Monday, May 28, 2012

Speaking of Research and morality

In my opinion, all discussions about harming animals are discussions about morality. Even pointed debate about the efficacy of using animals as models of human disease and drug response, are, in most cases, arguments about morality: it can be justified only if it works, only if it works well enough, etc.

But those discussions, while interesting from a mechanistic point of view and in spite of the fact that they often expose serious problems with the claimed utilitarian justifications for hurting and killing animals, side-step the heart of the matter.

When I learned that Allyson Joy Bennett, a member of "The Committee," an undefined body that is part of the small provivisection group Speaking of Research had been hired by the university, I had hoped that she would be explaining the group's philosophy. Alas, she's in hiding.

In any case, I've been trying to catch their drift. It appears to me that the group is primarily intended to help pass out industry propaganda. Much like the now-defunct Incurably Ill for Animal Research (iiFAR). Nevertheless, they do say here and there that they think they can justify hurting and killing animals because of their belief that moral status is a sliding or graduated scale. They appeal to authority on this point and sometimes point to the work of David De Grazia.

Unfortunately, De Grazia falls victim to a terminal malady that plagues many if not most or all philosophers and writers who try to defend the use of animals: an appeal to "moral intuition."

A member(?) of Speaking for Research published in an essay in 2011 in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. (The use of nonhuman animals in biomedical research. Ringach DL.) He tries to explain why it is OK to hurt and kill animals:

Many philosophers agree, he says, that the interests of (normal) humans and animals in life are not relevantly similar.

He writes:
Human life is the execution of an aspiration—a life’s plan. Human life is a process that cannot be reduced to mere living by satisfying our immediate biological needs. Humans are not content with living, they need to live well and realize their ambitions. Among these ambitions is the need to transcend our biological lives in some shape or form, by contributing to science, arts and society, in ways that improve the well being of living beings in our planet. When these needs are denied, and despite having all their biological needs met, humans can willfully terminate their own life.

Interests in life are not relevantly similar among humans and animals—the same things are not at stake.
This is a pretty common argument, but I don't think it holds water for a couple of reasons.

1. It's far from clear that all people have life plans or that life plans have been common for very long. Its hard to imagine what the life plans of someone living in a particularly poor county aspires to other than finding today's food for themselves and their family and a semblance of safety. Or what someone in a pre-civilization extended family group might have been hoping to achieve in life without there being a concept or need for money. There might have been a desire among the males at least for higher social position, but that appears to be somewhat common among some primate and other social species.

2. The aspiration of advancement or a desire to realize our ambitions is contrary to the recommendations of some philosophers:
When speaking of the first hindrance to genuine Dharma practice -- attachment to the happiness of only this life -- the Buddha spoke of the desire or ambition for material possessions, money, fame, praise, approval, and sensory pleasures such as food, music, and sex. Due to our strong desire to have the pleasure we think these things will bring, we often harm, manipulate, or deceive others to obtain them. Even if we strive for these things without directly ill-treating others, our mind is still locked into a narrow state, seeking happiness from external people and objects that do not have the ability to bring us lasting happiness. -- Venerable Thubten Chodron
3. It seems to me that in times of great danger, the desires and interests of humans and members of many other species are exactly the same. If threatened, we run or hide. When our lives are threatened, we don't worry about the possible promotion at work we might have gotten, we hope only to live. We hunker down, find a hole, stay quiet. It is our similarities in these bedrock responses to life and the risk of great pain and death that give meaning to the Golden Rule.

In these fundamental matters -- not whether I will have another paper published, be appointed to a committee, get the loan for the new car, or any other peculiarly human aspiration -- most animals are the same; our interests are identical.

Many humans strive to be content with "just living." In times of great danger, all humans claim that they would be content if they could just survive.

Generally, in spite of rare exceptions, harming or killing a dog, mouse, or monkey is immoral for precisely the same reason it is immoral to kill a human: they don't want to be harmed or killed.


Anonymous said...

"All comments must be approved by blog author". Enough said. Go ahead and dissaprove of this comments, dear censor.

Anonymous said...