Impediments to dialogue about animal research (part 6).

So far in this series, we’ve talked about ways that attempts to have a dialogue about animal research can be frustrated by inability to agree on a shared set of facts as a staring point or by unclarity about the positions people are trying to put forward. Today’s featured impediment to dialogue has less to do with the mechanics of laying out and engaging with a clear argument and more to do with reasons people might be fearful even to voice their positions:
Ignoring the impact of the tactics used to advance a position.

The philosopher Kant made a famous statement that he who wills an end must also will the means used to achieve that end. I think this is an important insight. Perhaps in purely academic debates you can separate the ends you are seeking from the various means that might be used to achieve them. However, in real life, it’s much harder to fully separate the ends you are advocating from the means being used to pursue them — even if those means are being deployed by some other advocate (not you!) of that end.
It may seem totally unfair to get dinged for stupid ways other people try to accomplish the ends you support. But here, everyone who wants a real dialogue could probably benefit from examining the question: Beyond the tactics I myself use to work toward the goal, what other tactics do I accept when used by others? If your main concern is achieving the goal, are there tactics that you yourself would not choose that won’t bother you terribly is the goal is achieved?
If you can accept the end result accomplished with these tactics (even if others were the ones who actually used these tactics), is this relevantly different from supporting them?
And like it or not, your apparent tacit support of particular tactics may make you somebody with whom others will not even try to have a dialogue because they judge it to be unsafe and unproductive.
People voicing positions are, after all, people — they have an interest in their own bodily safety and in the safety of their loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors. They also have an interest in the emotional well-being of themselves and those close to them. They have an interest in having homes, workplaces, and modes of transportation that are safe from damage at the hands of someone who doesn’t like their views. They have an interest in being able to move freely without being stalked or surveilled just because of the views they hold (whether such surveillance is conducted by activists, agents of the government, or anyone else).
When there is a reasonable chance that being identified as holding a particular view makes you a target of actual harm, it can seem like a foolish idea to voice that view in the open at all, let alone to enter a dialogue with someone who shares the view of those who would target you.
At this point, I want to address the objection I’ve heard voiced before that people who do research with animals have only been the targets of property damage, not of violence against their person. I think it’s a stretch to claim that the activists who have rigged the car bombs and incendiary devices used in these cases obviously have the pyrotechnic chops to restrict the damage to property rather than people. Exploding cars are not generally well-controlled. Incendiary devices found later than expected may cause house fires, and house fires can kill people. (If people are evacuated targeted houses — including helping little kids out of the second floor via rope ladder in the middle of the night — then there are humans in harm’s way.) Given how dry and flammable California is during our ever-lengthening fire season, even a little fire is the kind of thing that can get out of control very, very quickly.
Saying, “It’s just a little property damage! You shouldn’t exaggerate the threat!” is ignoring the legitimate fears of the people whose views might make them targets of this kind of attack. You’re allowed to decide for yourself to be unfazed by a car bomb or an incendiary device on your doorstep, but you don’t get to tell others that they must not be fazed.
As well, because of the fear of being a target of a big, flashy instantiation of violent tactics, a lot of people do not publicize the other ways that they or those that they know have been targeted. The news doesn’t cover much in the way of “run of the mill” threats by phone or mail. That doesn’t mean they don’t happen, although I didn’t realize that they did until I became close enough to scientists who get them (death threats, threats to rape them or their spouses or their kids, other threats of bodily violence falling short of rape and murder) that they felt safe enough to mention them in conversation.
Actually, it’s worth noting here that it’s not clear that the folks making these threats knew any of the details of their targets’ views about animals and animal research. All that they knew was that their targets participated in animal research. Apparently, just participating in such research was viewed as sufficiently evil that the targets were judged unpersuadable by anything short of threats of violence.
That right there can be enough to make you decide that any public dialogue about your views will only make your life harder.
And here’s where a legitimate instinct to protect yourself from harm can manifest itself in an instinct toward secrecy. Researchers don’t want to disclose to anyone who doesn’t need to know (like the IACUC, the funders of the research, the journals where the research will be published) that they are doing research with animals. Maybe as a result of the silence about what animal research is taking place, the public imagines an experiment with monkeys behind every laboratory door. It’s also possible that the members of the public who aren’t too concerned with animal research one way or another will get peeved because their access to information about how researchers use public funds ends up being restricted.
Researchers who work with animals sometimes aren’t even comfortable discussing such research and the ethical issues involved with their students. We’ve touched on this before:

[T]he current climate in the U.S., where being known as someone who participates in such research can make you a target for harassment and violence, isn’t one that invites impromptu rap sessions between animal researchers and those with concerns about such research; it’s hard to tell violent activists just by looking at them. Another … is that there may be an asymmetry as far as how much dialogue researchers and those with worries about the research have already undertaken. If you’re a sophomore in your first ethics class, really grappling with questions about animal research for the first time, you may be hungry to talk about this questions with researchers. If you’re a scientist conducting such research, you may feel pretty talked out on the issue, not having much patience for the same arguments you’ve heard umpteen times before and having even less faith that your attempts to articulate your arguments this time will make a lasting impression on this new interlocutor (let alone on next year’s fired up sophomore).

The protective silence means information that might be relevant to people with different positions on animal research is not getting shared. Not sharing that information may prevent your kid from getting followed home by someone who’s willing to use violence, but it also prevents it from informing the views of those starting in a different position on the issue. If scientists keep information close to the vest, other sources of information (which may be less accurate) may end up filling the vacuum. And when scientists dispute the claims these other sources advance, they may not be believed (either because they still keep the details secret, or because of presumptive mistrust).
None of this helps the prospects for a dialogue.
In itself, a real dialogue shouldn’t be a thing to be feared. Asking questions isn’t terrorism. Seriously engaging with other views — and with your own — shouldn’t threaten your physical or emotional well-being, although there’s always a risk that you may end up with a somewhat different view than the one you started with.
But if looking for — or agreeing to participate in — a real dialogue about animal research is the kind of thing that can expose you (or someone else) to harassment or worse, then I don’t think it’s fair to fault anyone for saying, “No thanks.”
What this means, for those of us who think dialogue can be productive, and maybe even necessary, is that there is a lot of work to do exposing the tactics that shut down willingness to participate in dialogue, in getting people to stop using those tactics (and to actively work against others’ use of them rather than passively accepting whatever ground seems to be gained through their use), and to somehow get people to value rational engagement with each other, especially on matters where we disagree.
If I though there were an easier way, I’d be telling you about it, believe me.
Tomorrow, I want to pull back a little from specific types of impediments to dialogue and consider how we might be using dialogue to engage others. Possibly, this will help us see some of the impediments we’ve discussed so far as obstacles we can negotiate rather than obstacles that stop us in our tracks.

Posted in Communication, Ethics 101, Research with animals, Scientist/layperson relations, Tribe of Science.


  1. You said:
    “What this means, for those of us who think dialogue can be productive, and maybe even necessary, is that there is a lot of work to do exposing the tactics that shut down willingness to participate in dialogue, in getting people to stop using those tactics (and to actively work against others’ use of them rather than passively accepting whatever ground seems to be gained through their use), and to somehow get people to value rational engagement with each other, especially on matters where we disagree.”
    I agree and think this sentiment is incredibly important. I think one of the most underdeveloped areas of study on the issue of animal experimentation is the concerns getting people to the table and keeping them at the table. As with so many controversial issues of practical ethics, it is as important to study and learn how to get people to discuss an issue as it is to get them to decide on an answer to the question.
    I also agree that violent actions often stop dialogue, not only with the threatened researcher and his/her colleagues, but also between activists and the media and between different activist groups. One thing I am not sure of, however, are the answers to the following two questions:
    1) What types of actions DO inhibit meaningful discussion?
    2) What types of actions SHOULD inhibit meaningful discussion?
    (meaningful in each of these questions might mean either “serious” in the sense that people are willing to hear, learn, and be convinced; or it can mean “productive” in the sense that action will come from it, whether in the form of legislation, contractual agreements, or something else.)
    Answers to these questions are often given, but rarely supported. Does anyone have good evidence about the types of actions one should oppose if one’s ultimate goal is some sort of minimal change in animal testing policy in the United States (for example to bring us up to the level of other developed countries in terms of protections for lab animals)?
    Finally, I’m a bit confused by the use of Kant’s claim about willing the means to every end you will. How should this claim be understood? Surely it can’t mean that I must only endorse ends that have only acceptable means to get to them. Any end can be gotten by unjustified means. You ask us to ask what tactics we endorse that we might not be willing to use ourselves. Thinking about this is important as a matter of personal reflection on the strength of one’s values, but what is the ultimate point? I think most people would (rightly) endorse means that they don’t personally employ. For example, I might endorse marching for my cause, but be unwilling to let my community know that endorse such a cause for fear of some reprisal or ostracism.
    What lesson should we take from Kant here?

  2. You say “The protective silence means information that might be relevant to people with different positions on animal research is not getting shared.”
    The work that scientists do is inherently public. After all, scientists aim to disseminate their results as broadly as possible. Anyone can search Pubmed and read detailed, step-by-step, procedures performed on the animals. The UC’s position not to release any more public documents was largely a symbolic one — a gesture that they were finally going to start fighting animal extremism. I don’t think one could seriously argue that this has prevented dialogue. In fact the activists have obtained the same information by sending FOIA requests directly to NIH. What has prevented dialogue, instead, is the fact that some scientists have to look under their cars every morning. Others, fear that they would have to do the same soon.
    The bottom line: there can be no dialogue while AR web-sites are openly calling for the killing of scientists. Not just any scientist, but specific ones… by name. Stop the terrorism, stop the bombs, stop the insanity, then we can start the dialogue.

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