If vivisectionists are to offer a minimally decent defense of animal research, they are left with one option: they must demonstrate that biomedical research on animals is “necessary” and “essential” for human well-being. Yet, instead of making any sort of case for the necessity of animal research, Dario Ringach, a vivisectionist and well-known proponent of animal research, focused most of his recent talk at UW Madison (October 24th 2013) on attacking the animal rights position. Well, he did provide one slide that listed maybe 20 drugs that have been developed throughout the history of animal research (without acknowledging how many human lives were directly harmed by false negatives or indirectly harmed by false positives). But besides this one slide, Ringach’s primary aim seemed to be to attack the animal rights position without adequately considering the problems associated with his own alternative theory of moral status. Below, I have discussed just a few issues with his recent talk which concern his mischaracterization of the animal rights position, failure to see the problems with his own sliding-scale of morality view, and inadequate discussion regarding the ethical problems which plague the scientific community.
Misrepresentation of the Animal Rights Position
Ringach’s argument can be summarized in the following way: the animal rights position attributes equal moral consideration to animals and humans. This egalitarian view of moral status is problematic for the following reason: if we had the choice of saving a mouse or a human being in a fire, the animal rights position is committed to “flipping a coin” (keep in mind, Francione is the only animal rights theorist who grants that flipping a coin might be the morally acceptable option). Ringach then argues that since there is “universal agreement” that we should ALWAYS save the human over the animal, this proves that the animal rights position is wrong. Clearly, according to Ringach, the fact that we all agree that we would save the human over the mouse entails that nonhuman animals have a lower or weaker moral status than human beings. Ringach then concludes that: (1) the animal rights position is wrong and (2) therefore vivisection is morally permissible.
There are a few problems with Ringach’s talk which aims to illustrate that vivisection is morally permissible by criticizing and revealing the “absurdity” of one possible implication of just ONE version of an animal rights theory:
(1) Even if we accept Ringach’s claim that animals have a “lower” moral status than rational human beings, this still does not entail that we can use them as tools for research! This might entail that, in genuine conflicts, we should save the human over the animal; but having lower status does NOT entail that we can use them as instruments or tools to human ends in non-conflict situations. Ringach needs some further argument that illustrates why having “weak” moral status entails that a being can be used as a means to maximizing social utility.
(2) Is cultural relativism true? If not, then I’m not sure what “universal agreement” has to do with anything. In a world that does not cultivate critical reasoning, altruism, or moral virtues, the last thing I would want to do is take moral guidance from the “majority” opinion. The fact that there is universal agreement about an issue should have no bearing on whether or not something is an objective moral truth.
(3) In his thought experiment, Ringach purposefully chose to use an animal, such as a mouse, which would elicit a reaction of disgust from the crowd. I wonder why he did not ask the question of whether the audience would choose to save their companion animal over a stranger?
(4) Choosing the rational human being over the mouse, in cases of genuine conflict, does not entail that the two beings have different moral value. Most of us would consistently choose to save a 20 year old man in a fire over a 90 year old man; does this then entail that the 20 year man has more moral value than the 90 year old man? Or that we can then go ahead and perform invasive research on the 90 year old man without his consent? Absolutely not! It simply means, in cases of conflict, we should choose the “least worse” option, while still recognizing that both beings have a right not to be unjustly killed.
(5) Not all animal rights theorist would agree that we should flip a coin in cases of conflict; some animal rights positions, such as Regan’s, morally forbid animal experimentation while granting that we should save the human over the animal in cases of genuine conflict. Regan specifically states that in life boat situations, the morally appropriate action is to save the rational human, since the human can be harmed in more ways than an animal in death. Yet this still does not entail that the animal does not have inherent value, i.e. that it can be treated as a means to an end.
According to Regan, to say that a being has inherent value is to say that it cannot be used as a means to an end. This is a categorical notion that does not come in degrees– either a being has inherent value or it does not. A human cannot have more of a right to “not be used as a means” than an animal. Either we can use an animal as an instrument, or we cannot. Now, the fact that two beings have inherent value doesn’t necessarily mean that the beings should be treated in identical ways– this is because two beings with equal inherent value might have drastically different interests. So, a human might have an interest in not experiencing pain, voting, living, going to college, getting married, having children, and so forth while a nonhuman animal has an interest in not suffering, not experiencing pain, not being confined, and so forth. The fact that a mouse and rational human being have equal inherent value does not entail that we should extend to mouse the right to vote, go to school, etc. Rather, it entails that we consider what interests they do have equally– but this might entail different treatment. Likewise, in cases of *genuine* conflict (which research is not), we might treat rational humans and animals in different ways– and this is because it would make sense to save the life of the being with more interests because there are more significant ways this being can be harmed by death. But this doesn’t entail that the inherent value of the animal goes out the window! That animal still has the right not to be treated as a means to another’s end.
A Commitment to “Counterintuitive” Conclusions
Since Ringach’s sliding scale of morality entails that a being’s moral status is tied to its cognitive capabilities, he commits himself to the claim that marginal human beings have the same moral status of nonhuman animals with similar cognitive capacities. When pressed about whether we should then use marginal human beings in research, Ringach’s response was that “the rational humans (parents) will feel sadness if we subject their mentally impaired children to research.” Yet, if we are worried about “human sadness,” won’t there be more “human sadness,” when significant numbers of children continue to die from cancer since animals serve as inadequate cancer models? Couldn’t we end so much “human sadness” by using marginal human beings as research models, who are physiologically identical to rational human beings? And wouldn’t the end of such massive suffering outweigh the sadness of the parents of the marginal human beings? Perhaps we could take cognitively impaired orphan-humans from mental hospitals and use them as research models in order to avoid the problem of “parent suffering”? Or better yet, couldn’t we use genetic engineering to clone marginal human beings in research labs, so that there aren’t any “sad parents” to begin with? These are all conclusions that Ringach’s own “intuitive” theory entails.
“Trust the scientists”
Ringach told us over and over again to “trust the scientists.” As he continually asked: “why would scientists continue to use animals in research if there were other alternatives? Scientists don’t enjoy hurting animals!” Here is one reason scientists might refuse to acknowledge the beneficial alternatives to animal research: many scientists would lose their jobs! As Sinclair (1935) once wrote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The research community, along with the medical community, pharmaceutical industry, and so forth has an incentive to keep human beings diseased and sick. Cures to human diseases and sicknesses will eventually lead to 0 profit for both researchers and the pharmaceutical industry. Along these same lines, scientists have an incentive to keep asking questions, regardless of how meaningless these questions might be. Here is why: in order to be paid, scientists must have research projects. In order to perform research, the researchers must receive grant money. In order to receive grants, scientists must publish. In order to publish, scientists must be performing research. You see, there is this vicious cycle where the jobs of researchers depend on performing research (and performing research depends on human beings being diseased and sick). This is perhaps why the invasive research conducted on cats at UW Madison (one cat had holes drilled into her skull, steel coils implanted in her eyes, and electrodes implanted in her brain, and she was intentionally deafened by having a toxic chemical applied to her inner ear), was “justified” because the researchers need to “keep up a productive publication record that ensures [our] constant funding.” Other vivisectionists, such as Harry F. Harlow, have likewise made public that publishing is the foremost goal of a scientists. As he once said, “The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish. I don’t have any love for them. I never have. I don’t really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs.” Given that these sorts of statements are not isolated statements and that animal researchers commonly perform useless experiments for the sake of publishing, why then, should we “trust the scientists”?
Inadequately Addressing the Issue of False Negatives
Even setting aside the issue of animal welfare in research, one might argue, on anthropocentric grounds, that animal research is problematic because of the negative effects animal research has proven to have on humans themselves. There are two sorts of harms humans face in animal research: (1) Direct Harms: certain drugs are characterized as “false negatives,” which means that while drugs have no harmful effects in nonhuman animals, they have harmful effects when used in human beings (they test “negative” for harmful effects in animals). Examples of false negatives are thalidomide, Zimeldine, Isuprel, Clioquinol, and Opren. (2) Indirect Harms: certain drugs are characterized as “false positives,” which means the drugs have harmful effects in nonhuman animals, but no harmful effects (and in fact substantially good effects) when used in human beings (they test positive for harmful effects in animals). Examples of false positives are acetaminophen, ibuprofun, flouride, penicillin, cortisone, prednisone, digitalis, depo-provera, etc.
While Ringach acknowledges that the results from animal research will not always be successfully extrapolated over to humans, here is one thing he conveniently did not answer (which I specifically asked him during the Q&A of his talk):
How may human beings have been saved by animal research?
How many human beings have been harmed by animal research through false negatives?
If animal research is justified by the so-called wonderful effects in human beings, why can’t scientists provide us with statistical evidence (even if it is just an estimation) by directly comparing the human harm to the human good that has resulted from animal research through the use of actual numbers? Rather they say “look at all the good that’s come about!” without a comparative analysis to the frequent harm to *humans* in research.
The Wrong Focus?
It’s safe to say that Ringach’s talk was an attempt to promote animal welfarism over an abolitionist stance. However, we don’t need scientists devoting themselves to these discussions (we have enough philosophers doing this): we need scientists who are willing to speak to the glaring problems of using animals in research even given its supposed “necessity.” For instance, what are some of the issues science faces with forming Animal Care Committees? How do we cut down on needless animal research? What sorts of animal research is not necessary? Where do we draw the line at what is “necessary” research and what is not? How do scientists choose models for research in the first place (for instance, a mouse over a chimp)? What happens if there are conflicting results from experiments (for instance, if a drug has a healing effect in one animal, but a lethal effect in another)? How do scientists decide how many animals to use in a given research project? How could scientists cut down on the use of animals? What are specific ethical concerns regarding the confinement and living conditions of lab animals?
At what point do we say that research on animals just is not worth the immense pain, suffering, and death animals face in order to produce an arguably small benefit for human beings? For every 600 drugs that enter the preclinical testing on animals, only 12 advance to human clinical trials. Furthermore, the NIH and FDA report that 9 out of 10 drugs developed from testing on animals fail in the human clinical trial phase. What’s more is that approximately 50% of the clinical failure rate is due to drugs being too toxic. The FDA reports that there are over 2 million Adverse Drug Reactions (ADR) each year, approximately 100,000 deaths from ADR per year, making ADR the 4th leading cause of death. What this means is: (1) there is a whole lot of animal suffering, (2) not a lot of human healing, and (3) substantial human suffering from animal research. Not to mention that there are indirect harms of animal research: (1) approximately 588/600 drugs are never tested on humans, despite the fact that they very well might have positive effects in humans (but we will never know, since the mere fact they failed on animals prevents future testing on humans), AND (2) the billions of dollars wasted on animal research could have been spent elsewhere, such as on *prevention* of disease (most of the diseases and sicknesses scientists attempt to cure are human induced by improper eating, laziness, and recklessness) and the time and energy scientists have wasted on animal research could have been dedicated to developing cures and drugs through alternatives such as computer simulations, human-tissue cultures, human stem cell research, in vitro techniques, and mircrodosing (furthermore the funding spent on animal research could have been used to develop alternatives).
I wish that, just once, a vivisectionist would put these statistics up on a Powerpoint, clear for an audience to see, and then try to justify just how “necessary” animal research is.
These were questions that we would expect Ringach to address in his talk: questions scientists can specifically speak to given their inside knowledge. By selectively focusing his talk on the “obvious” “necessity” of using animals in research, Ringach was able to avoid the difficult ethical questions associated with his every day practices. In the future, I would like to see scientists address these specific questions, rather than giving a broad defense of animal research which often is mistakenly assumed to imply that “anything goes.”
**Another insightful and informative response to Ringach’s Oct 24th 2013 UW Madison talk can be found here (by Rick Bogle of Animal Alliance).
Stay informed: there is a significant amount of research that points to the ethical AND scientific flaws of using animals as research models. Below are just a few of the many, many sources available which challenge the so-called “consensus” of the scientific community:
Dr. Ray Greek, the president of Americans for Medical Advancement, has published a number of articles which articulate why Ringach and other vivisectors are wrong. You can read a short blog post of his here, where he briefly discusses the problems with Ringach’s reasoning. Also, his article The History and Implications of Testing Thalidomide on Animals illustrates why animals should not be used as research models. Also, a short and informative letter response to Ringach can be read here. Other books/articles by Greek: Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experiments on Animals, Searching for Alternatives, Specious Science: How Genetics and Evolution Reveal Why Medical Research on Animals Harms Humans.