Saturday, July 11, 2009

Scientists and animals

The Pew Research Center has a report on the public's view of science, which includes comparisons between the public's and scientists' views on various issues such as politics, religion, climate change, and evolution. It's fascinating reading, and it's interesting to me that when asked which groups contribute "a lot" to society's well-being, scientists are rated above doctors, engineers, and clergy, below only teachers and members of the military.

Examining my own beliefs, I find myself, in cases where opinion differs significantly between the public and scientists, agreeing with the scientists in every single case but one: nonhuman animal experimentation. While only 52% of the public supports the use of animals in scientific research, a whopping 93% of scientists support this use. Why?

I've got a few ideas.

First, some proportion of scientists are obviously the ones doing the research, so it would be rather unlikely they oppose it. But even among those who aren't, I've noticed a certain camaraderie among scientists, and a general sense that each discipline tends to trust the other disciplines to know what they're doing. So while not every scientist experiments on animals by a long shot, they assume that those biologists and others who do are doing so for a good reason.

Second, and this is pure guesswork, I would imagine scientists tend towards a vague utilitarianism as a moral philosophy to a greater extent than the general public. This makes sense, as utilitarianism is a very logical and attractive stance on the surface. Scientists tend to avoid the religion-based morality that a large portion of the public follows. In seeking to maximize the aggregate good, utilitarianism removes hard rules that might seem arbitrary or even based in religious-thinking. If scientists are convinced of the import of animal research, then it makes a certain utilitarian sense to sacrifice these animals for the greater good.

Ironically, it is science that leads me to oppose the use of animals in scientific research. Science has consistently demonstrated the capacity of many animals to suffer. That animals are similar to us is in fact the essential basis of most biomedical research. The only question is: can causing suffering be justified?

Without applying my own moral reasoning to the question, I want to point out that there is good reason to reject the use of animals in research following from two simple axioms that I would think most people share:

We ought not to cause preventable suffering.
We ought to treat like cases alike.

Animal researchers claim that animal experimentation is necessary because it allows important, often lifesaving medical progress. I am not the sort of animal rightist who is going to deny that animal research achieves these goals. Scientists know better than I do the implications and results of their research. But I will deny that this fact alone makes the research justifiable.

Suppose that, for some reason, animals were unavailable for research. Would any animal researcher then support using orphaned, severely mentally-disabled children for necessary medical research? I am not trying to be ridiculous here, my example is very specific — the children are orphaned, so there is nobody else affected by any decision; they are mentally-disabled and so will not ever be autonomous and capable of consent in the sense that adult humans are. Given that humans are animals, these children are similar to animals used in research in every way that could be morally significant.

I think using these children in research would still be wrong, because they are still due respectful treatment which, at the very least, entails not causing them suffering and not killing them. I am certain that most scientists would agree that we should not use these children, no matter how necessary the research in question. So how do they justify using animals? If we treat like cases alike, and there is no morally significant sense in which these children and animals are not alike, then we must treat them equally.

The only difference between animals and humans of comparable mental development is species membership. And drawing moral lines based on a classification scheme, rather than on the actual characteristics of the things being compared, is arbitrary and irrational. Parsimony suggests that if two animals are similar in mental capacity and ability to suffer, we ought to treat them similarly, and the fact that one is a member of Homo sapiens is irrelevant. The good that might come from harming any of these animals cannot be used to justify their suffering.


  1. I think there are plenty of good scientific reasons for scientists to be against animal testing. This isn't the 18th Century anymore. I think we've pretty much learned everything there is to know about the macro level of biological functions in animals and humans. At the cellular level there is a wide variability between humans, let alone the variability between humans and non-human animals. That's why so many drugs that were "proven" safe in animals have ended up killing humans.

    Animal testing is supported by scientists for three reasons. 1.) It's easier to do quick studies and therefore more studies. More studies means more papers published, means more grant money, means more profits. 2.) Animal tests help protect drug companies etc. from lawsuits when their products make people sick or kill them. They can defend themselves by saying that animal tests showed the product was safe. And 3.) Science has become an institution and like all institutions it has become resistent to change. University professors teach the philosophies that they were taught. A paradigm shift is needed.

    Ask the vivisectionist why s/he tests on animals to find cures for human diseases and s/he will tell you it is because animals are so much like humans. Ask the vivisectionist why it is morally acceptable to test on animals and s/he will tell you it is because animals are not like humans.

  2. Excellent points.

    I should say that when I said I won't deny that animal research achieves certain goals, all I mean is that (1.) it is an empirical matter if it does or doesn't, not a moral one, and (2.) things can be "good science" and still be utterly, totally wrong. Experimenting on humans may well be great science, but it doesn't make it right.

    Also, I'm going to have to steal your last paragraph next time I'm having one of these conversations ….