Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Razor Blades and Moral Philosophers ~ Tim Gier

I’ve been thinking about razor blades and moral philosophers lately.

We are all familiar, no doubt, with the case of David Jentsch, the UCLA research psychologist who allegedly received a threatening note and some razor blades supposedly coated with AIDS tainted blood. You can read an news report of it here. You can read what Prof. Gary Francione has to say about the case here.

In a nutshell, UCLA researcher David Jentsch received a envelope containing razor blades and a threatening letter. He claims that the letter made specific threats of violence towards him and one of his
students. According to a
report on, “a group calling itself ‘The Justice Department at UCLA,’ claim(ed) its members sent the razor blades to Jentsch because he uses primates for
government-funded testing of drug addiction.” The razor blades are alleged by the group to have been tainted with AIDS-infected blood, but, as of this writing, there’s not been any finding of fact to confirm it;
the investigation is ongoing.

Francione writes: “I agree with (noted philosopher Peter) Singer that violence like this provides a negative image of the animal movement and I think the problem is more complicated than just public image. Putting aside any general moral problem with violence, the UCLA antic simply makes no sense” He explains, “Sure, the UCLA vivisector is unjustifiably exploiting animals. But so is anyone who uses animals, including those who consume animal products.” He also says, “If social thinking and public demand for animal use remains the same, nothing will ever change. If you close ten slaughterhouses today and demand remains the same, ten more will open tomorrow or ten existing ones will expand production capacity.” So, there are three points. One, there is a general moral problem with violence. Two, it makes no sense to single out vivisectors for these kinds of “antics”. And, three, for as long as society demands it, the explolitation will continue.

Let’s look at these one at a time.

First, any discussion about what happened in this case should acknowledge at the very least that (according to the major news sources) no-one was physically attacked, no-one was physically harmed, no determination has been made as to whether the razor blades actually were tainted with AIDS infected blood and it’s nearly certain that no significant harm could have come to anyone even if the razor blades were tainted with such blood.

So, at the very least, we should acknowledge that the only known and verifiable acts of real violence in this case are those perpetrated against innocent nonhumans. The rest are merely unproven allegations,
which even if true, would not rise to anywhere near the same level of violence as the acts committed repeatedly by Jentsch (and it is laughable for anyone to make the case that animal experimentation is not violent.) Perhaps that’s why Francione labels these actions as “antics”, belying the notion that they were violent at all.

Second, reactions against different types of violence, and different manifestations of violence, will be different, and that is as it should be. So while it is true that, for example, the lovely elderly lady who
lives on my block takes part in the exploitation of nonhumans, what she is doing is different, in a real and tangible way, from what Jentsch is doing. To deny that is to deny reality. Now, were she to begin confining, torturing and killing nonhumans herself, and refuse to respond to repeated calls to stop, then we might have to consider what more drastic measures we would have to take. In fact, that is what we do now. We charge people with animal cruelty when they needlessly confine, torture and kill other animals. It is true that in doing so we are acting inconsistently; we allow the mass confinement, torture and killing of humans by the millions daily in institutionalized agriculture. But that doesn’t mean that we are wrong to prosecute individuals who act cruelly. It only means that we are not prosecuting enough.

Third, the suggestion that “demand” is somehow responsible for this violence is not correct. No-one in the general public demands that Mr. Jentsch inject nonhumans with drugs, or that he kill them, anymore than anyone would demand that he experiment in that way on live human babies. This demand argument presupposes that we, as end users, are prescribing the methods by which our demands are met, and that is clearly not the case. Our demands are for better health and better healthcare, not the particular techniques a researcher employs to help deliver them. The culpability for his immorality is his, and his employers, although those among us who refuse to hold him accountable for it might well be culpable too.

In any event, Jentsch is certainly not an automaton, simply performing these heinous acts as if it wouldn’t matter whether he stopped. Now, it can be said that should Jentsch stop, it is possible that some other
person would be hired to fill his shoes. But be that as it may, it doesn’t relieve Jentsch of his moral obligations to nonhumans, and no-one ought to rely on economic arguments of supply and demand to give
him a moral pass.

Finally, as far as whether these actions “damage the movement”, one would first have to define the movement and then offer some qualitative or quantitative analysis as to what constitutes “damage”. As it stands, my intuition tells me that for as many people who will now, as a result of this case, consider the movement “extreme” or “violent”, there will be just as many who at last recognize the seriousness of what is at stake. The commitment of some, as is evidenced by their risking criminal prosecution and incarceration, to the hard work of pointing out the essential wrong in exploiting others, should not be maligned. Unwise as most of us might think these kinds of reactions by activists to this pervasive violence against nonhumans are, it is even more unwise for committed animal advocates to adopt the same pose of moral indignation
as do the exploiters against these expressions of frustration, hopelessness, anger and desperation on the part of sincere actors. In the face of overwhelming violence against the most vulnerable, carried out under the auspices of our most revered and respected institutions, it is understandable that some may react violently against it.

While I do not support, endorse or promote violence, neither will I condemn those who fight it. There are plenty of people – animal exploiters, journalists, government agents and, sadly, even some moral philosophers – who will do that. I’ll leave them to that sorry task.

Go vegan.

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Comment by Brandon Becker on December 13, 2010 at 8:15

Thanks for pointing the confusing corporate media reports, red dog. The mulesing protest pictured in the CNN report is by the group Animal Libertion (New South Wales) in Australia. I regularly see the corporate media confuse the ALF and the Animal Liberation Press Office, but confusing the ALF with mainstream groups who do demos in city streets is a new level of confusion!

Comment by red dog on December 7, 2010 at 11:55
You make many good points here. At least the CNN report is more accurate than an AP report that came out around the same time--it confused the ALF, the press office and the anonymous individuals who sent Jentsch the message. It's also good that there's some discussion of why people are angry with Jentsch.

But look at the picture CNN ran with this story. It's completely irrelevant to the Jentsch incident and inaccurately suggests that the ALF organized an anti-mulesing protest that was almost certainly the work of PETA. Very, very out of place.


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