The age of reasoning

September 29, 1995

Dialogue is essential for progress of the vivisection debate, writes Kenneth Boyd

Suppose you have been transported to an ideal realm where you are deprived of all memory of what you were in this world, to which you must soon return. You are then given the choice of deciding whether, in our world, the practice of using animals in medical research will be allowed to continue.

You know as much as anyone can at present: (a) about the benefits to be forgone and harms risked if animals are not used; (b) about conscious awareness and the capacity for suffering in different species; and (c) about the great variety of ways in which animals are used in research, from simple observation to highly invasive procedures.

In the world to which you must return, you might be a 20, 40, or 80-year-old human whose life (or child's life) could be saved, or suffering relieved, by treatment based on research using animals. Or you might be an animal - anything from a maybe not very sensitive insect to a higher primate. You do not know. You are just offered the stark choice - either to allow science to go on using animals in the ways it now does, or to prohibit this totally. What would you decide?

This scenario (with apologies to John Rawls's much more subtle "veil of ignorance" argument) offers an impossible choice. Yet it is not totally alien to what we actually know. Whether or not animals should continue to be used in research may be one of those rare things we are reluctant to recognise - a true moral dilemma, in which the pressures on both sides of the argument are equally strong. In practice, whichever way the question is answered, some living being - human or animal - will suffer in significant ways that could have been avoided otherwise.

When there are such strong pressures on both sides of the argument, some advocates on either side become deeply intransigent, rejecting any hint of compromise, almost as if they fear being seduced by their opponents' arguments. If the arguments on both sides are strong, this may be no bad thing. As Calabresi and Bobbit remarked in their classic study, Tragic Choices (1978), a moral society must depend on moral conflict as the basis for determining morality.

But intransigence can also work against the intentions of those who espouse it. Few people today are willing to argue that every use of animals can be justified if it serves human ends; and the number of uses regarded as justifiable is declining. But few people, too, are willing to forgo the benefits of medical research using animals; and fewer still are prepared to argue that such research can realistically be done without using animals at all.

In this complex and changing climate, scientists who work with animals but refuse to discuss what they do and why with anyone outside the scientific community, especially animal rights advocates, risk alienating significant sections of the public. They may also find themselves having to spend valuable time and resources securing their laboratories against attacks by frustrated extremists. Advocates of animal welfare or rights, who refuse to enter into dialogue with scientists, also lose an opportunity - not only to influence scientific practice, but also to become better informed and so to increase the persuasiveness of their arguments.

Neither side will win the debate about whether animals should be used in research, at least not in principle. But in practice, much can be done to move towards the fundamental goals of both sides - the alleviation of both human and animal suffering. For this to happen, those with sincere but conflicting views need to sit down and reason together with a willingness to recognise what is valid in each other's arguments.

Two or three years ago, this basic insight persuaded a group of scientists, academics, animal welfarists and members of research related bodies, which I chair, to come together and ask whether we shared any common ground. At first we were not sure if we did, and on many issues there was frank disagreement. But in time, it became clear that there was one moral imperative to which we could all subscribe.

This imperative, as expressed in our recently published discussion document, was to encourage ways to reduce or eliminate the use of animals in experiments consistently with the essential needs of research and safety testing.

The discussion document itself is chiefly about institutional ethics committees, which our group commended as a useful way of improving ethical review of research involving animals. In the THES (September 22), Malcolm Eames of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection criticises this suggestion, and the group itself, in various ways. Many of the problems he foresees with institutional ethics committees were fully explored by our group and our reasons for not thinking them insuperable are detailed in the document itself. But there is perhaps a more basic point.

The group agreed on the need "to further the refinement, reduction and replacement of the use of living and sentient creatures consistently with the essential needs of scientific research and safety evaluation". But such a formula is empty, unless people with sound knowledge of what its various terms entail are prepared to spell this out (and press the relevant claims) when specific proposals for the use of animals are under consideration. That is what, fundamentally, we believed that institutional ethics committees could help with, not least because we envisaged that they would include lay members from animal welfare organisations.

Ethics committees are only one way in which we might move nearer to the goal of alleviating both animal and human suffering. I agree with Malcolm Eames that our discussion document "failed to provide any evidence whatsoever that the establishment of such ethics committees would actually lead to either a reduction in the numbers of animal experiments or, indeed, real improvements in the welfare of laboratory animals". But it is difficult to provide this kind of evidence until sufficient committees are set up within the United Kingdom system. The evidence we have from responses to our document indicates that an increasing number of them now are being set up in this as well as other countries; and what our respondents write suggests that this may lead, in time, to what Mr Eames wants to see.

What will make this outcome most likely, however, is if more of those who share Mr Eames's views are prepared to enter into the process of reasoned dialogue with those who work with animals in research. Human nature being what it is, their respective concerns will be best served if they approach one another in Blake's spirit of opposition as true friendship. Clearly there are some uses of animals, which some people are prepared to justify for certain ends, but others can never agree to, because they believe that they are wrong under all circumstances. That view (as the recent Banner committee argued) is a reasonable ethical option, which needs to be represented when it is relevant and where it will count. For much the same reason, I might add, Malcolm Eames himself will be very welcome, as he always has been, to participate in and influence our group's discussions.

Kenneth Boyd is research director of the Institute of Medical Ethics. These are his personal views and not necessarily those of either the institute or other members of the Boyd group.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments