17 September 2009

Soul searching

I have a moral quandary when it comes to science and the place of animal experiments within it.

I am, unequivocally, of the philosophical opinion that experiments on living animals (or the killing of animals for subsequent experiment) are morally indefensible in principle. Observation, yes; intervention, no.

(I do not, by the way, have the same objection to killing animals for food. I don't choose to do it myself, but that is because I have the luxury of living in a society where the choice exists.)

On the other hand, I am a scientist fascinated by the vast body of knowledge acquired, very often ... by experiment on animals.

I am pragmatic enough to say that I can do nothing about past experimentation, and that no purpose is served by refusing to use the knowledge thus gained. But ongoing use is a different matter.

I have just learned, and made use of for good purposes, information derived from long distance migratory birds with tracking devices surgically implanted within their bodies, and from birds deliberately flown for hours, to exhaustion, within a wind tunnel. The first I find repugnant; the second unforgivable. But what I think will not change the fact that these methods are being used by a majority who feel differently. As a scientist, I cannot isolate myself from the knowledge of where my information and understanding come from.

Now ... I also hold it to be true that there is no conceptual different between a human being and a bird or a dog. Of course, faced with the choice, if I find a human being under attack from a bird or a dog and know nothing of the context, I will help the human being – but that is instinctive social species loyalty, not philosophical acceptance of conceptual difference. I would not force a human being to run in a wind tunnel until s/he dropped, so I would not do it to a bird.

So (and I know the anger that this will stir up) ... if I remain a scientist despite knowing that the raw material is being obtained by methods which I consider morally unacceptable, on creatures which I consider conceptually no different from a human being, how do I (in my own moral perception, not in absolute fact) differ from a Nazi conducting experiments on human beings in a tank of freezing water? In fact, am a I perhaps even worse – because I cannot claim, as that Nazi did, that in her/his perception there was a conceptual difference between experimenter and subject?

Socially, that's not an acceptable question to ask post 1945. But it is, I think, an important one.


Matthew Revell said...

Is your acceptance of the killing of animals for food similar to your instinctive intervention in favour of the human in a "human versus animal" situation?

The intervention in favour of the human is still there but it's pre-emptive; and there's no doubt about which is the aggressor.

Felix Grant said...

I don't know.

I generally proceed, philosophically, from the "do no unnecessary harm" principle. There are many occasions when harm cannot be avoided; it becomes «wrong» when it is caused without need.

That still leads to a huge area of individual interpretation, of course. I consider that eating an animal not only causes harm to that animal but also causes generalised harm to humans since animal foods for one human require the land which might otherwise feed roughly seventeen humans on plant foods. Clearly, the Inuit who kills a fish or seal, or the native Australian who kills a kangaroo, or whatever, are proceeding according to need – it's them or the animal. So are many coastal fishing communities around the world. In those cases, the human being is no more morally culpable than, for example, a fox eating I, however, if I ate a steak, would have to construct a pretty sophisticated (in the original sense – sophistry) to claim that I needed to do so.

The above analysis suggests that I am siding with human against nonhuman ... but I'm not sure that's true, at least in this context. I would take the same view, philsophically, of a tiger eating a human ... though if I came upon a tiger about to eat a human, and I had a rifle, social species loyalty would certainly make me shoot the tiger.

In medicine, I recognise the argument of those who say that suffering humans need the medical breakthroughs which animal experimentation delivers ... but I don't personally accept the argument. To eat is a fundamental need; to prolong life when natural cause would otherwise terminate it is conceptually different and, for me though not for everyone, the first is a need while the second is a desire.

I am hypocritical even in that, however. I have refused without hesitation treatments for life threatening conditions on the grounds that an animal would die or suffer (or both) to supply those treatments. I also, however, know that if it were a case of treatment for someone close to me I would with equal lack of hesitation authorise the same treatments. What I don't know, until it happens, how close the person would have to be before I authorised treatment. Just being human wouldn't be enough ... but I can't honestly say where I would draw the line.

Ray Girvan said...

the land which might otherwise feed roughly seventeen humans on plant foods. Clearly, the Inuit who kills a fish or seal, or the native Australian who kills a kangaroo, or whatever, are proceeding according to need – it's them or the animal. So are many coastal fishing communities around the world

Add to that regions such as tundra, steppe and semi-desert that won't support significant agriculture, and animals able to consume the low-grade vegetation are a necessary intermediary.

Julie Heyward said...

I have a comparison that I hope I can express properly so as to make the parallel apparent. It's sort of an inverse thing. Here goes:

In a book I'm reading (Mountains Beyond Mountains), a group of doctors found a quite effective and relatively cost-efficient way to treat muli-drug-resistent (MDR) tuberculosis in poor people in Peru. When they tried to get their method adopted and funded by the main international TB governing body, they met with an argument from a man running a TB treatment program in Russia. He said that he could either treat 500 MDR patients or, for the same amount of money, he could treat 5000 non-MDR patients (even with the Peruvian groups method, MDR TB is about ten times more expensive to treat).

I would suggest that the 500 MDR patients in Russia who will not get treatment (assuming he chooses to use his money for the 5,000 non-MDR patients) are equivalent to your research animals. Those untreated MDR patients will, without exception, die. The 5,000 non-MDR patients, treated with the funds that did not go to the MDR patients, will be cured.

A choice is being made; in one case to allow harm/death; in the other to cause harm/death -- in order to reach some useful or good end. (Please don't bring up trolley-cars...)

(I can't believe I am making this argument. I find invasive/surgical/mutilating animal research unbearably awful to even consider.)

Dr. C said...

I guess I am the outrider here. I think the medical research part of this discussion can be a lot more complicated than it might first appear. [Interestingly enough, an MDR treatment for tuberculosis was that being used sureptitiously on patients in the book/movie "The Constant Gardener."] So, in addition to the moral dimension, we have, as depicted by Le Carre, both the political and the corporate greed dimensions.

As for animal experiments, many drugs and treatments would never come to light without experimentation on animals. This is not necessarily drugs to prolong the life of the elderly. We could not try a new cancer drug on a child until it had undergone extensive, multi species tests in animals both for efficacy and toxicity. What we can demand, or at least hope for, is that the experiments are conducted humanely.

One might make an analogy to the use of animals in farming and transportation. Certainly dragging a heavy plow around a field is not a horse's idea of fun. In fact, there would not be horse whips if this were true (or if horses ran races on a whim).

I think that we can make an argument for the use of research animals based on moral principals accepted by the majority. Consider the case of antibiotics: we have inadvertently created a monster of the multiply resistent bacteria by the overuse of antibiotics in a short sixty years. (Penicillin used to kill everything). It would be unethical to experiment with children, injecting them with different doses of a new antibiotic for a potentially lethal disease. For openers, by the time you accrued enough subjects you wouldn't have any left to experiment with. Mice and rats, on the other hand, are quite prolific and, if the experiments are humanely done, will yield the information quickly on toxicity and efficacy.

This leaves begging what I mean by "humanely".

Anonymous said...

I'm seventyone this year and have had Polio for 68 of those years - the last ten whizzing around in a wheelchair, throwing myself in and out of my car, on and off the toilet and bed.
Yet, I would rather be who I am with what I have than be "normal" and know that millions of other animals had suffered just for my well being.
In the past - and maybe still today - it has been well documented that various chemicals and drugs were tested on children in Africa.
One of the "iventors" of the Polio vaccine has been quoted as saying that he beleives the Polio vaccine may have introduced AIDS into the human community. Isn't it wonderful ? We are so proud to have rid the world of Polio, well, so they say..................no trust there I'm afraid.
I thnk it is very likely that most "modern" illnessses come about from the use of "modern medicines"
Chew on a leaf
for relief
There's somehting
there for everyone.
Geoff Powell
PS: Do not be afraid to live
nor to die, enjoy the experience.

Ray Girvan said...

One of the "iventors" of the Polio vaccine has been quoted as saying that he beleives the Polio vaccine may have introduced AIDS into the human community.

The World Health Organisation did take this hypothesis seriously - but it doesn't wash. See The WHO statement, which summarises the investigation of Worobey et al.