Closing your eyes may open your heart

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.

11 responses to “Closing your eyes may open your heart

  1. Exactly, you can ask a human how they feel, but you cannot ask an animal. If you could determine psychological state with such accuracy by checking behaviour and physiological responses, why is it that doctors always ask so many questions when I go in for a consultation?

    I did not attend your talk, but I take your word for it, it sounds like the only thing you would be willing to admit to, and it is something that I wholly support. I think that if there were 24 hour public access (perhaps through web-cams) to all animal experimentation labs in the world I am sure that things would change a lot faster. But this will not happen in the near future. But you never know, you get some really sick people that get off on things like crush videos etc. that might actually enjoy watching it.

  2. So choosing between a human or a mouse to save from a burning building has now become choosing between a human and a cockroach.
    I do not see the relevance of reading a short story written about somebody claiming to have been an ape and I have better things to do with my time.

    So, on the one hand you say that there is no way for you to determine what a non-human animal is experiencing or feeling, but then you “explain” how you can determine this from their behaviour and physiological responses.

    So, to get back to your initial “experiment” of going a month without vision. How will you determine how I feel or my psycological state from these behaviour and physiological responses during this period that I will be blindfolded? If I go a month blindfolded without exibiting any of these behaviour or physiological responses, would you conclude that your research is senseless because I don’t suffer due to being blindfolded?

    If there is something that you do not agree with in the current state of animal research, why don’t you name anything?

    So, it seems that since our philosophical positions are fundamentally incompatible you think my position has no value. Again, something that slave owners, nazis and other bigots of the past had in common with you – they would not give any consideration to people that had philosophically incompatible opinions. This is actually the norm and in most of these cases the only thing that changed their opinions were a revolt from the people they exploited and/or war. Unfortunately animals do not have the ability to stand up for themselves, so there are people that try and represent them (most of the time peacefully). But, it has proven in history that people like youself will not listen to reason. You will always try to justify yourself with extreme outlying cases.
    Take this example. Lets say a few years ago, not that long ago really, during the height of racism and slavery, somebody came up with the following premise: There is a white man and a black slave in a burning house, who will you save! Many people would have said, well, without a doubt the white man has more worth, so I will save him!

    • “So choosing between a human or a mouse to save from a burning building has now become choosing between a human and a cockroach.”

      Sure… you can still choose between a human and a mouse.

      So, on the one hand you say that there is no way for you to determine what a non-human animal is experiencing or feeling, but then you “explain” how you can determine this from their behaviour and physiological responses.

      There is no way know how it is like to be a mouse. Maybe you know this —

      http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/u/ahyvarin/teaching/niseminar4/Nagel_WhatIsItLikeToBeABat.pdf

      But there are certainly ways to assess the welfare of a mouse from a scientific standpoint.

      Ask any veterinarian.

      “How will you determine how I feel or my psychological state…”

      I will ask you.

      “If there is something that you do not agree with in the current state of animal research, why don’t you name anything?”

      I believe the scientific community should work to increase the transparency of the work done in the labs. I said as much in my talk.

  3. So, what you are saying is that every human is affected in almost identical fashion by an event or their surroundings, but that any other animal, be it a mouse, dog, pig or ape, is affected in such a drastically different way that it is not useful to try and imagine the affect the same event or surroundings would have on you, a human?
    I guess this is the core difference between yourself and animal rights activists.
    I am sure that is very similar to the way the nazis throught about jews, but be that as it may.

    So, I specifically asked about animal research and/or testing as it is today.
    The one post is a pat on the back for an improvement in the way grant money is used (actually I don’t think you even say whether you agree with it or not) and the other one I guess you criticise the fact that they were not willing to admit the report was about an ethical topic?

    I mean, a current topic where you think animal research should be improved or something you think is wrong. Something that is currently happening in the international animal research community that you do not agree with. Even if it is a specific study being done that you think should not be using animals. Is there anything like that, or do you agree with everything?

    As for your question, I am willing to admit that, with the technology available today, there may be some animal research that I would be able to live with.
    But there is no way I can agree with the way it is decided on and done today.
    The fact is that you do not want to have a discussion about this complicated topic. You just want to justify the current status quo. I have been following your blog for a long time and all I ever see is fluff pieces with justifications of current research and arguments justfifying all exploitation of animals in testing and research by saying that some of it might save human lives.
    A premise such as saving a mouse or a human from a burning building has nothing to do with the current state of animal testing and research.

    • So, what you are saying is that every human is affected in almost identical fashion by an event or their surroundings, but that any other animal, be it a mouse, dog, pig or ape, is affected in such a drastically different way that it is not useful to try and imagine the affect the same event or surroundings would have on you, a human?

      I am saying that it is easier for you to understand in terms of mental states what a mother consoling a child with cancer is going through than what a cockroach is going through.

      I already explained how you can assess the well being of non-human animals by looking at their behavior and physiological responses. What do you mean exactly by “trying to imagine”?
      Can you imagine what is like to be a cockroach? Here is a good short story to read — http://www.kafka-online.info/a-report-for-an-academy.html

      “… where you think animal research should be improved […]”

      Of course, everything can be improved…

      “The fact is that you do not want to have a discussion about this complicated topic.”

      Not true. I think serious discussion is possible with those that embrace a wide range of animal welfarism positions.

      You are right that I don’t think there is much productive dialogue to have with those that insist we owe the same moral consideration to a cockroach that a human being.

      Our philosophical positions are fundamentally incompatible.

  4. In the same way I can say that the experience of being blind will be different for every human being depending on a plethora of factors, thus I myself will not be able to experience blindness in the same way as any other being.

    But you are actually touching on many important points here:
    1. You are clearly not able to empathise with another species suffering.
    2. No human can know what the animals are feeling, what the social and mental affects are of the research on these animals. So from the observation of the animals you cannot quantify their suffering.

    I have read in some places on your site that what you are trying to accomplish is a debate about the use of animals in research so that society can decide where the line should be drawn. But in almost all of your posts I just read justifications, justifying all animal testing on the grounds that some research might save human lives. Have you written any posts about what you do NOT agree with in animal research and/or testing as it is today? If you have, could you give me a link, I would be very interested in reading it. If you have not, why not? Do you agree with all animal research and testing that is being done today?

    • In the same way I can say that the experience of being blind will be different for every human being depending on a plethora of factors, thus I myself will not be able to experience blindness in the same way as any other being.

      We model the behavior of other human beings in terms of our own mental states in ways that allow us to understand their actions and emotions. I think that if you blindfold yourself for a month you can get a pretty good sense of how is that loosing your eyesight can have on your quality of life.

      With non-human animals we try to infer the possible mental states given what is known about the science and their behavior. You know what the normal behavior of the animal is and you can use that, along with other physiological measures of stress, to assess their well-being.

      “Have you written any posts about what you do NOT agree with in animal research and/or testing as it is today?”

      We commented on advancements on animal welfare and other policies. For example, here:

      https://speakingofresearch.com/2012/02/15/a-welcome-end-to-random-source-dog-and-cat-dealers/

      https://speakingofresearch.com/2011/12/17/afterthoughts-on-iom-report-on-the-use-of-chimps-in-scientific-research/

      And tell me, what research do you approve of?

  5. Perhaps, while I blindfold myself and go about my life, you can put yourself in the place of the animals being used for the research. I will spend a month blind-folded if you will spend a month in a tiny cell while people do similar experiments on you as they do on the animals.
    I will even agree to follow the experiment through to the end. I will remain blindfolded for the rest of my life if you agree to be humanely put down after the month of experimentations.
    It seems that you think no research would be possible without using animals? It might be more difficult and take longer (some people say it would be better and even more successful, but that is hard to prove) but research without animal exploitation is possible.

    • I suppose your experiment calls for me to experience the world through the eyes of the a mouse, such as those used to develop the cure for cancer described by the patient above… and not to experience the world through a human mind. I am afraid cannot do that. But we do monitor the behavior and physiology of the animals to ensure they are not experiencing undue stress and/or pain. The welfare of the animals is put on the hands of the attending veterinarian, not the scientists. The former can decide to treat the animals in any way they decide to maintain the welfare of the animals.

      In contrast, the experiment I proposed to you is certainly doable. I am only asking you to experience the world through the eyes of a fellow human being.

      It seems that you think no research would be possible without using animals?

      That’s pure nonsense. I do plenty of research without animals. Look at my last publication for example. I also pointed out that the NIH portfolio includes clinical research and prevention as some of the ones receiving a substantial portion of the total funding. However, there is no doubt in my mind that without the use of animals large areas of biomedical research would come to complete halt.

  6. Since you opened the way for it, by asking people to consider how challenging blindness is, why don’t you explain to these good folks what you do to animals as part of your research? Why not let people way the costs and benefits since you explain the costs of not doing research, why don’t you explain what costs are involved in doing your research – to the animals involved that is, not the financial cost.