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Philosophy and animal experimentation: Animal ethics workshop with Christine Korsgaard.

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics


On the 3rd December, as part of the Uehiro lecture series, the Centre for Practical Ethics held a workshop on Animal Ethics at the Oxford Martin School.*

The workshop included first a short summary of her Uehiro lectures by Professor Christine Korsgaard, and then a series of responses by invited guest speakers from the University of Oxford and elsewhere including Professor Jeff McMahan, Professor Cecile Fabre, Dr Mark Sheehan, Professor Valentin Muresan, Dr Emilian Mihailov, Dr Caroline Bergmann and Dr James Yeates.

Professor Korsgaard started her summary with a provocative thought experiment:

A fifth great Ape species has been discovered: the Krell. The Krell share many features with other great apes, but they are possessed of greater rationality, self-consciousness and intelligence than humans. They think about cooperativeness and equality but do not regard us (humans) as their equals. They find amusing and bemusing our emotional nature, and the silly mental errors to which we are prone. They do find some value in humans, however. We are of use to them for employment in certain ways. Our biological similarity renders us highly useful in scientific research. And we are somewhat tasty.

Is there anything in this description of the superior capacities of the Krell, asked Korsgaard, that would make it morally permissible for them to use us in these ways – as research subjects, convenient slave labour and food?

Conventional accounts of the ethics of animal experimentation weigh up the harms (to non-human animals) of experimentation against the potential benefits (to human animals) of those experiments. However, the scales are weighted in favour of humans. Great harms to animals – killing, pain, suffering, imprisonment, fear are apparently justified by relatively small and often uncertain benefits to humans. One reason why this unequal weighting is sometimes thought legitimate is because humans are rational, self-conscious creatures, our lives have more value than the non-human animals. Alternatively, it is sometimes argued that we are justified in a form of partiality towards our own species. However, if those arguments are sound, it seems that the Krell would be justified in reasoning similarly about the use of us in the ways described above.

Korsgaard rejected the conventional harms vs benefits calculus on several grounds. On her account, animal flourishing, living in accord with the nature of the animal, is valuable and important for the animal. She also rejected as incoherent the idea that animal goods are less important than rational human goods or that animal life is less valuable than human life. They are just different. So it makes no sense to weigh up harms to one group of beings against benefits to another. Crucially, Korsgaard’s Kantian ethics sees our rational nature as being forced inexorably to recognize the value and ends in other lives. The Krell, as super-rational apes, ought, even more than us, to recognize and respect the rights of other creatures (non-human and human) to be treated as ends in themselves.

The workshop addressed a number of questions from Korsgaard’s lectures. Philosophical analysis was related to very practical questions. Three real examples were discussed:

  1. Animal derived surfactant. A life-saving medical treatment for newborn humans is made from animals. Assuming that the animals (calves) have been painlessly killed, is it ethical to use animals to save human lives?**
  2. Ebola vaccine. One recently reported vaccine study tested a series of vaccines in 20 Macaque monkeys before subjecting them to a lethal dose of the Ebola virus. 10 monkeys died. Is it ethical to use monkeys or other animals in this way, if there is the prospect of preventing a lethal and devastating human illness?
  3. Applied animal research. 16 pigs were involved in a study to test a new treatment for newborn infants with brain injury from lack of oxygen. The pigs were anaesthetized, made to have a cardiac arrest (for long enough to cause brain damage), resuscitated and then received different treatments. They were allowed to recover from the arrest, and then euthanized. Is research like this into human diseases ethically acceptable?

Discussion in the workshop revealed philosophical differences (for example about gradations in moral status, or about the harm of painless killing of non-human animals) but also considerable common ground. Several points emerged from discussion that were shared by many of the attendees:

  1. Animals have interests and goods that may be harmed by animal experimentation
  2. Research that causes non-human animals severe pain and suffering is hard to justify, if it is ever justifiable.
  3. Paying full attention to the rights and moral status of animals is likely to come at a cost – some research that would be of real benefit to humans will be ruled out.
  4. Greater attention is needed to the alternatives to animal research
  5. Although there could be some situations in which animal experimentation is ethically justified, other uses of animals cannot be ethically justified – most notably, factory farming.

*This workshop was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Society for Applied Philosophy, the Oxford Martin School, the Uehiro Foundation for Ethics and Education, and the University of Bucharest

** It was noted in discussion that in this case as in others, there are synthethic (non-animal based) alternatives that may be equally efficacious. Such alternatives may not have been fully evaluated or considered because of the availability of animal derived products. However, for the sake of discussion we confined ourselves to a hypothetical situation where a non-animal derived product is not currently available.

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