Thursday, January 28, 2010

Philosophy: Animal Experimentation

It's been some time now since I've published a blog, what with one thing and another (insert excuse here).  Regardless, the time has come for me to get back in the saddle, and ride valiantly into the bloggosphere. To start up, I thought I might begin with a light and cheerful subject - animal experimentation.

This quarter I've been taking a class on Rationality and Emotion, which includes lots of readings (mostly written by the teacher) that, among other things, talk about a variety of experiments done on animals in the area of cognitive research.

I'm not sure what I think of this.

Now, let me be clear, I think animals (and nature in general) should be treated with respect and cared for as much as possible, but I do not think they have priority over humans. As such, I really have no problem with experiments designed to, say, search for cures for cancer... or even for the common cold (though I do think we should do our very best to do as minimal damage in the process as possible).

On the other hand, I'm very strongly against experimentation for frivolities - makeup, for example. I don't think there's anything wrong with makeup per se, but I think it's terribly wrong to test makeup on animals to make sure it doesn't irritate eyes or cause blindness. If that's the cost, makeup can go (or, you know, we could just use the formulas we already have that work fine). 

But what about pure research? Certainly, such research is not a frivolity like makeup, but then neither is it directed towards any specific good. Some of the experiments I've read about recently have included creating lesions in bird brains to test if a certain cognitive function still worked, removing parts of monkey brains to find out where the anticipation response lies, and subjecting rats to painful electrical shocks to test how strong their curiosity is. At least on the face of it, this strikes me as unjustified cruelty, yet it's not as straight forward as the makeup case.

 For one thing, while such pure research is not directed at any sort of cure, it often results in accidental beneficial side effects. In testing what part of the brain controls a certain cognitive function, we may in fact discover how to restore that function in humans who have lost it.

I think, in general, I'm leaning towards thinking this sort of research is unethical, but I am certainly not totally decided. Thoughts?


  1. The last few examples you gave were actually things that are quite beneficial for discovering the truth behind funcionality, attitude, reasoning, and other similar things like that. While on the surface, they seem quite cruel, they serve a much better purpose in the long run, similar to the horrible experiments performed on the Jewish and Chinese by the Germans and Japanese respectively that have lead to the foundation of all of modern medicine . . . it is a terrible nessesity, but an important sacrifice to be sure.

  2. I never contended that they weren't useful for discovering truth, what I question is whether discovering that truth is worth the cost.

    Also, my knowledge about the German and Japanese experiments is sketchy, but if I recall correctly the records were sealed because of the cruelty involved. I'm not sure how sealed records could be the basis of modern medicine...

    Regardless, your example proves my point. Nobody thinks what was done to the Chinese and Japanese was acceptable, whatever came of it. Were we, as a species, able to choose again, my hope would be that we would choose to not allow those experiments to happen, whatever the costs for modern medicine

  3. A friend of mine went through his entire college career studying mathematics and biological brain mapping. He was all set, after his masters, to enter the field of brain mapping but then he discovered animal experimentation was involved and quit and got his PhD focusing on a different field. Sad for his career but noble for his perceived ethics (I don't necessarily agree with his decision but that's what an opinion is!).

    In regards to the commentors posts about the Japanese and Nazi experiments: we decided to take what we could from those experiments that were made and see if we could make good on them (making the victims, perhaps, not die in vain). The ETHICAL question was giving those doctors (Japanese and Nazi) amnesty and providing them jobs and careers here in America to continue their research in a more civilized manner. Trsut me: it happened. Fox Mulder told me.

  4. Yes, giving jobs and amnesty to those kinds of doctors certainly is an ethical question. I honestly don't have any philosophic position on using the data from stuff that's already been done. I know it makes me uncomfortable, but as my friend Josh would say "data has no inherent ethical value".

    However, I'm certain that if the question was - if we could choose again, should we allow the experiments to happen for the sake of the benefits, or stop them despite the cost.

    And the idea of my original post is - is experimentation done on animals for pure research a choice like that? Should we choose to stop, whatever the consequences?

  5. I'm just spitballing here. . .and I could be amazingly immature about the whole thing but what if it's a food chain thing?

    If it came down to the basics, we'd kill animals to survive and it would be completely acceptable. Since animals are 'lower' on that food chain, do we usually accept such experiments because it is, in one way or another, the sacrifice they make to make the higher being on the food chain succeed.

    I don't totally believe what I'm saying so bear with me. . .but I'd thought I'd throw it out. Cosmetics vs. survival is very different, agreed, but maybe it is, sadly, a 'class' thing.

  6. Humans are not mere animals driven by food chain dynamics however, or at least we don't have to be. Rationality (and perhaps Spirituality) give us a chance to be what mere animals cannot be - moral agents.

    Now, that said, even if it were a food chain matter, that still would only get us to where I started - experimenting on animals for directed medical purposes (as well as killing them for food) is okay, but experimentation for mere curiosity (even if it has tangential benefits down the line) seems questionable.