Bernard E. Rollin, Ph.D.
University Distinguished Professor, Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Animal Sciences
Professor of Biomedical Sciences, University Bioethicist
Department of Philosophy, Colorado State University

In part as a result of an ideology affirming that science has nothing to do with ethics, 20th century science has enjoyed an abysmal track record in engaging issues that are of great importance to society. This is true regarding every ethical issue occasioned by scientific activity. Even in the area of research on human beings, the research community has been extremely cavalier about ethical treatment of research subjects, despite the fact that every citizen should have, by the time they reach adulthood, developed a reasonable grasp of moral obligations towards other human beings. Despite this evident truism, there was never a day during the 20th century, when some human person was not being grossly mistreated while serving as a research subject. From Walter Reed’s questionable use of soldiers to study Yellow Fever; to the 40+ years of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, wherein African-American prisoners in Alabama were told that their syphilis was being treated, when in fact researchers were using them to study the course taken by syphilis, and no treatment was tendered to them at all; to the recent tragic death of 16-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy trial run in flagrant violation of the researcher’s own protocol; to thousands of experiments conducted in total disregard of the principle of informed consent.

A similarly surrealistic disregard of both common sense and common decency may be found in the scientific community’s response to revelations of data falsification and other misdeeds in research—the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science assured the public that any scientist behaving in that manner must be viewed as suffering from “temporary insanity.”

If human beings and, indeed, moral and methodological principles presuppositional to the very nature of scientific activity could be so cavalierly abused, it is not difficult to guess the fate of moral questions arising in the course of research on non-human animals. After all, if blatantly obvious moral constraints on the treatment of people, clearly codified in consensus societal ethics could be ignored, how much more so the treatment of animals, where no moral principles appeared in social consensus ethics, other than the prohibition of deliberate, purposeless, unnecessary, sadistic cruelty. And tellingly, a literature search conducted for me by the Library of Congress on “analgesia for laboratory animals” in 1982 as part of my effort to convince Congress of the need for legislation protecting animals in research, yielded not a single reference.

In the same vein, between 1976 and 1985, I and two colleagues worked on drafting the laws currently governing the use of animals in research. We searched assiduously but vainly in the scientific literature for a reasoned discussion of the ethical issues occasioned by such use. What we found was epitomized by a video entitled “Will I Be All Right, Doctor?”, a phrase uttered by a frightened child before an operation. The physician assures the child that he will be, as long as doctors are left alone to do as they wish with animals. So mawkish and irrelevant to ethics was the film, that when it was premiered at a meeting of laboratory animal veterinarians, assumed to be sympathetic to the message, and comments were solicited from the audience, the only response was “I am ashamed to be associated with a film pitched as low as the worst anti-vivisectionist clap-trap.” Advertisements defending unconstrained animal research appeared in Time Magazine affirming that “95% of the animals used in research are rats and mice, and you kill them in your kitchens anyway.” Needless to say, that argument did not play well with the public.

In the end, the ineffectual and clumsy way in which scientists respond to ethical issues comes from the ideology inculcated into them in the course of their education, affirming that “ethics is just emotion.” The notion of rational ethical argument is seen as oxymoronic. Clearly, any activity that harms another being, who is in some way negatively impacted by the harm and is aware or sentient, i.e., to whom the harm, be it pain, fear, or some other form of negative mattering matters, raises an ethical question: what right do we have to inflict such an insult? The answer is far from clear regarding invasive research on animals, but the question is surely legitimate, particularly since our most carefully articulated and thought out ethical notions, i.e. those used in assessing our treatment of other human beings, strongly limits harming a minority for the benefit of the majority.

One can distinguish three layers of ethical questions regarding the use of animals in invasive research for the benefit of humans. First, what justifies such use of animals when we would not allow the use of humans for similar purposes, even “marginal” or “defective” humans? It is sometimes said that such use is justified by virtue of the fact that we are more powerful than animals. That, of course, is not an ethically relevant argument, because it presupposes that “might makes right,” a notion that ethics exists in large measure to oppose! It is also argued that we are “superior” to animals, or evolutionarily “higher”; therefore we can use them as we wish. This claim, too, has obvious responses. In what morally relevant way are we superior? There are animals that are stronger, swifter, more adaptable (e.g., cockroaches) than we are. Ironically, it is sometimes affirmed that we are superior because we can judge our actions in moral terms. If this is indeed the case, then we should be more, not less, morally attentive to other beings, and certainly not transgress against their interests in a cavalier way.

Let us suppose that we have answered the question of what entitles us to use animals in terms of cost-benefit emerging from animal research: that is, that the benefit to humans outweighs the cost to animal subjects. This is, in fact, a common argument. If that is the case, then the only morally permissible research would be found in those cases where the benefits to humans clearly exceed the costs in animal suffering. Certainly, some animal research meets that criterion, as when a small group of animals are used in a way that helps vast numbers of humans. But, a great deal of research, perhaps the vast majority, does not meet that standard. Toxicological testing of new cosmetics, and a whole host of similarly trivial products, which inflicts significant harm on test animals, does not seem to produce a positive cost-benefit ratio. Neither does a good deal of psychological research, such as studies of learned helplessness. Neither does weapons research. Neither do studies of animal aggression. One could proliferate a long list of research not meeting the cost-benefit test, which is nonetheless regularly performed. So, once again, we fail to adequately respond to a clear ethical challenge emerging from animal research.

Thus far, a conscientious person should be feeling uneasy about animal researcher failure to provide first of all a sound moral justification for hurting animals in research. Second, such a person who responds by appealing to cost-benefit as a justification should feel equally uneasy about the fact that much research does not pass the cost-benefit test. Third, there is one more layer of ethical concern about animal research that we do not adequately address. That is, that we do the utmost to minimize animal suffering arising in the course of animal research, and maximize the animals’ ability to live a life where the interests and needs flowing from its biological and psychological nature are respected.

Certainly, the control of pain was a fundamental moral obligation to research animals that the research community failed to meet until compelled to do so by federal law. From the zero papers I found in the literature search I conducted on laboratory animal analgesia in 1982, the literature has grown to over 11,000 articles I found a year ago when I redid the search, with of course a correlative increase in use of pain control. Equally gratifying is the fact that far fewer researchers would claim today that animals do not feel pain. But let us recall that, at least by the research community’s estimate, only 15% of research protocols involve pain. Even if one mistrusts that source, we can double that estimate and still believe that the majority of research does not involve pain. Furthermore, in the majority of cases, the pain can be attenuated or controlled pharmacologically, leaving a small percentage of protocols requiring that animals suffer pain. What is often ignored, however, is the fact that almost 100% of research protocols fail to keep and house the animals they use under conditions congenial to the animals’ biological and psychological natures. If that is the case, then virtually all animals suffer deprivation that is probably as onerous as uncontrolled physical pain. Such deprivation includes full-time light for nocturnal animals, no opportunity to burrow for burrowing animals, lack of companionship (e.g. for dogs housed in solitary cages), food alien to what they would consume in nature, failure to respect how they are built to acquire food, and myriad other assaults upon their natures. Much of the reason for a thrust for enrichment is to rectify that wrong. It is far easier to create enriched environments in which the animals spend the majority of their time than it is to respond to the moral imperative that only research with a positive cost-benefit ratio should be performed. Respecting research animals’ biological and psychological natures is more like the moral requirement of providing food than it is like providing treats.

The difficulty of achieving moral goals is often directly proportional to the profundity of the moral imperative underlying the goal in question. Enunciating the moral ideal of human equality was presuppositional to creating the concept of American democracy, and occurred early in our history. Yet, as the cases of African-Americans and women vividly illustrate, realizing that goal has taken hundreds of years, and is far from finished. The three moral questions we have formulated regarding animal research are clear, yet we have made virtually no progress in responding to them. The first two questions strike at the heart of animal research; consequently it is not difficult to see why they have been ignored. But the third question and what it entails are currently achievable. Even if we lack full knowledge of animals’ needs and natures constitutive of their telos, we certainly know enough to come much closer to satisfying those needs than we currently do, where design of housing and husbandry is based almost exclusively on the convenience of those who keep the animals.

“Enrichment” is therefore not the bighearted largess that much of the research community seems to believe it is. Rather, it represents an obvious step towards creating a decent life for research animals and minimizing avoidable suffering. The fact that providing proper environments that suit the animals’ needs and natures has not been done historically, may be inconvenient or more expensive for research facilities, may skew baseline data, or otherwise lead to new practical issues in research management, does not mean that creating such animal management is not a moral imperative. If moral behavior was the easiest and most convenient option, everyone would be moral. The sense of moral discomfort that should arise when one reflects upon the morality of animal research should at least translate into a moral imperative to create living conditions for the animals we use that do not assure a life of misery.


Volume 10, January 2012

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