A statement of fact can be falsified by presenting a single counterexample. For example, the claim that “Pigs don’t fly” can be proven false by just finding one that does. Similarly, the claim that “we owe the same moral consideration to all sentient living beings” can be falsified by considering scenarios where acting on such moral principle would lead us to conclusions we find utterly unacceptable.
In my recent visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison we discussed the simple scenario of choosing among a mouse and a human being in a burning house. I explained that the moral principle above calls for us to either flip a coin to make an unbiased decision or let both individuals die. And yet, nearly all people in the audience would save the human being. Why? The reason is that we recognize that the same things are not at stake. In the words of the animal rights philosopher Tom Regan:
“[…] the harm that death is, is a function if the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses, and no reasonable person would deny that the death of any […] human would be a greater prima facie loss, and thus a greater prima facie harm, that would be true in the case [of] a dog.”
Indeed, it is very difficult to find a reasonable human being that would insist on flipping a coin (yes, you may still run into one or two unreasonable animal rights extremists). However, the fact that the conclusion is against the moral intuition of most of people suggests we ought to reject the premise as stated above and, with it, moral theories that rely on it.
It is very important to point out that rejecting the premise does not imply at all human interests trump non-human interests all the time. This is wrong and not something I believe. As an example, I agree that the interests of animals must count when we plan a new urban development. Indeed, we provide for discussion of environmental impact studies within our communities ahead of its approval. And there are cases where we decide, with proper justification, that the interests of the animals living in the area trump those of human interests in development.
It is common for an animal rights activists to respond to the burning house scenario by insisting they may be justified in saving the family dog over a despicable human being, such as Hitler.
Once again, this reply is based on the mistaken idea that that rejecting the premise means that human interests should always trump animal interests. This is not so. Rejecting the premise means that not all living beings are due the same moral consideration. As a matter of fact, the very notion that we may find it justifiable to save the family dog over Hitler is just one more counterexample to the same premise. If anything, the activists are making my point exactly.
Those who oppose the use of animals in medical research also appear to have difficulty looking at the faces of patients that our work has saved and continues to save every day. The reason is that these are the patients that would have been harmed if the research of the past had been stopped. I presented a brief a video of one such breast cancer patient. You can watch it again below. Two typical responses to seeing the patients are “but you are appealing to emotion!” and “but you don’t work on cancer!”
Indeed, it is true that facing the patients can evoke difficult emotions. Human emotional suffering is… well, emotional. It is also suffering. When a mother with cancer ponders about the consequences of dying for her husband and children she suffers beyond the physical pain of the disease. And if suffering is morally relevant (as the philosophers argue) then such suffering must count as well.
As to the charge that I don’t do cancer research. It is true, I don’t. But why are the activists bringing this up now? Do they all of a sudden approve of cancer research? Do the approve of AIDS research? Do the approve of Parkinson’s? Alzheimer’s? Or do they object to my research alone? The latter would indeed be huge step forward. Of course, this is not what they mean. Lacking substantive arguments to respond, they merely shift the goalposts to a different topic, such asking about the use of animals for food or my own research.
Very well… so what about my own research? Like many of my colleagues supported by the National Eye Institute we work on trying to understand how the visual system works to alleviate and/or cure central disorders of vision. I could go on to explain the details but, before one even has the chance to do so, the animal rights activists retort — “but blindness is not a life-threatening disease!”
At this point your jaw may drop as the comment makes it clear that they have not paused for even for one second to consider the effects that blindness or low vision can have on our quality of life. This is curious for a movement that claims to be based on compassion. Failing to consider the consequences of a disease for a patient is nothing but compassionate. It is truly cruel.
I can offer a simple challenge to all those activists out there who believe that the use of animals in research to study vision disorders is unjustified. Blindfold yourself for just one month and go about your daily activities. Did you life change in any way? What about the life of your family members that may need to devote time to helping you? What happened to your independence?
Only after you have gone through the trouble of truly considering the cost of the vision loss, for the patients and their families, I will welcome you back to the comments section below so you can share with all of us your experience.
I can only hope that that having your eyes closed for a month may open your heart… even if just a bit.
Go ahead now… close your eyes.