Drawing the line on human vital necessities

Karen Davis is a wonderful, tireless, passionate and invaluable advocate and protectress for animals. I share almost every one of the feelings she expresses in her comment that Marc Bekoff posted. 

But, for strategic reasons, and for the sake of the victims that we are all committed to rescuing from their terrible fates, I beg Karen to try to pretend to be more optimistic. I will explain

Karen Davis, UPC: Every single objection to the experimental use of animals – vivisection, genetic engineering, etc. – has been ignored and overridden by the scientific industry

This is true, except that there is no “scientific industry”: there is industry and there is science, and some scientists sometimes collaborate or even collude with industry. But scientists are more likely to be persuaded by evidence and ethics than are industrialists.

KD: …and this is not going to change no matter how morally obnoxious, heartless and cruel to the members of other species.

That there is a monumental, monstrous, and unpardonable amount of human moral obdurateness, heartlessness and cruelty toward other species is patently and tragically and undeniably true.

But that “this is not going to change” is just an (understandably bitter) hypothesis based on countless years of unremitting (and increasing) suffering inflicted on other species by humans.

The hypothesis may or may not be true. 

So I think we should not proclaim the hypothesis as if it were true – as true as the fact of human-inflicted suffering itself. The hypothesis cannot help the victims, for their only hope is that the hypothesis is false. And if the hypothesis is false, proclaiming it is true can harm the victims by promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy that could discourage activism as futile.

KD: The majority of human beings are completely speciesist and regard (other) animals as inferior to ourselves and fit to be exploited for human “benefit” including mere curiosity. 

This is alas numerically true. But it does not follow that the hearts of the majority cannot be reached, and opened. There are many historical precedents for this in wrongs that humans have inflicted on humans (colonialism, feudalism, slavery, bondage, genocide, warfare, torture, rape, subjugation of women, infanticide, racism). It cannot be said that these wrongs have been eradicated, but they have been outlawed in the democratic parts of the world. Nor can it be said that the majority of human beings either practices or condones them.

It is still legal, however, to do all these things (colonialism, feudalism, slavery, bondage, genocide, warfare, torture, rape, subjugation of females, infanticide, racism) to other species. And it is true that the vast majority of human beings either do some of these things or consume their products. But there is evidence also that in the global information era we are becoming increasingly aware and appalled at these practices, and condoning them less and less. It is toward this awakening that activism is having a growing effect.

KD: The majority of human beings… regard (other) animals as… fit to be exploited for human “benefit” including mere curiosity. 

True, but here (in my opinion) is the conflation that we activists should avoid at all costs:

With the vast majority of humanity still supporting the bondage and slaughter of animals, despite the total absence (in most parts of the world) of any necessity for human health and survival (-H), just for taste, fashion and fun, this should never be conflated with life-saving biomedical measures (+H).

People still demanding bondage and slaughter for -H uses certainly won’t renounce it for +H uses. Conflating the two can only strengthen the resistance to renouncing either. The call to renounce +H can only expect a serious and sympathetic hearing once -H has been renounced (or is at least far closer to being renounced than it is today). 

(This is not at all to deny that much of biomedical research on animals, too, is -H, as Kathrin Herrmann and many others are showing, should be exposed by activists as such, and should be abolished. But any implication that it was wrong to try to save the life of this dying man is not going to encourage people to renounce -H. I believe it would be more helpful to use it to draw the -H/+H distinction, and to point out that -H — unlike +H — has no moral justification at all.) 

KD: Among the latest animal-abuse crazes is the factory-farming of octopuses. Of course! We just HAVE TO BE ABLE TO EAT THESE ANIMALS! 

Of course eating octopuses (“sea food”), whether factory-farmed or “naturally” harvested and slaughtered, falls squarely under -H use, alongside the use and slaughter (whether factory-farmed, “traditionally” farmed, or hunted) of whales, seals, fish, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, cows, calves, sheep, goats, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, mussels… any sentient species that is not necessary for human +H.

KD: The human nightmare is too overwhelming and it cannot be stopped although those of us who care about animals and object to how viciously we treat them must continue to raise our voices.

Yes, let’s continue our activism on all fronts to protect the tragic victims from our anthropogenic horrors, but, please, for the sake of present and future victims, no matter how frustrated and impatient (and angry) we feel that the horrors keep persisting, let us not proclaim the hypothesis that they are “too overwhelming and cannot be stopped.”

12 Replies to “Drawing the line on human vital necessities”

  1. Dear Stevan,

    Thank you very much for posting your response to my comment on the pig heart transplant. I am perfectly satisfied with your posting of this dialogue on Animal Sentience and anywhere else it could be of use.

    Usually as an animal advocate, I do publicly “pretend to be more optimistic” than I really am. In my comment to the NYT article about the transplant, I compromised my usual commitment to speak hopefully, though realistically, about prospects. I do not want to discourage activists or the general public, and I believe wholeheartedly in the power and necessity of dedication and persistence. As I have said elsewhere, in “Pessimism Versus Negativity in Animal Activism: A Call for Affirmative Action,” “The last thing animals need from an animal activist is the negation of hope for them.”

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns. http://www.upc-online.org

  2. This dialogue is important. It takes up a topic, feelings of pessimism, with which many animal rights activists grapple. Thanks to Dr. Davis and Dr. Harnad.
    Here I would just like to say a word on Dr. Davis’s term, “scientific industry.” Dr. Harnad objects to it, maintaining that science and industry are basically separate. But are they?
    Much scientific research occurs in universities, where scientists pursue truth rather than profits. But universities also encourage their scientists to carry out investigations that will produce products that will benefit society. These products happen to sell, and research that helps develop them brings in grant money (public and private) to campuses. Because of its economic promise, science and engineering research brings in far more grant funding than literary or philosophical scholarship, for example. This funding carries weight in career advancement, salary increases, and department hiring. Universities don’t behave exactly like private industries, but they increasingly work along an economic model. Dr. Davis’s term suggests there is one big enterprise, and it’s worth considering the extent to which this is the case.

    1. I entirely agree. Science is an industry; and even the results of researchers are “helped” to conform to what ever the sponsors want. Indeed, even “animal welfare” activists sponsor and use only the results that help them along in their “activism, whether or not it is seriously ethical considered from all angles.

      Re. optimism and pessimism about animals — which I have spent all my life trying to improve the lives of. I am not sure it really matters that much, as it is reduction in species diversity that threatens the living system — and that means humans as well; and that is the result of most of farming — “food for humans” whatever it is, animal or plant — so vegans are not helping generally.

      The other question was why should many pigs, rats or whatever be sacrificed for the possible survival of one person when there are too many people consuming too much anyway? Until this is solved we dont have much hope. Yes, it might be a good idea to be pessimistic: face the problems and do something serious about it rather than just tweaking!!

      1. I can’t entirely agree with Marthe Kiley-Worthington, although I admire her work.

        But it’s certainly true that just about everyone is selective in their supporting references. In scientific journal articles this is an important shortcoming, but as science publication is open and collaborative, readers and critics can remedy inadvertent or deliberate omissions and biasses with published commentaries and critiques. On the other end of the spectrum, however, highly biassed and tendentious selectivity is what feeds climate-change-denial, anti-vaxxing and conspiracy theories, and so far the anarchic global social networks unfortunately seem to have no effective way (or will) to constrain, regulate or remedy this.

      2. With all due respect, if there is one thing animal advocates should never do, it’s disparaging veganism as a force for good. Choosing to remove animals from our mouths and our meals is a self-empowering first step (as Tolstoy argued in his essay “The First Step”) to rid ourselves of preventable violence and complicity in preventable suffering.

        If we assume that changing our own consumer behavior and encouraging others to do so is futile, why then should we assume that government agencies and food corporations will change their policies and practices for the better? It isn’t a matter of either/or. But one thing it is a matter of, in my opinion, is taking responsibility for what we personally CAN DO, in our own lives right now, without waiting for somebody else to do “something” about the tragedy and misery our species is inflicting on the inhabitants of this planet.

        Of all the comments posted on social media sites, none is more exasperating than this passive formulation: “I eat meat, but I believe animals should be treated humanely.” Well, good luck with that.

        1. I agree with Karen. And that’s why I can’t agree with Marthe, even though I admire and value what Marthe does for the animals she helps.

    2. Many thanks to Dr. Crain, developmental psychologist, animal activist and provider of sanctuary for his very valid observation that there is increasing interdependency between universities and industry, hence academic scientific research and industrial scientific research.

      Universities need to find new ways to support themselves, but when it comes to the lives and well-being of sentient organisms this is not just a material matter but a moral one.

      The few laws and regulations governing the “use” of nonhuman animals in research, whether academic or industrial, are woefully inadequate; and even such as they are, they are monitored and enforced only minimally and pro forma. The quis custodiet? problems in university labs are serious enough, but in proprietary industrial labs they are virtually insurmountable – short of a police state. Animals are almost completely defenceless in the Anthropocene, with as yet no standing in court, and little scope for standing for their advocates. Moreover, the very concept of “using” animals for human ends needs is being called into question, as it should be.

      But meanwhile the victims keep suffering.

      1. In the U.S., land-grant universities like the University of Maryland and other publicly funded university systems have entire animal science departments, including a chicken slaughter facility at UMD, College Park, where I earned my PhD in English in 1987, and founded the Animal Rights Coalition in 1989. I became well acquainted with the animal science department there. I once encountered a flock of very young “broiler” chickens who had been genetically engineered to be as large as small turkeys.

        Cruel and repetitive experiments are routinely conducted on chickens, turkeys, cows, etc. at land-grant universities; e.g., in the University of California system: UC-Davis, for example. Farmed animal “science” projects get funding from corporate agribusiness and from taxpayer dollars. From all that I have heard, read, and seen since the early 1980s, I am satisfied that there is indeed an animal-research industry that includes university animal-science departments, and more.

        In addition to agribusiness departments, there are all the other university departments in which monkeys, rabbits – you name it – are revealed by undercover investigators to be treated horribly and to suffer mercilessly. Just close your eyes and pick a place, and you’ll see.

        1. All true, all too horribly true.

          (And I agree that “animal science” is largely a service discipline for the agribusiness industries.)

          But note that that’s all -H (driven by consumer demand for taste, fashion and fun).

          And much of supposedly +H biomedical research is not life-saving research either, but driven by bandwagons, funding, careerism and curiosity.

          Not all of +H, though, and that is a tragic but undeniable fact. The -H/+H distinction is there, for the truly life-saving +H research.

          And it cannot be treated as if it too were just bandwagon-, funding-, careerism- or curiosity-driven.

          1. A reader of this discussion wrote on our Facebook page, January 14:

            “I believe it is critical to simultaneously acknowledge the horrors AND relentlessly hold a vision of what’s possible. We need to work in single minded service to the vision, and remind ourselves frequently of all the things we once thought were unattainable that are commonplace today. I truly believe that focusing more on what we are building instead of only on what we are fighting will be a powerful force.”


  3. “Try to pretend to be more optimistic.” REALLY? Reasons and justifications to not be DISGUSTINGLY upset and opposed to breeding, confining, depriving individual LIVING beings of anything AND EVERYTHING that could be natural to them, slitting their throats in front of their family and friends for ‘food’ that only happens to satisfy a few moments of ‘human tastebuds’? Optimism? BE VEGAN. Or be cruel.

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