Humanists should be careful not to confuse what ought and what is, says Jeremy Stangroom
Human beings are very good at believing things to be true just because they want them to be true. In some ways, this is a useful ability. For example, the belief that one will beat a normally deadly cancer is helpful if one is undergoing the painful chemotherapy required to give one any chance of survival at all. However, when it comes to our ability to discern the truth about the world, to assess evidence and argument according to the dictates of rational enquiry, our tendency to engage in wishful thinking is no help whatsoever. Consider, for example, the part that it plays in the currently high profile debate over animal rights and vivisection. It is perfectly possible to object to animal experimentation on moral grounds: for example, one might hold that all life is sacred and that it should always be preserved. However, it is much more difficult to argue that animal experimentation is unnecessary because it has no scientific benefit. Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council (MRC), points out that: "Every drug, every form of advanced surgery, nearly every antibiotic, nearly every vaccine the development of them all has at some stage involved animal testing every pain killer; every treatment for heart disease, kidney disease and cancer; chemotherapy; radiotherapy; surgical techniques; bypass surgery; open heart surgery you name it, animals were involved in the research."
Yet the line taken by many anti-vivisectionists is precisely that animal research has little, if any, medical benefit. For example, the 'Bad Science' page on the anti-vivisectionist website SPEAK carries the headline 'Using primates kills people'. Reading on, it is revealed that 70,000 people in England each year are killed or disabled by drugs that have been tested on animals.
It is easy enough to demolish this kind of argument. Whilst it is true that whenever a drug is associated with a bad outcome, then animal testing will have been part of its development (because all drugs are tested on animals), it is also true that we judge that the risks associated with powerful drugs are worth it, that we would be worse off in terms of deaths and injuries had there been no animal testing and that, in general, we are overwhelmingly better off as a result of drugs that have been developed using vivisection.
But what is more interesting than the easily countered details of the arguments employed by anti-vivisectionists is the neat correspondence that they set up between the wished-for and the real; that is, between the almost visceral desire for a world where there is no animal experimentation, and the claim that by happy coincidence our world does not reward animal experimentation. This kind of wishful thinking short-circuits the necessity to engage in the messy and complicated arguments about morality and the relative value of human and animal life. It constitutes both intellectual and moral cowardice.
There is an interesting contrast here with the position of the vivisectionists. They too desire a world without animal experimentation, but recognise that it is not available unless we forego medical benefits. Here's Blakemore again: "If there are alternatives, let's see them. We want them. I don't know of a single person who uses animals in their research, who wouldn't rather use an alternative."
Of course, it isn't just anti-vivisectionists who engage in wishful thinking. In fact, it would be hard to overstate the prevalence of the phenomenon. But perhaps we shouldn't worry about it too much. It is possible, after all, that it just doesn't matter. The trouble is that it does matter if we value truth.
Consider, for instance, the recent history of the social sciences. It is replete with examples of the childish desire to reconstruct the world through the filter of political, ideological and moral commitments. Marxist theorists, for example, spent a large part of the 20th century falling over each other trying to explain why revolution hadn't occurred quite yet; sociologists, desperate to detach human behaviour from biology, spent their time jumping through hoops in order to explain away data that suggested that at least some human attributes and behaviour are inherited; and anthropologists, even today, in the name of resisting Western hegemony, happily grant epistemological privilege to local and 'situated' 'knowledges'.
Humanists do not escape the charge of wishful thinking. It ill behoves them to sneer at the wishful thinking of creationists like Phillip Gosse, for example, who supposed that science could be reconciled with a literal reading of the Bible, whilst they remain committed to the view that it is and will always be possible to reconcile the human-centred aspects of humanism with what science teaches us about the natural world and our place in it. The jury is still out on whether the concepts central to this humanist world view, such as free will, moral responsibility and the idea of human progress will survive the increases in knowledge that science brings. To suppose otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.
Perhaps, as with believing you will survive your cancer, it is an act of understandable optimism which has some utitlity, but it is no less wishful thinking for that. It is just another example of the way in which ideological, moral and political commitments tend to infect the judgements that we make about the world.