order to have a rational dialogue (once you get past the trust issue), it must be a given that each side acknowledges the idea that it *might be wrong*; that is, there is some quantity of evidence (perhaps not easily measured, but a quantity nevertheless) that would be sufficient for either side to change their default position.

In any dialogue, each side is operating off of a number of assumptions in constructing their argument. After we get past the stage of agreeing that the other side may be worthy of consideration, and we clarify our terminology so that we know that "foo" means the same thing for both sides, we both have to put our losing criteria on the table.

If neither (or, properly, either) side refuses to admit the possibility of error, it is in fact pointless to proceed until that possibility can be acknowledged.

Joe The Animal Rights Activist sez: "I believe that every animal has a soul, and that the existence of this soul provides an animal with rights equivalent to that of a human being. I believe that an animal is not capable of informed consent, and thus cannot be reasonably expected to be a willing participant in research, unlike a potential human subject. Furthermore, I believe that animal researchers who refuse to acknowledge these points are themselves morally bankrupt, and are not worthy of the protections to life or safety that we would otherwise grant them as soul-holders themselves. I further believe that harming or threatening to harm the dependents of these researchers is a justifiable course of action because simply harming or threatening to harm the researcher is insufficient motivation to prevent them from taking their morally bankrupt course."

Well, there's lots of possible places in that argument that one can examine for possible error (there's some pretty blatant errors to my way of thinking, obviously). We can point out that children cannot provide informed consent, and by Joe's original two criteria (children are animals, and thus have souls, and cannot provide informed consent), Joe is violating his own supposed principles. We can argue that life does not presuppose the existence of a soul. We can argue that informed consent does not apply to creatures that do not have enough self-awareness.

What we *can't* do is get anywhere if Joe will not admit that there is a possibility that he's wrong, and if he will not admit what sort of evidence (metaphysical argument, observational data, or what have you) he will accept as sufficient to make him change his mind.

As a colleague of the researchers who have recently been targeted and someone who is most certainly going to be at the pro-science rally on April 22, I first want to say that I think this is a really great post and I look forward to the rest of the series. The lack of a coherent back and forth dialogue is one of the biggest problems here. I think that David Jentsch made an excellent point in one of his recent interviews- the animal rights terrorists (not that all pro-animal rights people are terrorists, but this subgroup certainly is) claim that they are forced to resort to violence because their efforts to discuss these matters haven't worked. However, as he pointed out, not one single person from these organizations has EVER contacted him and asked to civilly discuss animal safety in his lab. The first time they reached out to him was the time they blew up his car. Somehow these people are viewing all researchers as one unit, not as individual people it might be possible to have a conversation with, and I think this is part of the problem.

On the other hand though, I believe that it isn't actually possible to have a conversation about these issues with people in the most extreme end of the animal rights movement- they just aren't rational, and they honestly don't WANT to learn about how research works or hear any other opinions. I think that they wouldn't be able to get over the base assumption that all researchers are sadistic monsters making millions of dollars at the expense of animal research subjects, and this is why it is impossible. I think the people that we need to focus on reaching out to are people who might be closer to the middle of the spectrum. These are people who believe animal rights are important, but might still be open to learning about how research works, how many vets there are, how research protocols get approved and animal use is monitored, how concerned almost all researchers actually are about animal welfare, why animal models can't be replaced by computers, and things like that. Maybe they won't agree in the end, but at least there might be some real information out there in the general public, instead of the inflammatory statements and descriptions put out by the extremists. I think if we can start a dialogue with this middle group, not only will it be productive to have an exchange of information, it will start to marginalize the extremists which will decrease their power.

By random postdoc (not verified) on 18 Apr 2009 #permalink

Pat Cahalan- I'm not so sure you can't have a productive discussion in which one or both sides do not admit possibility of error.
Being unable to admit any possible errors in your thinking might make you a relatively dull conversationalist, but when people take different views as "first principles" (or items of faith, or whatever you want to call them) there can still be dialogue- indeed, sometimes simply describing those first principles helps people understand where both sides are coming from.
The example you give is a good one- some people will take "animals do not have souls" as the basis for all their other views, and some will take "animals do have souls" as their starting point. Simply identifying that discrepancy- particularly in the context of a mutually trusting (perhaps even respectful?) context can be useful.

Janet- you're usually incredibly clearheaded, so I say this with all due respect... but isn't saying:
"[W]e can't have a serious discussion about the merits of the animal rights position while those who support that position are also supporting violence, whether with a wink and a nod or with the proceeds from the PETA cookbooks they buy." kind of assuming all people espousing a certain view are threats? And isn't this precisely what underlies "presumptive mistrust"?

Also, I kinda hate to do this, but the parallels with reactions to other kinds of terrorism (or what is perceived to be terrorism) are too much for me to resist. How does this read?
"[W]e can't have a serious discussion about the merits of the Israeli position while those who support that position are also supporting violence, whether with a wink and a nod or with the proceeds from the tax dollars they pay." (note that this excuse could be used to dismiss 1) all opinions from USians on this matter, given our military alliances 2) all opinions from Israelis OR if you just substitute "Israeli" for "Palestinian" anyone on the other side of this conflict)
My point is- I don't think this approach gets anyone very far in a dialogue on any difficult issue.

Becca, indeed, part of the point of this series is for me to reconsider whether I stand by my own earlier claims.

I'm hopeful that by the end of the series I'll be able to conclude that I was wrong in thinking we couldn't have something like a productive dialogue -- at least if we can manage not to get permanently stuck on any of the many potential impediments. However, to avoid them, I think we must first see them.

I strongly agree that threats and violence against those with a different opinion are not only bad in themselves, but also counterproductive to the point of view the perpetrators are trying to promote.

I am also of the opinion that discussion and debate should be based entirely on the scientific merits of the methods used to obtain information, not on the philosophy of animal rights or refusal to recognize that experiments on animals are not the only way to assess human responses.

Because of differences between species, some as minute as on the cellular and even molecular levels, I am of the opinion that results obtained on one species are applicable to another only by random coincidence (about 50% of the time seems to be the general consensus) which makes research on one species to ascertain effects on another an inefficient and often dangerous approach to the well-being of the species scientists are trying to help. E.g. The TGN412 trial that harmed (and almost killed!) the subjects in the first human trials of a drug that had been proved harmless for monkeys.

Research methods should be judged on their scientific validity as opposed to financial interests, tradition or the rights granted to animals.