Frans de Waal’s Ethical Arguments Need Clarification

In a recent perspective, Professor Frans de Waal argues that chimpanzees deserve “special moral status.”  The statement comes on the heels of a recent report by the Institute of Medicine who proposed strict criteria on the use of chimps on biomedical research.

According to de Waal there are compelling ethical reasons to ban all invasive work on chimps, but he argues that one should “not throw out the baby with the bathwater by also curtailing non-harmful behavioral research” as well.  He defines ethically permissible research in chimps as “the sort of research I would not mind doing on human volunteers.”

While Prof. de Waal ought to be applauded for sharing his views on the use of chimps in scientific research, I think he moves too fast through weak and vague ethical reasoning to reach his main conclusion.

Opponents of animal research, for example, are likely to point out his definition of ethically permissible research should read instead “the sort of research [one] would not mind doing on human volunteers who also agree to live in captivity in the same conditions as the chimps.” 

They will also point out that human subjects that volunteer in scientific research, whether invasive or behavioral, provide their informed consent.  Moreover, human subjects retain a right to withdraw their participation at any point in time, and they are never deprived from their liberties and freedom.  Opponents of research will further argue harm comes to these animals by the mere fact they are forced to live in captivity.

It is unclear how de Waal would defend his work from the stated position in his perspective. Perhaps the “special moral status” de Waal wants to grant to chimps and other great apes is not meant to be interpreted as including the same basic rights to liberty and freedom as those enjoyed by humans.  If so, he should state this clearly.  His position is vague and confusing because in the same perspective he seems to approve some countries granting great apes legal rights.

There are other problems that emerge from de Waal ill-articulated ethical position.  He states the basis for awarding great apes special moral status is based on their high cognitive skills, as well as their capacity to display empathy and pro-social behavior. At the same time he believes the same intrinsic properties are present in varying degrees in other species – there are many differences between chimps and monkeys in cognitive capacities, but we consider them mostly gradual differences.” Given such graded abilities it is not clear how de Waal would draw a line between those species that deserve such “special moral status” and those that do not.  Or if there are other morally relevant properties that he did not mention.

Finally, I think de Waal correctly points out that humans should not be allowed to blame nature to explain our history of violence, warfare, and male dominance.  The reason is that only humans are capable of reflecting on the question of how is that we should treat others, including non-human living beings.  Yes, we have a moral obligation to consider the interest of other living beings in our actions.  But, as Carl Cohen explained, we should not confuse our moral obligations to other living beings with them having basic rights. Rights entail obligations, but the reverse is not always true.

There is wide agreement (and I concur) that the interests of great apes deserve high moral consideration, more so than those of a mouse or a worm. But it is worth noting that such principle of graded moral status is already implicitly acknowledged in the NIH guidelines which require scientists to use the “lowest” possible species that can yield the information they seek.  In this regard, the IoM panel finding that there is only a minimal need to use chimps in scientific research is not a truly reflection of their inadequacy to model disease (chimps could certainly be used in many studies to answer good scientific questions), but of our existing recognition that they deserve high moral status and that they can only be used under the most  extreme circumstances.

2 responses to “Frans de Waal’s Ethical Arguments Need Clarification

  1. There also remains a good deal of misunderstanding regarding human vs. animal research, particularly around the issue of voluntary consent. Many say that this is the crucial distinction between animals and humans – namely, that humans agree to participate in research and animals do not.

    If that distinction was such a bright line, one would not need IRBs (Institutional Review Boards). All you would need is a contract that could be signed by an individual to deliver his or her consent.

    Nevertheless, we know that there are many ways consent may not be particularly voluntary and/or that the decision-making process happened in an uncorrupted manner.

    First is the issue of compensation. Human subjects could well, as a function of their personal finances, accept involvement in an experiment that causes them deep distress due to the monetary reward.

    Second, individuals may agree to participate in an experiment because they want to please their doctor who recommends it, or a family member.

    And perhaps most importantly, people with cognitive or other mental problems may find it virtually impossible to make a reasoned decision about whether to involve themselves in research – that is the nature of their disease and is the reason scientists need to study them!

    In all cases of human research, an IRB examines the proposed research with an eye for issues like this. It makes a decision ON BEHALF of the subject as to whether the research should be allowed to proceed, or not.

    In ethical decision-making, we often use by-proxy review to assist the system. It is no different with animal research.

    Institutional animal care and use committees serve nearly the identical role to the IRB. It questions, on behalf of the subjects and of science, whether the protocol is meritorious and is being conducted in manner consistent with our ethical principles.

    In human and animal research alike, we rely upon individuals of good-will and expertise (both in and outside of the scientific community) to offer their insights into a process where voluntary consent is rarely clear and is never quite the bright line standard some lead us to believe.

  2. Good points David about research involving people who cannot give informed consent. An important category is babies and young children, who are incapable of giving informed consent (as children mature their ability to consent increases – though considerable judgment is required to assess this capability) and for whom consent must be given by a parent or guardian, for example the brain cooling studies we discussed in 2009

    Another category for which informed consent cannot often be obtained is for trials of new treatments in emergancy medicine, where the nature of the injury (for example stroke or head injury) itself renders the patient incapable of giving their consent. In such cases where there is a short window of opportunity for starting the therapy consent can be waived (subject to IRB approval) if it is not possible to contact a proxy to give consent in time. Needless to say these trials do often involve invasive procedures and risk to the patient.

    Interestingly an IOM panel recently published a report on the ethics of research on prisoners, a population whose restricted liberty raised profound ethical questions with regard to informed consent

    It does strike me that Franz De Waals views on what is acceptable in research involving chimpanzees is somewhat blinkered, overly focused on his own field. He might consider “cognitive testing, trained giving of (small) blood samples, behavioral observation, and voluntary neuroimaging.” to be tha procedures that he “would not mind doing on human volunteers”, but he must acknowledge that there are thousands of clinical scientists who need to do far more invasive and risky procedures on human volunteers, and even in some situations on humans who cannot volunteer. While I fully agree that chimpanzees should be the animal model of last resort – as the IOM panel rcommended in its guidelines – Franz de Waal appears to suggest that Chimpanzees receive a greater degree of protection than some human subjects. He’s also far too optimistic about the potential for voluntary neuroimaging in chimps, stating that it is “likely to be developed in the near future”. This just isn’t true, and for the next decade – at the very least – some degree of sedation and/or restraint will still be required in order to conduct neuroimaging studies in apes.

    There’s also the issue of the testing of vaccines for diseases such as Ebola virus which are devestating wild great ape populations. Such vaccines are increasingly considered necessary to ensure the survival of several great ape species in the wild, and will need to be evaluated for safety and immunogenicity in chimpanzees (having demonstrated the ability to block infection in other animal models) before being trialed in wild populations. Clearly a vloanke ban in all invasive research in chimpanzees would not be a good idea at this stage.