Moral Values And Animal Research
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) judge whether it is appropriate to use animals in a particular line of research. The Animal Welfare Act requires these committees to include a community member, who is not connected to the research institution and who represents the beliefs and values of the general public. It also requires committee members not to debate the ethics of using animals in research. They’re only supposed to assess whether the experiment has scientific merit and whether the use of animals is necessary for the purposes of the research.
In this study, researchers wanted to know whether community members use moral judgments when deciding whether an animal study is acceptable. They recruited 267 college students from Sam Houston State University to assess an experimental protocol that an IACUC had approved, but which many people would disapprove of. The protocol involved creating an animal model of addictive behavior in schizophrenia. The experiment harmed the mice, who suffered symptoms of schizophrenia and became addicted to D-amphetamine before being killed. The scientific benefit is unclear, because mice can’t report the most central symptoms of schizophrenia (hallucinations, delusions).
After assessing the protocol, the students filled out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. Many researchers use this questionnaire to learn about how people’s moral intuitions differ. There are five foundations:
- Harm/Care is about focusing on the wellbeing of others.
- Fairness/Reciprocity is about treating others equally and justly.
- Ingroup/Loyalty is about helping members of one’s in-group, such as a country or family.
- Authority/Respect is about obeying authority.
- Purity/Sanctity is about avoiding things perceived as disgusting.
Most participants followed the guidelines the Animal Welfare Act laid out for IACUCs without prompting. Participants who approved the protocol were more likely to find the purpose of the study and its objective clear. These participants described the protocol as important to human health, the advancement of knowledge, and the good of society. They believed that the use of animals was justified in this case. They also thought the research protocol had enough protections to avoid discomfort to animal subjects.
Conversely, most of the moral foundations didn’t correlate with participants’ approval of the protocol. In other words, participants who had stronger Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity intuitions weren’t any more or less likely to approve of the protocol. Participants with stronger Ingroup/Loyalty intuitions were slightly more likely to approve of the protocol. The authors suggest that perhaps people with strong Ingroup/Loyalty intuitions may favor humanity (their ingroup) over animals (their outgroup). However, the correlation was small.
This study suggests that whether or not people approve of animal research doesn’t depend much on their moral intuitions. Instead, people approve or disapprove of animal research depending on whether it seems to them that the research is beneficial to humans and whether animal suffering is “necessary” to carry out the experiment. In other words, it’s clear that speciesism is rampant within IACUCs.
Because IACUC members are explicitly asked not to consider ethical arguments when assessing animal experiments, the best route for advocates may be to speak out against the bias in these committees. To ensure that all stakeholder perspectives are represented, advocates should demand that IACUCs include a committee member who speaks for the animals most affected by these studies.