Tag Archives: Experimentation

Your wife or a snake?

Critics of anti-speciesist arguments, like presumably the Foundation for Biomedical Research in my previous post, often fall back onto simplified hypothetical moral situations in order, typically, to elicit an inconsistency in the opponent's belief sets or between their beliefs and actions. These arguments typically take the form of asking "your dog or your child?" On the basis of the inconsistency, there are a number of possible consequences that they might wish to suggest or draw, including:

a) Opponent's anti-speciesist view is false.

b) Opponent's anti-speciesist view is weakened.

c) Opponent is an unreliable judge of the moral issue due to the incoherence of their belief set.

d) Opponent is an unreliable judge of the moral issue due to hypocrisy.

As we've commented before, these Subjunctive Tu Quoque arguments are often fallacious, though sometimes they have some probative significance (e.g., by dialectically shifting the burden of argument). But, there is another case of argument that looks like the Subjunctive Tu Quoque, but operates differently.

P1: Opponent S asserts p, either generally or in situation A, on moral ground U.

P2: But, opponent S would assert ~p, in situation B.

C3: Opponent S should not hold p on moral ground U either generally or in situation A.

Here's an example from philosopher Carl Cohen.

"Tom Regan enjoys outdoor activities, and we can well imagine that on some cross-country hike a child of his may be bitten by one of the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes abundant in those North Carolina woods, or a cottonmouth, or copperhead perhaps, or during a winter holiday in Martinique his wife may be struck by the fer-de-lance, a snake whose bite is often fatal if not swiftly treated with an antivenin. Happily, there is treatment readily available for such excruciatingly painful bites, an antivenin that is waiting for the Regan family or any family in need of it, at any good hospital in North Carolina or the Caribbean. But would Tom Regan's child be allowed to receive it? Here is the problem. The needed treatment for the bites of the family of pit vipers is Antivenin (crotalidae) Polyvalent-serum globulin obtained from the blood of healthy horses that have been injected with snake venoms to cause of the development, in their blood, of the needed antibodies. Those horses have been used without their consent, with some pain to them. But, if the antivenin is not administered quickly, children bitten by rattlesnakes (or other pit vipers) will suffer terribly, may lose an arm or leg, or even die." (Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, The Animal Rights Debate, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. p 242.)

Here Carl Cohen is following out what he takes to be the consequence of Tom Regan's animal right's position. I don't think that he is actually arguing against Regan's view here, instead he is setting out the practical stakes of Regan's position before examining "with a very skeptical eye the philosophical arguments by which it is claimed that 'animal rights' are established" (p.243).

But, one might formulate an argument as follows:

P1: Tom Regan asserts that animals have rights not to be used for human purposes generally.

P2: But Tom Regan would/should assert that humans have the right to use animals (horses) in situation B.

C1: Tom Regan should not hold that animals have rights not to be used for human purposes generally.

or, C2: Tom Regan's judgment in P1 is unreliable.

This argument might have a similar structure as the standard reconstruction of the Socratic Elenkhos articulated by Gregory Vlastos, an instance of the Argument from Inconsistency. Though in the Elenkhos, we would add some additional premises to which the interlocutor agrees that entail C1, or for Socrates (on Vlastos' interpretation) the stronger claim that the original belief (animals have rights not to be used for human purposes generally) is false (Vlastos, Gregory "The Socratic Elenchos" Journal of Philosophy 79 (11), 1982, 711-714).

But, there is an important difference between arguments of this sort and the reconstructed implicit argument of FBR's billboard. In the case of Cohen's hypothetical, the hypothetical is an instance of the principle in question. In the case of FBR's billboard, the hypothetical is not. To put it simply:

Cohen: Using horses to produce anti-venom is a counter-example to the principle that animals have rights not to be used.

FBR: Saving a little girl rather than a rat is not an instance of the general category of using animals in research.

So, FBR cannot, I think, defend the implicit argument by modelling it on an implicit Elenctic argument. Conclusions about the use of animals in research is a non-sequitur from the assumed answer to the billboard's question.

Fallacies for Biomedical Research

The Foundation for Biomedical Research, an advocacy and lobbying organization for biomedical industries has been dumbing down the public discourse around the use of animals in medical research with bill-boards in several cities. ABCNews has the story http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Drugs/animal-research-billboards-pit-cute-girl-lab-rat/story?id=13371007


Now, one might say that this does not make an argument and so cannot argue fallaciously. As their spokesperson (roughly) says in the article, they are just getting people to "ask the question" and "think about why doing animal research is important." And that might be fair enough, even if it seems, perhaps, a bit disingenuous. But, it seems to me, even if we grant this, doing so should lead us to see that they expect us to infer something from our answer to this question. 

Perhaps it's just:

C: Killing the rat to save the little girl would be a good thing.

But, it seems unlikely that they are merely interested in agreement to such a limited conclusion. Presumably the girl and the rat represent a general claim about the value of the lives of cute little girls and rats. And, as an advocacy group, which lobbies against further restrictions on the use of animals in biomedical research (such as considering rats "animals" under the Animal Welfare Act, I believe) and defends research that kills and causes animals to suffer for possible medical benefits, it seems likely that they want us to infer something further from this premise. Perhaps,

P1: It would be better to save the girl than the rat.

C: The use of animals in research generally is good.

But, if someone were to infer that broader claim, as I suspect, the FBR would like, they would seem to be reasoning fallaciously.

The argument might also be taken as an argument from inconsistency:

P1: You hold that the use of animals for research is morally problematic. (70% of Americans do according to FBR).

P2: You would save a girl's life rather than a rat's life.

C1: Your belief in P1 is false

or, C2: You do not have good reason to hold your belief in P1

or, C3: You are an unreliable judge of the moral issue.

This is a better argument, and takes the form of a subjunctive tu quoque, of the fallacious variety–which conclusion should be drawn is unclear, but all of them seem non sequiturs.

On our analysis of subjunctive tu quoque's, the question is whether

P3: Your judgment in P2 is more relevant for judging the moral issue than whatever grounds you have in P1.

If this premise is supplied the argument looks less logically awful (for C2 at least), but P3 is unlikely to be true, making the argument at best unsound. Further as I noted above, it seems likely that the FBR would like the viewer to draw C1, which does not follow from the premises even with P3 supplied.

There are other things to say about the logic of the implicit arguments here, and my charity is running out. One might think, at the least, that it is curious that some would want to defend scientific research with bad arguments, but perhaps that's just my out-dated enlightenment views of science surfacing.