Process Comes First

Erin O’Connor discusses protests against research on primates at UCLA and asks for academic bloggers to support the rights of researchers against the attacks of protesters.

I think that’s a fair request, and that you can express that support regardless of your feelings about research on animals. I personally tend to think that experimentation on animals could be a lot more constrained than it presently is, that the arguments for some forms of animal experimentation, especially on higher mammals, should probably have to be more compelling than they often are at present. However, this is where “processual liberalism” is my first commitment, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.

There are a lot of ways that people who disagree with either specific programs of experimentation on animals or with the entire idea of animal research can potentially advance their political agenda. They can bring completely legitimate economic pressure to bear on UCLA or other institutions. Call for a boycott of UCLA unless it adopts far more stringent controls on animal research. They can make legitimate demands for far more transparency and monitoring in animal experimentation. They can press for all sorts of statutory limitations on animal experimentation, especially in California, which has a fairly open system for citizen-proposed legislation. They could call for far greater investment in simulation-driven experimentation, or new models for incorporation of human subjects in research designs.

At least some of those initiatives, pursued steadily and with an eye to building political coalitions, could lead to substantial changes in scholarly practice. But the folks attacking animal experimentation at UCLA are choosing to target the individual researchers by distributing their phone numbers, putting up pictures and addresses of their homes, intimidating their families, and so on instead. Not to mention leaving molotov cocktails at doors, breaking into buildings, setting fires and so on.

I don’t really give a shit what your cause is, that kind of action is not right, but it’s especially wrong for this cause–to show a depraved indifference to the personal lives and well-being of people because you’re allegedly upset about depraved indifference to the lives of animals. It’s a good way for animal-rights activists to lose potential political support, and evidence that groups involved in such action have no interest in building a broader political consensus for their views. It’s an anti-democratic arrogance born of unthoughtful righteousness. When you’ve got a host of political alternatives, you’ve got no excuse for putzing around with violence and intimidation.

This sort of action is also bad idea in purely pragmatic terms, as almost all attacks that ignore procedural liberalism are–because if you’re a very tiny, fractional minority and you abandon the protections of political process in your actions against others, you don’t have any way to complain when people do it to you. What’s to stop folks from publicizing the addresses of animal-rights advocates, suggesting that their kids be followed from school, making harassing calls to them at night, firing off denial-of-service attacks on their websites, and so on? The only security left, once you stop playing by the rules, is an assumption that your opponents are unlikely to stoop to your level to fight back against you. The political history of the last thirty years makes that last assumption look especially stupid: there is almost no tactic attempted by extremists on the left that hasn’t been mirrored and in some cases grotesequely improved upon by extremists on the right. Once you accept that it’s ok to put a molotov cocktail on someone’s doorstep because you disagree with them, you don’t have much to say about Timothy McVeigh except that he’s wrong and you’re right, he’s bad and you’re good–you can’t really say any longer that what he did was wrong, just that he did it in the wrong cause.

I’d rather stick to saying that it’s wrong to kill or hurt people just because you don’t like their point-of-view, or that it’s wrong to put pictures of people’s houses up on the web and invite people to come intimidate them and their families until they’re forced to concede to your view of things. What good is it to liberate animals if in doing so you put humans in cages?

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16 Responses to Process Comes First

  1. Greebie says:

    Beautiful analysis of the issue.

    One rebuttal, as I understand it, is the “political theatre” argument suggesting that violence against the researchers is necessary to draw the animal rights agenda into the mainstream media. That, as ethical as philosopher types may be, they are not very good at enacting change.

    So, the goal is not to “put humans in cages” as you say, but to draw on the heart strings of the broader public and inspire likeminded individuals to act on (perhaps) a lesser level.

    Your McVeigh example still rings true, but my guess is that the proponents of this sort of terrorism would do exactly as you say — think the process is still right, even though the cause was wrong. They would probably at some level admire Mr. McVeigh’s resolve, but argue that the belief is ultimately empty and therefore the action misguided. The animal rights, they would wager, has more pull in the “theatre” that is contemporary politics.

    I agree with you, but think you misunderstand these folks goals. They are trying to achieve consensus (one that is as close to their view as possible), not understanding. At the same time, they probably love the adrenalin rush that comes from your average lynch mob.

  2. back40 says:

    “The only security left, once you stop playing by the rules, is an assumption that your opponents are unlikely to stoop to your level to fight back against you. The political history of the last thirty years makes that last assumption look especially stupid: there is almost no tactic attempted by extremists on the left that hasn’t been mirrored and in some cases grotesequely improved upon by extremists on the right.”

    Rules don’t change this game. All tactics will be used by all sides at all times. The sad, silly consequence is that tacticians rule the world of politics, and governance is irrelevant.

  3. Ivory says:

    One of the most humorous cases of animal release was one at Colorado State where animal rights activists “liberated” a group of flightless albino birds. That night, coyotes came into the campus and ate every one of the birds, leaving only feathers behind. An experiment was ruined and the animals were killed so I’m not sure how anyone could call that a win.

    Frankly, I’d rather test products on animals than humans because I think human life is more valuable than animal life. But I agree that all life should be treated with respect and having worked with animals on a university campus, I can tell you that every experiment has to be justified and the idea of using simulations instead of live animals has to be addressed in the application to use animals for experiments. There are just some things you can only learn from another living breathing body.

    I find all of this ironic because I think the conditions our livestock live under before they are turned into food are horrific compared to what we do with animals in research. We have to feed and house the animals with minimum space and provide veterinary care. If animals used for experiments are euthanized, we have to use drugs that prevent the animal from feeling pain. If you’ve ever seen a feedlot, the smell alone aught to convince you that those animals are suffering. I saw an episode of dirty jobs about a turkey farm and everyday, about 1% of the animals died and removed from the pen. But you don’t hear about mass release of chickens or beef cattle. And let’s not even talk about how pet stores treat their animals – they are not regulated at all.

    I think animal rights groups could redirect their efforts to help more creatures if they looked at numbers and stopped their myopic focus on experimental research.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with all that. I think this is another reason, to be brutally honest, that some of these groups aren’t particularly interested in debating or discussing their views in a larger public context, because a lot of their views are philosophically incoherent in the extreme.

    For example, if you’re going to argue that animal life is just as valuable as human life, is that all animals? If I inadvertently run over a squirrel on my way to work, should I be as wracked with guilt as if I had run over a five-year old girl? Should I have to report it to the police? If not, why not? Are all animals just as or almost as rights-bearing as humans, or only the animals which are in some sense proximate to human beings, e.g., primates or higher mammals? If it’s just the ones that are proximate, why? Doesn’t that mean that we’re defining rights-bearing through back-door anthrocentrism? If that’s the standard, doesn’t that take us right back to agreeing that human rights are the most important rights?

    If higher mammals are rights-bearing, and experimenting on them is definitionally a crime against their rights regardless of the reason for the experiment, then doesn’t a wolf commit murder when it eats a deer? Isn’t a cat guilty of cruelty when it plays with its prey? If we don’t prosecute the wolf or the cat on the grounds that it is in the wolf’s nature to be a predator and the cat’s nature to play with its prey, then isn’t in our nature to experiment? If we possess some capacity for moral sense that no other animals possess, and therefore we should know better, then once again the circle is closed, and we’re morally distinct from animals, and therefore have both rights and responsibilities that they do not have, as well as *needs* they do not have.

    I think you can work your way through all of that to ethical vegetarianism, to a desire to see experimentation on animals drastically curtailed, to a belief that factory farming is unjustified, what have you. Or not. But I don’t think you can work your way through all that to arrive at the kind of political action that the Animal Liberation Front and similar groups routinely call for and enact.

    Greebie is of course correct that in some sense the ALF and similar groups have different goals from my own, and would argue that any means to their goals are justifiable. I would only say that that attitude towards political action requires a kind of narcissism as well as a lack of understanding about the longer-term consequences. Everyone has something in their political philosophy that would justify some kind of extreme action under some kinds of circumstances. I believe that in some dire or difficult cases, military force is required even if it risks the lives of innocents, for example. But these groups are essentially arguing for extreme measures when they have a vast array of political alternatives for pursuing their goals, and measures where they appear to have almost no interest in thinking about the general consequences of their actions, just a narrow tunnel-vision on the specific short-term goal.

  5. back40 says:

    One of the arguments used by confinement feeding operations is that they have better health and less death loss than free range operations. A rule of thumb used for planning purposes is that you will have 6% death loss in confinement and 10% death loss in free range. Since they have less losses they have less costs.

    I’ve confirmed these numbers personally and with other free range operations. When everything from insects to hawks to the neighbor’s dogs have a go at your turkeys you are happy if you only lose 10%, plus a little maiming resulting from foiled attacks. But they look safer to the uninformed, and that can help command a premium price and make up for the extra death and disfigurement.

    The problem isn’t that animals in confinement are in pain or unhealthy. It is that to achieve those figures in close quarters the animals are medicated in ways we have come to see is problematical, and their feed is a threat in a variety of ways. Mad cow, for example. When the environmental consequences of dense populations are considered – hauling in feed, generating wastes – a confinement operation becomes comparable to a city, though with far, far fewer toxic emissions.

    I’m fairly glad that most humans are raised in confinement and heavily medicated to overcome the threats of disease in such close quarters. They can be entertained to compensate for the sensory deprivation of their simplified existence, and so avoid many of the behavior problems associated with lack of natural stimuli and activity. They can be exercised by machines and frequently washed off to keep down the stench. There is a lower death loss and better overall health though as with food animals they accumulate toxins as a consequence. You wouldn’t want to eat them.

    But there are environmental consequences here too. Their food is figuratively coated with diesel oil by the time it is hauled in from near and far, and the waste stream is horrendous. They pollute the land, air and water, and in effect strip mine the environs for life support materials. If you’ve ever seen a city, the smell alone aught to convince you that those animals are suffering.

  6. Ivory says:

    Humans are not constantly medicated to prevent disease and promote growth. We are treated as needed when we become ill and have both vector control departments and public health to limit the number of people who need to be treated for preventable infectious diseases that are spread under crowded conditions. This is different from what happens to animals who are fed antibiotics as part of their food. We are essentially trading the effectivness of some of our most potent weapons against bacteria for cheap meat and I personally think that is unethical.

    That said, to me Tim says it all with this:
    these groups are essentially arguing for extreme measures when they have a vast array of political alternatives for pursuing their goals, and measures where they appear to have almost no interest in thinking about the general consequences of their actions, just a narrow tunnel-vision on the specific short-term goal.

    Amen brother.

  7. back40 says:

    We do indeed medicate constantly. I think you are simply blinking reality if you fail to grasp this. Even our hand soaps are anti-bacterial. What is done institutionally is even more aggressive than what individuals do. And we have such a wide variety of medications. Drugs are a huge industry.

  8. Doug says:

    Why “processual” and not “procedural”? It’s been a while since my political theory reading, but I thought the latter was the usual term. Are you drawing a particular distinction here?

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Ack, that’s a mental lapse on my part–I was writing that afternoon about process in another context. I’ll fix it.

  10. virologista says:

    Agreed that these groups are not interested in reasoned public debate. I don’t think that this is because they recognize incoherence in their arguments on some level though–rather they see little to debate, because they have no interest in compromising their demand that all primate research end. Why discuss nicer cages or requiring stronger scientific justifications for experiments involving primates when you believe anything short of retiring all of the animals to an idyllic reserve is immoral? The leader of the Primate Freedom group here in Wisconsin does not feel that any primate research, even if it, say, led to an AIDS vaccine, is justified. So the conversation he can have with scientists who do not see primates as equivalent to humans is pretty short (and can involve calling the scientist Mengele).

    A mean-spirited part of me wishes that members of these groups would carry their beliefs so far as to refuse to personally take advantage of drugs or surgical procedures tested on animals. Granted there aren’t many alternatives…but they could start a market for that.

    And thanks for the excellent post–much more cogently written than many scientists’ arguments, alas.

  11. jpool says:

    I think Greebie has it right. The focus on experimentation is a tactical move based both around the fact that labs are discrete locations, proximate both to media centers and (probably) the homes of activists, and that images of experiments, especially vivisection, which often involve the head or face of an animal, are much more viscerally compelling to your average meat eating citizen who claims that they LOVE animals. Of course, as others have pointed out, it’s not a particularly effective tactical move, especially in this recent Operation Rescue-style version.

    Radical animal rights activists (and I would add that category contains a range of approaches and ethical stances within it, but I’ll focus here on the more extreme versions that would engage in or endorse these campaigns of intimidation and violence) are essentially fundamentalists, and as such are less interested in philosophical coherence (though their ideas are more internally coherent, if simplitically so, than you paint them to be) than in purity. I would think, however, that even if we believe their actions and the actions of other fundamentialist groups, such as radical anti-abortion activists, to be unacceptable, we can also imagine a social evil that state and majority-society allowed to exist, say slavery, where reasoned debate and appeal to properly constituted bodies might not seem like enough.

    By the way, re virologista’s comment, like most vegetarians and folks commited to animal rights, I try and do the best I can in this world, minimize my part in animal-killing industries and make choices about how I consume animal products, but recognize that these are never pure choices and that I may not always make the best or most informed ones. Radical animal rightsers may in fact have no answer for you on medicine, short of letting nature take it’s course or pursuing home health care, but I have run into several examples, particularly in the zine world, of folks, including those who are very ill, wrestling with whether to take animal derived drugs or treatments (the provenance of testing usually being another opaque level beyond this) and making decisions both to refuse as well as to grudgingly accept.

  12. Rob says:

    I’m not sure you don’t want to be a little bit more careful about McVeigh style comparisons. Leaving molotov cocktails is not murdering 168 people, and there are things someone prepared to use, in the scale of things, fairly limited political violence can say to someone who has given up on most of those limits. I don’t have any more sympathy with animal rights actvists’ causes than you do, but responding to what they see as state-sanctioned torture by publishing people’s addresses is hardly, internally at least, totally insane.

  13. SamChevre says:

    I’ll agree with Rob–McVeigh is in a class by himself. In my mind, there are category differences between “I’ll harass you”, “I’ll kill you”, and “I’ll kill you and everyone in the vicinity”.

    McVeigh is in the third category.

    Some (but very few) animal rights activists, and some (but very few) anti-abortion activists, are in the second category.

    Most of the hard core of activists on both issues, though, are in the first category.

    The second category makes sense to me–internally; that is, I can see Paul Hill as wrong, but not crazy. If you believe that using force to stop murder is OK, and you believe that vivisection (or abortion) is murder with torture, killing someone to stop them from it seems reasonable.

  14. SamChevre says:


    And I strongly disagree with any law that would forbid protesting or “economicly disrupting” research on primates. I think the protesters are wrong–but when most people think I’m wrong, I want to be able to protest peacefully. It’s perfectly right to forbid acts (arson, vandalism, etc)–but it is an extremely dangerous idea, in my eyes, to forbid expressive acts for unpopular opinions, but not for popular opinions.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I see the distinction, but a couple of thoughts.

    The first is that it’s less an absolute distinction and more a continuum that follows when you abandon the proposition that you have any obligation to persuade other people that you’re right and they’re wrong, or any need to submit your views to some kind of procedural operations that include people who do not share your views. Once you’re absolutely convinced that your views of a situation are non-debately correct, and that your views are imbued with an absolute morality, then the only limits to the action you undertake is either instrumental (e.g., what will further your ends), practical (e.g., what is it that I can actually accomplish) or some peculiar “cultural” limitation. (Say, deciding that you will only strike violently at individuals because you see what you’re doing as a personal duel between you and some other individual.)

    If putting a molotov cocktail at the doorstep of a primatologist is seen as effective, then why not blow up the whole primatology lab? That would work just as well, and surely everyone who works within such a lab, even the administrative staff, shares in proximate guilt if you accept the proposition that the lab is a torture chamber. Why not blow up the administrative center of the university that funds the lab? Surely they know what’s being done in the lab. Once you cross a certain line, the only thing keeping a group or individual from moving to “I’ll kill everyone in the vicinity” is an inability to do so, a fear of retaliation if one does so, or a belief that smaller acts of violence are more effective. The last actually strikes me as oddly inconsistent: if violently threatening a single researcher works so well, why not scare the hell out of everyone even vaguely associated with such a research program? Why observe any moral limits, if you believe in the absolute moral correctness of your cause, and disbelieve completely in the proposition that anyone else might have any legitimate objections to your cause?

    And of course some animal rights extremists *have* moved on to small-scale McVeighisms, with arson attacks on facilities and residential properties. Any time you start burning things down or blowing them up, you’re showing a certain indifference to who might get killed or wounded as a result of your action. SHAC’s campaign against Huntingdon Life Science is pretty explicit: anybody even slightly connected to Huntingdon is a legitimate target for direct action, including arson.

  16. Greebie says:

    I was going to say something similar to what Timothy Burke said.

    I am a little sketchy about putting ethical behavior on a spectrum. I think there are grey areas, but the grey areas are only because there is doubt or controversy about whether the behavior crosses the line or not.

    If we reason that these extreme animal rights folks cross the line, then focussing on the behavior, these folks are no better than a Timothy McVeigh. I think if you cross the line to harm a few scientists, then you might as well make you sick arguements in favor of a massacre. The only difference is the level of retribution you owe in the end. But that’s a post-crime issue for experts in justice. What we are talking about is a pre-crime rationalization of a particular behavior and whether or not it crosses the line.

    That society treats different crimes differently is simply a matter of bureaucratic convenience and political priorities. Just because society wants to focus on the big massacres to contain damages doesn’t mean that one crime is lesser or worse from an ethical standpoint. The “good” or “bad” decisions we make individually have no berring on how a society tries to manage them in the larger picture.

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