Why you might work to improve the very thing you’d rather blow up

Interviewed by Terry Gross a couple of weeks ago, veterinarian Vint Virga said something about reforming zoos that I thought had relevance for reforming, well, anything.

Virga said he didn’t care for zoos. I got the impression he’d rather they did not exist because, in his view, they don’t improve the welfare of animals, in general. At one time, he contemplated not working for zoos. But he does. Why? Because zoos aren’t going away any faster if he doesn’t work for them. As such, he feels that he would do more harm to animal welfare by not doing so. The animal care techniques he discovers and implements improve the conditions of animals within zoos, but not to the extent their conditions would improve if zoos didn’t exist at all.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Whether or how to engage with an institution (like zoos) or policy area (like Medicaid or CIA interrogation techniques) that one may find broadly distasteful or fundamentally, structurally flawed is something many of us face. In the hopes of speeding its demise, one could protest and boycott, withholding expertise that might lead to marginal improvements. A related variant is proposing radically different, yet, to one’s point of view, far better alternatives. This makes sense to the extent one’s protest or radical proposals will really change things. One has to ask oneself: Honestly, will they? That depends on who one is, perhaps, as well as a host of unknowable factors—the alignment of the political and cultural stars. What if the most likely outcome is no effect, maintenance of the status quo? Oops.

Another approach is to engage in an effort to make small, more attainable improvements. This is distinct from supporting the enterprise or policy in general, but it could have the effect of making it work better, solidifying its legitimacy. Is that a distinction with or without a difference? If one can indeed make small improvements, it’s better than the status quo, but far worse than a (possibly unattainable) counterfactual world in which the institution or policy is killed outright or replaced with something very different. It’s going for a local optimum rather than the global one that’s out of reach.

Research should and can be scientific. Policy change could be evidence-informed. But whether and precisely how to engage, how far to push, and on what, is more of an art. It confronts politics and culture, even religion and ethics. The judgement of our community is relevant. What will your friends, family, and colleagues think? Have you sufficiently demonstrated your distaste for policy X, institution Y, and fealty to vision Z to remain in their good graces?

Do we attempt the more achievable goal of making the habitat a bit more comfortable? Or do we go for the far less likely outcome of tearing down zoos’ walls? In contemplating such questions, I doubt there’s anything that can guide us any more reliably than our own conscience.


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