Is it worth saving human lives at the cost of mistreating animals?

Guest Post: Emilian Mihailov, Research Centre in Applied Ethics, Univeristy of Bucharest

The most persuasive argument for experimenting on animals is probably the claim that it is only through such research, that we save human lives. This does not imply that we don’t have any moral duties towards animals. Because they are not mere objects we ought to treat them kindly, promote their wellbeing, and even take action to prevent others from applying cruel treatment. However, when human lives are at stake, we have the strong belief that it is morally permissible to experiment on animals even if the experiments in question necessarily involve chronic pain and death. We might get residual moral feelings, such as guilt, from the infliction of pain, but nevertheless, it is believed that saving human lives takes priority. We are sorry, but we matter more.

It is hard to argue the contrary, since the idea of saving human lives seems so appealing. How can we not try to cure cancer, epilepsy, or Alzheimer’s disease? Those who challenge the desirability of this aim will be considered eccentric, if not irrational.

But, sometimes, our strong reactions may stem from the framing of a problem. The way a problem is “framed” often has a powerful influence on how people react. The “framing effect” is observed when the description of consequentially identical decision problems in terms of gains (positive frame) rather than losses (negative frame) elicits systematically different choices (Tversky & Kahneman 1981). Christine Korsgaard recently suggested in the Animal Ethics Workshop, held in Oxford, that the there are “framing effects” with the problem of saving lives through animal experimentation. If the benefits of experimentation are not framed in terms of saving lives, but in terms of extending lives, then our supportive reactions might not be so strong, because the benefit of gaining a few more years to live does not seem extremely attractive. Christine Korsgaard then proposed to imagine two possible worlds: in world A we live 70 years and we have social practices that do not allow animal experimentation; in world B we live 90 years and have social practices which permit experiments on animals. She believes that world A is morally preferable because the benefits we get from extending our lives do not seem that high as to justify failing to treat animals as ends in themselves. More simply, it is not worth having a mere extension of our lives with the moral cost of mistreating animals. If we frame the problem in these terms, then perhaps many would be more sympathetic towards the moral standing of animals in research.

Indeed, the “extension” framing may reduce the support for using animals in research, since the benefits are not as attractive as they appear in the “saving” framing. Though, I am not sure if many would accept the compromise of losing some years of life for the wellbeing of animals. The extension of our lives by 5 or 10 years will still be regarded as a major benefit, even at the cost of mistreating animals.

In order to reduce the support for animal experimentation even further, we have to question whether life extension is always a benefit for us at all. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, writes in his book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End that “we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.” The confinement to treatment often leads to an institutionalized absence of life. Gawande believes that the famous story of Ivan Ilyich is suggestive in this regard. Ivan Ilyich is a middle age magistrate from Saint Petersburg. One day, he injures his side while hanging up curtains in a new apartment. Instead of abating, the pain gets worse. Doctors can neither explain nor treat his condition, and it soon becomes clear that he is dying. “What tormented Ivan Ilyich most,” Tolstoy writes, “was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.” Gawande highlights the prevailing mentality that we just have to develop or add another treatment for people to undergo, and perhaps something wonderful would result. In fact, the life extension we get through modern medicine is not always how we imagine it. In many cases healthcare organizations, committed to extending life, continue to carry out treatments that extend only suffering in the end.

We have to ask ourselves whether this is the benefit we want to get at the cost of mistreating animals? Maybe it is not the results of scientific research that we always want towards the end, but rather, what Ivan Ilyich needed more of; to be treated as a human being who would want to say “Good-bye”, “It’s okay” or “I’m sorry”, as opposed to a mere object of further treatment.

The Animal Ethics Workshop was funded through the generous support of the Wellcome Trust, the Society for Applied Philosophy, the University of Bucharest and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. 

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5 Responses to Is it worth saving human lives at the cost of mistreating animals?

  • Airin says:

    I don’t think that the lines of “let’s try one more treatment” and “let them die in peace” are so cut and dry. There’s a confluence of doctors who want to do all that they can for their patients, patients who want to hope that this new treatment will cure them of their ills, and the desire to know when it is time to go. I agree that when a patient knows that it is their time to go that every measure should be afforded to them to minimize their suffering and passing, but I’m equally as committed to the doctor’s belief that there should be no stone left un-turned in the care and treating of their patients.

    As for animal rights, I’m hard pressed to think of a scientific study that was carried out for the purpose of extending human life for 20 years. In fact most research seems to fall into the lines of either curing some disease or extending human life indefinitely. The former, though, I believe is a part of the latter’s equation. Once you can successfully get a handle on the pathos of disease it then becomes a matter of maintenance to make immortality barring physical/accidental malady a reality. Besides, I once read a statistic that if we just cured all disease we’d only add 3 years to the human lifespan, so then in reality all animal research just comes down to understanding biological maintenance.

    • Emilian says:

      Hi Airin,

      Thank you for the comment. We should distinguish care from treatment. Providing care does not necessarily involve treatment. Look at palliative care, for example. The belief that “there should be no stone left un-turned” is exactly what in many cases commits the patient to a low quality of life. Doctors should be trained systematically to ask themselves what really matters in the end for the patient. I would like doctors to question more often the idea to only medical solutions are patient’s solutions.

  • Andrews says:

    Thanks to the author for the interesting post and thanks to Airin for mentionning the “curing everything merely adds 3 years” study (by the way, could you add reference to this study below? I would very much like to read it).

    I have a small objection for the author.

    The most persuasive argument for experimenting on animals is probably the claim that it is only through such research, that we save human lives.

    If by “saving human lives” you mean extending life expectancy, then yes, Korsgaard analogy applies. But if on the otter hand you mean making a positive contribution to people’s well-being, then Korsgaard analogy no longer applies. That is, it is pefectly possible that our moral psychology is affected by a framing bias the way she describes when we face questions about experimenting on animals, and *yet* that this does not affect the permissibility of experimenting on animals.

    For the permissibility of experimenting on animals is *not* dependent upon the claim that experimenting on animals provides reliable means of increasing life expectancy. It *suffices* that it provides reliable means to make a positive contribution to people’s well-being while at the same time not impinging on non-human well-being significantly.

    To support this latter claim, we need to step back from the picture of experiments as “pumps” transferring or converting non-human suffering into human well-being or life expectancy (who would like to be “plugged” into some dying animals so as to suck its last drops of life just as a vampire would do with to its victim?). A less gothic and more accurate picture is one where humans harbour valuable knowledge from experiments on animals that would not be possible to harbour at all if no such experiments took place.

    Now of course this knowledge can be used to reach certain goals, i.e. extending life expectancy or improving well-being. But what matters is whether this knowledge helps humans reaching such goals in a way that *increases* or *lessens* dependence on running experiments on animals that risk impinging upon non-human well-being. In other words, insofar as experiments on animals help us understand biochemistry so as to be able to get the goals we are after and at the same time help us reaching those goals with less and less dependence on risking non-human well-being (i.e. by finding out ways of producing molecules in a completely aritifical way, with no or almost no reliance on animal organisms or with a type of reliance that does not affect their well-being), those are permissible. The only impermissible ones would be the ones that do not help relying less on risking non-human well-being, or that impinge on their well-being significantly.

    • Emilian says:

      Hi Andrews,

      Thank you for the comment. The positive contribution argument is also weaker but not for the reasons I mentioned. For example, when you say that animal experimentation brings positive contributions to well-being it seems that we are somehow selfish because we see animal suffering as permissible means to increase our own pleasure/well-being. This is the reason why the saving lives argument is more appealing. It claims that animal experimentation is permissible since it helps us to avoid bad outcomes. Human suffering is more important than animal suffering, but it is not that intuitive that human pleasure is more important than animal suffering.

  • Andrews says:

    I don’t see how the saving lives argument is less selfish that the argument that animal experimentation brings positive contribution to human well-being. It seems to me that, in either case, there is a trade of something that animals have for something humans need, and that such a trade which could not be justified unless what is taken from one and what is given to the other is weighed differently depending at least to some extent, on whether the participant to the trade is an animal or a human.

    Beside, it would not make much sense to say that such a trade would be justified even though the life of the human beneficaries was not worth living, namely, if the lives of those who are saved by animal experimentation reach level of well-being was somehow below a desirable standard of well-being. So if animal experimentation is sometimes justified, it cannot be so just because it helps make human lives persist. It must affect positively to their well-being to some extent.

    This is why I thought that we have to accept from the outset the premise that animal well-being is weighed slightly worse than human well-being in certain circumstances. This would add up to the claim, mentioned in my previous post, that some forms of animal experimentation might actually reduce dependence on further animal experimentation, making the utility of actual animal experimentation increased by benefits potential for future human lives but no decreased by potential harm to future animals.


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