Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ethics at UW-Madison

Deciding whether something is or is not ethical is a personal decision...
-- Eric Sandgren. Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Research Animal Resource Center commenting on the proposed formation of a citizens' advisory panel to look at the questions of whether or not the monkeys at the university are treated humanely and whether the use of monkeys is ethical. (County committee pushes for citizen panel to examine monkey research. Capital Times. June 30, 2010.)

Eric Sandgren is entitled to his opinions, but the opinions of public employees in positions of influence should be looked at carefully by the public. This is why Congress interviews people nominated to serve in such roles at the federal level.

In Eric Sandgren's case, his opinions likely have a strong influence on the culture of the animal labs at the university. His publicly-stated position that right and wrong are mere personal opinion seems to give permission to the university vivisectors to do anything they want to the animals.

Sandgren would point out in his defense that the vivisectors are constrained in the things they do by the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service regulations, so no, it isn't true that anything goes.

But someone who announces publicly that ethics is a personal matter probably feels that the law and regulations are arbitrary. Someone with this view might see the law and regulations as a nuisance. This would go a long way in explaining the repeated violations of the law and regulations by vivisectors at the university cited by federal inspectors.

Eric Sandgren's position does not seem to be unusual. His statement seems to be an expression of the institution's long-standing bedrock belief. On the one hand, they profess in public to have a strong concern for the animals and to treat them well -- better than most pet owners they claim. But they keep the animals in small cages that cause them great stress and routinely subject them to treatment that would be illegal if done in someone's home.

The idea that keeping an animal in a small cage, often for years, and infecting them with diseases, performing invasive experiments on them, modifying their diets in ways that harm them, frightening them, etc, is ethical if done in a lab, but would be unethical in done in one's basement, can only be explained by saying that "deciding whether something is or is not ethical is a personal decision...".

But Eric Sandgren et al don't really believe this. They preach a very self-interested version of moral relativism or situational ethics. If one listens to them or reads their arguments, you see that they aren't prepared to admit that the things they do could be immoral. They say they are offended by such a claim. A genuine belief in moral relativity would lead one to shrug off any opinion not in agreement with one's own.

A moral relativist, someone who genuinely believed that "deciding whether something is or is not ethical is a personal decision..." would have to argue that nothing is out of bounds. Torture, rape, molestation, who's to say what's right and wrong?

Putting a person professing to have such a faulty moral compass at the helm of the university's animal research oversight seems perverse. It should come as no surprise when details of great suffering emerge from the labs or to learn that compassion and even rudimentary compliance with the spirit of the few weak regulations governing the use of animals are routinely lacking.

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