Lori Gruen on the Ethical Justification of Animal Research Experiments

Prof. Lori Gruen gave an interesting talk this week at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on Animal Research and the Limits of Medicine.  You can watch her presentation and discussion here.

She appealed to those engaged in animal research to offer a more detailed explanation of how the cost and benefits of individual experiments are assessed, while insisting that ethical permissibility also requires passing a “non-speciesist test.”  In other words, scientists must be willing to perform the same experiments proposed on cognitively impaired humans with comparable cognitive abilities than the species under consideration.

Prof. Gruen offered a couple of examples of research we would all consider to be off limits, however she struggled to apply her own criteria to give us instances of invasive, biomedical experiments she feels are morally justified.  When challenged to list a such examples, she paused for a while, and then offered a rather unsatisfactory response — “This is too big a question.”

Unfortunately, making such moral judgements is at the heart of the issue. It is the central question that scientists at NIH study sections have to answer every day at Center for Scientific Review at the NIH, where a panel of experts evaluate and recommend scientific proposals so that our society funds the most promising research as judged by our best scientific minds.  The NIH panel also considers ways in which the research could be refined, by using less animals, or lower species, or alternative methods, and flags those applications that are problematic accordingly.  An entirely parallel, independent review process occurs within the IACUCs of each institution the same lines, providing an additional layer of safety. It would be wrong to insinuate there is no thoughtful assessment of the cost and benefits of the research.

If moral philosophers want to have an active participation in the ethical decision process they must be able to answer how and when they will find a particular research proposal justified or not. The public (which is certainly a stakeholder in the research as much as those that would like to advocate for much stricter limits) would very likely want to know, for example, if Prof. Gruen would have approved of the use of animals in the development of the Polio vaccine, or the use of mice to develop new therapies for aggressive forms of breast cancer, or the use of rats to develop a cure for  paralysis?  Would she have approved these projects only if the investigators expressed their willingness to experiment on cognitively impaired children as well?  If so, would she endorse such experiments herself?

Utilitarians may find their applied ethics tools to be of little use when judging any one single experiment in science.  It is due in part to the nature of scientific research which can be exemplified with this challenge.  Briefly, there is a substantial problem with deciding the moral worth of scientific work based on its consequence, because that outcome is initially unknown — otherwise there would be no need for the experiment in the first place.

Peter Singer, for example, justified the use of monkeys in the development of a therapy for Parkinson’s disease in a recent encounter with neuroscientist Tipu Aziz, who was explaining to Singer that:

To date 40,000 people have been made better with this [Parkinson’s therapy], and worldwide at the time I would guess only 100 monkeys were used at a few laboratories.

To which, Singer replied:

Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided—I take it you are the expert in this, not me—that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research.

Of course the problem is that this is a post hoc justification. There was, of course, no way for Singer to know the experiments would yield such important benefits. One must ask how Singer or Gruen would respond had they been asked to approve the experiments before they were conducted.

One would also need to ask, in addition, what would be the consequences for human suffering had they successfully argued against the work that led to the development of the Polio vaccine, or deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s, or the development of new breast cancer treatments and so on.  From a scientist’s perspective, it seems that opponents of research do not spend sufficient time asking what would be the consequences of stopping the work.

There was another paradoxical aspect of Gruen’s talk. Clearly, Prof. Gruen agrees that suffering is morally relevant.  Curiously, when considering research aimed at restoring function in paralysis, which we learned afflicts one of her friends, she said the discussion has to be carried out in the “abstract” as otherwise “we might be informed by the wrong factors.”  This seems to me a rather curious attempt to deny her own human suffering. Isn’t human suffering relevant in her mind?  Why would considering human suffering be the same as being informed by the “wrong factors”?

An illustration from Gruen’s book

On the positive side it was refreshing to hear Prof. Gruen say that she thinks scientists are “not out there to hurt animals” for no reason, but that they genuinely want to improve human health. This statement seems a world apart from the graphics and text of her animal liberation book, which depicts scientists as nothing short of vicious, sadistic monsters, and justifies the actions of the Animal Liberation Front.

12 thoughts on “Lori Gruen on the Ethical Justification of Animal Research Experiments

  1. There is a question as what counts as advancing knowledge and medicine. My point is that there are plenty of folks who argue that advancement is largely a subjective thing – a matter of a community’s priorities and interests – rather than some objective thing – such as finding the most elegant or encompassing theory. If one understands advancement as being a matter of meeting a community or society’s interests or priorities, there seems to be a real role for stakeholders.

    Questions about the potential costs and benefits of research, if one thinks about the advancement of knowledge in the above way, are ones that importantly require input of the people affected by the research. It may be naively democratic of me to say the following – but it seems to me that if one’s interested in making the world a better place the first thing that one should do is ask people what it is that they want and want to avoid.

    One could perhaps think of animal research in such a way – there seems to be public concern about harm to animals but at the same time there is a clear public interest in promoting research that may have benefits to people. It seems reasonable to me then that it may be worth considering the views and concerns of both groups of people.

    1. I agree with everything you said, but as it was pointed out during the discussion, the research priorities we establish as a society is something that ought to be part of a larger political discussion and decided by our representatives.

      I presume that, in addition to discussing the allocation of our resources in biomedical research, one may want to discuss the allocation of resources to the arts, mathematics, physics, and space exploration.

      1. I tend to agree with the notion that science – and academic scholarship in general – is a social enterprise and since it involves common public resources and addresses public concerns that in general there needs to be in general more public involvement within it.

        On a side note, I think public involvement isn’t just a matter of setting priorities but I think there is a real role for stakeholders in developing research. It seems to me that often within research – particularly that which may affect policy – how terms or operationalized and the tolerance of type I versus type II error are matters where values sneak their way in. Having those values reflect the priorities and interests of society more generally, strikes me as important too. Though, that matter might be a topic for another conversation.

        1. I do not deny there is a role for stakeholders to participate in research after we agree this is something we, as a society, find morally justifiable to do. That’s the larger question that needs to be answered. If society says “no”, then scientists would have no option but to accept their decision. If society approves, one can only hope the opposing side will accept the decision as well. Unfortunately, dialogue at times seems futile because there is a growing segment of the animal rights movement that is not looking to resolve a moral dispute democratically. Some of them feel entitled to use violence to impose their views on the rest of society.

  2. “we ought to be more reflective…” implies to me we ought to be more reflective than our current practice. It cannot be interpreted as anything but a criticism of the current system. I accept the system can always be improved. But she seemed to be specifically suggesting that one way would be to include other stakeholders in the decision process. Thus, a natural question would be to ask what exactly is that they will contribute.

    To me, and due to the limitations of consequentialist ethics applied to science, the questions that we can pose are limited — such as, “Is the use of mice to cure cancer justified even if mice can experience pain in the process?” It would make no sense to have such discussion for every cancer research project that uses mice, so long as the science is sound and stands a good probability of advancing knowledge and medicine.

  3. While I cannot speak for Prof. Gruen, my reply to your last comment would be to note that suggesting that we ought to be more reflective about animal research and its justification doesn’t imply that the current process, under which research is approved, is not unreflective. Nor, did I intend to suggest that review boards rubber stamp research.

    In regards to my first point, one could think that while there is a review process that does good work, it could be improved in some ways. My understanding of Gruen’s argument (again from just what I’ve seen in the video) is that this is precisely what she is contending.

    As for my comment about rubberstamping. I wasn’t intending to suggest that review boards rubberstamp. I was suggesting that there is a tendency both within those that support animal research and those that oppose animal research to treat animal research as a monolithic thing to be either embraced or condemned as a whole. This strikes me – and it seems that this might be what Gruen is getting at – as a wrongheaded way to think about it. Rather than thinking about animal research as a some abstract practice that is warranted or not – it’s better to think about it in terms of specific research projects embedded within particular contexts. And it requires consideration of both the internal merits and potential harms of a project as well as the presumed social benefits, harms, concerns, and needs to decide whether a given project is worthwhile.

    Indeed, while both you and her may disagree on this: I suspect that you’re both asking for similar things. Specifically, for there to be consideration about the specific reasons that may speak in favor or against a project.

  4. If I misinterpreted her position I would be happy for Prof. Gruen to correct the record here.

    “…her explicit argument is that more careful thought must be placed in deciding whether any particular research project involving animal subjects is justified or not”

    Which implies she believes it is not but, as I said, I do not believe this to be the case.

    “… it’s odd to ask her to make such a snap judgment”

    She can have all the time she needs to reflect… but I’d really like to know if she would have approved of the work with animals that lead to the development of a Polio vaccine for example and explain, on what grounds exactly, she would have decided to approve or not.

    The notion that NIH study sections and IACUCs simply rubber-stamp a proposal is wrong. As I write above, feel free to have someone submit a ridiculous protocol to NIH and your IACUC and see what the result is.

  5. Dario,

    While I’m not engaged in the debate about animal research, it strikes me – given the important role of animal research within science and the saliency of its potential harms and benefits – that it’s worth being careful to be clear about what people’s different positions are.

    That said, I think your post mischaracterizes Gruen’s position (as it is expressed in the video that you link to). For example, you suggest that she’s being evasive and being unwilling to provide a case where she thinks that animal research is justified. However, it seems pretty clear to me that her explicit argument is that more careful thought must be placed in deciding whether any particular research project involving animal subjects is justified or not. Given that she’s arguing that we cannot simply make snap judgments and endorse, or condemn, animal research it’s odd to ask her to make such a snap judgment. Since her position is that we need to carefully consider all the wide range of specific facts relevant to a given project proposal – rather than simply dismissing or rubber stamping – it doesn’t seem evasive for her to refuse to do such a thing.

  6. Dario, you made an excellent point that we do not know what will come of experiments till they have been done. Yet it is necessary to make ethical judgments despite the uncertainty. Animal suffering during the course of experiments must be minimized, but blocking the research entirely does nothing to address the suffering of humans and animals caused by disease.

    1. The relevant question for the utilitarian is, has animal research so far, as a field, produced sufficiently important benefits as to be justified? Any person with basic knowledge of medical history must answer this question in the affirmative. Recall what medical science was merely a couple of generations ago: a visit to a physician might have resulted in a recommendation to induce vomiting, diarrhea or, more commonly, bleeding. Diphtheria, mumps, measles and polio were common and untreatable. Life expectancy in the United States was less than 50 years; it is now close to 80 years. Animal research was an integral part of these past achievements. Our generation benefits from treatments and medicines that our parents and grandparents only dreamt about. Moreover, our children, grandchildren and all future generations will benefit as well. Thus, any utilitarian calculation of the benefits will show that they are not merely astronomical, but infinite. Harms, of course, must also be counted, including the life of the animals used and any negative outcomes that might be attributed, in part, to the use of animals in research. When the costs and benefits are tallied, I believe it is clear animal research has been justified.

  7. Prof. Greun was clearly tailoring her message for her audience, and presenting her position as less extreme than it actually is. She did actually mention the use of animals for paralysis research right at the end of the discussion, but stayed firmly on the fence. It’s a pity that Allyson Bennet didn’t specify in her earlier question as to whether Prof. Greun could “give us instances of invasive, biomedical experiments she feels are morally justified” she didn’t specify that these had to be studies aimed at improving human health, as Prof. Greun ducked the question by focusing on chimp research that might potentially benefit chimp health. Difficult to nail down such a slippery operator though, especially when the moderator is trying to take the microphone back!.

    Prof. Streiffer made some good points, especially in response to Bogle’s claims about oversight, but I am puzzled by some of his statements. He implied that there are no absolute limits on animal research (with which I would disagree), and then explained very eloquently how the absolute ethical limits of what is allowed in human experimentation are far less clear (for very practical reasons) than is commonly understood, stating that there are limits to human experimentation even if they are difficult to define. Why does he think that the same not apply to animal experiments? An odd position.

    1. For those that believe that “anything goes” there is a very simple exercise they can do to find out the limits of research — try to submit a grant to NIH for funding and to your local IACUC for approval…

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