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.