Friday, December 24, 2010

"Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue."

In the discussion under my post "The Structure of Cognition," Robert Streiffer asked for some examples of people who have explicitly endorsed the view that I claim is the operative norm within the animal research industry: animals (more specifically monkeys) do not warrant much moral concern from us.

One well-known example is the recently deceased primate head transplantation researcher (and one-time bioscience advisor to the Pope) Robert J. White, who wrote: “Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue, and elevating the problem of animal rights to such a plane is a disservice to medical research and the farm and dairy industry.” (Hastings Center Report, 1990, Vol. 20, November-December, p 43.)

And then there is Stuart W.G. Derbyshire:
Those of us who research on animals or support that research have made a moral choice to put humans first. We should behave and argue with a conviction that is worthy of the choice. Animal experimentation is a positive activity that advances our appreciation of nature and disease, and defending animal research should be part of a moral campaign that celebrates human knowledge and understanding. Simultaneously advocating animal research while trying to apologize and introduce alternatives is a poor defense of animal experimentation. Successful promotion of animal research can only begin when we withdraw support for the three Rs. "Time to Abandon the Three Rs." The Scientist-Magazine of the Life Sciences. 2006.
And also from Derbyshire, this gem -- that seems to me to characterize an unspoken widely-held position of those within the industry (based on their actions):
In contrast to ourselves, animal behaviour is mechanical, driven by the dictates of nature and immune to the processes of reflective cognition that we take for granted. And it is a black, silent existence that is not conscious of its own processes. All their mental experience, if they have any at all, is diminished relative to ours and this includes all sensations including vision, hearing – and feeling pain. “Animal Experimentation.” Edinburgh Book Festival. 2002.
The passages below are all from Why Animal Experimentation Matters: The Use of Animals in Biomedical Research. Ellen Frankel Paul and Jeffrey Paul, Editors. 2001. While these passages are not as stark as White’s assertion, they do I think suggest strongly that the industry is well populated by those who do not believe that animals warrant much sympathy or moral concern.

Adrian R. Morrison writes: “Human beings stand apart in a moral sense from all other species ...”. (p 51.) To him, there does not appear to be a continuum; it's apples and ... hum, clouds?

Stuart Zola, currently the director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, argues that any use of animals is warranted as long as the experimental design is “good science.” He worries that any other criteria will necessarily be too limiting:
Another way to preserve research possibilities is to reconsider what is meant by “benefits.” For example, one could hold the moral position that while possible benefits to humans and animals are important, the advancement of scientific knowledge is itself a benefit as well. On the surface, this position appears to run the risk of justifying almost any research project. In reality, however, this is countered by the underlying assumption that a permissible project must be based on good science, that is, science that has been peer-reviewed and found to be of acceptable quality. With that caveat in mind, treating scientific knowledge itself as a benefit would seem to be reasonable for a variety of perspectives. .... Therefore, it might not be reasonable to preclude the possibility of carrying out a study simply because it has no obvious immediate relevance, either potential or real. (pp 85-86.)
Jerald Tannenbaum, Professor of Veterinary Science at UC-Davis, characterizes the “traditional approach” to morality and ethics in the lab:
British cancer researcher Harold Hewitt provides a succinct expression of the traditionalist approach. “My concern,” he states,
is really not with the number of animals [used in an experiment], in the sense that I should be more upset by having caused one animal to suffer by my neglect or ineptitude than I should be by administering euthanasia to fifty at the terminatiuon of an experiment in which none had been caused suffering. The question the prospective animal experimenter has to ask himself is whether he considers that the painless taking of an animal is itself an immoral act. For me it is not. (p 96.)
Baruch A. Brady, Professor of Biomedical Ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, writes:
What sort of greater significance are human interests given over animal interests in the U.S regulations?

In fact, this question is never directly addressed. This stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. regulations on human subjects in research. These regulations require the minimization of risks, but they also require that the minimized risks be “ reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, if any, to subjects, and the importance of the knowledge that may reasonably be expected to result.” Nothing like these strictures occurs in the U.S. principles and regulations governing animal research.

Something else can be inferred from the wording of the U.S. principles on animal research. Discomfort, distress, or pain of the animals should be minimized “when consistent with sound scientific practices.” The number of animals used should be minimized to “the number required to obtain valid results.” Unrelieved pain necessary to conduct the research is acceptable so long as the animal is euthanized after or during the procedure. What this amounts to in the end is that whatever is required for the research is morally acceptable. ... There is never the suggestion that the suffering of an animal might be so great – even when it is minimized as much as possible while still maintaining scientific validity – that the suffering might outweigh the benefits of the research. Even when these benefits are modest, the U.S. principles never morally require the abandonment of a research project. (pp 134 – 135)

... All European regulations assume that animal interests in avoiding the harmful consequences of being in a research project have enough moral significance – in comparison to human interests in conducting the research – that in some cases the proposed research is ethically unacceptable. All involve a balancing of animal interests against human interests in a way that allows the protection of animal interests to be given priority in some cases. In this way, they all reject the American pro-research position, in which human interests seem to have priority in all cases. (p 136)
Charles S. Nicoll and Sharon M. Russell, vivisectors associated with UC Berkeley, write:
From an evolutionary perspective, attempts to find moral justification for the use of animals on the basis of our “moral superiority” or otherwise are unnecessary, and the arguments against such justifications are nonsensical. (p. 167)
H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., Professor of Medicine at Baylor School of Medicine, who says that his opinion about animals comes from God’s covenant with Noah, writes:
[H]uman moral experience is not simply richer than that of animals: all of moral experience is placed within human culture. Thus, the significance of animals (and of their pains, pleasures, and experiences) can only be understood in the context of human concerns. (p 177)

As long as a project that involves animal suffering is not directed simply at harming animals, it will not involve malevolence. A hunter who acknowledges that the significance of animals is primarily achieved in their contribution to the delight and experience of humans acts benevolently when savoring not just the chase, but the kill. One can also recognize an important difference in kind between a bull dying at the hands of a matador and the ways one might leave various animals to die or be killed .... (p 187)

From these passages, coupled with the actual practices, it doesn't seem inaccurate to characterize the beliefs of those within the industry as not caring very much about the animals' experiences, or to claim that those in the industry and its supporters feel that animals do not warrant much moral concern from us.


Rick Bogle said...

I understand that opinions vary. The opinions of those working in the industry vary as well. But given the understandably and decidedly pro-experimentation perspective of essentially everyone in the industry and the senior positions held by the authors quoted here, I think it is reasonable to surmise that many people within the industry have similar views. These passages appear to demonstrate a low regard for animals. Not much moral concern.

Anonymous said...


Most of them are simply stating that the life of humans is more important than that of animals. They are not saying that animals are not worth of of any moral consideration. That's just your selective and narrow interpretation.

Rob said...

Rick, thanks for the examples. Here’s my take.

I think the quote from Robert White is a clear expression of the view that nonhuman animals have no moral status. Indeed, in Taking Animals Seriously, David DeGrazia points out that White’s view is even more extreme than that. Kant, for example, held the view that nonhuman animals have no moral status, but he nonetheless believed that animal usage raises moral issues because it implicates indirect duties to other individuals (viz., persons) who do have moral status. White seems to deny even the second part of Kant’s view.

The view expressed by Stuart Derbyshire in “Time to Abandon the Three Rs” is a bit more ambiguous. He is clearly upset with the increased attention that the research community is expressing to animal welfare, through both “voluntarily and enforced mechanisms.” His reason is that he believes that a commitment to animal welfare is inconsistent with a commitment to animal research, and that the value of animal research is large enough to justify sacrificing the commitment to animal welfare. But that doesn’t mean that animals have no value, only that the value of animal research is large enough to justify sacrificing the value they do have. He does say that research in which animals are harmed is not to be understood as a “necessary evil,” only as “necessary.” This could means that there is nothing morally problematic at all about harming an animal, but it could instead mean only that it is justified, and so not evil. He speaks of putting “humans first,” but that just means that humans have more moral value than animals, not that animals have none. His main conclusion, taken literally, however, is even more extreme than White’s. Someone who literally rejects the 3Rs is implying, for example, that we should, other things being equal, prefer a more painful procedure to a less painful procedure.

Whether or not White and Derbyshire fully appreciated the implications of the views they expressed, and whether they would have altered their views if they did, is unclear to me.

(1/3 Continued Below)

Rob said...

I don’t have Animal Experimentation, and my copy of Why Animal Experimentation Matters isn’t with me, so I can only comment on the quotes you have provided.

The view Derbyshire expresses in the quote from “Animal Experimentation” speaks not of moral status but of the presence or absence of mental experiences. However, I would expect that he also believes that an individual has moral status only if it is capable of mental experiences, and so, even though he hedges a bit on whether animals are capable of mental experiences, I would expect that this does constitute an example of the views you were describing. It is interesting to note, however, that the view expressed in this quote does not imply that it is permissible to cause animals pain or suffering for the benefit of humans; rather, it simply denies that animals can feel pain or suffer.

The quote from Adrian Morrison only expresses the view that human beings are in a different moral category than all other species; it does not say that other species lack significant moral status.

The quote from Stuart Zola argues that scientific knowledge should be considered a benefit relevant to the ethical evaluation of research using animals, and he argues that this would not imply that all research is justified. The quote does not take a stand on the moral status of animals.

I’m not entirely sure how to parse the quote from Jerald Tannenbaum, but he appears to be expressing the view that while animal suffering matters, the painless killing of an animal is not very morally problematic. I would say that this view is relatively common, both among the public and among animal researchers. But if animals had no moral status, then their suffering wouldn’t matter either. So while this quote does express a view about the limited form of moral status that animals have, it does not express the view that animals have no moral status.

(2/3 Continued Below)

Rob said...

(3/3 Continued from Above)

The quote from Baruch Brody does not itself express a view about the moral status of animals, but it does discuss the attitude Brody thinks is embedded within the US regulations. He concludes that US regulations, in contrast to European regulations, effectively accord humans interests “priority in all cases.” A view that says that any human interest ,no matter how small, takes precedence over any animal interest, no matter how large, does not imply that animals have no moral status, but it is indeed a very, very minimalistic view of their moral status. I think he gets the US regulations wrong, for reasons I have stated in my earlier comments and remarks.

I confess to having no clear sense of what Nicoll and Russell are talking about when they say that “From an evolutionary perspective, attempts to find moral justification for the use of animals on the basis of our ‘moral superiority’ or otherwise are unnecessary.” Are they saying that we are evolutionarily hardwired to treat other species as inferior, and if there’s nothing we can do about it, then there’s no point arguing about it? If so, then that just says we don’t need to address the question of the moral status of animals, not that animals don’t have any. And the final clause, “the arguments against such justification are nonsensical,” just says that humans are morally superior to animals, not that animals have no moral status.

The quote from Tristan Engelhardt is another pretty clear example of the views you describe

(Continued below)

Rob said...

(4/3 Continued from above)

So, the quotes seem to me to be a bit of a mixed bag. Some are clear examples, others are clearly not, one draws a distinction between suffering and death, and others are hard to interpret. I don’t agree that the fact that these people hold “senior positions” is good evidence that their views are representative of animal researchers. Indeed, I think of White and Engelhardt as attracting attention not because people find their views plausible or well-defended, but because they provide examples of views that very few other people hold. Derbyshire's view about the 3Rs is a very extreme view, although it is worth noting that he seems to agree with me that the common view among animal researchers is that animal welfare should be an important and significant concern. Zola obviously holds an influential post at Yerkes, but I don’t think the quote you selected was an example of the views you describe.

(End Comment)

Jeremy Beckham said...

"Science should never be hampered by ethical considerations." - James Wyngaarden, former Director of NIH

Rick Bogle said...

See too: "Overcoming Ideology: Why It Is Necessary to Create a Culture in Which the Ethical Review of Protocols Can Flourish." Rolloin, B. ILAR Journal, Volume 48(1) Contemporary Topics for Animal Care Committees. 2008; at


"Animal Research, Animal Welfare, and the Three R’s." Rollin, BE. The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law. Volume 10, April 5, 2010; at Rollin provides some background for the Wyngaarden quote Jeremy added.

It seems to me that Wyngaarden's opinions must have affected his attitude about animals and influenced those around him. He was NIH director between 1982 and 1989.

Streiffer's claim that very few people in the industry hold such views may be more wishful than substantive.

Rob said...

I think that the Wyngaarden quote, on its most straightforward interpretation, where he literally means that science should never be restricted on the basis of ethical considerations, is disgraceful. But on that interpretation, it doesn’t support Bogle’s claim that animal researchers believe that animals have virtually no moral status. All it says is that even if animal research is unethical, that doesn’t provide grounds for restricting it. That, of course, is compatible with its being the case that animals have sufficient moral status to make most animal research unethical.

I also have reservations as to whether the quote, on that interpretation, accurately expressed Wyngaarden’s view. If Wyngaarden had been asked at the time whether scientists should be allowed to set off bombs in crowded public places, killing hundreds of innocent people, when doing so was necessary for answering their research questions, it seems to me unlikely that he would have responded, “Of course they should be. After all, science should never be hampered by ethical considerations.”

I haven’t been able to find the article in which Wyngaarden was quoted, but here is my best guess as to what is going on in that quote. In the debate about the ethics of genetic engineering, which is what he was talking about, it is common to distinguish “extrinsic considerations,” which focus on whether genetic engineering poses an unacceptable risk of harm, and “intrinsic considerations,” which focus on whether genetic engineering, even assuming it to be perfectly safe for all affected, might be intrinsically wrong, say, because it is unnatural. For reasons I cannot fathom, it is not uncommon for people to reserve the term “ethical considerations” for intrinsic considerations, as if causing harm to others wasn’t the paradigm case of an ethical issue. (It is common for conference programs on the use of genetic engineering in the food supply to have separate headings for food safety issues, environmental issues, and ethical issues.) So I suspect that a more plausible interpretation of Wyngaarden’s view is that he rejects the idea that research on genetic engineering should be restricted on the basis of intrinsic considerations. I think this is a relatively common view among scientists, and ethicists as well, but it leaves open the possibility that harm to animals provides a relevant ethical consideration for restricting research.

Rick Bogle said...


I think you are being too kind to Wyngaarden, though I do think that his comment is strongly suggestive rather than definitive concerning his personal belief about the moral importance of animals' experiences.

Wyngaarden is remembered by some for (among other things) his promise at a Congressional briefing that the monkeys from the Taub experiments wouldn't be moved without prior notification to the litigants. But 10 days later, without notification, the monkeys were sent to Tulane.

It seems that Wyngaarden, like UW-Madison primate center staff during the Vilas affair, was willing to say whatever was expedient or politic in the interests of his employer and the group with which he felt an affiliation.

On another note, I hope you will take the time to explain how it is that researchers and staff who eat animals don't exhibit a fatal bias that precludes ethical decision-making regarding animal use.