As I mentioned a few posts ago, it’s Animal Rights Week (also called World Week for Animals in Laboratories). So far, no news of interest locally, but a quick Google search revealed lots of opinions, lots of facts, and lots of fiction still exist – from both sides.
What is a “right”, exactly? It’s one of those words that gets tossed around and used without a good understanding of what it means. A “right”, most generally, is something that you are entitled to; either someone is obligated to give you something (such as basic health care in Canada) or something that someone is obligated to refrain from doing to you (such as refraining from killing you). The first is a legal right, while the second is a moral right. Moral rights result from moral theory, which involves the idea that morals exist to facilitate cooperative behaviours.
So where does that leave animal rights?
There have been many different moral theories, proposed by many different people. As these theories evolved, a sort of dilemma ensued. To whom do moral rights extend? Some believed that morals were only applicable to beings with consciousness and reason. But then, we have another dilemma – what about babies and the mentally ill? Clearly we can’t without rights from these groups. And so this presents another dilemma – If we extend moral rights to babies, who clearly cannot reason and cannot understand the idea of self or existence, what does this say about animals?
This is a favourite quote of mine, from philosopher Jeremy Bentham:
“…Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? …A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but, “Can they suffer?”… “
In this context, the evolution of animal rights was a natural progression from discussions of moral rights in human society. And I do not disagree with this line of reasoning at all. To allow suffering when you can prevent it is inhumane.
The sticky parts come when you consider science. In many ways, science uses the Utilitarian philosophy (ironically, also formulated by Bentham and later refined by John Stuart Mills). Utilitarianism suggests that in any decision, the correct action would be the one which causes the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. It is sometimes referred to as the “cost-benefit analysis”.
So science could reason something like the following: (1) Disease and suffering in humans is bad (2) Suffering in animals is bad (3) But disease and suffering in humans could be alleviated through (4) So we should accept some suffering in animals in order to alleviating a lot of suffering in humans.
Of course, it’s not a perfect explanation and in this small space, I do leave out a lot of important points. [Msg me if interested!]
For me, I find it hard to reconcile many parts of science. I agree with the need for science to progress, but I also feel very strongly about the need to proceed ethically. Good science is necessary and bad science should be condemned. How do we know what is good science? How do we know that the suffering in animals we cause today will actually result in a usable treatment for humans in the future? We can’t always predict this, but I believe that there are lots of things we can do to move forward both morally and scientifically. This could involve many things but I will suggest a few key points:
Does the study actually need to use animals? This is a big one that bugs me. Science is competitive, especially at the graduate student level. It sucks to say it, but many students are under the impression that a good paper must include animal experiments (as well as a long list of other things, like bioinformatics). Many people I have worked with never intended on working with animals as part of their careers. But the industry demands it as part of a “complete” paper. While I agree that results need to eventually be verified in an animal study, such as when it involves pharmaceuticals or treatment of human health, I think that it’s ridiculous to use animals in a study where you barely understand the biochemistry behind the system. Gobs of tissue culture first, animals last!
How many animals do you actually need? This one bugs me too. There is no need to breed dozens of animals if you only need 10, that’s just wasteful. A careful, well thought out colony management plan will help ensure that only the necessary numbers of animals will be produced.
And lastly: Treat the animals well. Keep them in semi-natural settings. Give them enrichment. Make sure they are not in discomfort. A happy, healthy animal will give more accurate results than one that is miserable. And with better results, less animals are needed overall. I get so angry when I see researchers using incorrect suture sizes or giving the equivalent of Tylenol to a post-surgical animal – these are the researchers that should be prevented from using animals. EVER.
In the end, I do think it’s important to have times such as the Animal Rights week. It puts an important issue in the public eye, and no harm can come of that. Well thought out, constructive, educated opinions will do a lot to improve the industry and I think that is what most people, myself included, would want.
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