Friday, January 15, 2010

Vivisection and Ethics: cutting to the quick

Published in AV Magazine, vol. 117, no. 4, pp. 2-3, fall 2009 issue [January 2010]

The central contradiction of vivisection is that animals are used for research precisely because of their similarities to humans, and yet by that very use they are implicitly denied a place in the moral community. Somehow our commonality of physiology and sentience is deemed to be a completely separate matter from our respective rights, including the most basic right simply to be let alone. Procedures that ethical researchers would never think to perform on human beings are, in consequence, routinely performed on other animals. The very condition of being an animal that is used for experimentation would be ruled out for a human being, since at a minimum it involves involuntary confinement and isolation. Beyond this, countless animals are subjected to invasive practices, including the most invasive of all: manipulation of their very nature by being bred specifically for experimental purposes. Thus, vivisection is not simply a particular event in the lifespan of an animal – awful as that might be -- but the total subjugation of an animal to the control and ambitions of human beings from artificial birth to premature death.

For an antivivisectionist, considerations such as these make the cessation of animal use in testing, research, experimentation, education and training an open-and-shut case. But of course there are arguments on both sides. In this regard a recent editorial in the science journal Nature is instructive.1 It concerns what is described and applauded as “a major accomplishment,” namely, the creation in the laboratory of a primate that can pass on to its offspring a gene that had been implanted from a different organism, a so-called transgene. The significance of this feat is that the primate in question, the marmoset, is closer genetically to humans than is the current “model” of choice, the mouse. Therefore medical science will have available to it a better means of testing theories about human diseases, and possibly as well neuroscience about brain functioning. The research community is excited.

But the thrust of the editorial is not so much to praise the breakthrough as to warn the Japanese researchers who pioneered the new procedure that they had better brace for controversy and public confrontation. Yes, those pesky antivivisectionists are going to get all fired up about this. Much in the manner of a boxing coach, therefore, the editors, who express their support for the research “as long as [it is] carried out in a responsible fashion,” advise the researchers to “be ready to deal with the broader ethical questions involved.” Why, exactly? So as to be sure that they are really doing the right thing? The reason given in the editorial is, “If unprepared, [the researchers] risk being caught wrong-footed when the debate inevitably takes off.” The editors offer this encouragement: “Animal research in Japan … should heed the lessons from the West, where researchers have won several political victories by addressing the issues openly.”

The editorial is beyond faulting in its own terms. It even speaks of “showing respect for opposing ethical positions,” and concludes: “The lesson for the animal-rights debate is that more engagement, not less, is the best way to promote the research. Scientists everywhere must be ready to discuss … controversial topics, based on a thorough understanding of the ethical issues ….” But to the antivivisectionist this sounds paradoxical, for would not “a thorough understanding of the ethical issues” lead one to conclude that the research in question ought not to be done? I think there is a double lesson for antivivisectionists to draw. First is that antivivisectionists too should be thoroughly versed in the relevant argumentation coming from both sides. Second is that antivivisectionists too should recognize and respect the genuine motives of their opponents. In sum, the issues are real ones.

How, then, do vivisectors go about defending their work? Their first line of defense is that the use of nonhuman animals is necessary for achieving certain laudable goals. Uppermost in most people’s minds will of course be the maintenance of human health and safety. In critiquing this argument, antivivisectionists should keep in mind the two modes of refutation, namely, (1) false, or questionable, premise and (2) illogic. Regarding the first: the premise of the vivisectionist’s argument can in many cases be refuted when an animal is being used for some relatively trivial purpose, such as testing a new cosmetic, or when a substitute for animals is available, such as microbial cells or computer models. I should point out, by the way, that this applies to the antivivisectionist as well; that is, since the only reason to eat animals or animal products, such as eggs and diary, is for taste or convenience, the same principle clearly implies that all antivivisectionists should be vegans.

But even when the vivisectionist’s argument has a true or plausible premise, it is possible to lodge the objection that its conclusion does not follow. One area of animal use that raises this issue exquisitely is so-called “pure” or basic research, for example, neuroscience, where the objective is to advance human knowledge for its own sake. Consider this statement by a philosopher whose own research depends in part on the work of vivisectors:

The kittens and the macaques we continually sacrifice in experimental consciousness research are not interested in a theory of consciousness; the results of these experiments are of interest only to our species. However, we pursue this interest by making members of other species suffer, forcing highly unpleasant states of consciousness on them and even denying their right to exist. How coherent is this from an ethical perspective? As a theoretician, do I have the right to interpret data gathered by making animals suffer? Am I morally obliged to boycott these types of experiments?2

Of course a common argument by the vivisectionist is that basic research may also lead to practical applications for human welfare. So let us cut to the quick and ask about the justification of vivisection in research that shows clear promise of benefiting human beings in significant ways. Here the strategy of objection would be to argue that no matter how much good could be brought about, certain things simply should not be done. Everyone recognizes this principle; it is the reason nonhumans are vivisected rather than humans, since to submit the latter to such procedures would be considered unconscionable (except by sadistic Nazis). This form of argument is notable, however, for being the strongest from the point of view of the antivivisectionist and the weakest from the point of view of the vivisectionist. It is strongest because it appeals to very deep intuitions; but that makes it weakest for people who happen not to share those intuitions.

For example, there is research that purports to show that a rat that has been deliberately crippled doesn’t seem to mind this state of being and just goes about the rest of its short life dragging its useless rear limbs behind it.3 Apparently to some researchers this means that it’s OK to use rats in this way if doing so would, say, contribute to aiding human stroke victims. To the antivivisectionist this shows that these researchers are lacking an elemental sensibility. The researchers’ view is that absent pain, absent a problem. The antivivisection view is that intentionally crippling a living organism is itself intrinsically wrong. It is not clear that rational argument could ever resolve a difference like this. I chose this example to give the vivisectionist every benefit of the doubt. There are other cases, however, where an animal’s distress is an essential feature of an experiment, for example, in research on pain itself; so there would be no way to deny it, other than to offer the problematic consolation that the animal will be euthanized shortly thereafter.

At this juncture, ethics comes into its own. For a distinguishing feature of ethics as commonly conceived is that it trumps cost/benefit analysis. Thus, even if we were to grant every claim of the vivisectionist regarding the necessity of certain experiments on animals to bring about an overwhelming good … indeed, even a good for other animals of the same species as the individuals being experimented on … it would not follow ethically that the experiments were justified. For it would also have to be shown that the experiments did not violate any ethical principle of proper treatment of an animal, human or otherwise.

Curiously, then, ultimate resolution of the very practical issue of vivisection may depend on agreement about the abstract nature of ethics. If vivisectionists agree that the end does not always justify the means, which is implicit in their using animals rather than humans in the first place, then, on pain of contradiction, they would seem bound to refrain from using the animals either. By the same token, what antivivisectionists must be prepared to acknowledge is that their position could have a real cost, namely, retarding research into relief from illness and pain. Thus, when applied to the vivisection debate, ethics is a double-edged scalpel.

1 “Time to Connect,” Nature, vol. 459, issue no. 7246, page 483, 28 May 2009.
2 “A New Kind of Ethics,” ch. 9 of The Ego Tunnel: the science of the mind and the myth of the self, by Thomas Metzinger (NY: Basic Books, 2009), p. 231.
3 “The Lower Bounds of Cognition: What Do Spinal Cords Reveal?” by Colin Allen, James W. Grau, and Mary W. Meagher, Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Neuroscience, ed. John Bickle, forthcoming.

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His column, “Moral Moments,” appears regularly in Philosophy Now magazine, and his most recent book, Ought Implies Kant (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009), offers an original defense of animal rights. He wishes to acknowledge helpful discussions with Colin Allen, Gary Francione, Justin Goodman, Lee Hall, Ian Smith, and AAVS staff.

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