Torture and Vivisection

A final post on torture. The fact which the use of psychology for torture brought home to me, but which I was already nominally aware of, is the ethical ambiguity of science.

That is, increase in scientific knowledge is not a straightforwardly good thing, because there is no unified ‘humanity’ to make use of that knowledge – there are a collection of self-interested cliques and groups with structurally opposed interests. Any piece of new knowledge can thus be put to both malign and benign purposes.

What this relates to is then the ways that we get that knowledge. For example, the research on learned helplessness and depression – how was that acquired? By torturing dogs and seeing what mental injuries resulted. I’m not throwing in ‘torture’ as an emotive word for rhetorical purposes here; it’s a perfectly accurate description. Pain was inflicted specifically so as to cause permanent mental harm – the experiments were successful because they fulfilled that goal.

Now it’s commonly argued that animal experiments are needed because the knowledge they give us is of such value. Well certainly, to those concentrations of power backing the experiments – for them, any new piece of knowledge is an unqualified good. But for everyone else, it has the ambiguity that comes from the fact that it can be used both to refine and improve procedures of therapy, and also to refine and improve procedures of torture.

Similar things apply to other forms of research; testing new medicines potenially means testing new weapons, learning more about how we reason means learning how to trick us with propaganda or advertising. I’ve suggested in the past that people are aware of this, but often express in through a generalised hostility to science and ‘artificial’ things, a desire to get ‘natural’ products without ‘e-numbers’ – but which is at bottom simply the awareness that science isn’t something we own, it’s not done for us, it’s done for governments and corporations.

The question this poses for supporters of animal experimentation is: can such an ambiguous and uncertain endeavour justify all the torturing and killing that goes on in its name? I don’t deny that the benefits of science are, overall, greater than the costs (though if we destroy the biosphere, I will revise that judgement). But if there’s a good chance something will just be used to torture and kill more people, it seems very very dubious to say that can, with a clean conscience, torture and kill some in order to get it.

This isn’t meant to be a knockdown argument against vivisection (a more forceful post on the subject is here). It’s just something to think about for its supporters.

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