Cutting the Monkey

It is morally and ethically wrong to perform invasive, damaging, or deadly experimentation on any creature without first receiving its express permission to do so. Any creature proffering consent to participate in an experiment should be fully informed as to the ramifications of the actions that will be taken so that an informed and reasoned decision may be made. Having said that, the multitude of unjust cruelties perpetrated by one animal against another goes beyond counting, be it against members of the same species or be it cross-species brutality. This paper will not attempt to chronicle the full scope of these injustices, but will select a few examples of human cruelty, both interspecies and intraspecies, perpetrated in pursuit of scientific discovery, and extrapolate what ethical foundation may exist in support or opposition to such actions.

There are those who would refer to 'privileges' and 'rights' granted to them as an extension of their participation in some religious group. As members of such a group, dominion over all 'lower' life forms has been expressly granted to the participant. The 'logical' conclusion is that those creatures unfortunate enough to be born beneath them may be utilized in whatever ways and for whatever purposes best suit the proclivities of those creatures duly appointed as the superior beings. This paper will not bother to address the absurdity of this viewpoint as it is outside the scope of reasonable, logical discourse.

Occam's Razor: The Cutting Edge Of Science

Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god. ~ Jean Rostand, Thoughts of a Biologist (1939)
It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals; let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians. ~ Henrik Ibsen (1828 - 1906)

It seems that many human beings have a callous disregard for the suffering of others when it suits their purposes. In no instance does this appear more iniquitous than when their actions are motivated by goals to expand knowledge in the sciences. Ostensibly, part of what a scientist pursues is intellectual discourse. By extension, one can reasonably expect this discourse to include ethical considerations of the actions they take in the advancement of science. Why, then, are there so many well publicized instances of 'thinking' scientists performing unthinkable acts? I'll return to this question later.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires companies to test certain products on living creatures for acute-toxicity (demonstrating the risks of short-term exposure) and chronic-toxicity (demonstrating the risks of long-term exposure) before these items may be distributed for use by other creatures. This scientific analysis reveals the product's potential to cause a variety of horrid maladies including birth defects, cancer, and developmental abnormalities. Performing these tests on humans would be more than contemporary culture could condone, so the subjects of these tests are selected from other species.

An acute-toxicity test of this type was the cause of much protest by various groups of humans in the 1980s: the Draize Eye Irritancy Test1. This analysis utilizes rabbits to gauge the irritation caused to a creature's eyes as determined by comparing a participant's treated eye to a non-treated eye, scoring the results over a three to twenty-one day period. Since then, the authorities have condescended to require humane changes to the test: fewer subjects are necessary, and a pain numbing anesthetic is provided to the participants.

Columbia University paid out $2,000 last year to settle a suit filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for improperly 'disposing' of a litter of puppies "whelped from a dog being used in a research study"2 that were not required for the scientific research being conducted. One can extrapolate from these events that members of that educational community considered it appropriate to end the life of the creatures which had no further value to them.

In his speech at POP!TECH 2004, Joel Garreau reported on the potential benefits to follow from the creation of a 'telepathic monkey' by Miguel A.L. Nicolelis of Duke University. The skullcap of the participant was removed so that electrodes could be inserted into her brain, allowing the scientists to observe and map her brain activity as she played a game with a joystick. They were able to later remove the joystick and allow her to continue playing the game by responding to the charges measured by the implanted probes. Fortunately, Miguel has recently created and tested a 'wireless' version of the electrode implants - a feature that released the new participants from the constraint of a strap-on helmet and wires dangling from their scalps.

It is generally taboo in most human cultures to perform intraspecies experimentation without the subject's consent, however, there exists copious examples of scientists who have collected data in exactly this fashion. A striking and well-known instance originated in Nürnberg, where German scientists conducted all manner of tests on prisoners to expand scientific knowledge. As an example, a study was conducted to determine the effectiveness of sulfanilamide against gas gangrene3. "Wounds deliberately inflicted on the experimental subjects were infected with bacteria such as streptococcus, gas gangrene and tetanus. Circulation of blood was interrupted by tying off blood vessels at both ends of the wound to create a condition similar to that of a battlefield wound."

In a more recent example, an experiment ran from 1932 to 1972 in which the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conspired to leave syphilis untreated in several specific patients4. Although readily available and widely used, PHS refused to provide the creatures involved with the penicillin necessary to treat their disease. Further, they "repeatedly distributed lists of names of subjects to local physicians and instructed the physicians not to give penicillin to these subjects and supplied sham 'treatments' (e.g., aspirin) to subjects, in an attempt to discourage subjects from seeking treatment elsewhere."

Is It All Reich?

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. ~ George Orwell (1903 - 1950), Animal Farm
We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words. ~ Anna Sewell (1820 - 1878), Black Beauty, 1877

Experiments to determine the safety of household products are conducted to help protect 'humanity'. The scientists creating telepathic monkeys hope to someday improve the lives of patients with Parkinson's disease. Doctors in the PHS gained important insights into the nature of that horrible disease. However, the most significant knowledge may have come from the scientists at Nürnberg whose unique situation allowed them to push creatures in their experiments to the extreme boundaries of their endurance, often to their deaths, gaining invaluable knowledge by doing so.

Of course, one may have to discard morality, ethics, and conscience entirely to believe these events were defect-free.

It could be argued from the utilitarian perspective that many (if not all) of these scientific endeavors are moral and ethical. What is a little discomfort (or death) to a few rabbits when compared to ensuring the safety of millions of loyal customers? A monkey has few rights granted by the laws of man, so removing parts of her skull and inserting devices in her brain is a minor cost when compared to the potential benefit to mankind. As for the intraspecies examples, there is obviously no moral dilemma here as the subjects sacrificed for the cause provided such great scientific advancements for the rest of humanity.

On the other hand, the pluralists may insist there are some problems to consider. If it is appropriate to disregard the needs or rights of non-human creatures, then one must be willing to offer one's own pets up for the sake of scientific advancement. Creating unwilling test subjects out of fellow humans would also pose a problem as doing so would place all human lives at risk. However, this could be cleared up with a consideration of duty. If all creatures, human and non-human, have an implied stake in the advancement of beneficial sciences, then everyone must make a contribution. Those that can offer an intellectual investment shall do so; those that can offer a physical investment shall do so. If all parties involved in this experimentation are thus considered to be performing their duty, then no ethical dilemma exists.

The framework provided by contractarianism would certainly take issue with the actions of the PHS and the German scientists as these events demonstrated an utter disregard for an individual's rights. Conversely, the issue of experimenting on animals may be a cause of conflict as one could argue for the right of any creature not to be assaulted, for the right of a company to engage in any actions allowed under the law, or for the right of the public to have the safety of the products they buy be ensured by real world testing.

Objectivism takes a different stance entirely, stating that life is the basis for all moral and ethical considerations. This philosophy holds that all base motivations arise from a desire to live and that the rest of our consciousness builds upward from this framework. By acting to further life, one is moral; by acting to inhibit life, one is immoral. To willfully cause injury or death is to work against life, so it is clear that this philosophical stance does not provide allowances for intentional, physical harm to be inflicted on others in the name of scientific advancement. The objectivist would take issue with all of the experiments described above with no exceptions.

Cut The Monkey

I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't. ... The pain which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity toward it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further. ~ Mark Twain
Often and often afterwards, the beloved Aunt would ask me why I had never told anyone how I was being treated. Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established. ~ Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936)

The question can be boiled down to this nice double entendre: Should we cut the monkey? Every popular medical ethics declaration puts forward that one cannot in good conscience perform any sort of medical experimentation on subjects who have not or cannot provide informed consent for their participation. Some of these writs also draw a hierarchal distinction between species, placing human life above that of other life forms. This implies that humans must respect the personal rights of creatures that happen to be from the same species but not those who are of a different species. I have engaged this issue for many years and have yet to hear a logical explanation for this blatant ethical disparity regarding the inherent rights all creatures. I continue to assert that it is morally and ethically wrong to perform invasive, damaging, or deadly experimentation on any creature without first receiving its express permission to do so.