Note: This post discusses experiments that study human problems using animal bodies as models for the human body. I have a separate post on research that aims to understand animal behavior, biology, etc.
When we do scientific experiments on humans, they need to give informed consent. This means that the participant knows what he/she will be asked to do, whether there are any potential risks or benefits, the purpose of the experiment, and that his/her well-being and safety is given highest priority. In contemporary science, anything else is considered unethical and cannot legally be performed.1
Of course, this is not always so clear cut. What if the experiment depends on the participant not knowing what is being tested? This is the case in many psychological experiments. In this case, the participant is given as much information as possible before the study, always including potential risks, and then debriefed after the experiment is completed. What if the participant is unable to understand the relevant information? If the participant is too young, or mentally incapacitated, then another person who has the participants’ interest in mind can give consent under certain circumstances.
Many scientific experiments with very real benefits simply cannot be performed under these restrictions. Animals are used as experimental subjects in these studies. The logic behind this assumes that 1) animals have less cognitive capacity than humans, and 2) this makes it permissible to experiment on them in ways that would be unethical with humans. It is estimated that 115 million animals are used in research per year worldwide,2 everything from chimpanzees and other primates to dogs and cats to reptiles, rodents, and insects. Nearly all of them are killed upon completion of the experiment.2
Animals cannot give informed consent, for obvious reasons. You cannot explain to an animal why an experiment is being performed, what benefits or risks might be involved, and what will be expected of that animal. The animal cannot make the decision whether it wants to participate. Just as infants or mentally incapacitated humans rely on others to make this decision for them, animals’ interests are represented by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which evaluates proposed experiments based on the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act.3 The committee decides whether an experiment’s use of animals is justified, whether the animals will be kept in acceptable conditions, and if suffering will be minimized under the limitations of the experiment.
Scientists who use animals are guided by the Three Rs: Replacement, meaning that other methods should be used if possible, Reduction, meaning that as few animals as possible should be used, and Refinement, meaning that procedure should minimize suffering and enhance welfare for the animals.4
I would like to point out the difference between this approach and the one described at the beginning of this article. With human subjects, the study is of secondary importance to the participants’ well-being. However, when evaluating animal experiments, there is an implicit assumption that there are experimental results that justify animal suffering. The IACUCs are only there to ensure that the experiment fits this description. The problem is that the legal standards for justifiable use of animals are surprisingly minimal. Just as with meat, leather, and other animal industries, the truth about these animals’ lives are not well known to the public, suggesting that there is incentive to keep these facts secret.
The Animal Welfare Act is the legislation that guides these decisions and experimental designs. It requires that a veterinarian be consulted for anything involving more that momentary pain, that the use of animals is justified in a written report, and that anesthetic be used whenever possible. There are also minimal requirements on how the animals are housed and obtained. These regulations only apply to vertebrates, and exclude birds, rats, and mice explicitly bred for experimentation. The vast majority of animals used in testing fall into this category, so they receive virtually no protection. This exclusion should be a red flag that the laws are not really designed to protect the animals. There is no difference between a rat bred for testing and one captured from the wild, yet one is given some legal protection and the other is not. Even so, over 1 million animals per year are covered under these laws in the US.5
The situation then is that nearly all animals used as experimental subjects can be subjected to anything, and the rest of them can be subjected to psychologically and physically damaging studies in the name of science. In practice the committee members on the IACUCs are not experts in veterinary medicine, zoology, or even the area of science that the studies they are evaluating fall into. This means that they are not particularly qualified to determine the effect on the animals involved or the scientific value of the study.3 This means that the committees are extremely lenient. They operate on a majority-rules basis, and the committees are usually small, so two or three people often make the decision.
The result of all of this is that animals are still used extensively in scientific research. An estimated 57% of those animals are subjected to more than momentary pain or discomfort.4 Many alternatives to animal testing are in development, such as computer models, synthetically grown tissues, and improved noninvasive scanning and imaging techniques. However, scientists can usually still make the case that animal use is justified based on the limitations of these alternatives.
On the other hand, modern medicine certainly would not be what it is today without these experiments. They certainly yield useful and life-saving results that go on to make people’s lives better.
I’ve only talked to a few people who do this kind of research. One person treated the whole thing as a joke and didn’t seem to care, but everyone else I have talked to says that performing these experiments does take a psychological toll. It’s not easy to inflict suffering and end lives every day. But people do it. Some writers have brought up Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, where human participants were told by an authority to deliver increasingly painful levels of shock to another person. The shocks were not actually administered, which is lucky because many of the participants delivered lethal doses. These results were used to show that authority figures can greatly influence people’s behavior. (Sidenote: This experiment would be considered unethical and could not be performed today because it causes distress to the human participants.) Although this kind of dynamic may be a factor in researchers and their experiments, I think the pressure comes more from the culture and their peers. These people get through the day by telling themselves that the research will reduce suffering in humans in the future, that it’s a necessary evil. They also comfort themselves by saying that alternatives are being developed, and in the future these kinds of experiments will not be necessary. These kinds of justifications come from the fact that this is the way medical research has traditionally been done (which is not an ethically sound justification). It’s seen as inevitable, despite the obvious ethical questions involved.
When medical researchers doubt the ethicality of their experiments, it is due to feelings of shock or disgust at their own actions. However, if these feelings are mediated by the justifications above, the researchers will continue with their work. With repeated exposure, these feelings become less and less intense and will probably disappear completely. Then, when those researchers start to train the next generation, they are so desensitized to the violent nature of their work, that they pass on the status quo as a given. It becomes a cultural norm, which makes it very difficult, psychologically, to question and change.
What I found hardest to understand is how a researcher can inflict great pain and suffering on a beagle in his/her lab, and then go home and love his/her pet dog. Such an extreme case shows the psychological power of the situation. Either the test animals are completely separated from the pet animals in the researcher’s mind, or else there would be a huge cognitive dissonance felt between the conflicting set of feeling and actions. Studies have shown that when people feel cognitive dissonance between their thoughts and their actions, they tend to modify or justify their thoughts, and keep their actions the same. I would guess that this effect is very powerful in these cases.
The Ethical Questions:
Does reducing the suffering of humans justify the suffering of animals? Why not the opposite?
Why do we have different standards for different animals? Are these reasons justified?
Are there any research subjects that justify the suffering of animals? If so, how can we distinguish them from those that don’t?
What is the best way to move toward more humane alternatives?
The utilitarian view is that if the research will prevent more suffering than it causes, then it it justified. Peter Singer says that the suffering of an animal is given equal weight to that of a human, so by his view this is a numbers game. Does the research save more people than it does kill animals? The biggest problem with this is that it is usually impossible to tell how many people a study will end up saving. The whole idea of quantifying suffering is not easy to implement.
An animal rights theorist like Tom Regan would say that we cannot use animals in tests at all. They cannot give informed consent, and we have no right to inflict suffering on them because of their intrinsic value. In the scientific realm, this would be how we approach the problem if we raise animal suffering to the current moral level of human suffering. Scientific studies cannot be performed on humans without informed consent. By this logic, animals are not eligible to be test subjects.
Most people don’t think about in either of these ways. Most people do think human suffering is worse than animal suffering because humans are perceived to have more developed cognitive capabilities (according to humans). Indeed, it does seem that most, if not all, nonhuman animals cannot comprehend that they are being used, that they might have had a better life under different circumstances, or other abstract conceptualizations of their own situations. I do think this is relevant to the discussion. But it also brings up more problems. If we are justified in using animals because we are somehow cognitively superior, then it follow that if a hyper-intelligent alien species were to come to Earth, they would have the right to perform experiments on us, based on the fact that they can comprehend things that we cannot, and on the assumption that experiments on us will save alien lives. Harold Herzog calls this the E.T. Dilemma.6 I think most people would have a problem if hyper-intelligent aliens came and started doing painful experiments on us, but based on our own actions, we can’t really blame them for it.
A possible response to that argument is that there is a certain level of intelligence where suffering matters outside of any utilitarian argument, but that line is arbitrary. Of course we would draw it just below our own intelligence, which justifies our use of animals but not any other species’ use of us. That kind of arbitrary line does not hold up under logical scrutiny. It becomes pure speciesism.
As always, there is no easy answer. I believe that in lose-lose situations like this, and many other human-animal relationships, we have to choose the least terrible option. In some cases, that probably does mean using animals as models for humans in medical research. I don’t have a good answer as to how to tell these specific cases from the rest, but I do think that our current system is not working. It seems like there is a great deal of needless, unjustified suffering inflicted on animals by scientists. I think that cosmetics and other commercial products should never be tested on animals. Medical researchers should have to justify their use of animals to independent, federally-funded experts in the research field and in animal welfare. It should be very difficult to get approval to conduct a study that harms an animal. The process and specific cases should be transparent and available to the public and the press. Under these conditions, there is much more push to develop viable alternatives and improve the lives of animals who are giving their lives for ours. As it stands now, the system will only perpetuate itself.
1 McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychology Research Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/Ethics.html
2 Humane Society International’s page on animal testing
3 Wikipedia on IACUCs
4 Wikipedia on Animal Testing
5 Wikipedia on Animal Welfare Act
6 Harold Herzog’s essay on the morality of animal research