An Ongoing Conversation with Robert Streiffer on Science and Ethics

I would like to thank Prof. Robert Streiffer for taking the time to comment on an earlier post of mine regarding the ongoing dialogue on the ethics of animal research at UW-Madison.

I had originally drafted an email to him with a reply, which is now reproduced below.  I am sure the readers will forgive the informal language.  Excerpts from his original comments are in italics.  His full commentary can be found here.


First, I noted that most people who support animal research think that utilitarianism does not correctly capture our obligations to human beings. 

I think we agree that most people, whether they support animal research or not, reject utilitarianism as correctly capturing our obligations to other human beings.

For example, it is difficult to find anyone to agree it is ethically permissible to harvest the organs of one healthy human being to save the lives of  five others waiting for transplants, even if such an act is one that maximizes the total well-being of the human population.

In my view, human rights and obligations towards each other derive from our ability to adhere to a mutually agreed social contract, respecting the interest of others even when the resulting behavior goes against our own interests or against optimal utility. Non-human animals (and a handful of humans) cannot participate as full moral agents in our community, and thus cannot have rights as properly understood.  Of course, we owe all living beings moral consideration by the fact they can experience suffering.  But the only meaningful question that can be posed is how we should treat them.  (A question only humans ask.)

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. 

Some scientists may have studied the ethical objections and the moral literature more than others.  Some may be able to explain their position using the language of moral philosophy; others may not.

However, I think a similar characterization applies to those that oppose the use of animals in research.  Indeed, it is rare for many of them to accurately represent their views. Consider for example PeTA, an animal rights organization which paradoxically cites the work of utilitarian philosophers as the basis for their position, leaving out all references to animal rights theorists.  An organization that objects to the use of animals to improve devices that restore hearing in humans, but allegedly kills thousands of dogs and cats every year.  Or consider Mr. Marolt, who appears well educated on these issues, but when given the opportunity to explain his objections to animal research in public, he simply relied on his “moral intuitions.”

Let me clarify my own view — suppose we met individuals from other species that could participate as full moral agents in a community of equals, with all the rights and obligations that come with such participation.  Should we welcome them?  Sure, I don’t see why not.  I stand ready to include hypothetical beings such as James Rachel’s super-chimp, or Asimov’s bicentennial man, or Aliens, as equals within our moral community.

As for your own view — I would be interested to learn where you stand.  It seems you have described the various positions held by various people, but you have never offered your own position on these issues.

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.

Harming a pet would cause not only harm to the animal, but to a human being or family that cares deeply about it. That harm, which comes from a special relationship between the animal and other human beings, ought to count as well.  Thus we do not owe the same moral consideration to a rat in the New York subway system and one that is the dear pet of a human family. Do you think their moral status ought to be the same?  Different?  Why?

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.

In scientific research, the conflict of interest is not between individuals who possess the same degree of moral status. It is between humans, who display a proven ability to learn about the processes of life to alleviate the suffering caused by disease, and the interest to well-being and life the animals used for such experimentation.

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 believe this is an important point.  The starting point of the debate is usually framed with the question of “how can one morally justify the use of animals in scientific research?”

This implicitly assumes the other side has absolutely nothing to justify for their own position — which I think is wrong.  An equally valid question that needs to be asked is what moral justification the opponents have to call for the abolition of all animal research, as we believe their call for inaction is not harm-free.

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. 

A fair criticism.

I think moral boundaries are dynamic and what we learn about animal behavior/minds and the availability of new experimental methods (such as the introduction of anesthetics) make some forms of experimentation that were accepted in the past unacceptable today.  As a specific example, I can offer the work of William Harvey on the circulation of blood and respiratory system.  I think most scientists and members of the public would agree such experiments on dogs, which form the basis of much of today’s internal medicine, would not be morally acceptable today.

As for scientists’ reluctance to participate — you must acknowledge it is not entirely self-generated.  As you know, some animal activists, including individuals in your UW forums, have publicly justified for the use of violence against those they disagree with.  It should not come as a surprise that scientists may be hesitant to engage with these individuals.  Do you feel there is value in engaging with them?

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. 

Understood.  But benefits always derives from knowledge, even if the knowledge is obtained from something as basic as trial-and-error.  There are no benefits without knowledge.  And there is no knowledge without science.  Here is a nice piece by Isaac Asimov that is germane to the topic of benefits derived from basic research.

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”). 

Devoting resources to any one scientific project may harm others indirectly.  One may argue, for example, that in spending so much effort and funds to discovering the Higgs one is indirectly harming other human beings.  After all, the same resources could be used to provide food and housing to the under-served in developing countries. Thus, the decision to fund this basic question into the structure of matter is not truly harm-free, as you seem to imply.

My own view is that immediate benefit is not necessarily the most desirable goal in allocating resources. Understanding the fundamental laws of physics may not feed people tomorrow, but will certainly generate incalculable benefits in the future. One has only to look  at the history of science to verify such claim.  Who can deny the benefits of basic biology, the physics of semiconductors, lasers, or quantum mechanics? Who doubts that today’s basic science is bound to produce manifold benefits for our children and grandchildren?

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.

The basic mathematical question upon which 3D imaging depends was the reconstruction of 3D shapes from an object’s shadows (or projections) obtained from various angles.  The problem was originally posed and solved by Radon in the 1910s, way before the development of 3D imaging methods.  The work was originally, totally unrelated to anything practical.  Nevertheless, as I said, his results form the basis for all tomography-based imaging techniques today.

Science would be trivial (and our ethical decisions much easier) if one had an oracle that told you which lines of research would ultimately lead to benefits.  We don’t. That’s just not how science works.

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.

Exactly right… but this is true for all scientific research, not just biomedical research.  Indeed, your comment shows the limits of demanding an ethical justification for every single study.  We cannot be sure that any one individual experiment will yield an important benefit.  Instead, one must look at the field as whole, realize the benefits it has already produced, and accept the scientific consensus that if we stop the research, no benefits will be forthcoming in many areas of biomedical research.

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. 

I do not want to misinterpret your position, so please correct me if I am wrong.

I presume that by “other research avenues” you mean research that does not involve animals in research, such as prevention programs. Perhaps you consider it is your responsibility, as an IACUC member, to evaluate not only the use of animals in a given scientific protocol, but to consider if there are other ways the same resources could be used to benefit patients suffering from anxiety that do not directly involve harming animals in research.

If so, I think you are effectively setting public policy from your IACUC.  It is clear the medical leadership at NIH already decided that there is a good justification to understand the biological basis of  psycho-pathology, including anxiety disorders.  This is why they established a study section on this topic and devoted funds to answer these questions.  At the same time, we should all note that they have also decided to devote resources to human-based studies and prevention work in these same areas.

You may have good reasons to disagree with NIH’s research portfolio and distribution of funds in general, and you are free to engage them in this discussion.  However, in my opinion, an IACUC rejecting a study invoking such disagreement as a justification seems inappropriate.

Of course an institution can decide not to engage in studies they disagree with.  Some, for example, do not engage in non-human primate research. However, such institutional policies should be made clear to scientists and NIH ahead of time, so everyone knows the kind of work an institution supports and which it does not.  Scientists should not need to find out what these are from their IACUCs protocol reviews.

Again, thank you for clarifying your position and continuing this conversation.

3 thoughts on “An Ongoing Conversation with Robert Streiffer on Science and Ethics

  1. While working on my PhD I did an enormous amount of work on revising AUPs after seeing pain and suffering with current, at the time, euthanasia methods. Imagine my surprise to now be working in administration at the same university and to find out how the same species of animals is treated by the contractors tasked with building pest control in the administrative offices.

  2. NIH study sections review both the scientific merit of a proposal and the humane treatment of the subjects involved in it (either human or animal). In the case of grants that involve animal subjects, a number of issues are explicitly considered ( for each and every grant.

    Considerations regarding the humane treatment of the subjects is an issue that affects the final score given to a proposal. In other words, a grant can be scored poorly if the questions are considered important but the welfare of the subjects involved is not attended to sufficiently. It is not uncommon for a grant to be scored poorly or to be referred to NIH program for additional review solely because of an animal or human subject welfare concern.

    It goes without saying that only those grants that are scored the best (meaning their scientific merit is the highest and their attention to animal welfare is the best) are recommended for funding. The level of scientific scrutiny of the project’s merit is deeper and more sophisticated than any one IACUC could provide; this is because the NIH study section recruits expertise from around the world and concentrates it on its panel. No one University has the level of expertise in one area that an NIH panel does.

    For that reason, the decision of an IACUC not to approve a protocol based solely on scientific issues, when that protocol supports NIH funded work, is indeed inappropriate. IACUCs are local bodies designed to find ways to implement research humanely at their site. They are designed to ensure that the best standards of veterinary care are applied to the subjects in the project. They are designed to monitor the compliance of researchers with the regulations and with their initially proposed procedures. They are not designed to sit in judgement of the scientific expertise of funding bodies, nor should they.

    IACUCs can’t always know everything, and I am an advocate for the notion that they should be open and willing to seeking objective external opinions when they have reached the limits of their expertise. But that is exactly what is happening when an NIH panel recommends a grant for funding. It has given the IACUC the benefit of its unusually high quality scientific opinion, and that should be respected.

    (As a matter of public record, I am a member of an NIH review panel that has reviewed some of Dr. Kalin’s grants. My comments here are not to be construed as evidence that I did, or did not, have a direct role in the review of his applications, nor should they be taken as evidence of the final recommendation of the panel as to the funding of the projects).

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