Can Ethics Committees Actually Protect Research Animals?
Animal advocates fighting vivisection are no doubt aware of the impasse between those for and against animal testing. “Animal researchers claim that experiments on animals are necessary for advancements in the treatment of human illness and disease, while opponents—especially those who believe that animals have intrinsic rights—argue that animal research is morally unjustifiable.” The positions are so well-entrenched that there seems to be no way of solving the impasse. To dodge this stalemate, author Elise Galgut decided to “avoid [it] by looking at the ethical justification given by animal researchers and animal ethics committees (AECs) themselves in defense of such experiments.” She notes that the main reason that AECs exist is because researchers and committees do indeed have some moral status. They seek to provide some protections for animal welfare, while recognizing that research animals’ moral value is ultimately based on a utilitarian calculation. “AECs argue that experiments are justified in terms of their consequences, and these consequences are adjudicated in the light of potential benefits (to humans) versus harms done (to animals).”
However, it is not so simple. Galgut notes that even though the calculation is supposed to be utilitarian, it is actually not even that:
In order to perform a utilitarian calculation, the following conditions must be met: (a) the interests of both parties must be given equal consideration, (b) the consequences must be measurable and predictive, (c) there should be agent neutrality, and (d) criteria that are not morally relevant must not sway the ethical outcome. […] All of these conditions are routinely breached in the evaluation of animal research protocols.
The very existence of the structure of AECs shows that both parties (humans and research animals) are not given equal consideration; the consequences (data) from animal research may be measurable, but there is a great deal of evidence that says that they are not predictive; there is no agent neutrality and there are many criteria that are not morally relevant that affect the ethical outcome. So, if the decision that AECs make is not actually a utilitarian calculation, what is it?
Galgut’s conclusion is that the bar that has been set to justify animal experiments is too low, and that the process is set up in such a way that “many—if not most—animal experiments fail to meet AECs’ own justificatory criteria.” Because of this fundamental contradiction, she notes that “even within the current paradigm, we have the tools with which to critique seriously the current status quo, and, hopefully, to change it fundamentally from within.” Though she doesn’t make any particular pronouncements on how that status quo can be challenged within the current paradigm, at the very least her article gives animal advocates some new rhetorical techniques with which to challenge the idea that AECs protect research animals.