Philosopher’s Corner: Per diems aside, how valuable are our animals?

Meera Modi, Pursuer of Wisdom

Originally published December 2007.

Meera Modi
Meera Modi

As scientists, we know the value and incredible responsibility of animal research better than most. Most of us have entered our field of study because of an intense interest in human, animal and organic life, yet to study it we often must harm the very thing in which we are particularly vested. This presents a conflicting sense of duty towards the pursuit of knowledge and the integrity of our subjects. Consequently it is our obligation to think critically about the rights of our research animals.

One of the central question s of animal rights is the determination of the moral status of animals. What is the value of an animal’s interests or life? Is it the same as a person’s? Is it based on size, complexity, ability to think and perceive or even moral awareness? There are many different philosophical frameworks with which one can determine the ethicalness of an experiment but to employ each of those one must first determine the moral value of the animal.

One extreme valuation is that of Immanuel Kant who argues that inherent value is based on moral autonomy. This criteria requires that one be able to make moral decisions oneself in order to be considered of value in moral decision-making. However, such a strict criterion not only excludes all animals, but also young children and the mentally retarded. Diametrically opposing Kant’s position is modern moral philosopher Tom Regan who believes Meera Modi that moral value is something intrinsic in the possession of life and that consequently the value of an animal’s life is essentially the same as that of a human. For most, though, the practical valuation of animal life is not as simple as either Kant or Regan propose, with animals possessing some intermediate value that varies from species to species or even individual to individual.

Mouse with ear graft
Mouse with ear graft

The Hastings Center, a modern bioethics institution, has attempted to directly address the moral status of animals in an objective fashion, which resulted in rough criterion. Firstly, the organic complexity of the animal must be taken into consideration. This includes both the complexity of the nervous system but also the behaviors that result from it, placing greater value on directed behavior over instinctive behavior. Second, the organic complexity of an animal must be determined by objective data-based inference (which brings us to the pickle of needing to experiment on animals to determine if we can experiment on animals). Thirdly, rare or endangered animals should be given greater value and protected from use in research over more common or domesticated animals. And fourth that social complexity of species should be given equal weight as individual complexity.

While thorough, even the well-thought out guidelines of the Hastings Center are not all inclusive. Quandaries remain over whether pet species should be given priority over non-pet species, should friendly species be favored over vicious ones, individuals over conspecifics, pretty over ugly and so forth.

As both those who study the ‘organic complexity’ of animals on a regular basis and those who often use animals in our research we are well positioned to be major contributors to the discussion on animal research ethics. The moral status of our animals is something to be considered every time we make a new discovery and not just at IACUC renewal time. For further reading see Donnelley and Nolan (1990).

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