Common ground and deeply held differences: a reply to Bruins for Animals.

In a post last month, I noted that not all (maybe even not many) supporters of animal rights are violent extremists, and that Bruins for Animals is a group committed to the animal rights position that was happy to take a public stand against the use of violence and intimidation to further the cause of animal liberation.

On Wednesday, Kristy Anderson (the co-founder of Bruins for Animals), Ashley Smith (the president), and Jill Ryther (the group's advisor) posted a critical response to my post. In the spirit of continuing dialogue, I'd like to respond to that response.

They write:

AR activists can rightly accept praise and credit for encouraging the two sides to come together in what was an unprecedented public and civil dialogue. However, one glaring and rather twisted irony too often overlooked is the fact that those very same participants who speak against aggressive campaigns against the animal experimentation industry and who are quick to praise AR advocates' stance on nonviolence are themselves engaged in (or are supporters of) violence and intimidation towards sentient beings on a daily basis.

I take it that this is one of the places that dialogue can help us to understand each other (although not necessarily to agree with each other), by exposing the ways in which our core commitments can make all the difference to how we understand the facts on the ground and their moral relevance to us.

I accept that, given the commitments of animal rights supporters, it does look like a glaring irony to decry violence and intimidation towards people while accepting, speaking in support of, or even conducting research with sentient animals.

Animal rights supporters are identifying sentience (the ability to feel pain) as the criterion of moral relevance. (There are doubtless some animal rights supporters who would also include other animals who have not been established as sentient as worthy of the same moral consideration, but the Bruins for Animals folks seemed to draw the line at sentience.) From their point of view, any use of non-human animals that subjects them to pain or stress is morally out of bounds -- for just the same reasons that exposing humans to pain or stress would be.

I can understand this view even if I don't share it. And, if I've misunderstood it, I'm hopeful that people who hold this view -- many of whom are smart, and honorable, and serious about living ethically consistent lives, qualities I respect immensely -- will help correct my misunderstandings.

However, given my commitments, this stand is not ironic -- because I don't think the criterion of moral relevance is sentience, I am aware of a great deal of animal based research that does not involve pain for the animals (and that I think is by any objective measure much less "violent" than medical procedures I have received or have sought out for my children), I am not sure that raw sentience is sufficient for a mental state that could properly count as "being intimidated," etc. None of this is to deny that we have important duties to animals, especially those under our care. But, as I have explained before, my view is that these duties fall short of according animals rights -- and these duties coexist with strong duties we have to our fellow humans.

I know that animal rights supporters do not share these views -- and my respect for them is certainly not contingent upon their sharing them. But I hope that they can acknowledge that what they identify as irony here is irony from the perspective of their ethical commitments but not from the perspective of my ethical commitments.

It is not that I am acting inconsistently given my commitments, but that my actions are inconsistent with their commitments.

The Bruins for Animals piece continues:

Vivisection, industrialized meat production, fur production, and other such practices involve extreme violence and intimidation against animals. So, when headlines such as Stemwedel's congratulate AR activists for "taking a public stand against violence and intimidation," what the headline fails to address is the fact that a vast majority of AR supporters are against violence and intimidation of any kind, including (and most importantly) violence against and intimidation of innocents, including animals.

Make no mistake about it, vivisection is a form of violence, violence perpetrated against innocent sentient beings. Animals exploited in medical research fear for their lives and are denied all that is important and natural to them. These animals are terrorized in every sense of the term. Despite the fact that most animals used in laboratories are sentient and have rich, complex, emotional lives, many experiments involve the infliction of physical and emotional pain and harm upon them. When the reality of the situation is brought to light in this way so is the hypocrisy of those animal researchers who, on the one hand, congratulate animal activists who are against violence and intimidation, while on the other, participate in the violence and intimidation involved in animal experimentation practices.

It's interesting to me in cases like these that sometimes we are able to focus on our common ground, and other times it is our differences that dominate the discussion -- and I'm not sure it has much to do with the relative size of the shared or contested ground, either. My views on industrialized meat production, fur production, sport hunting, dog fights, puppy mills, and the like, are probably close to identical to those of most animal rights supporters, and I try to live a life that is consistent with those beliefs. (For example, I've been a vegetarian for more years than some of the members of Bruins for Animals have been alive, and I've raised my offspring vegetarian from birth.)

None of this erases a difference of commitments that is very important to me and to animal rights supporters like Bruins for Animals. Pointing out our agreement on a small but important issue -- a rejection of the use of violence and intimidation against our fellow humans to support even a deeply-held view -- was certainly not meant to paper over our fundamental disagreement about the place of non-human animals in our moral sphere. Indeed, I intended the close of my post to highlight the fact that despite significant differences in our commitments, we could identify important shared commitments, too:

Major props to Bruins for Animals in setting an example of how to stand up forcefully for what they believe without trying to silence people who hold differing views.

Being willing to listen to views they oppose, to meet those views with arguments rather than attempts to harm, with efforts to persuade rather than silence -- this I find worthy of respect and praise even though I disagree with Bruins for Animals -- and they with me -- about the moral status of animals.

I hope, though, that they will recognize that what they identify as hypocrisy here is hypocrisy relative to the ethical commitments they hold, not relative to the ethical commitments held by those of us who judge animal research ethically permissible.*

Again, from the Bruins for Animals post:

To assert this point in no way denies or diminishes the fact that the recent UCLA event was important, fruitful and an extremely positive and informative discussion on the science and ethics of animal based research. However, the praise by PTS supporters of ecumenical dialogue and the admonishing of certain tactics should not go unnoticed, as we do appreciate the willingness for dialogue. However, as already stated, we find it perplexing that one would congratulate us for a position which they themselves do not hold in a consistent manner. Further, such praise should not be allowed to weaken or undermine the solidarity of AR activists, nor should we lose sight of our shared, fundamental goal, namely, animal liberation.

I too hold that the discussion we had was important, and hope that we will continue to have discussions with each other. One outcome I hope such discussions will bring about is the recognition that participants on each side are trying to live in ways that are consistent with our own ethical commitments. Where these commitments diverge, so will our judgments about the right thing to do.

I hope that I have not saddled with a charge of hypocrisy animal rights supporters who are acting consistently with their own views -- even when those views do not agree with my own. In turn, I hope that animal rights supporters can accept that some of my actions which might be inconsistent with their ethical commitments are fully consistent with my own.

Returning to the question of the relative importance we place on our agreements and our differences, I respect that Bruins for Animals wants to stand in solidarity with other animal rights supporters against treatment of animals that they agree is unethical. Still, I hope it is possible for us to share honest criticisms with people with whom we share much common ground, to voice disagreements even with people we regard as on our own side.

Indeed, Bruins for Animals has voiced just such criticisms of extremist tactics while simultaneously reaffirming their commitment to animal rights. This is why, even though I am not a supporter of the animal rights position, and even though this difference is of the utmost significance to them and to me, I stand in solidarity with Bruins for Animals, at least as far as the kind of societal engagement they seem interested in building
*Of course, judging animal research ethically permissible is not the same thing as judging any given experiment on an animal ethically permissible. It is, instead, a recognition that our duties to animals coexist with other duties which sometimes demand more of us.

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Dr. S, I very much respect your ability to identify the fallacy in the statements of BFA, and to address it and them politely and productively.

I do think, however, that they are hypocritical assclowns. It is not just a matter of their failure to understand that not everyone believes as they do---many of us are equally narcissistic. It is their frankly dangerous and disingenuous stance of praising someone for talking to them, and stating a stand against violence toward other humans, and then launching the usual apologia for violence against people.

Thank you Janet. This is a highly contentious issue and people have the tendency to lump people into one camp or the other. I appreciate your commitment to creating understanding and seeking to find a common ground. I hope others will follow your example in the way they discuss this issue.

I find this post entirely too reasonable. I'd like to see more grandstanding, willful misinterpretation, emotional appeals, red herrings, and a fundamental unwillingness to see more than one side of the debate. That goes for everyone involved.

Hi Janet,

I would love to write lots and lots in response to your well-thought-out piece here, but I can't since, as you know from your days as an untenured faculty member, if I don't publish, I will perish. (Hey, if you can get my department colleagues to recognize this blog as an academic publication that'd be awesome!) I just want to respond briefly to your view about the moral implications of sentience and what you're calling "animal rights".

There has been and continues to be so much literature on these topics by really, really good philosophers. Part of the problem is the term 'animal rights' itself. As you know, the term 'rights' has a number of senses. When used in the phrase 'animal rights' it refers to a certain kind of view, belief, set of practices, etc, with regard to human-animal relations. This is its use in the popular vernacular. However, also as you know, when used in academic circles, 'rights' does not mean this. It means something very specific. And I think you might sometimes too easily move between the two uses in these blog postings, sometimes bordering on equivocation.

Further, I think sometimes you seem to conflate rights, values, and interests. You state that you "don't think the criterion of moral relevance is sentience", but "moral relevance", though related to them is not the same as 'rights', 'values', or 'interests', is it? As I said, there is a vast and well-respected (in the philosophy community) body of literature on this stuff. For example, though Peter Singer is known in popular culture as an "animal rights" advocate, as I'm sure you know, Singer is not, himself, an advocate of the notion of âmoral rights'. On the other hand, Tom Regan, best known as the author of The Case for Animal Rights does, in fact, agree with you about the insufficiency of sentience, yet he still provides persuasive arguments for a kind of rights view and even speaks in the language you use, talking lots about "duties" to animals. Beyond these two giants of "animal rights" philosophy, I recommend looking at the works of Bernard Rollin (Animal Rights and Human Morality (neither a sentience nor rights view, but a telos view)), Steve Sapontzis's unsung but powerful book Morals, Reason, and Animals, and Mary Midgely's masterpiece Animals and Why They Matter. Some others include views like David DeGrazia's (Taking Animals Seriously), and the new and novel arguments put forth by Tzachi Zamir in his recent Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Argument for Animal Liberation. Note in that last one that the author presents an argument for animal liberation that is, in fact, speciesist! I think you get what I'm saying here, namely, that you seem to believe that animal rights advocates see only sentience as the morally relevant property and that, since you don't (because you believe in a certain kind of "duties" view (sounds kinda Kantian to me), you are not being hypocritical in your view of the treatment of animals in labs. You might be surprised to find volumes written by these and other philosophers who support your kind of "duties" view, but who do, in fact, see holding such views while simultaneously supporting research on animals as being inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical.

Second, you do agree that sentience, though perhaps not the whole moral story (for you), is, in fact, a morally relevant property, right? I mean, if I kick a stone along the road or I kick a kitten along the road, there is a morally relevant difference between the two acts and the difference is related to the fact that the kitten is sentient, no?

Last, let me address your claim that you are not so sure that "raw sentience is sufficient for a mental state that could properly count as 'being intimidated,' etc." Janet, I know that, like me, you respect science and the scientific method greatly. The fact of the matter is that in the past 5-7, the literature on animal cognition, cognitive ethology, animal psychology, and the emotional lives of animals has exploded. (I can provide lots and lots of citations.) I urge you and your readers to have a look at some of the literature closely (if you have not already) before making (what may come off to some as sounding like armchair) pronouncements about the physiological/psychological/cognitive properties of animals and the sufficiency of sentience for certain other mental and emotional states. If you're like me, you will be shocked at what our best theories of science are telling us these days.

Okay, thanks again for a great blog. Back to work...

Robert C. Jones
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
California State University, Chico

The fact of the matter is that in the past 5-7, the literature on animal cognition, cognitive ethology, animal psychology, and the emotional lives of animals has exploded. (I can provide lots and lots of citations.) I urge you and your readers to have a look at some of the literature closely (if you have not already) before making (what may come off to some as sounding like armchair) pronouncements about the physiological/psychological/cognitive properties of animals and the sufficiency of sentience for certain other mental and emotional states. If you're like me, you will be shocked at what our best theories of science are telling us these days.

This is contentless. It might have been appropriate to include just one or two of your lots and lots of citations so that we readers have some idea what you're talking about. What, exactly, are 'our best theories of science telling us these days?" That raw sentience is sufficient to infer the capacity for suffering and intimidation "certain other mental and emotional states"? Or not?

By Sven DIMilo (not verified) on 19 Mar 2010 #permalink

you seem to believe that animal rights advocates see only sentience as the morally relevant property

Prof Jones, the reason Prof Stemwedel is forced to limit herself to one property at a time is the tendency of those from your position (partially on evidence in your comment here) to throw up lots and lots of properties and to skip from one to the other when pinned down. The reason you do so is unknown but I suspect it is the weakness of the foundation of each of your individual arguments. Which is why you don't just give us an example of your "lots and lots" of recent work. I could be wrong but I see a lot more appealing to experts in these discussions than appealing to specific observational or experimental results.

The mere fact that there is an explosion of publications in recent years is essentially meaningless. It could be just a lot more of the same hogwash. It could be a lot more theorizing blather based on the same old evidentiary basis- which doesn't mean what you think it does. Or, it *could* be the case that recent work has provided amazing, totes convincing evidence of a new sort which will knock the AR critics right on their keisters. The fact that the AR types are not trumpeting this and that people like EMJ and GL trot out the same old arguments, suggest that there are in fact no amazing, slay-all-opponents data available in the past "5-7".

By Cleveland (not verified) on 19 Mar 2010 #permalink

As a start, try having a look at the extensive list of citations and endnotes from evolutionary biologist Mark Bekoff's latest popular, non-academic book, The Animal Manifesto, especially those from chapters 2 & 3.

To Cleveland, I bet if you investigate those professional philosophers' works I recommended, you will find very little (if any) "skip[ping] from one [position] to the other when pinned down." This is a huge field, but please feel free to contact me and I would be happy to continue this discussion further in detail: ( or 530-898-4506.


A nice post, and with one exception, a civil discussion! What is the world coming to?! ;)

I am left wondering whether the attempts for a mutual understanding and respect are motivated by the desire to find a better modus vivendi, one that shifts somewhat the current scientific status quo of animal research, or whether it will merely tend in the direction of neutralizing the opposition. In other words, real change or cooptation? What is your sense of it, Dr. Stemwedel?

Regarding the literature on animal cognition, let me add reference to an elegant, recent piece: Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin's mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behav Brain Sci. 2008 Apr;31(2):109-30; discussion 130-178.

By David Jentsch (not verified) on 20 Mar 2010 #permalink


You say that sentience, which you seem to be defining as the ability to feel pain, but which the BfA folks seem to be defining as something including social needs and emotional lives, is not sufficient in your world as a criterion of moral relevance. You may have addressed this before, and if so just point me to the column, but what *do* you consider to be a sufficient criterion of moral relevance? So often in the past, people have made statements about what separates humans and animals, and used these claims to argue for uniquely human rights, and then when researchers learn that some animals *can* communicate, some animals *do* have a theory of mind, and so on, the bar moves. Dr. Jones' citations would be most valuable if there was an identified level at which particular nonhuman species might attain moral relevance.

Personally, I see moral relevance on a graded scale: we have a moral duty not to treat all life with respect, all sentient life somehow different than disposable equipment, and somewhere around the level of the great apes, dolphins, and possibly even certain parrots, we have a duty to treat them as individuals with important rights that approach those of humans. My scale is entirely related to evidence of self-awareness and thought, and I think that we are far too quick to dismiss evidence of these in nonhumans.

I think that we are far too quick to dismiss evidence of these in nonhumans.

And I think you are far to eager to anthropomorphize in the absence of evidence.

See how far trading belief gets us? WTF is the "evidence" and how is it being "dismissed"?

Communicate is goal post moving and straw man arguing. Language is the term you are looking for.

"Theory of mind"? please. A nice a slippery concept good for much be-fogging. The dot/mirror test do you mean?

By Cleveland (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

One interesting facet of the AR discussion is that this war of words frequently turns into, well, a war of words. The AR movement of course features a VERY large contingent of philosophers, both professional and amateur, who like words a lot. A WHOLE lot. So, most conversations with them turn into turf battles over word definitions.

For instance, I used to think "sentient" meant "possessing human-like intelligence." Checking dictionaries, it really should just mean "conscious and receiving sensory input." Where did it grow into a description of intelligence? I'll blame Star Trek and its ilk, myself.

Now the AR faction (not Janet, she was just repeating their contention) is trying to appropriate "sentience" as the ability to feel pain? Way too narrow, not buying it. What I think is really happening is the AR's are trying to take a sympathetic term and hijack its emotional value for their cause by making it applicable to more critters.

What's unusual is that their usual tactic is to take a neutral term and try to attach a negative emotional value. My second favorite is "vivisector." Any surgeon, veterinarian, or dentist cuts living tissue and thus is technically a vivisector.

My favorite, though, is "speciesist." That is, one who favors one's own species over all others. Of course, the technical name for any species that does NOT exhibit this behavior is "extinct."

"treat all sentient life somehow different than disposable equipment"

Yup, that is well put.

Sentience has some bearing on the question of rights, but it is not the central concern. Membership in the rights-bearing group is.

If a Canadian agnostic travels to Mecca and expects to have the same rights as a Saudi Muslim, he or she will soon discover the importance of being a member of a rights-bearing group.

And even when so-called "rights" are accorded to animals, these exist only with respect to humans. We may have humane laws that protect caribou from the cruelty of unethical (human) hunters, but those laws do not protect a caribou calf from having its bowels ripped out by a grizzly bear or from being eaten while still half-alive by a pack of wolves.

Humane laws do not really grant animals rights; rather, they impose codes of acceptable behavior on humans.

By omnivorebynature (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

Well said, omni.

Your point about humane laws is particularly well taken. Frankly, I think the "animal rights" argument tends to provoke a backlash that tends to undermine humane laws. Any attempt to moderate hunting in particular risks a "Oh, you must be one of them PETA people" reaction. (My reaction being, "No, I'm one of those people who wants to be able to take a walk in the woods without getting my head blown off.")

I believe some of the literature that Bob Jones is referring two can be found in a recent special issue of The Journal of Ethics. Here -

It makes an interesting reading because it highlights how some philosophers interpret the scientific data as directly implying some mental states an animal must possess (such as the ability to have its desires frustrated). Such interpretations depart in many ways from the way most scientists and some philosophers view the same data (see the work of Daniel Dennett on the intentional stance and the work cited by David Jentsch above).

I am not trying to organize a panel discussion on this very same topic... but, what do you know... not many people appear interested in participating.

By Dario Ringach (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

Good luck getting AR philosopher types to stop handwaving platitudinous generalities and actually talk about evidence DR. Of course they are afraid to...they know in their secret places that they do not have data on their side.

Regarding the OP, anyone seeing the fascinating parallels with supposed mainstream Republicans who disavow the extreme antiObama rhetoric? Those who allegedly disavow extremist AR violence whole providing encouragement and support are just as unconvincing.

By Cleveland (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

What is unconvincing, guys, for us laypeople, is all your fussing about the exact scientific estimation of sentience and so on: we see it as just so much more tapdancing around abstractions. Even a feebleminded person who has moral awareness could see readily that something is wrong with this system.

As I asked earlier, is there willingness in the animal research community to shift the status quo, or are calls for conferences and "mutual explorations" mostly just delaying tactics, hoping to coopt the more reasonable AR folks?

Cleveland: For "Theory of Mind," check out Wikipedia:

I do not mean the dot/mirror test--things have moved way past that. Great Apes have extremely well-documented ability to use language. They have also been shown to deceive in ways that would seem to require a theory of mind. Those are the kinds of things I'm talking about. We have the Great Ape Trust here in Des Moines, which brings a large number of researchers in animal cognition to speak here. There is a fairly fascinating "Primate psychology" course that is taught at Drake. If you're curious, check out some of the research they do: . There's a nice link to a "Research" pull-down menu. You say WTF is the "evidence." Have you tried looking for it? Type "animal cognition" into Google Scholar. Limit it to "since 2009" if you'd like--you'll still get 16,000 hits. Some of them are quite interesting. Check out, for example, or (in the last one, the orangs test better than 5 year old humans).

It is certainly true that animals can do terrible things to other animals, just as humans can do terrible things to other humans, though we are slowly learning to limit ourselves in this area. I don't think folks who believe in AR are suggesting that we could or should stop all pain that occurs in the world, but it seems ethically vacant to me to claim that because wolves rip apart caribou, we are morally justified doing the same thing. I will immediately concede that humans have developed a far more complex and meaningful ethics, and it is our behavior to which our ethics applies. Just as I do not believe it would be right to torture a torturer (or, for that matter, a person who can not process ethical concepts), I don't think that we should feel justified doing what we want to bonobos just because they haven't read and internalized Aristotle.

As I said--I believe in a continuum of cognitive abilities. I think it's spectacularly difficult to argue in the 21st century that human cognition is of a different sort than that of all other animals. I grant you that it is more developed--language and culture have been wonderful tools for allowing us to develop our potential--but our nearest relatives are absolutely not the unthinking, instinctual machines that I think you are suggesting.

Have you tried looking for it?

Yes. Have you tried evaluating the evidence instead of looking to confirm a pre-existing belief?

Great Apes have extremely well-documented ability to use language

No, they do not. They do not use language. No non-human animal has yet been shown to use language. Not even close. That link to the Great Ape Trust's summary page is fascinating because, whew, what a load of over assertion past the strength of what was actually demonstrated with those animals. Perhaps you would care to dredge up just what basis the "semanticity", "grammar" and neological construction is claimed? How about verb use? And how about that allegedly "complex" verbal understanding in the animal that was treated like a pet from a very young age? This should all be easy for you to point to specific observations, since you know the data so well and all...

Now I will agree that what has been shown is communication. Albeit with symbols that are not species-typical, sure. Ever been to the circus? You can train animals to do all kinds of impressive looking stuff. They can have really impressive repertoires of learned behaviors, even extensive chains of behavior. Dogs can be trained with an impressive array of verbal commands. But this does not get you past the fact that there is a difference and a gigantic one between nonhuman communication and language.

in the last one, the orangs test better than 5 year old humans

In one test. So what? This fails to support the oft-mentioned "Animal X is at the level of Y-year-old child". Such argument fails, conveniently, to fully contextualize just how limited the "similarity" is, even if you credit the inference from the observation.

And specifically, you are talking about the indirect reaching task. Are you mad? This thing is hugely subject to prior experience, aka "learning". From this you infer some thing about innate ability? Please. "Most subjects could learn to overcome their prepotent
responses with little additional training" huh, it's right there in the paper itself.

Folks in the audience, it looks like that paper is open access. So if you want to take your own look at the evidence..."inhibition of prepotent responses" is the convincing measure of similarity / dissimilarity of cognitive capability in general?

By Cleveland (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink

I will follow Cleveland and David's request for people to read the nice summary of the scientific evidence (and the discussion) here:

Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin's mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behav Brain Sci. 2008 Apr;31(2):109-30; discussion 130-178.

By Dario Ringach (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink

As I asked earlier, is there willingness in the animal research community to shift the status quo, or are calls for conferences and "mutual explorations" mostly just delaying tactics, hoping to coopt the more reasonable AR folks?

You haven't yet explained what is wrong with what you term the status quo. Your use of terms "delay" and "coopt" reveals your AR myopia. You cannot grasp that the current situation of oversight, protections and federal regulation is in fact the middle, pluralistic, acceptable and yes, ethical and moral correct path.

You also cannot grasp, in your myopia, that scientists are not suspicious of being "coopted" because if you ever manage to show that a nonhuman species has the same moral standing as a human the scientist will be happy to change. Delighted. Scientists do not fear evidence and objective reality because their allegiance is already to those things. You, otoh, have an allegiance only to your theology and no facts or evidence or reason can ever shift that theology. Which is why you talk about being 'coopted' and about 'delay' in reaching your preferred new world order.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink

One anonymous voice that says, no wiggle room for the status quo. Any others?