Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Weighing Suffering

Vivisectors are a breed unto themselves. For some reason, some of them feel like they have to justify the terrible things they and their ilk do to animals; not all vivisectors of course, most of them don't say a word in public about the things they do to animals in their labs, and when asked are circumspect about it. Those who are driven to defend their industry frequently lament the fact that most of their colleagues would rather not draw their neighbors' and non-vivisecting friends' attention to the nitty-gritty of their gritty work.

If it weren't for the few outspoken apologists, we wouldn't have as much insight into their beliefs and worries as we do, albeit limited as it is.

One of the claims made by the outspoken vivisectors, and by all the pro-viv public front groups, is that they really do care about the animals and wish they didn't have to hurt and kill them. Images like this are common on the pro-industry propaganda websites:

The impression is that, doggone it, vivisectors are animal lovers too. The impression, not necessarily the truth.

In fact, some vivisectors don't think the animals they hurt can suffer. As wild as that sounds, it is worth noting that there are white doctors and nurses who still don't think people with skin darker than theirs feel pain the way they do. [Hoffman, Kelly M., et al. "Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113.16 (2016): 4296-4301.] This is nothing new.

Juan Carlos Marvizon is a vivisector who likes to share his thoughts. He is a regular contributor to the misleadingly-named pro-vivisection group Speaking of Research. He uses rats to study pain. Here's a recent piece from him: More Thoughts on Animal Suffering, and a couple passages from the essay:
...I think that suffering requires the presence of a self because otherwise the existence of the subjective experience of suffering doesn’t make sense. This is a variant of the problem of consciousness: do non-human animals have a self? That’s doubtful. Maybe apes and dolphins do, rats and mice probably don’t. But, again, that is highly speculative. Hence, there has to be a scale of suffering. In that scale, humans are capable of much deeper suffering (and much deeper happiness) because we can see ourselves as selves with an existence extending in time, so we not only suffer in the present, but we can see that we have suffered in the past and that we will suffer in the future. Without episodic memory and extended consciousness, animals do not have selves with that continuity in time.

Questioning the ability of animals to suffer doesn’t mean that scientists are looking for a justification to inflict pain on animals. Rather, here scientists face two different moral imperatives. The first is the fundamental dictate of science of looking for the truth unhindered by cultural and societal biases. This leads us to examine the questions of animal pain and suffering in an objective way. The second moral imperative is not to be cruel to animals that can potentially suffer. It is because of this and the cautionary principle that we treat animals like rats and mice as if they can suffer, even when we don’t know for sure that they can. However, we do know with absolute certitude that humans can suffer, which is an additional argument to put human suffering before putative animal suffering. Therefore, it is morally justifiable to use animals in biomedical research to alleviate human suffering, while at the same time taking all possible measures to minimize the distress of animals involved in research.
He doesn't believe the rats he hurts can suffer because he thinks they don't have a sense of self. So, seemingly, whatever nominal welfare standard he is required to give lip-service to, it is to him not really necessary since rats are little more than animated machines, an opinion that has been relied on to absolve vivisectors since it was first voiced by Rene Descartes 1640.

He explains the terrible things he does to rats on his webpage:
Biography Dr. Marvizón’s research field is pain neurophysiology. He investigates chronic pain disorders at the physiological, cellular and molecular levels using the Latent Sensitization animal model. Latent Sensitization is triggered by injuries that cause long-term inflammation or nerve damage, such as skin incision, injection of inflammatory agents or nerve transection. This is followed by a period of increased sensitivity to mechanical (for example, poking with nylon filaments known as von Frey filaments) or thermal (focusing a hot light on the paw) stimuli. The key part of the Latent Sensitization model is that when that period of hypersensitivity has ended it can be reinstated temporarily by an injection of an antagonist of opioid receptors (mu, delta or kappa) or of alpha-2 adrenergic receptors. This reveals that the neural pathways that process pain remain sensitized but at the same time are suppressed by the activation of these opioid or adrenergic receptors. It is likely that similar process occur in chronic pain patients. Another important characteristic of Latent Sensitization is that pain can also be reinstated by stress (like making a rat swim in a bucket of water or exposing it to a new environment). Again, this happen to chronic pain patients.
All Marvizón’s nastiness aside, what initially caught my attention was his claim that "there has to be a scale of suffering." I think he's wrong in the context he is talking about. Obviously, suffering isn't the same for everyone in every circumstance. I suffer a heck of a lot more when I stub my toe really hard. Marvizón’s claim is that humans suffer more than other animals, and there is some sort of step-wise increase in their potential for suffering in species more like us.

This suggests to me that we should be able to compare these imagined levels of potential for suffering and come up with some sort of calculus that would give us the ability to weigh the potential benefits against the certain harms.

A straightforward case might be something like this: If we test some drug on 1,000 rats (and kill them) and it leads to saving 1,000,000 humans, would that be ethical? If we had some unit of measure, say a potential for suffering (pfs) score that we could assign to humans and rats, we could plug in the numbers and get an objective answer. Of course, such a scheme could be used to justify human vivisection as well, so maybe that plan would be too dangerous.

Nevertheless, if there is a scale of suffering, it could at least shed some light on the amount of suffering animals of different species might be subjected to from us using them. I suspect though, that people like Marvizón don't actually believe there is a meaningful scale of suffering. I think most people who use animals, even most people who simply eat them, actually believe that animals have no ethical weight at all.

Many people at least claim to care about other humans. This led me to wonder about the horrible things we do to each other. Among the worse, and almost universally decried as heinous (in public) is genocide. There have been a lot more cases of genocide that I thought, and they have been of various size. Here's a little graph I made based on data from Wikipedia; a range is given, I chose the high end number in every case:

43,003,883 people killed since 149BCE simply because they had the wrong religion, language, color... this led me to wonder how many people have been killed in wars. The upper estimate is 1 billion. When compared to the genocide deaths, genocide starts to look a little less serious (as if 43 million deaths aren't serious):

So combined, between war and genocide, we have killed somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion, 43 million people, or 1,043,000,000 of us. The population of the U.S. is about 325,000,000 right now.

But, compare that number, a tally of killings over about 2000 years, with the number of animals we killed in commercial slaughter in 2017 alone: [Data for the animal numbers for this chart comes from and]

In this chart, genocide has been dwarfed to near nonexistence. The entire history of war deaths is a small slice of the pie. That's the number of animals killed in one year and the number of each other we have killed for as far back in history as we can look.

I was surprised by this data. It's hard to grasp the numbers involved, the individual animals it represents. Moreover, this pie chart represents a single year. The chart from the previous year is essentially exactly the same.

The purple section is repopulated every year. Every year. While the other sections, the white and sliver of blue, represent what happened in the past -- no new human victims are being represented in previous or succeeding charts.

We, as in the general public, think the war and genocide deaths are bad, evil things, yet, we kill many times over that number of animals every year. And that number does not include the animals we kill hunting and fishing, the millions of mice and rats killed in the labs, the dogs and cats killed because no one wants them, the poisoned animals, the trapped animals, the animals hit by cars, killed for fun, or culled in some notion of population management...

And for the most part, we say those deaths are proper and OK because they are legal or regulated or whatever.

And if that is so, then we must have in our heads some calculus, some ethical ratio that says one human life is worth, a billion animals? This is why the planet is in such dire shape. We are consumed by our own image. We believe ourselves to be gods.

In 2005, I launched an effort to establish a sort of living animal holocaust showcase between the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the Harlow lab. It turned out to be just another animal rights failure. The Anti-Defamation League wrote to tell us that they thought it outrageous to compare what was happening in the monkey labs to the Holocaust. This is my reply to them:

Mark Juster
Lonnie J. Nasatir
Anti-Defamation League
Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest Regional Office
309 W. Washington St., Suite 750
Chicago, IL 60606-3296

Dear Mr. Juster and Mr. Nasatir:

We are writing in response to your June 28, 2005 letter. You expressed concerns regarding the explicit comparisons the National Primate Research Exhibition Hall is making between the Holocaust and harmful experiments using animals.

The sentiments you express seem to be based on the simple implicit claim that whatever is done to an animal other than a human, cannot rise to the same level of moral concern as it would if it were being done to a human.

This is the common, widely held view of most people today. It is however, based on pre-scientific assumptions. Consider the following experiment:

Rhesus monkeys were trained to pull on one of two chains, depending on the color of a flashing light, in order to receive food. After training, another monkey, held in restraints, was displayed through a one-way mirror.

By pulling the chains in the correct fashion, the first monkey would receive the food reward, but one of the chains now delivered a powerful and painful electric shock to the restrained monkey. It was discovered that most of the monkeys would not shock another monkey even if it meant not being able to eat. One of the animals went without food for twelve days rather than hurting the other monkey. Monkeys who had been shocked in previous experiments themselves were even less willing to pull the chain and subject others to such torment. [Masserman J, Wechkin S, Terris W. 1964. ‘Altruistic’ behavior in rhesus monkeys. American Journal of Psychiatry vol. 121: 584-5.]

Quite clearly, the monkeys in this study were following the Golden Rule. If we choose to live a moral and ethical life, it would seem profoundly wrong to intentionally hurt others who seem to understand this radical and history-changing idea. It seems monstrous that we would take such animals from their homes in the wild, destroy their social systems, breed them, experiment on their children, and on them, and justify the entire endeavor with the claim that it might be beneficial to us. This seems to be a profound case of hubris.

You stated that it is disrespectful to compare the “alleged mistreatment of animals with the enormous human suffering that took place during the Holocaust.” You state that calling the National Primate Research Exhibition Hall “another” Holocaust museum “evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of the Holocaust.”

We are offended that decades of documented cruelty are dismissed in such an offhand manner. There is nothing being "alleged". We state the facts.

You claim that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the Holocaust. My personal understanding of the Holocaust is based on years of reading and teaching. I brought the National Holocaust Museum’s traveling exhibition to my small community in 1995. That same year I had a survivor come to my classroom and speak with my students. I have read most of the works written for adolescents many times over the years with my students. I have read many scholarly works devoted to various aspects of Germany’s policies and practices during the Nazi era.

When learning about the Holocaust, slavery, racial strife, the Killing Fields, and other examples of our inhumanity to each other, my students invariably asked why people allowed such things to happen; why didn’t they do some thing to stop them. Although I had no concise answer for them, we always agreed that the people who spoke out, who hid Jews, who helped blacks escape to freedom, who stood with the oppressed, were acting as we hope we would have acted if we had lived through those times.

Once the implication of the discoveries regarding animal mind are understood, the realities of the current situation become impossible to describe in terms other than those used to talk about past atrocities.

The Holocaust, I hope you agree, was not an experience unique to the Jews. The Final Solution was a unique aspect of the Holocaust. We do not claim that a parallel event is occurring today. There is no genocide occurring today in the primate labs. We do not claim there is.

I finished reading Vivian Spitz’s Doctors From Hell (Sentient Publications, 2005) just recently. As you may know, she was a court reporter during the Medical Case (Case #1) of the Subsequent Proceedings of the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials. The convicted medical doctors and medical assistants were found guilty of Crimes Against Humanity. Their victims – their experimental subjects – were a very heterogeneous group comprised of common criminals, political prisoners, Russian prisoners of war, Gypsies, Poles, the infirm, Jews, and others.

It is this aspect of the Holocaust and the fact that no one was speaking out in protest, that we draw attention to in our literature. Given that in both situations, medical doctors and scientists were and are being given authority to make society’s moral decisions; given that the justifications are the same: we will benefit from their suffering and death; given that science has demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, that the brains of monkeys and humans are so similar that the species’ subjective experiences are necessarily similar; given that scientists claim that monkey psychological reactions are directly applicable to humans due to our close evolutionary relationship and the attendant physiological and emotional similarities; given the demonstrable horrors of laboratory life, we feel that the parallels we draw are appropriate.

Further, given the lack of education regarding animal mind, the historic willingness to ignore that which government tells us to ignore, and the historical facts regarding the consequences of doing so, we feel obliged to call attention to the issue and to draw parallels with the Holocaust where parallels exist.

We believe that, if you consider this issue with an open mind and compassionate heart, you are bound to understand the accuracy and importance of what we are doing. Given your commitment to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and trying to assure that it does not happen again, we sincerely hope that you will lend your voice to our growing list of supporters.

You state that our “objectionable use of Holocaust imagery ultimately taints your campaign and detracts from the message your organizations seek to convey.”

I hope you can see why I believe you are wrong. The message we seek to convey is that the suffering today is indistinguishable from past suffering. The silence today is indistinguishable from the past silence.

Thank you for taking the time to write to us. I have enclosed information about the Exhibition Hall. Please do not hesitate to contact us with further questions or concerns.


Rick Bogle

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