Graduate students in the Department of English at Queen’s University organized a great conference last weekend entitled “Animals and Animality Across the Humanities and Social Sciences.” I attended the workshop entitled “Ethics and Activism: Living with and for Animals” by animal, food, and feminist activist Carol J Adams. Carol J Adams is perhaps best known for her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she makes links between meat-eating, the treatment of animals, and gender politics. She also frequently referred to her book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook. Adams’ workshop was incredibly thought-provoking and her experience and wisdom were apparent.
Adams’ informal and interactive talk gave participants a chance to voice some of the ethical dilemmas and burdens they experience with regards to animals, vegetarianism/veganism, research, and activism. How we can deal with with the trauma experienced from witnessing a world that is cruel to animals as well as the difficulties of living as a vegetarian/vegan in a meat eating world were significant themes. I had a rather specific set of concerns with regards to the topic of the day’s workshop. This is because I research scientists who do research with laboratory animals.
My contribution to the discussion (well, I did my best to articulate it) was to point out that while I am certainly someone who cares deeply about animals, the ethics of relations with animals that Adams is advancing don’t seem to be compatible with transdisciplinary research. Adams suggested that researchers in that position could think of their fieldwork as “covert” or “undercover activism,” where the costs of participating in something “unethical” is outweighed by the potential benefit of being able to expose what happens to animals in lab. However, such a position, in my opinion, is not tenable with regards to the legal, professional, and ethical codes by which social scientists are bound. I think it would constitute a form of deception if researchers did not disclose to participants that they intended to “expose” the “secrets” of animal research; in addition, this may cause them harm. We are bound by these codes to put our human participants first. The scientists, within this system, are the ones who are responsible to the animals, and they are bound by their own professional and ethical codes in that regard. This system does not appear to permit “covert activism.”
I have a further, perhaps more philosophical, concern, but one with considerable practical implications. My work is transdisciplinary. It involves mutual interrogation and transformation of disciplines that normally do not engage each other. Much of the literature on transdisciplinarity suggests that in order for this to occur, the assumptions and commitments of disciplines need to be laid bare. Only then can dialogue happen, and only with dialogue can we begin to bridge the significant gaps between the disciplines. How could a social scientist study the health sciences in manner that moves beyond simple critique and towards collaboration if they do as Adams had suggested? It seems that Adams’ suggested form of activism is incommensurate with transdisciplinarity. At a practical level, if it were exposed that transdisciplinary researchers were undertaking research with “covert intentions” they would never be invited back by any researcher and their transdisciplinary work would be over. It is also very unlikely that scientific researchers would take their criticism seriously or make any changes. The “us-versus-them” dichotomy that is implied by the idea of “covert activism” is not, in my opinion, compatible with the collaborative nature of transdisciplinarity. And all of this assumes that there is, in fact, something to “expose.”
I stick with what Donna Haraway (in When Species Meet, 2008) says about eating when thinking about the questions of animals in labs:
Maybe God can have a solitary meal, but terran critters cannot. In eating we are most inside the differential relationalities that make us who and what we are and that materialize what we must do if response and regard are to have any meaning personally and politically. There is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace. (P. 295)
There are no absolute answers with regards to the ethics of animal research. And since there can be no final peace, we must always be reflecting and transforming. Is that possible if transdisciplinary research is not possible? I’m not so sure.
Apart from these tough questions, my favorite thing she said that day was this excellent bit of advice for the budding scholar:
This is either going to be published, or it’s going to be perfect, but it’s not going to be both.