Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What kind of bogus requirement is that?

Here’s a (relatively) recent talk and discussion with philosopher Lori Gruen about research on nonhuman animals:

Prof. Lori Gruen "Animal Research and the Limits of Medicine" from luciano M on Vimeo.

I found it through this post by Dario Ringach, whose response was at times odd:
Prof. Gruen offered a couple of examples of research we would all consider to be off limits, however she struggled to apply her own criteria to give us instances of invasive, biomedical experiments she feels are morally justified. When challenged to list a such examples, she paused for a while, and then offered a rather unsatisfactory response — “This is too big a question.”

Unfortunately, making such moral judgements is at the heart of the issue....

If moral philosophers want to have an active participation in the ethical decision process they must be able to answer how and when they will find a particular research proposal justified or not. The public (which is certainly a stakeholder in the research as much as those that would like to advocate for much stricter limits [I’m confused as to why he doesn’t regard these people as part of the public. – SC]) would very likely want to know, for example, if Prof. Gruen would have approved of the use of animals in the development of the Polio vaccine, or the use of mice to develop new therapies for aggressive forms of breast cancer, or the use of rats to develop a cure for paralysis? Would she have approved these projects only if the investigators expressed their willingness to experiment on cognitively impaired children as well? If so, would she endorse such experiments herself?
This is strange and in some ways bizarre. First, that wasn’t the entirety of her response, as Ringach must know. Second, the last two questions rest on a misunderstanding which he seems to promote consistently: that the nonspeciesist and moral individualist contention is that scientists should perform the experiments they perform on animals on cognitively impaired children instead (or additionally). That is not an argument I’ve ever heard them make, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to do so. They object to the suffering caused to beings with certain relevant capacities regardless of species. It would be utterly bizarre for them to endorse such experiments on humans. They’re saying, “We draw lines around what we can do to humans experimentally, and the same considerations behind prohibitions on human research should apply to any beings with the same relevant characteristics and capacities. Drawing the line around our species isn’t scientific or consistent with the ethical principle underlying the human prohibitions; it merely reflects human prejudice. This means that research we wouldn’t perform on impaired (and abandoned) human children shouldn’t be performed on any animals with comparable characteristics.”

But it’s the assumption underlying the challenge to Gruen that stood out to me. Ringach seems to be arguing that ethicists only have a valid place in the discussion if they can point to invasive biomedical experiments on animals that they believe are or were justified. Indeed, he wants to make this a requirement for participation: “If moral philosophers want to have an active participation in the ethical decision process they must be able to answer how and when they will find a particular research proposal justified or not.” Since he’s acknowledged that she offered several examples of research that she believes is or was unjustified and why, he’s clearly suggesting that she and other ethicists must either stipulate that some real cases of invasive biomedical research on animals have been justified or stand down.

But this is a bogus requirement. It’s entirely possible for an ethicist, even one who hasn’t set forth absolute limits, to find that in light of their ethical framework no past or existing examples of research have been justified. It’s also possible for someone to conclude that, since the cases that might conceivably be justified are extremely rare and that in a system that broadly accepts this sort of research the incentives to expand the range of so-called justified cases are strong, it’s best to set general limits, be they that some species can’t be experimented on, some procedures can’t be done, some fields of research animals can’t be used in, or that invasive biomedical research on animals be prohibited or allowed only in the rarest of cases (which might in practice remain entirely hypothetical). (I’m not saying either of these characterizes Gruen’s position – I’m addressing Ringach’s suggestion.)

This is the case with human research subjects, after all. The Declaration of Helsinki sets strict limits on the invasive biomedical procedures that can be done on humans. And this is precisely because of a long history, culminating in Nazi human experimentation, of using some groups of humans instrumentally to benefit (allegedly) other humans. Sadly but predictably in the current system, these standards are constantly chipped away at in order to use less powerful humans as research subjects, be they people with a psychiatric diagnosis; poor people in India, Nigeria, Russia, Honduras; children;... And the rules are often flouted in practice, for a variety of motives.

But they’ve held as moral lines, and become embedded in laws and institutions worldwide. And you don’t typically hear suggestions that people be excluded from the conversation about human-subjects ethics because they reject, say, all nonconsensual research on human beings. You don’t see people’s participation premised on their acknowledgment that research on slaves or children in orphanages produced valuable medical knowledge that benefited people and was therefore “justified.”

The development of this consciousness and its institutionalization reflects real changes in our societies and how we value human beings. Ethical lines that used to be drawn around races or nationalities or other categories are recognized as reflecting prejudices,* and what were previously accepted as high-minded justifications based on scientific progress or human betterment have been revealed as self-serving rationalizations, or at the least as failing to rise to the challenge of justifying nonconsensual invasive biomedical research in humans. Even if the research had a high likelihood of contributing to human well-being – and a very large portion of it does not, and is sometimes actively harmful - that doesn’t justify the harm caused to the real humans who are used as research subjects or to ourselves as a society that condones their exploitation.

So it’s remarkable that in the comments Ringach appears to be arguing that ethicists actually have no substantial critical role to play, and in fact fundamental case-by-case assessment of justification isn’t necessary, because all that needs to happen is that a society democratically accept that invasive biomedical research on nonhuman animals alleged to advance of human wellbeing is basically justified, and this is something our society has already done:
I do not deny there is a role for stakeholders to participate in research after we agree this is something we, as a society, find morally justifiable to do. That’s the larger question that needs to be answered. If society says “no”, then scientists would have no option but to accept their decision. If society approves, one can only hope the opposing side will accept the decision as well. Unfortunately, dialogue at times seems futile because there is a growing segment of the animal rights movement that is not looking to resolve a moral dispute democratically. Some of them feel entitled to use violence to impose their views on the rest of society.
(This puts his discussion of individual cases in a new light: the point, it seems, of requiring that animal advocates “acknowledge” that research is or might be justified in some cases is really understood as getting them to consent to some sort of basic intrinsic acceptability of animal research – to saying “yes.”) Setting aside that he does here again what I challenged above – assumes as a requirement the very thing that’s at issue in these ethical debates: that the only acceptable position is that “this is something...morally justifiable to do” – this looks suspiciously like an attempt to remove the issue from the realm of public ethics entirely. On what does “society” base its decisions? Ideally, on relevant evidence and moral arguments. What Gruen is saying, correctly in my view, is that this is a moral discussion our society hasn’t really even begun to have in earnest, much less resolved, and that we need to have it in earnest.

This needed public discussion very naturally involves ethicists and animal advocates, including those who oppose most or all invasive biomedical research on animals. And scientists are not nonpeople standing outside of this process, uninfluenced by the prevailing ideology and carrying no moral responsibility for their actions. They’re people who inevitably bear the weight of their actions – including the violence they inflict on nonhuman animals (culturally condoned and legally permitted violence is still violence, as is violence committed in the name of a greater good**) – and need to participate in the public discussion and address the arguments of those who oppose some of their actions.***

As the information found through my links above shows, it’s incredibly naive to propose that the situation in the US as it currently stands in this case or any other is the result of a democratic societal deliberation and decision. Such questions are “settled” in a context of economically and politically powerful corporations and governments – wielding an enormous capacity to propagandize in favor of their interests, conceal their actions, mislead the public, and impose their vision and practices on human and nonhuman animals. Practices continue from inertia, intellectual laziness, and the fear of deeply questioning the morality of our own past or current actions. Those harmed often have little political power or economic resources, and they and their advocates are excluded, often forcibly, from the decision-making.

But movements persist, and the exploitation of animals is increasingly recognized as a social issue in need of robust public discussion. When we look at the changes in actions toward other humans in our society, we see a tragic history of people and organizations deciding, democratically and otherwise, that nonconsensual invasive biomedical research on “lesser” humans was “something morally justifiable to do.” We see other people challenging them in words and other actions, and we can trace a transformation in public attitudes and a corresponding transformation of law and institutional practices in the direction of recognizing human rights in research and limiting what can be done to people. A parallel transformation has been occurring globally with regard to experimentation on nonhuman animals. Although the US is, typically, a laggard, even our country has been moving in this direction, as indicated by the recent IOM report and subsequent NIH decisions about chimpanzee research.

*And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the lines within our species are not disconnected from the line between human and nonhuman animals. The acceptance of research on nonhuman animals always leaves open the door for accepting nonconsensual research on “lesser” humans. Always.

**I’ll take this opportunity to recommend again De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.

***And scientists don’t in any meaningful way “speak for science.” They’re as capable as anyone else of coming to their own conclusions and changing their minds and practices.

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