A Public Conversation on Animal Ethics: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The UW-Madison recently hosted a conversation on the ethics of animal research between Rick Marolt, an opponent of animal research, and Robert Streiffer, a bioethicist at the university and member of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

Here are some of my thoughts on this interesting exchange.

The good: Above all, it is good to see a display of open academic dialogue on a controversial topic.  We have tried such a conversation at UCLA in the past with mixed results. This meeting was described as a “conversation” rather than a “debate”.  Such dialogue is a good first step that allow participants to express their positions on the ethics of animal research. In this regard, I think such exercises are a net good and a sign of progress.

The curious: It is perplexing that the conversation centered on the use of a “utilitarian framework” to justify the use of animals in medical research. Why? Because both participants made it clear they are not utilitarians. Instead, they both (wrongly) declared that scientists are, or assumed the only possible justification for their work must be a utilitarian one. The result was that Prof. Streiffer, on more than one occasion, uttered a sentence beginning with “It is because they [scientists] think that..,” while not being clear on what his own ethical framework as Chair of the IACUC has been. Of course, if the participants were seeking an utilitarian justification for animal research they could have invited Peter Singer.

My sense is that scientists hold a wide range of more nuanced views that they certainly include the consideration of benefits, but are not defined by the utilitarian position. Rather than letting someone speak for us, scientists should let our voices be heard, both to explain the science and ethics of the work.

Mind the gap: The discussion centered exclusively on the upper limits of animal research.  In other words, what kind of experiments would one find to be unjustifiable? Marolt and Streiffer probed this issue using a maternal deprivation protocol at UW as a test case. I think this is a good question to ask. At the same time, if one truly want to explore the size of the gap that exists between our respective positions, we must also ask what kind of experiments the critics of animal research would find acceptable and why. This point was altogether ignored and Mr. Marolt offered no examples. Given the ethical principles he cited (see below), I’d guess his answer would be “none at all”. Understanding the gap between opposing views is critical to identify areas of common ground, or lead us to conclude that there cannot be any.

The bad: To a scientist, perhaps the most shocking passage of the exchange came when both participants agreed that “knowledge is not a significant benefit.” Such an insult to reason is deeply troubling because it shows how little the participants know about the scientific process. They also seem not to appreciate the value of negative results (disproving a hypothesis) in scientific inquiry.

Presumably, neither Marolt or Streiffer see much value in proving abstract mathematical theorems, engaging in space exploration, trying to manipulate single atoms, proving the existence of the Higgs boson, or placing a telescope in space to peek into the boundaries of the universe. They are apparently oblivious, for example, as to the origins of the medical imaging technologies such as X-rays, PET, ultrasound, and MRI. (Hint: basic knowledge.)

The inconsistent: Prof. Streiffer explained how he arrived at the conclusion that a protocol under discussion was unjustified based on his cost/benefit analysis. However, he previously stated that he didn’t fully understand how is that the scientists would be analyzing the data to determine the molecular pathways involved in anxiety. How was he able to assess the potential benefits of the work without such understanding?  It is not clear.

The double standard: Mr. Marolt tried to explain his opposition to animal research based on his “moral intuitions.”  However, he is unwilling to accept the use of “moral intuitions” argument from others, demanding instead solid ethical reasoning. He should apply the same high standards of ethical reasoning he demands from scientists to himself.

The “moral intuitions”: So what are Marolt’s moral intuitions? He said that in his view “life matters” and that we should not deprive anyone from the opportunity to life.

Does he mean this in absolute terms? Is he anti-abortion? Does he believe the use of violence to end slavery or free concentration camps was unjustified?  Does he see any situation at all in which taking a life may be justified?

He said that “suffering matters,” and that he feels the suffering of the monkeys in labs while lying in bed at night. I know that those working with animals also feel in such a way, but they also feel for the mothers that fight breast cancer, the children with leukemia, the elderly with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Their suffering matters to them too.

We all protect our children against enormous suffering by vaccinations that were developed through the use of animals in research.  We recognize the moral dilemma of the work. Not having children of his own Marolt did not have such experience, but he found no shortage of words when it came to offer suggestions as to how others must educate their children on moral issues.

Marolt said that species membership is not morally relevant because “he does not feel that.” Once again, if we accept this justification, those who support the work could simply respond that “we feel otherwise.” But it is unlikely that he would accept such explanation. What we would like to know is why he thinks we owe the same exact level of moral consideration to a mouse as to a human. We are asking for a reason, not a feeling.  Here are some reasons why cognitive abilities matter, as they impact the level of suffering of different organisms.

Finally, Marolt asserted that if faced with a situation where he had to choose between two living beings, a human and an animal, he would save the life of a human. But he explained he would not be able to rationalize his choice.

One can only infer that if Marolt had a better understanding of the science he would  approve of animal research.  Indeed, scientists feel we are in a sort of burning house scenario. Most of us feel that human lives will be lost if we stop the work and that, at present, there are no viable alternatives. We accept we have to live with the uncertainty of the benefits that any one experiment could yield. At the same time we are certain of the benefits of the work as a whole, as proven by medical history.  We are convinced that stopping scientific work with animals means that many areas of medical research would come to a full stop, with tremendous harm done to humans and animals alike.

Rick Marolt, and other animal rights activists like him, have to justify their inaction and their demand to have this type of work abolished. Not with feelings and intuitions, but with moral reasoning. They have not yet produced a compelling argument, and their absolutist, moral intuitions are wrong.

2 thoughts on “A Public Conversation on Animal Ethics: The good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. Saving lives is a noble yet difficult entreprise for it both requires sacrifice and courage. It is time for scientists to speak up and for the general public to understand why animal research takes place. Stop animal research and whom shall be used for investigations? Prisoners, the poor, communists, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, those on welfare, who decides ? No testing at all? Would you want to be the one on whom a new drug has adverse effects? Another dead avenue. Those opposing animal use live from donations of those offended, take away the offense and they run out of money. Manipulating emotions and calling investigators torturers is part of their process. Else why donate? Their game is to keep everyone on the fence.
    If however you are a patient waiting for a cure or a treatment, the sacrifice of purpose bred animals in a strictly regulated environment that could make a difference between life and death or a better quality of life, may be a much easier decision to make. One may not agree with my views but you can read it from the comments by those that support my petition in support of medical progress through science and animal research. Animal reseach benefits us all, humans and animals alike.

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