Monday, October 2, 2017

Experimenting with Humans: Scientific Research and The Moral Imagination

A great many of the foundational ethical principles that humans have set out for themselves have involved an imaginative component.* Involving the imagination can be of obvious assistance if we are trying to figure out (or to remind ourselves) how we should treat other individuals, or other groups of humans. But what if entire species are involved? It’s a lot less easy to involve the imagination in figuring out how we should treat chimpanzees and bonobos, or rhesus monkeys—let alone cows, pigs, and chickens.

It may help to imagine a species that doesn’t exist—or, at least, that is not known to us. Let’s imagine a species that’s smarter than we are—imagine the smartest person you know, and then imagine a species in which that person is far from the sharpest tack in the drawer. But let’s imagine that the habits of moral reasoning among members of that species aren’t that much different from our own habits of moral reasoning. Let’s imagine that they arrive on earth, and decide to stay. We’re allowed to stay too—they don’t wipe us out—but they’re clearly the more intelligent species, and they’re more powerful too; they’re in charge.

Let's further imagine that that the members of this other species are similar to us physically, and in many genetic respects—including in their propensity to die from various diseases. Understandably, when it comes to trying out prospective new treatments or new drugs, they decide to use us as we have used chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys. They try the drugs on various human populations, with various control groups. Of course, the humans in question have to be given the diseases first—and of course, the norm is for all experimental subjects to be killed at the end of each experiment. That’s unfortunate, but any reasonable person would have to understand that it’s justifiable—necessary, even. Any reasonable person would understand too that, within the scientific community in this species, different groups would compete to see who could develop the best means of infecting human subjects with these diseases or debilitating medical conditions—even of genetically engineering human subjects so that they would be bound to develop those diseases and conditions. We can hardly fail to understand the rationales that would be provided as justification for all this; we use the same justifications ourselves:
Some may find it especially objectionable that the primates are genetically engineered to mimic the symptoms of human brain diseases. That adds a new dimension to the debate, but existing standards ought to be able to deal with any welfare issues.

The bald fact is that Japan and China are going to do this research anyway. It is surely better for it to be part of a global scientific program – accompanied by a welfare debate – so we can all benefit from the research as ethically as possible. (“Monkey experiments are a necessary evil for better medicine,” New Scientist, 15 June, 2016)
“As ethically as possible”—given that the subjects will have to be made to suffer, and then killed.

It’s worth looking closely at the language we use to help us justify these killings. “Culling” is a word that occurs frequently; animals aren’t described as having been killed at the end of the experiments we subject them to; they are described as being “culled” or “euthanized.” “Sacrifice” is another word you run into a lot: the subtitle of the article quoted above runs as follows: “Like it or not, primates are an essential part of biomedical research. But we must ensure the sacrifice is worthwhile…”

But for many scientists, there is not even a show of regret at using innocent beings in this way; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sunday Edition radio program, for example, carried an interview yesterday with a neuroscientist who lauded the discovery that “you could mimic a disease” such as Parkinson’s “in an animal model.” Imagine again that other species subjecting us to experiments, and scientists belonging to that species marveling at the wondrous discovery that you could mimic in human subjects the diseases that their species suffered from; what tremendous scientific advances such discoveries make possible!

There are plenty of practical reasons why we shouldn’t be basing human biomedical research on experimenting with other species; it turns out that relatively few important scientific advances have been dependent on research conducted on non-human subjects—and that such research has not infrequently brought with it costs for humans as well as for non-humans. (See, for example, But just as important as the practical arguments are the arguments from first principles—as a little exercise of our moral imagination may help us to see.

*Religions ask us to Imagine how we would feel if another were doing the same thing to you. Immanuel Kant advised that, if we can imagine an action justified as a universal law, then we may be confident it is ethical in particular circumstances. John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance, unable to know whether the persons affected by a possible action are rich or poor, black or brown or white, male or female; behind such a veil we can discern whether a given action is right or wrong in itself.