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:
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.