Let's Think for Ourselves [About Justifying Vivisection]

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Let's Think for Ourselves [About Justifying Vivisection]

[Ed. Note: Please visit our directories Alternatives to Animal Testing and Animal Experimentation - Frequently Asked Questions to get clarity about the cruelty, wasted dollars and oftentimes detriments to human health caused by animal experimentation. And also visit Stop Animal Exploitation Now's Laboratory Animal Facilities directory to see the kinds and numbers of animals abused in laboratories.]

By Rick Marolt, Primate Freedom
April 2011

If we accepted the conclusions of five hundred organized physicians, veterinarians and medical scientists in Germany, experiments on non-human animals would be stopped for both ethical and scientific reasons.

“As long as I don’t hurt you too much, then it’s OK for me to use you for the possibility of selfish benefits to myself.” This statement does not demonstrate moral reasoning; it describes cruel exploitation of the weak minority by the powerful majority.

A shared intuition about our superiority does not justify cruel and selfish treatment of members of other species any more than prejudice against members of other human races justifies it.

Last summer, a resolution to create a Citizens Advisory Panel to study the ethics and treatment of monkeys in laboratories in Madison was introduced to the Dane County Board of Supervisors. Researcher David O’Connor argued before the Executive Committee of the Board that the study was unnecessary because a working group in England had declared in 2006 that experimenting on monkeys was ethical. After the Board voted not to withdraw the resolution from committee, effectively “killing” the resolution, the new director of the National Primate Research Center at UW-Madison, Jon Levine, said: “Those driving this resolution issue simply don’t like the conclusions drawn in previous discussions — that biomedical research involving the humane use of animal subjects is ethical.”

These statements rest on two fallacies. Or more.

First, they assume that a conclusion drawn about an issue elsewhere in the world should be accepted by the citizens of Dane County. If this assumption were valid, then research done by Ned Kalin and Richie Davidson in UW-Madison’s monkey labs would probably be considered unethical and illegal. Switzerland’s constitution requires researchers to consider the dignity of non-human animals, and a Swiss court has ruled that certain kinds of experiments on monkeys’ brains are illegal. If we accepted the conclusions of five hundred organized physicians, veterinarians and medical scientists in Germany, experiments on non-human animals would be stopped for both ethical and scientific reasons.

Case closed. At least certain experiments on monkeys are unethical. But I doubt that David O’Connor and Jon Levine will accept that conclusion.

The more important fallacy lies in the Weatherall Report itself, to which O’Connor referred in his public comments. Most of the report’s 149 pages deal with scientific issues. There is a section on animal welfare. The main ethical question, which is not discussed until page 123, takes up all of eight pages.

This statement appears early in that section:

Justification of research depends on comparing any suffering caused to animals with the probable benefits to our own species.

Here’s a problem. The authors assume a strange kind of utilitarianism as the appropriate ethical framework. Unfortunately, some people do not find this framework strange because, having heard it many times, they have become habituated to it. And their self-interest interferes with their moral reasoning. But consider the quoted sentence paraphrased: “As long as I don’t hurt you too much, then it’s OK for me to use you for the possibility of selfish benefits to myself.” This statement does not demonstrate moral reasoning; it describes cruel exploitation of the weak minority by the powerful majority.

Here is the main problem with the discussion of ethics in the Weatherall Report:

The ‘Hospital Fire’ thought experiment

Suppose a major teaching hospital is on fire. As well as the full range of medical specialities treating patients of different ages (with differing life expectancies, quality of life and many other distinguishing features), the hospital also contains other life forms: visitors, health professionals, an animal house (including non-human primates), a maternity and assisted reproductive technology unit with stored embryos and gametes, and – inevitably – the hospital pet cat. For the very fastidious there are also live plants on many of the window ledges and live bacteria and viruses, both in vitro and in the bodies of patients and staff. How are we to prioritise rescue for all these different life forms with differing needs and capacities? And more precisely, how can we work out morally defensible priorities for rescue?

The ‘hospital fire’ thought experiment shows that without knowing (or needing to know) the theoretical basis or ethical justification, almost all humans intuitively make important distinctions about the moral importance of different living things. Most moral theories and traditions provide a combination of evidence and argument that supports and explains these intuitions, purporting to demonstrate why it is morally right and rationally required to make such distinctions, and morally wrong, or even culpable, not to do so.

  1. Humans generally, and almost universally, accord a lower priority to all animals than they accord to any humans (which means, inter alia, that they believe it right to save humans before animals).
  2. Humans think it is morally required to sacrifice the lives of animals to save human life (consistency then requires that they should do so – other things being equal – in medical research, as well as in hospital fires).

Humans do not always make these distinctions based on species prejudice, i.e. in favour of members of our own species, but based on an analysis or theory about what justifies such distinctions, which is race, gender and species neutral.

The hospital fire experiment is of course not a perfect analogy for animal research, but it does illustrate two important points. The first is that there are differences in value or in moral importance between different types of individual. The second is that ideas of value or moral importance (however analysed) make intuitive sense. The example assumes that competent human beings are a paradigm case of individuals with the highest moral importance, i.e. that if any types of beings have value, then such humans do. Of course it may be that there is some degree of special pleading to this argument and that any species, if it could, would give itself the highest moral priority. Be that as it may, the fact is that almost all human beings do see humans as having a special moral status.

This reasoning suffers from the logical fallacy of begging the question. It assumes that people have moral superiority and then concludes that people have moral superiority. A shared intuition about our superiority does not justify cruel and selfish treatment of members of other species any more than prejudice against members of other human races justifies it.

I have a moral intuition that the members of my family are more important than the members of David O’Connor’s family, but I don’t think that imprisoning O’Connors, giving them diseases, damaging their brains, and killing them would be ethical just because I (and others) might benefit from doing it. Isn’t it possible to have an intuition or feeling about a hierarchy of value, but still respect those on rungs that are perceived as lower? Or must we exploit them? Is moral superiority not actually an argument for demonstrating more virtue and compassion in our treatment of others?

The Weatherall Report then briefly discusses other factors that might be relevant to the moral status of monkeys. Sometimes, the discussion seems balanced to me; other times, it seems biased. There are some gems of flawed reasoning in it. Consider this one:

In the case of non-human primates, if it is right to claim that they have a different moral status to human beings then a balance must be struck between their interests and the interests of the humans who might benefit from the proposed research. The test of the justifiability of research with non-human primates is therefore whether (or not) the research is justifiable when the costs to the non-human primates are set against the benefits to humans; informed consent is simply not the relevant issue.

Paraphrase: If people think they are superior to monkeys, then it’s OK to harm and kill monkeys for the possibility of selfish benefit to ourselves, but only as long as the benefits to *us* exceed the *harm* to them. Does it not strike you as strange that the formula used to justify experiments on monkeys weighs the benefits to one party against the harms to another party? A thousand dollars would help me. But it’s ethical for me to take it from you only as long as the injury I cause you when I bop you over the head is worth less than a thousand dollars?

Here’s another gem:

We accept, for reasons identified elsewhere in this report, the importance of well- founded scientific research that will, with high probability, be of serious benefit to human beings.

Since the authors rely on a utilitarian claim of ethical action, it’s important to question this claim of high probability. Empirical evidence — and the opinions of two UW-Madison researchers (Paul Kaufman and Eric Sandgren) — suggest that the probability that an experiment in basic science will produce any benefits to people is very low. So what can we make of this rationalization?

In short, the discussion of morality in the Weatherall Report is very unsophisticated.

Oh, there’s one more problem with the Weatherall Report. It was sponsored by four organizations, which, as far as I can tell, all support experiments on non-human animals. No wonder some sections of the report seem biased to me.

So I ask again: Why not let the good citizens of Dane County have their own discussion?