Extending a Public Conversation on the Ethics of Animal Research

The following is commentary by Prof. Robert Streiffer on a previous post by Dario Ringach. It was originally published on a UW-Madison website but  was subsequently removed.  It is being republished here with his permission, with Dario’s reply to it being published on SR tomorrow.

On March 11, 2013, Rick Marolt and I engaged in a public conversation about the ethics of animal research. Dario Ringach, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UCLA and contributor to the blog, Speaking of Research, posted an entry with questions and comments about the exchange. I wanted to take this opportunity to extend the public conversation by responding to Professor Ringach. I appreciate Ringach’s attention to our exchange on this significant issue, but some of his criticisms are based on misinterpretations of what I said, and so I welcome this opportunity to clarify my remarks (some of which were probably quite cryptic), respond to some of his criticisms, highlight areas where he and I agree, and acknowledge one issue where I overstated my concern. (I should note that I am only considering Ringach’s remarks as they concern my part of the conversation.)

Ringach’s comments relevant to my remarks are in the sections of his post entitled “The good,” The curious”, “Mind the gap,” “the bad,” and “the inconsistent,” and I will address them in that order.

The Good
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for Ringach’s expression of support for the event. I think that engaging in this kind of public dialogue about the ethics of animal research helps overcome the polarization of the debate, and helps improve peoples’ understanding of both the scientific and ethical aspects of animal research. In addition, participating in these kinds of public discussions is a core part of the service component of my job as a professor at a public university. So, I am grateful for Ringach’s supportive words on this point.

The Curious:
Ringach is puzzled by the fact that Marolt and I spent such a long time discussing utilitarianism. I agree that the discussion of utilitarianism went on for too long. The intention was to start with utilitarianism and then to spend more time exploring other frameworks. However, contrary to what Ringach claims, we did not assume that scientists are always utilitarians, or that the only justification for animal research must appeal to utilitarianism. First, I noted that most people who support animal research think that utilitarianism does not correctly capture our obligations to human beings. Second, I pointed out that even though supporters of animal research sometimes describe themselves as utilitarians-when-it comes-to-animals-but-rights-theorists-when-it comes-to human-beings (whom I refer to as “hybrid utilitarians”), they are probably not accurately characterizing their own views. For example, I expect that when they reflect on their obligations to their own pets, they probably believe that there are ways in which it would be wrong to treat their pets even though doing so would maximize utility.

Nonetheless, both utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism are commonly invoked or are implicitly presupposed in attempts to justify animal research, and so do merit discussion.

As an example of one non-utilitarian view, Ringach’s cites his own article, “The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research.” The “sliding-scale” framework he presents there is certainly not utilitarian. It accords rights to individuals that are “able to participate as autonomous rational agents in our moral community,” it accords a higher degree of moral status to individuals with a higher degree of “cognitive, affective, and social complexity” (although he later modifies the framework so that an individual’s moral status is affected by his or her relational properties), and it requires that the interests of individuals with a higher moral status be given priority over the interests of individuals with a lower degree of moral status. But Ringach never specifies how the sliding-scale framework adjudicates a conflict of interest between individuals who don’t have rights and who possess the same degree of moral status, and so, for all he has said, the sliding-scale framework could still take a utilitarian form with respect to such conflicts. If it does, such a framework would still be subject to a concern similar to the one I raised about utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism.

That concern notwithstanding, I highly recommend Ringach’s article as a presentation of the pro-animal-research position. It is one of the few papers by a scientist that explicitly and concisely explores not just several of the empirical aspects of the debate but also many of the philosophical aspects as well. And I certainly endorse Ringach’s call for more scientists to publicly discuss their views on the science and ethics of animal research rather than to leave it to others to speculate and hypothesize about what their views are.

Mind the Gap
Ringach is correct that discussing examples of actual research that Marolt would find ethical would have helpfully highlighted some common ground and led to a more productive and balanced discussion. I will try to keep this in mind for future reference.

I would note, though, that this point needs to be applied in a fair way: many animal researchers are reluctant to publicly discuss examples of actual research that they find unethical, even though doing so would also help highlight common ground and lead to more productive and balanced discussions. For example, Ringach’s article which I mentioned above never acknowledges any actual examples of unethical animal research.

The Bad
In this section, Ringach presents what appears to be his most pressing concern. It stems from my concurrence with Marolt’s view that, if all a study does is produce knowledge for a researcher or a community of researchers without that knowledge ever ultimately leading to any further benefits, then the knowledge produced is not a very significant benefit. Ringach says that this view, which he inaccurately summarizes in the words “knowledge is not a significant benefit,” is an “insult to reason” that betrays a misunderstanding of the scientific process and a failure to appreciate negative results in science. Ringach thinks that this view implies that I must not see much value in abstract mathematics, space exploration, physics, or astronomy, and that I must be “oblivious” to the fact that basic research has led to many medical imaging technologies.

I won’t speak for Marolt, but Ringach’s concerns here regarding what I said are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the two key points I was making and ignores almost the entirety of what I said regarding them. I therefore welcome this opportunity to clarify and expand on my views.

The first key point I was making is that there is a distinction between knowledge and benefit per se and that research, in the first instance, produces knowledge, not benefit. The phrases “in the first instance” and “per se” are important here. While knowledge often leads to benefits, research can produce knowledge without producing any benefit at all. However, this conceptual point does not imply that research that does not produce benefits is not valuable, as there is also a distinction between the concept of a benefit, which I take to be an improvement in individual well-being, and the more general concept of value. It is thus perfectly consistent to say that something is not itself a benefit and that it does not lead to benefits while maintaining that it is nonetheless valuable. Indeed, I explicitly stated that there are significant kinds of knowledge worth spending a fair bit of money on even if they do not actually improve anyone’s well-being.

Nor do these conceptual points imply that basic research has not led to many beneficial technologies. I even mentioned one of Ringach’s examples, space exploration, saying that although it is often used as a stock example of research that doesn’t produce improvements in individuals’ well-being, it actually has produced all kinds of ancillary benefits, and that funding it would be justified even if it hadn’t. Marolt and I did not discuss the other examples of abstract mathematics, etc., but I would make the same two points about those. They often produce benefits in unanticipated ways, and they can be justified by the value of the knowledge they produce even if they did not in fact produce improvements in individual well-being.

However, the second key point I made is that, when one is evaluating research that harms and kills animals, the moral threshold is higher than it is with other academic pursuits: that kind of research cannot be justified merely on the grounds that it produces knowledge if that knowledge is “totally unrelated to anything practical” (by which I meant “totally unrelated to improving individual well-being”). Ringach’s objections to this point, examples of basic research leading to medical imaging technology, are logically irrelevant, since the basic research that led to their development was not totally unrelated to anything practical: it ultimately led to beneficial technologies. None of Ringach’s examples are of the right form to constitute an objection to either of the two key points I was making at this point in the dialogue.

In my remarks, I also acknowledged the difficulty in evaluating, before the fact, whether specific animal research will be related to improvements in individual well-being. Even if some animal research, tragically, didn’t result in any knowledge at all, that alone wouldn’t show that the original decision to pursue the research was unjustified. In some cases, it would have been reasonable at the onset of the research to think it would ultimately contribute to benefits significant enough to justify the research, even if eventually it did not.

I do agree that I was overly dismissive of what can be learned from poorly designed experiments or experiments that fail to produce the intended knowledge. I am appreciative of the audience member who pressed me on this during the Q&A, at which point I did concede that one can learn something even from poorly designed or unsuccessful experiments and that both positive and negative results can lead to benefits. However, I’ve never heard of an IACUC approving research that involves harming and killing animals, when they believe the research to be poorly designed or believe that it would not produce the intended knowledge, merely in the hopes that we might learn something useful. So I don’t think that this concession has much practical import.

The Inconsistent
Ringach notes that I voted against Ned Kalin’s protocol on the grounds that the value of the data did not justify the harms to the animals, especially given other research avenues that would also benefit those suffering from anxiety disorders, even though they would not directly answer Kalin’s specific scientific question. But Ringach wonders how it is then consistent for me to also acknowledge, as I did, that I didn’t fully understand the details of the analyses the researchers were going to perform on the brain tissue of the moneys to establish the molecular pathways involved in anxiety.

Perhaps I am missing Ringach’s point, but it seems to me that there is no inconsistency here at all. Given what Kalin and the other scientists on the Committees said, it seemed reasonable for me to defer to their expertise and assume that the protocol’s proposed analyses would establish which molecular pathways were involved in anxiety. I then had to decide how important I considered that knowledge to be. Just as I don’t need to fully understand how Google Maps produces its maps to evaluate how useful they are, I also don’t need to fully understand how Kalin was going to answer his scientific question to have a view about its importance. I think this is often the situation with individual IACUC members, both scientists and non-scientists alike: they don’t need to understand every single scientific detail of the methods to have a reasonable and informed opinion about the significant of the anticipated findings. (Of course, the committee as a whole needs to have, or have access to, sufficient expertise to evaluate scientific validity of the protocols they review.)

In closing, I appreciate Ringach’s contribution to this particular discussion as well as his work encouraging public dialogue more generally, and I hope that my responses here further advance the discussion.

Robert Streiffer, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy
University of Wisconsin, Madison

2 responses to “Extending a Public Conversation on the Ethics of Animal Research

  1. I’d be interested to know exactly what Robert Streiffer means by “individual’s well being”, which isn’t clearly defined at any point. He writes:

    ” Ringach’s objections to this point, examples of basic research leading to medical imaging technology, are logically irrelevant, since the basic research that led to their development was not totally unrelated to anything practical: it ultimately led to beneficial technologies. ”

    But surely this misses the key point that Dario Ringach was making; that the use of the knowledge gained through the basic research described to develop beneficial technologies was not anticipated at the time when that research was done. When the research in question was being done it was – so far as the people funding, authorizing and doing it were concerned – “totally unrelated to anything practical”.

    The discussion tends towards what I like to think of as the “tyranny of the breakthrough”, by which I mean the expectation that basic research will lead in a fairly direct and self-evident way to a practical advance, for example a new therapy. While this does of course happen it really doesn’t reflect the reality of how most science really works, though of course such cases make great material for discussion in blogs and newspapers. In reality most basic research studies provide just a part of the evidence that ultimately results in a new therapy, one more piece of a complex jigsaw, and often they essentially provide background information on a multitude of processes that may or may not impact on the process that medical researchers wish to target. Such studies may not be very sexy, but they are crucial to advancing science as a whole, with scores or hundreds of studies providing the underpinning for the few “breakthrough” studies that everyone remembers. Requiring that every animal study should have the potential to lead to an important practical advance may be a crowd pleaser in this short-termist age, but it would be a very dangerous road for science to travel down.