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”?
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.