Tuesday, September 17

Submission: Gene Block’s support of animal research ignores just criticism


On Nov. 3, Chancellor Gene Block sent UCLA students an email in which he voiced his support of animal researchers at UCLA.

The email was prompted by professor David Jentsch’s Oct. 28 submission to the Daily Bruin, in which Jentsch expressed support for young animal researchers whose identities are being sought by the animal rights organizations National Operation Anti-Vivisection, based in the U.K., and Negotiation is Over, based in the U.S. Jentsch, an animal researcher himself, has suffered threats and attempted violence from some of his critics.

If we accept that animal experimentation is perfectly justifiable, it is natural to express strong support of those doing such work at our university. But for those not already convinced, Block and Jentsch ignore the moral criticism of animal experimentation and harshly condemn animal rights activists based on the past actions of a few violent critics.

Here are some of NOAV’s stated goals with respect to the work of student researchers: to monitor animal researchers’ experiments, to “politely contact (researchers) about alternatives” and to engage in “peaceful protests.”

These are not violent ends, though I understand the suspicion that student researchers’ information will be misused. Still, we must carefully distinguish violent from nonviolent activism and moral criticism.

Block’s email can be read as disparaging all animal rights activists, claiming that their “tactics” are “shameful.” I’m sure Block is thinking of violent tactics. But he is not careful to distinguish violent from principled, nonviolent activism, in which students should be encouraged to participate.

Similarly, Jentsch claims that attempts to stop animal research are “hateful” attempts to silence researchers. He claims his critics aim to render him unable to “express (his) humanity, (his) ideas and (his) work,” contrasting this with his own “noble” work of “creation.” He does not seem to appreciate that the activists disagree about whether or not his work is even morally permissible.

Despite the rhetoric, Jentsch assumes that animal experimentation is justified, rather than justifying it to the student researchers he seeks to support. Is his work really noble, despite the harm he inflicts? Are his critics despicable for wanting his research stopped?

As reported in a study from 2005, every year, tens of millions of animal subjects are deprived of their natural life conditions, made to suffer and killed. The critics of animal research deny that this is noble: They believe that this violence is morally wrong. Meanwhile, Jentsch believes that the violence perpetrated by these activists is morally wrong. This raises the question: Why is violence OK in one case but not in the other?

Jentsch and Block might assume that if animal experimentation benefits humans, it is automatically permissible. This ignores, rather than addresses, the objection of animal rights activists. Block, in his email, claims that Jentsch’s “lifesaving” experiments are “required,” since they promise to help human beings. The question is whether the means we take to achieve this end are justified. Is the benefit to human beings so important as to outweigh the suffering animals endure?

Even if a given experiment was certainly going to help humans – in reality, we do the experiment exactly because we are not certain – using means that include acts of violence calls for justification.

The activists want to convince students of their moral beliefs. I wish the same were true of professor Jentsch and our chancellor, who only offer a rhetorical attack to their students and their critics.

I am not an activist. I am a student, and I think that the use of animals in experimentation demands justification. As a student of this university, before I agree with your controversial ethical position, I expect to hear reasons why I should.

An education at UCLA should promote intellectual virtue. Our chancellor should encourage us to challenge our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, not to simply accept his strong stance on a controversial and important ethical issue without good reasons.

Dismissing, denigrating and vilifying those who disagree with you – including, I’m sure, many students in our community – is not something any young researcher should be given as an example of noble intellectual activity. Block’s email represents a missed opportunity to encourage students to think for themselves about what is actually justifiable in research.

Both parties – though only a small minority of animal activists – commit violence in favor of goals they think justify it. Harshly condemning the actions of one’s critics as obviously wrong while committing similar actions oneself is hypocritical and runs contrary to the aims of both activism and the university.

Tracy is a graduate student in philosophy.

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  • Julia MacKenzie

    Thank you for this thoughtful response.

  • Kim Bourland

    Excellent!! Thank you for this post!