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Shining monkey, sadistic conclusion?

Japanese researchers have genetically modified marmoset monkeys, and demonstrated that the modification can be inherited by their offspring. The modification was the standard green fluorescent protein making the monkey's glow green under UV light, a marker to demonstrate that the modification worked (BBC shows a picture of their feet glowing "an eerie green", while the picture in Nature's News and Views shows the cute monkeys in normal light and the original paper shows both). The long-term aim is to be able to produce transgenic primates that could act as disease models for humans – many conditions do not map well onto mice and rats. But is it acceptable to introduce heritable illness conditions into animals?

Modifications like fluorescence do not appear to pose any problem. The animals do not seem to mind, and in a sense it adds to the diversity of life (I have always felt we mammals have too few and too boring colours). Similarly various enhancements could perhaps even improve the quality of life. But it is far more common for researchers to be interested in illnesses or to study particular genes by interfering with their natural function, something that is likely to decrease quality of life for the animals.

Whether this is acceptable or not depends on the balance between what is expected to be gained from the research and the expected suffering. It is not fundamentally different from any other animal experimentation on the same type of animal, but in the case of heritable disorders there is reason to believe that animals will live at least up to reproductive age with the disorder and that some extra animals will be bred just to maintain the colony. On the other hand, there will be less 'surplus' animals that fail to express the gene and would be culled.

Current guidelines promote directing research at incurable diseases for which there are potential treatments (such as Huntington's chorea or muscular dystrophy), make the modifications maximally informative and allowing rapid research (such as allowing the genes to be switched on or off, or allowing non-invasive monitoring). This serves to minimize the extra suffering brought about by the change. Other ameliorating methods doubtless can and will be used.

From a consequentialist standpoint the issue is whether it is better to have a world where there are some extra monkeys with bad lives and some future cured humans with better lives, or a world where the uncured future humans have bad lives and there are no extra monkeys. (This is reminiscent of the "sadistic conclusion" in population ethics)

One way to argue is of course that human suffering has a bigger weight than monkey suffering: the suffering brought on by the loss of future life projects and the contemplation of a bad fate adds to the direct suffering. Some people will doubtless find that anthropocentric, but many people appear to follow this view. Even putting human and monkey suffering equal, the suffering of a small number of monkeys might be outweighed by the help it gives a larger group of humans – there are more sick humans than lab monkeys.

Another approach is to consider whether the monkeys actually have lives worth living. Given that for many serious conditions humans still find their lives worth living (at least up to some point), then the monkeys may have lives worth living and it would be good for them to come into existence. There might be an asymmetry in that humans could perhaps consider an ill life worth living for human reasons (hope of a cure, finding solace in philosophy, doing theoretical physics anyway) while the monkey might not have enough monkey-reasons to go on. But it is not inconceivable that on the deep emotional level humans and monkeys share general happiness works similarly: we adapt to the situation and tend to be as happy as our emotional setpoint makes us. Our reasons may be largely rationalisations (although I do believe the greater range of human action and thinking enables us to find joys and suffering beyond the ken of other species – it is just that most of the time we gravitate towards the normal like all the others).

Most people who are against the creation of transgenic animals are against it based on deontological principles: they think it is wrong to "play God" (i.e. the natural biological state has a value), that animals have rights one must not violate or that it is wrong to deliberately harm another being.

The playing God objection is problematic since it is usually tied to either a vague view of "the natural" that appears to be arbitrary and often incompatible with the normal activities going on in nature or human society, or tied to specific prohibitions tied to particular religious moral systems, which would be hard to justify as general rules in a pluralistic democracy. Assuming the natural state has a value would also presumably imply opposition to curing natural diseases.

In the case of transgenic animals it is unclear how one can claim the animals coming into existence are harmed or have their rights infringed since they would not otherwise exist. Arguing that it is wrong to deliberately cause the creation of a being with less-than-desirable life has very wide-ranging consequences, for example when applied to humans (are poor people harming their children by giving birth to them, knowing they will likely live a life in poverty?) or animals (is it wrong to help endangered animals, knowing their offspring will have harsh lives?). A believer in absolute animal rights might still argue that there exist a right not to be born modified, but this appears to be much less salient than their main claim, that there is a right not to be a lab animal at all.

However, most people recognize that there are morally significant competing claims: yes, animal suffering is bad, yet the benefits can sometimes justify it. This is why it is morally important to ensure that the animal disease model is valid and likely to advance us towards a cure, and that the level of suffering can be kept acceptably low – but this morally relevant study cannot be done without some experiments.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I get uneasy when people talk about “rights” outside of some context. Unless rights come from God, and the existence of these rights are somehow properly communicated to humans, I don’t think rights-talk is other than question-begging. One has rights (claims on others’ attention and, in some cases, action) because those rights are necessary to maintain the value system of a particular culture in a particular social or political context. I take rights to be a human invention and the assignment of rights to be essentially pragmatic, given the social system and the generally desired shape of the political system. SO animals have rights only insofar as their suffering or welfare affects some human characteristics that benefit the social and political systems. Cruelty to animals is bad because such cruelty affects the readiness of humans to be cruel to humans. On the other hand, there is no known connection between killing animals for food and canibalism.

  2. While I share your scepticism about natural rights, I don’t think cruelty to animals is solely bad because it would make humans more cruel to humans. There seems to be a fundamental difference between destroying effigies of people or torturing human characters in a video game and hurting actual animals. In the later case someone is directly wronged.

    Rule consequentialists who wanted to reduce overall suffering might then say that following the rule “animals should not be hurt unnecessarily” would lead to the greatest good, essentially proposing an animal right (how absolute such a rule would be depends a bit on the philosopher). This might also form a seed for the social construction and implementation of a right.

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