The Absurdity Of Criticizing “Triage”

Elaine responded to a recent blog post at L.O.V.E. entitled “Holistic veganism,” arguing that she prioritizes “triage” in her vegan activism, which she conceives of as follows:

I choose to focus my energy on the areas where I think I’ll do the most good/prevent the most harm.

In a post titled “The absurdity of ‘triage’ and the need for social change,” Ida challenged Elaine.

By definition…triage takes place after the harm has already happened, and is therefore incapable of dealing with the cause of that harm.

Ida uses the example of the television show M.A.S.H. to make her point.

…no matter how many soldiers the doctors saved, the wounded just kept coming in. This is because the doctors doing triage were working within the system.

Elaine’s approach, it is argued, is a response to effects (i.e., the harm caused by oppression), and fails to address the causes of the oppression that results in harm. Surely this is descriptively true, but Ida is making a normative claim that is disputable by stretching the M.A.S.H. analogy.

The necessity of physicians in the Armed Forces is an effect of exigencies: in war, the wounded need medical attention. Physicians, then, are responding to a need within a system replete with needs. These other needs will be responded to by other individuals. In the war analogy one such need is a challenge to the systems that makes war itself a necessity. There are multiple fronts responding to a heterogeneity of needs. Doctors aid the critical, those in direct need of having their bodily harm pacified or healed. This is their front.

What would Ida have these physicians do? Indeed, they aren’t challenging the “war machine” that causes the harm, but they are responding to a significant need nonetheless. This response can’t reasonably be challenged ethically. Physicians don’t take the harm for granted, quite the opposite. They simply don’t theorize whether or not the harm should exist in the first place because that isn’t the need they are responding to. A reasonable argument could be made that these physicians, because they see and directly respond to the harm, are the best placed to effect further changes down the line; to the level of some ultimate cause. (This begs the question for Ida and others: What is the ultimate cause? You label it oppression, exploitation, or violence, but these are all reducible to other causes: economics, ideology, religion, biology. Which are in turn reducible yet again.)

The same is true in the animal rights movement. There are different fronts: some will respond directly to the harm, while others will challenge it indirectly by criticizing the inner workings of the machine. Ida seems to imply that Elaine is accomplishing her primary aim (i.e., working to prevent harm) because she instead shifts the focus to the causes of the effect. This, of course, assumes that Elaine’s method doesn’t go to this end as well, which is dubious at best. It is an empirical matter that seems to be the crux of many anti-”welfarist” groups. Ida needs to present evidence that Elaine’s campaigns don’t result in challenging the causes of the harm. I know Elaine would disagree forcefully.

Ida’s latter dispute with “triage hierarchies” reveals her quixotism. She writes,

In the “triage” framework, some forms of exploitation are seen as the “worst abuses” – such as battery cages or crates – some are written off completely – honey bees, for example – and others we are told can wait – like so-called “free-range” operations.

Triage is necessary because in reality we are dealing with finite resources. Physicians on the battlefield must construct hierarchies because externalities demand it. Otherwise the result would be ineffectiveness. Likewise in the animal rights movement. People who are located differently within the battle as it were have resources that can be exhausted. Therefore, they must necessarily address something specific and this will place it above others on the practical scale. Since Elaine is responding directly to harm it follows that she ought to evaluate different harms and challenge the most extreme.

Ida doesn’t seem to recognize this and I think it is because she relies on a philosophical slide. She assumes that Elaine’s practical decision is actually normative. That doesn’t follow. Elaine is not grouping beings on a normative scale of “importance,” she is addressing the amount of harm caused to these beings. There also isn’t a normative element that suggests other harms are acceptable. They are simply less severe than X and Y. Harm is the analytic focus. The normative claim is that harm is bad, which isn’t disputable because it seems to be the first premise of the animal rights (and human rights) movement. Elaine is forced to make practical evaluations given her position within the opposition movement. Again, she is responding to certain needs.

Ida ends with,

Social change starts with believing another world is possible. “Triage” belongs to the world we wish to leave behind.

I don’t think Elaine would disagree. I certainly don’t. However, the physician performing triage in war shouldn’t leave helpless, suffering, and dying people on the battlefield without aid because she prefers to re-imagine the world in which all this harm never happened in the first place. That isn’t the need she is responding to.

Crossposted @ That Vegan Girl

4 Responses to The Absurdity Of Criticizing “Triage”

  1. We’re all on the same team. For the most part I agree with the LOVE people and the Vegan Ideal people. There’s room for all of us.

  2. not supporting “triage” is a little Hitler-esque. In essence they are only selecting the perfect to push the movement forward. No time for those that got wounded or escaped the battle. weird.

    Yes, we need to prevent the cruelty in the first place. nobody will argue that. However, to intentionally neglect those that are trapped in a life of suffering and pain is horrifying. It is also in the life stories of these survivors or “veterans” of animal agriculture, vivisection or the entertainment industry that the general population gets a glimpse or better understanding of the horror of their experience and begins to feel compassion.

  3. Reading these posts, my impression is that you are all missing the most simple, obvious point. Basically, the whole point of the first article (Absurdity of Triage) was basically saying that the root cause of the problem is human greed, sloth & ignorance (perhaps other things as well) and that treating the symptoms of these problems (uncomfortable, injust consquences of this greed, sloth & ignorance) is not ideal (perhaps not even susteinable) in the long run. A much easier, less complicated example is a child who cannot see well & runs into things, bruising her knees & shins. Does it make sense to only treat the child’s sprains? Does it not make sense to give the child glasses, so that she will no longer incurr the more superficial bruisings? This is the point of the article. It is all very simple.

  4. I don’t think you’ve captured the intent of the original article Marie. Ida made an explicit normative judgment about “triage” (a straw man at that because she was commenting on Elaine’s comment, which didn’t claim “triage” to be “ideal”). I challenged this by illuminating the objective necessity of these types of interventions (“triage”) given the complexity and pervasiveness of the problem.

    I then argued that Ida’s most promising argument is on the empirical matter: is “triage” successful for realizing the end it is designed to realize (as part of an overall method of protest). That answer is open, but what is not open, and this is my third point, is that Ida’s implicit normative judgment is absurd on another level because those who perform “triage” can’t be reasonably criticized as unethical.

    Your analogy Maria is quixotic, and a nice premise for an obvious straw man. It doesn’t follow given the context.
    .-= Alex´s last blog ..Some hypocrisy =-.

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