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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Nope, I don't know either...

One of the earth's penises?

For my stupid dreaded essay, I had this idea I would include a personal self-reflexive commentary. About how philosophers are dicks, that kind of thing.

I'm not sure that it works - most especially, I am not sure that I have the space for it. But it's kind of interesting.

Here is far too much of this 'diary' of writing...

Before I begin, I will include this first exercise in self-reflexivity. As part of this process, I wanted to demonstrate the value of the ethicist recognising her own prejudices and intuitions. I am following the example of Dunn and Ives here as I found their paper ‘Who’s Arguing?’ illuminating. Notably a section in which they address the issue of objectivity. Ethical, and bioethical, writing assumes a voice of neutrality, it assumes a rationalist, universalist perspective. But, as they argue, personal moral intuition is involved in ‘forming agendas for study and shaping philosophical arguments’. It is my intuition that in a contested debate, I have a responsibility to be aware of my own biases, rather than simply seeking to justify them through reliance on a suitable theoretical approach. As this essay seeks to demonstrate, decision-making and behaviour are impacted consciously and unconsciously by assumptions and context. My assumptions - for example, I have no truck with human exceptionalism - lead me to argue against animal experimentation, while my situation - a fifty year old in a pandemic - led me to gratefully take the fruits of biomedical research using animals as I happily had my vaccine against COVID-19. Like those I will speak of in a later section, I live in a state of moral conflict. Such awareness brings a salutary humility to the bioethicist’s tone.

I have chosen this case for two reasons. I suffer from depression and an effective treatment could improve my own life considerably. I have an interest in this research. On the other hand, I used to keep pet rats. The only person who understood my fondness for them was my cousin, an animal researcher, who told me she’d always found rats to be intelligent, playful and very affectionate. Thus my self-interest and my emotions pull in different directions, which, in the light of my examples in Section IV, seemed appropriate. In addition, a large proportion of the research worldwide uses rodents, for whom there is lesser public sympathy than animals like primates, cats and dogs.

It seems to me that given that a rat is sentient, there is a prima facie duty (to use W.D. Ross’s terminology) not to harm him. In a situation where significant benefits to a number of other sentient creatures would be brought about by harming the rat, it might be decided that harming the rat is the least-bad option. But, a wrong has still been done to the rat. That a course of action is the best, does not in my view make it ‘right’. There is cause for regret. As an ethicist I would need to justify this were my paper dependent on that premise, but instead this paper relies only on a watered down version of that claim: moral agents often function as though harms done to some could not be ‘erased’ by the fact that the enacting of those harms led to greater benefits for others.

This situation frustrates me. I have come to agree with the view expressed by Rachels that ‘[N]o one can escape reliance on some starting point, which is insulated from challenge by its very place in the scheme of reasoning’ (Rachels). And yet I also feel that in real-life there is not just one starting point. Animal lives matter and biomedical research matters. The coronavirus pandemic is evidence of that: few would have prioritised animals in the search for a vaccine. In a previous essay I was advised to develop my philosophical voice and I believe that here lies the root of my difficulty: I am not convinced that adherence to a theoretical approach maps well onto the complexity of life and, ultimately, I am more of a pragmatics than a theoretician. Thus, in this essay, I am seeking to find a philosophical voice of my own.

In correspondence, two researchers opposed to animal experimentation told me they knew of no systematic reviews that supported the use of animals in biomedical. But when I read the critiques of those on the other side, who argue that the data has been wrongly interpreted or taken out of context, I find myself lost in a fog of claim and counter-claim.

As part of this process I read the testimony of researcher Adrian Morrison who addresses some of this data and writes with frustration of the use to which selected data is put by the likes of PeTA. Morrison used to do neurological research on cats, about which he felt somewhat conflicted but fully justified given the putative beneficial outcomes for humans. Synchronistically, an app started sending me advertisements for PeTA, videos of kittens with a neurological injury, mewing and falling over in a sterile cage.

Morrison is not a philosopher, and his ethical arguments did not persuade me. However, reading the book served this essay as it helped me see that data can be swamped by propaganda. For example, animal lovers were targeted on Facebook by the Leave campaign, with images of bull-fighting and the assumption that Brexit would reduce animal cruelty - although now there is concern that departure from the EU will reduce protection for animals. I felt as if I were on the battlefield in the info-wars. This terrain is vigorously disputed and the prospects for peace seem distant given the limitations of both theory and data.

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