Talking Factory Farming and Vivisection in Florence

I’m in Florence at the moment and, when not gawking at the Duomo, am attending the annual conference of the Global Ecological Integrity Group (GEIG).  This conference offers a good venue to talk to my fellow enviros about animal issues.  The audience tends to be receptive, albeit sometimes skeptical — just the kind of folks I want to reach.  Indeed, one attendee told me today that after hearing me speak on ethics and agriculture 3 years ago at this conference, he became a vegetarian.

Today, I spoke on the distorted notion of efficiency within industrial agriculture and the implications of that distortion for a post-industrial risk society.  Once again, the questions were thoughtful, probing and rigorous.  One questioner, however, was an archetype.  Even though my talk was about industrial agriculture, she wanted to talk about animal testing.  Then, during the break, she again approached me — this time with the cliched question about what I would do if my child were sick.  Would I, she wondered, support animal testing to save his life?  I said,  “sure.”  She looked triumphant until I also said that if my child were sick and someone told me experimenting on her would save his life, I would support that too.  The fact that I would do virtually anything to protect my child does not necessarily have any bearing on the morality of my actions.

She was unconvinced.  I wonder if anyone has any techniques for reaching out to folks like this.  She’s a neurobiologist who conducts animal research because she believes in its necessity.  She is utterly certain of the moral rightness of her position.  I do not flatter myself that I can convince her of anything but I would like to get her (and others like her) thinking about other points of view.

–David Cassuto

6 Responses

  1. I don’t have children so I can’t really relate to the protection one feels over their child, so perhaps this is a lame response (as my posts often are- ie how I justify eating meat) But I’m curious how you and her would answer if I asked this question (pretend you have 2 children here) “Would you support experimental testing on one child to save the other”
    That seems like an equally troubling moral question and I’m not sure it has an easy answer either, even if it is far fetched and probably incomparable.

  2. Interesting question, Steph, but for me not as problematic as you might think. My answer would be “no” because, though I would do anything to protect my family, it does not actually protect my family to sacrifice one for another.

  3. Well this is fair, and logical and not that surprising, and I bet she would answer the same way. But I’m wondering how she compares this question to her own justification of sacrificing one species for the benefit of another. I assume she has contrived a hierarchy of species, a ladder if you will, where the value of the species is measured by their intelligence, social skills, perhaps benefit to society, whatever traits people use to put humans above hon humans, and that humans are on the highest rung of this ladder. So how would she respond if she was asked to experiment on a chimp to save a rabbit. I assume she would justify the reversal (sacrifice the rabbit for the chimp instead) because chimps are more akin to humans, higher up on the ladder, and are more “worthy” of saving or however you want to think of it. So why doesn’t this comparison of the worthiness of the two lives get applied to the children in my hypo. I would guess that the answer is still the same, that a life is a life at this point, and sacrificing one child for the benefit of the other defeats the end goal of saving a family member’s life. But what if one child was severely disabled, was unable to speak, walk, or function without assistance. I assume that still this ladder of worthiness would not get applied. So I’m curious as to when this use of the ladder system stops. With you (if you use this system) it appears to stop at your family, and with her I assume it stops at the entire human race. So at some point people throw the ladder away, dismantle it all together and say that a life is a life and the sacrifice of one cannot justify saving another. So I’m wondering why this realization that a life is a life and both are as equal as each other, gets forgotten the further down the ladder you get, and what exactly causes the switch. I understand that having a family changes one’s morality and logic like nothing else. People will do whatever it takes for their family, so I understand this switch, but how far out do we extend this duty of protection and why. If we extend it to the entire human race, why is this the case? Why does this duty to protect extend to lives we don’t know and lives we can’t compare. On a massive scale, when you look at the human species, its just a bundle of living beings, living cells, living organisms. And the same can be said about animals. But if we focus in on one human we might start to allot it more consideration, either because we have a connection with them or because the massive numbers of the population suddenly take on a human face and human characteristics and ultimately, significance. So why can’t we apply this to other species. If we look at one particular chimp, and we see its characteristics, its personality, its desire to live, why aren’t we giving it the same consideration as a complete stranger who just happens to be human. There is a broken rung in this ladder that cannot be explained.

  4. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, Steph. The important caveat for me is that I acknowledged that my willingness to sacrifice her or anything else for my family was not moral but primal. It is also why victims don’t get to decide the penalty for their victimizers. When one gets too close to a situation, rationality erodes and feelings govern. Since we are a (supposedly) rational society, that does not seem a good thing. The difference between me and her vis a vis our willingness to sacrifice one being for another is that I recognize that my position is based more on feeling than logic. I don’t apologize for it but I can certainly understand why others might not want me making the decisions under those circumstances.

  5. Yeah I understand your thought process completely, and I think primal is the best word to be applied to this. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t understand her side at all. I don’t see the logic to what she is advocating. She’s the one with the broken rung on the ladder, so to speak, because she justifies it in an odd way that I can’t understand. I understand being primal and protecting one’s family and the emotions involved in that. I don’t understand being primal about an entire species, as in her case, although I don’t think she’s claiming it as such, hence my confusion. I hope I didn’t sound like I was questioning your desire to save your family 🙂 I quite enjoy and expect that you would. 🙂

  6. I’ve tried being uncompromising at times, because I know those kinds of questions are set-ups, but that tactic doesn’t seem to work either. If I am asked if the animal experimentation would save my mother, would I support it, and I respond “no,” then no one wants to listen because I’m weird and possibly unstable in their eyes. Without subscribing to Steph’s broken ladder idea, there is something about a person’s willingness to sacrifice other humans that tends to make other a little uneasy. I was impressed at how quickly I was able to shut down a conversation last summer when, in the midst of a similar discussion, I admitted that the best way I could reduce my impact as a carbon emitter and animal consumer would be to die. No one really knows how to come back from that.

    Still, hardline responses aren’t limited to the animal forum. My friend’s parents have voted Republican for their entire 45 year marriage. 2008 marked the first time they split, with the husband voting for Obama. In 2004, however, he almost voted for Kerry because of Kerry’s support for stem cell research. The husband, who has Parkinson’s, tried to convince his wife to vote for Kerry and for the research. She refused, and ultimately voted for Bush. He pleaded, “This could save my life!” to which she responded, “That’s a risk I’m willing to take.” True story.

    I’m not sure if that speaks more to the irrationality of hard line responses, or the inevitable result of living with someone for so long, but I think I made a point in there somewhere.

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