Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’d like to take a moment to consider a recent comment on a fairly old post about a class meeting wherein my students and I considered some of the inconsistent views about animals with which people seem to walk around. Here’s what the commenter said:

“But, as one of my students put it, ‘Some of these people who want to shut down the animal research facilities should put a sock in it while they’re still eating meat.’”

This suggests that your classroom discussion created a false impression in your students, perhaps due to your own false assumptions.

I’ve campaigned for ten years to end harmful biomedical and behavioral research with primates. I’ve been involved along the way in campaigns to shut down studies using other species as well.

Consistently, and with only very limit exceptions, the people I’ve worked with and met around the country working on this matter have been almost uniformily vegetarian and frequently vegan.

You seem to have left your students with a misunderstanding of the realities of the modern antivivisection movement and confused them regarding just who it is out on the sidewalk holding the sign.

At no point in my post (or in the discussion with my students) was there any mention of “the modern antivivisection movement,” at least if we’re talking about people who work professionally on behalf of animal rights or otherwise devote a large proportion of their time, efforts, or resources to fighting for animal rights. We certainly weren’t mounting a critique of official doctrine from ALF or PETA or any other organization.

We were talking about the views of actual people we know — real folks who describe any research use of animals as bad but think using animals as food is unproblematic. Thus, to ascribe “false assumptions” to me or my students seems unfounded. Here’s how I framed the original post:

It’s true that there are folks who try hard to be completely consistent: they’re not only against animal experimentation, but they don’t eat animal flesh, or eggs, or milk, or honey, don’t wear leather, don’t kill the ants that have taken up in their kitchen, etc. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they’ll not only eat any animal product, but will happily wrestle it to the ground and kill it themselves, and have no problem with the use of animals in research, whether the aim of the research is curing cancer or developing a new eyeliner color.

But between the No Animal Use Ever camp and the Any Animal Use You Desire camp, there’s a whole lot of people in the middle. And, at least one notable position in the middle seems to be: “Scientists ought not to use animals in research, but eating meat is perfectly fine.” …

I’m not saying we ought to make life hard for anyone who is the least bit inconsistent in his or her beliefs or actions. But, when you want your views to be binding on someone else’s actions, making sure your views are binding on your own actions might be a useful first step. Maybe there is a persuasive argument that using animals for meat is morally defensible in a way that using them in research is not (and if you have such an argument, please share it). But, as one of my students put it, “Some of these people who want to shut down the animal research facilities should put a sock in it while they’re still eating meat.”

Wanting to shut down animal research facilities doesn’t necessarily mean holding the signs on the sidewalks. Plenty of people have opinions that they hardly act on at all, save to share them with anyone in earshot. This is why it’s pretty easy to find a wide range of opinions on a college campus where the students themselves decry the apathy of the student body.

That said, given that the original post was an examination of a certain kind of inconsistency to which it seems humans fall prey fairly easily, I can’t help but read the comment a little more closely:

Consistently, and with only very limit[ed] exceptions, the people I’ve worked with and met around the country working on this matter have been almost uniformily vegetarian and frequently vegan.

(Bold emphasis added.)

So … can we talk about those exceptions? Wouldn’t those suggest that there do exist people — even people in the modern antivivisection movement — who think it is morally wrong to use animals in scientific research but morally acceptable to use animals for food? And if so, doesn’t that mean the accusation that I’ve given my students a false impression of the human frailty of people who oppose animal research is a false accusation?

For what it’s worth, there some other posts worth reading about the challenges in being completely consistent:

*Hugo Schwyzer writes on his continuing opposition to animal research despite his father’s recent death from cancer. There’s a very interesting discussion in the comments about what consistency requires of a vegan who, for example, is also striving not to be wasteful.

*Amanda Marcotte’s review of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma takes a nice peek at how the embiggening of organic farming operations tends to undercut the principles that lead many people to seek out organic produce in the first place.

Comments

  1. #1 bsci
    December 7, 2006

    The Schwyzer post is beyond addresses the challenges of consistency. It’s a bit delusional. He piously says he wouldn’t have approved of animal research if it could have saved his father, but did he encourage his father to avoid all diagnostic testing and treatments? How about pain management medications?
    That fact is that almost every aspect of our understanding about cancer progression and treatment is fundamentally based on animal research. This is not just ancient animal research, but current and active research often translates into the clinic in 5-10 years.

    His challenge of consistency talked about wearing your leather belts from before he came to his current opinions, but many of the animal research that benefited his father are very recent.

    Personally, I am a medical researcher who uses only human volunteers and I’m actively working on ways to improve human testing that decreases the need for animals. Still, I can confidently say that my research would not exist if it were not for current and active animal research done by others. To ignore the fact that animal research is vital for ANY signifcant future advances in medical treatment is to ignore reality.

  2. #2 Tulse
    December 7, 2006

    Problems with consistency runs the other direction as well. I imagine almost all animal researchers think that setting a dog on fire would be immoral, yet are quite happy to experiment on animals. I knew a psychologist in grad school who had several cats that she loved dearly, and wouldn’t have dreamed of subjecting to lab procedures, yet regularly did neurological experiments with rats. Humans routinely treat their pets as beings worthy of much more moral concern than other animals, even though the only difference is that we happen to know our pets, and don’t end up having a personal relationship with the dogs and cats used in research.

    More generally, the consistency argument can be run in almost every aspect of human life — for example, someone who trades in human slaves might argue that while you oppose slavery, you buy Persian rugs made by children who are practically indentured, or purchase goods from sweatshops in Asia, so who are you to judge?

    Besides, the consistency argument is often not an attack on the defensibility of the position, but rather on the weakness of the advocate of that position, which is pretty much an ad hominen. Even if I am not completely consistent in carrying out my position, that doesn’t invalidate the position itself. We wouldn’t think that if a legislator advocated for a law against stealing, and then was arrested for theft, that the law itself was invalid — why is it any different in this case?

  3. #3 BRC
    December 7, 2006

    “using animals for meat is morally defensible in a way that using them in research is not…”

    I can see an argument being made in this direction, and it would be one predicated on a kind of environmental ethics. For example, eating animals might be part of an ecological process in ways that using animals for research is not. This, to be sure, may be increasingly difficult to maintain, culturally and materially, given the predominance of our industrialized ag system that Pollan describes in the above-mentioned Omnivore’s Dillema — but just becuase we’ve overwhelmed the ecological relationships of humans and our food chains does not mean that it could never be any other way. (That is, using our past failures to justify future ones.)

    So we might still be able to promote a view that organic food movements — local farms with grass-fed cows, brought to slaughter every year; deer hunts that then get stocked in the freezer to last the winter; chickens and eggs and so on in the barn… — could be understood as part of broader ecological systems, of animal populations, and habitats, and sustainable processes. This is not *in contrast to* why and how we use animals for research, I should clarify, but it is *different than* how we do that. Which is what you asked about in the post.

  4. #4 bsci
    December 7, 2006

    Tulse,
    First, Schwyzer specifically talks about not wanting to use treatments based on active animal research probably his father was probably using exactly those treatments. This crosses the line on consistency issues into being plain deluded about the centrality of animal research in medical science.

    Second, I don’t see a consistency issue in the pet / research subject issue. Someone has a pet that they treat well and does animal research. Are researchers required to enroll friends or family members in all human volunteer studies? Many (most?) animal researchers do take the care and comfort of their subjects very seriously and try to use the minimum number of animals and cause the minimum about of pain to acheive the desired result.

    In general, of course we place different values on things we know. While I can value and understand the importance of many things, my family is more important than another family and my home is more important and another family’s home. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or inconsistant about caring more about thing you are familiar with. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about other things.

    As a slightly separate note, I recently came across an interesting historical article on animal welfare in research at:
    http://www.jhu.edu/%7ejhumag/1106web/caat.html

  5. #5 Janet D. Stemwedel
    December 7, 2006

    bsci, I take it that Hugo is not so much arguing that future human advances in medical treatment can be achieved without animal research, but rather arguing that even if animals are required for such advances he does not think it’s worth the moral price tag. This reflects his valuing of animals relative to humans — something lots of people don’t share, obviously.

    Tulse, I agree that having inconsistent values is a different thing from having consistent values but not living up to them. However, when people who act in ways that appear inconsistent and are asked about it offer a moral justification for this behavior (rather than just admitting that it’s hard to live up to those values), I think it’s fair to examine whether the justification offered sets out a defensible position.

  6. #6 bsci
    December 7, 2006

    My problem with Hugo is not just about future advances, but that his father probably directly benefited from extremely recent advances which he seemingly has no moral problem with at the time. if he said something like he didn’t want to use any treatment or diagnosis that came along after 1990 or whenever he had his anti-animal research epiphany, that’s fine, but that’s not what he said.

    The flaw in his logic is that it seems he’ll use and benefit from whatever medical advances are currently available no matter how much animal research was required to create them, but he won’t support future research. Ten years from now, will he limit himself to medical treatments available in 2006 or will he take advantage of 10 more years of animal research to treat loved ones. I highly doubt he’ll turn down treatments. He’ll use the fruits of the animal research that he tried to prevent from happening.

  7. #7 Janet D. Stemwedel
    December 7, 2006

    The flaw in his logic is that it seems he’ll use and benefit from whatever medical advances are currently available no matter how much animal research was required to create them, but he won’t support future research.

    If that’s really his position, I agree it’s untenable. (At that point, why not eat an animal that has already been slaughtered but oppose future slaughter?) But it’s not clear to me that Hugo’s dad shared Hugo’s views on animals or animal research here, and presumably Hugo respected his dad enough to let him make his own decisions about what cancer treatment to pursue.

  8. #8 Periphrasis
    December 7, 2006

    That’s a very good point, Tulse. Pointing out a personal/positional dichotomy doesn’t generally undermine the position directly, but undermines the credibility of the person advocating that position. While it tends to have the same effect, it isn’t as effective (or, I’d argue, as ethical) as engaging the position directly.

    This is not to say that one ought not point out, or attempt to ascertain the degree to which a person’s stated convictions line up with their behavior – that can be a vital part of a discussion, and elucidate problems one or the other side hadn’t engaged before (in what way does the consumption of animals for food differ from the use of animals for research? Are there any conditions under which one might be acceptable but the other not? What principles are underpinning a person’s advocation of this point, and in what way does that affect the type of point they are making?). To stop the argument there, however, does a disservice to all involved.

    I, personally, oppose animal testing that is unnecessary and/or cruel. If a given thing can be safely tested on humans (shampoo, eyeliner, etc.), then it ought be tested on humans. If a test can be performed on an animal in a manner that is less cruel than another (say, anesthetizing animals before performing a painful procedure), then it ought be done that way. We should do only what we need, and do so in a manner tht does as little harm as possible, for as little time as possible. This includes after-procedure animal life – no “composting” (http://www1.pressdemocrat.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061122/NEWS/611220399/1033/NEWS01 which, I realize, is a food thing and not an animal research thing, but it’s the best example I can think of at the moment), if there is a better, more thorough means of euthenasia, and no euthenasia if it’s not the best and most merciful solution.

    Similarly, I oppose cruelty in animals used for food. I’m not as good at researching my food as I ought to be, but when given the choice, I’ll choose kosher meat, or meat from free-range animals over traditional farmed ones.

    I don’t think it’s untenable to balance need (food, science, medicine), practicality (although there are animal-free alternatives to many things we need, they aren’t always accessible or equal in quality, and may not be realizable on a large scale, or may cause other problems), and a desire to minimize cruelty and waste. It just requires more thought than is generally displayed in these kinds of conversations. (Which doesn’t imply that thought is not happening in this particular conversation, but rather that the positions stated: no-animals-at-all or all-animals-all-the-time don’t lead to productive conversation.)

  9. #9 Marie
    December 7, 2006

    “who think it is morally wrong to use animals in scientific research but morally acceptable to use animals for food?”

    Yes, this is a viable point of view. Many of my friends and neighbors don’t eat meat unless they raised it themselves or know who raised it, thus ensuring happy animals. This is also an argument for only eating organic eggs and meat- as these animals live non-factory farm lives.

    Do not be afraid to engage in the quality discussion in which factory farming, long trips to slaughter faclities and stessful slaughter is not considered worth supporting but small scale farms are.

  10. #10 Tulse
    December 7, 2006

    I don’t see a consistency issue in the pet / research subject issue. Someone has a pet that they treat well and does animal research. Are researchers required to enroll friends or family members in all human volunteer studies?

    Of course not, because humans can give consent (that’s what “volunteer” means). Animals can’t, and it seems completely inconsistent to me to say that this particular dog (or cat, or rat) is a companion with an intelligence and personality, but this one over here is an object that can have neurosurgery done on it.

    Put it another way — if a researcher were using children as subjects in a research procedure that they wouldn’t at all consider putting their own children through, wouldn’t that cause you to question their ethical consistency?

  11. #11 bsci
    December 8, 2006

    Tulse, I think you have a misunderstanding about animal research. Animals used in research are used because of and not despite their intelligence. They are not objects and should never be treated as objects. In fact a standard ethical practice for animal research is to use the lowest level animal necessary to perform research. If research can be done on a cat or a fish, it should be done on a fish. If it can be done on a fish or a fruit fly, it should be done on a fruit fly. If research can only be don’t on an animal as devloped as a cat then it’s intelligence is acknowledged during the research.

    As for your child analogy, my research is uses humans. If I were doing a study looking for healthy child controls, I would absolutely not do something I wouldn’t do to my own child. For studies of healthy adults, I have frequency been a control in both by own and other people’s studies.

    You seem to fall in the PETA camp of making zero distinction between human life and other life. I won’t attempt to change your mind, but from the perspective of someone who does value human life more, there are many different ways we treat animals. Would you criticize a farmer who slaughters cows for food, but treats the ox that pulls his plow much better? For many people the purpose of a pet cat is companionship and the purpose of a cow is food. You might not like that a vast swath of humanity thinks of a large portion of animal specials as for their purposes, but this is reality that isn’t changing any time soon.

  12. #12 PhysioProf
    December 9, 2006

    “embiggening”

    What didn’t you like about the perfectly good word, “enlargement”?

  13. #13 Miss Hoover
    December 9, 2006

    “Embiggening” is a perfectly cromulent word!

  14. #14 Rick Bogle
    December 10, 2006

    I’d like to return to my original observation regarding Janet’s students’ likely false impressions of activists’ ethical consistency and my conjecture that this liklihood was due to Janet’s own false assumptions.

    If, in the original post, she had pointed out that her class discussion had focussed on an apparently inconsistent view held by a minority of modern antivivisectionists (or animal rightists), I would have moved along without making a comment. But she wrote:

    “But between the No Animal Use Ever camp and the Any Animal Use You Desire camp, there’s a whole lot of people in the middle. And, at least one notable position in the middle seems to be: “Scientists ought not to use animals in research, but eating meat is perfectly fine.”

    The main idea of her post was this: “[W]hen you want your views to be binding on someone else’s actions, making sure your views are binding on your own actions might be a useful first step.”

    She summed up with this:

    “Maybe there is a persuasive argument that using animals for meat is morally defensible in a way that using them in research is not (and if you have such an argument, please share it). But, as one of my students put it, “Some of these people who want to shut down the animal research facilities should put a sock in it while they’re still eating meat.”

    The problem is that the inconsistency Janet writes about is not so evident in the people likely being referred to by her student.

    Janet says: “At no point in my post (or in the discussion with my students) was there any mention of ‘the modern antivivisection movement.’” Hello? How does this jive with the final comment from her student: “these people who want to shut down the animal research”?

    “These people who want to shut down the animal research facilities” are the modern antivisection movement.

    And, to restate my concerns: After 10 years of working in this arena, it is my observation that most modern day antivivisectionists are at least vegetarians. If Janet’s students left her classroom with any other impression then she (unintentionally perhaps) left them with a false impression.

    (Hey Janet, I really do like your blog. ScienceBlogs seems the appropriate place to discuss the ethics of vivisection. I wish you would address UW-Madison’s decision to destroy the 60 boxes of monkey experimentation videotapes to keep them out of activists’ hands, and the inconsistent claims about the rigour of oversight in light of Plous and Herzog. Thanks for thinking and writing.)

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