Monday, August 28, 2006

Meat Is Murder

Timothy Burke has a post up about the tactics of animal rights activists here. It argues, in a typically considered and well-tempered manner, that openly threatening scientists who use animals in experiments with violence is both morally dubious and tactically unwise. That it is tactically unwise I don't dispute: the people who dug up the owners' of a guinea pig farm's dead grandmother, quite apart from having done something really quite horrible, have done their cause absolutely no favours. I'm not sure that I agree with the claim that the adoption of those kinds of tactics is necessarily morally dubious, though, or at least, I don't agree with the way that claim is always put. Burke wants to say that once you've stepped outside the boundaries of procedural liberalism - the tedious mutinae of political life in a Western democracy: accumulating evidence, making a public case, building coalitions, and in the end, through the normal channels of political action, achieving change - you've stepped off the reservation. For instance, Burke makes this claim, which I think is extremely strong:

[o]nce 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.

Timothy McVeigh killed over a hundred people. Intimidation and damage to property, including most damage to property which is reckless to the safety of the people whose property it is, is not mass murder. Just because someone has given up on some moral limits, it doesn't mean they've given up on them all. Further, I don't think anyone really wants to say that all and any breaches of procedural liberalism are to be unreservedly condemned. Take the animal rights activists' case at face value. They believe that scientists who test on animals are engaged in an activity equivalent to legally sanctioned torture of humans on a massive scale. Setting aside the question of whether that view is remotely justified, I'm not sure I would want to say that if what it claims is the case were the case, carefully considered and politically persuasive breaches of procedural liberalism would not be justified.


Phil said...

Burke's 'molotov cocktail' line is not only idiocy but ahistorical idiocy. Here's one of my personal touchstones, a quote from Charles Tilly (although I can't recommend any further reading - I'm ashamed to admit I've only ever seen it as a quote).

"during the nineteenth century workers, employers and governments engaged in a continuing struggle; its general outcome was not only the legalisation of some sort of strike activity but also the creation of shared understandings concerning the actions that constituted a strike. By no means all concerted withholding of labour qualified; the parties hammered out detailed rules excluding individual absenteeism, occupation of the premises, refusal to do particular jobs, and so forth. It is not simply that legislators made some forms of the strike legal and other forms of the strike illegal. That happened, too. But in the process the antagonists created—in practice as well as in theory—a sharper distinction between the strike and other forms of action with which it had previously often been associated: sabotage, slowdown, absenteeism, the demonstration. A narrowed, contained strike entered the repertoire of workers’ collective action."

It sounds as if Burke has an unexamined notion of 'violence' at the back of his mind, with the assumption that there is an essential quality of 'violence' which underlies all those acts we can identify as 'violent' and no others. It's a kind of pragmatic fundamentalism - these are the categories we put things in now, therefore these categories are perfectly and inherently valid. Lucky us.

Timothy Burke said...

Well, speaking of ahistoricality, the 19th Century isn't the early 21st Century.

More importantly, treating all causes as if they have an equal given right to trespass procedural liberalism and go straight to violence and intimidation, collect $200.00, is precisely the problem.

What are you going to say to the anti-abortion activist who shoots or even just merely intimidates--or what the heck, leaves a molotov cocktail on the doorstep of--a doctor who performs abortions? You can say, "Your cause is wrong". At which point you assemble your people, he assembles his, and you have a rumble. Or you can say, "It's not legitimate to kill, intimidate or otherwise threaten that doctor--fight for your cause within the limits of liberalism". I'd rather the latter, because even when I'm in the minority, it offers me some kind of guarantee.

Once you say, "I am in possession of an absolute moral truth that justifies doing whatever I must, whatever the cost to some kind of system that tries to arbitrate outcomes between people with differing moral visions", then let me put it that way: you'd better be damn fucking sure that you *are*, and that you've got literally no alternatives. And that you've got the bigger army or guns, incidentally--because once you're out there beyond legal protections and liberal norms, that's all that's going to save you when the fight really starts in earnest.

And saving primates from research that you consider unethical? No way is it even *close* to being that kind of "there's just no question but that it's right to do whatever you can" issue.

Rob Jubb said...

I'm much more committed to procedural liberalism than I think Phil is - the first question of politics is, to my mind, how to achieve order despite the fact that we have conflicting and competing wants, and procedural liberalism is a fairly good answer to that question - but I notice that you're still essentially claiming murdering 168 people is like publishing someone's address on the internet. I also find it interesting that seem to regard with some degree of equanimity the claim that anyone who begins to use violence can expect alike and greater violence in return. Procedural liberalism only runs as far as procedural liberals, perhaps? One might wonder exactly what differences it is helping us to reconcile ourselves to. Finally, as a matter of fact, I think most animal rights activists are way off the reservation, because I don't think that their strong claims about animals ethical standing are true, and their tactics are in many cases manifestly not well-directed at achieving legal or customary recognition of the moral status they claim these animals have: the general point, though, stands.

Timothy Burke said...

I think my point is more that once you say, "My goals are an absolute moral good about which there can be no debate or disagreement, and which have no need to be subject to any form of democratic process", and you say, "I'm justified in whatever I choose to do to pursue that good", I'm asking "Why not murder 168 people?"

If, for example, it's ok to hound and harass not just a research but his or her children and family (surely they are by any standard not agents of the action to which the animal rights activists object, only people who can bring powerful pressure to bear on that agent), then why not step up the harassment? Which, in fact, this particular group or their close allies have done by putting molotov cocktails on doors. If that's ok, why not set a building or two on fire? Which, in fact, quite a few animal rights extremists have done. If it's ok to set a building on fire, with the admitted danger of injury or death to people, why not escalate the threats still further?

So, yes, this is a classic slippery slope argument, with all of what makes those arguments unsatisfying--it rhetorically invites confusion between what groups presently do and what they might do, often by unfairly pointing towards some unreached extreme. But the essence of what I'm getting at is the flip side of procedural liberalism: once you discard it comprehensively (and that I think these groups have done), then it's something of a mystery as to why you don't proceed straight to murder, save perhaps an instrumental judgement that those tactics will invite too much retaliation or that you lack the capacity to carry them out.

The more potent analogy is to the anti-abortion movement, where a few activists have crossed that line, and where it can be hard for other activists who have reached a point of absolutism in their dedication to the cause to explain why the movement as a whole should not do the same. Similarly, I suppose I'm observing to anyone who would endorse personally harassing animal rights researchers or putting molotov cocktails on their doorsteps that they don't have any answer left as to why abortion rights activists shouldn't do the same to their targets except that one cause is supposedly righteous and the other not.

That's the problem with Phil's 19th Century analogy, in my mind. When we respond in an open=ended way that some instances of these tactics are legitimate, as a kind of political politesse, we lose the ability to explain why in some cases we DO want the government to intervene or the police to protect or the lines to be drawn. It's got to be about historical specificity: what is your cause and the justifications for it, but also, what are the social conditions under which you pursue your cause? What are the range of options available? In that sense, 19th Century labor protest just isn't animal rights protest in the early 21st Century, and it's scurrilous to allow the animal rights protesters to claim that.

Rob Jubb said...

""My goals are an absolute moral good about which there can be no debate or disagreement, and which have no need to be subject to any form of democratic process", and you say, "I'm justified in whatever I choose to do to pursue that good", I'm asking "Why not murder 168 people?""

But why on earth would you have to think any of those things to think that you were justified in breaching procedural liberalism under certain conditions? I can acknowledge a plurality of reasonable ethical positions about some issue, including ones which would condemn breaching procedural liberalism, and yet believe I am entitled to breach it myself. Even if I can't do that, the belief that I am justified in breaching one set of moral norms, those of procedural liberalism, is not the belief that I am justified in breaching any other set of moral norms. For example, I might well believe that intimidation and harrassment are acceptable means to a goal, but that actual physical violence wouldn't be, that humiliating and frightening people is fine, but actually hurting them isn't. That is clearly a coherent, if rather disreputable, moral position. Your position seems to be, if some set of people don't accept the particular form of deontology embodied in procedural liberalism, they accept no moral standards at all.

The other point is, I suppose, that anyone who is prepared to accept even a limited right of self-defence must find the 'all you have left to say is they did it for a bad cause' argument somewhat unsatisfactory. After all, people are generally thought to have a right to use lethal force in self-defence, and presumably, most of what distinguishes them from murderers in many cases is that they, unlike the murderers, killed in a just cause. If the argument is quite as damning as you seem to think it is, then presumably they are pretty damned.

Phil said...

Piggybacking on Rob's comment:

Your position seems to be, if some set of people don't accept the particular form of deontology embodied in procedural liberalism, they accept no moral standards at all.

I'm not sure that deontology comes into it. My critique of your (i.e. Timothy's) position is that it draws a line around a historically-specific set of practices, identifies them with 'procedural liberalism' as an essence and reads a general anathema over everything outside the line. It's a bit like saying "if you're going to say it's OK to eat with your fingers, how can you object to putting the plate on the floor and eating like a dog?"

Timothy Burke said...

But people aren't thought to have a right to self-defense that they themselves autonomously determine. It's a right that is defined and tested in legal terms.

Fair enough in suggesting that I'm both flinging around a historically local and undefined sense of procedural liberalism as if it were well defined and universal, and that I'm suggesting that all people who go off the procedural rails do so without setting bounds about how far they go off and why. However, I *would* say that about the activists in this case and some allied groups. I think they describe their views as an absolute moral imperative, reject absolutely that they have any obligation to subject their views to any kind of test or liberal framework for action, and reserve the right to do whatever they see fit. The only restraint I can see is that most of them for strategic reasons have a disclaimer on their web pages that they don't advocate illegal action, largely to avoid crippling civil suits of the kind that have been directed at anti-abortion activists as well.

Rob Jubb said...

Yeah, alright, the self-defence thing was a bit cheap. But British law, for example, recognises I think a right to break domestic law in support of ratified international treaties (or at least I've heard of people trying that as a defence against charges of criminal damage and trespass on various military installations: Faslane, the nuclear base in Scotland, perhaps and various RAF bases elsewhere, I think - it probably didn't work, to be fair).

I'm not sure what animal rights activists think about the justification of their direct action. In Britain, and more particularly in Oxford, they've been quite active. My College's boathouse was burnt down by them, for example, and the new lab being built in the science area has had one contractor intimidated out of building it. On the other hand, perhaps more by luck and lack of means than judgement, I don't think they've murdered anyone yet.

The South African example you raise at your own blog ( - I'll get the hang of hyperlinks one day) is interesting, though.