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Why Animal Experimenters Should Be Vegetarians
Research
Joel Marks, 12/28/2010

Why Animal Experimenters Should Be Vegetarians

(Research) Permanent link

When antivivisectionists protest the use of animals in biomedical research, they are commonly met with retorts like this:

“Our faculty members employ animals only when there are no alternative models for advancing their research; our laboratories comply with or exceed all federal regulations and independent accreditation standards. As we continue to advance modern medicine, and provide hope for millions of patients and their families, [our] scientists will sustain their commitment to the humane use of animals in research.” (Yale University press release, July 13, 2010.)

This press release is in line with the so-called 3Rs – replacement (of animals with nonanimal alternatives), reduction (in the number of animals used when their use is deemed essential), and refinement (in the treatment of animals so as to minimize their pain and distress) – the standard of animal research since the 1950s. Nevertheless, it is possible to question whether the use of animals in laboratories may not have been or at least no longer is crucial to medical advances. And even if it is, it does not automatically follow that it should be done or is even morally permissible.

Why not? Simply consider the human analogue. It would no doubt be even more useful to use human beings for the same sorts of medical research that animals are used for; after all, what could be a better “model” for human disease than a human being? But the contemporary consensus is that that would be unconscionable. But then utility, even to the point of “necessity” (for example, to find the cure for cancer as quickly as possible), does not by itself justify laboratory research on a sentient being.

But let us suppose that animal research were both useful for medical progress and morally permissible due to some relevant distinction between human and other animals. Apparently this is what the medical community itself believes, judging by its support for animal research. What I want to argue now is that it would follow that medical researchers should be vegetarians.

At first this may seem paradoxical. If it’s okay to confine animals for their whole lives in cages or other artificial environments, perform sometimes painful and/or disfiguring procedures on them, and finally kill them at an early age, as is done routinely in biomedical research, then why wouldn’t it be okay to do the same for nutritional purposes?

The answer, I maintain, is implicit in the kind of reasons researchers give to justify what they do in their professional role. Their argument is that biomedical research is important, a matter of life and death, relief of pain, etc. (mainly for humans, but also for other animals). The appeals made by individual researchers can certainly be poignant. "I fundamentally believe that relieving human suffering or disease of children is worth the sacrifice of mouse lives," said Yale Professor Marina Picciotto, as quoted in the Yale Daily News in 2009.

Now, one might suppose that the same argument applies to animals used for human food. Is not eating also a matter of life and death, or at least of thriving? However, there is a crucial difference: The medical community itself has affirmed that eating animals is not necessary to human well-being. Indeed there is abundant evidence that human well-being would be abetted by a vegetarian diet, not only on nutritional but also on health grounds.

The American Dietetic Association states: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.”

Therefore if the medical community implicitly holds that only something as serious as “human suffering or disease of children” justifies laboratory research on animals, and explicitly holds that such is not typically at stake in the choice of a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet (and, in fact, the contrary may hold: an animal diet may actually be bad for you), then one would expect the medical community to forswear meat-eating. This is the least they can do, given the treatment of animals in agriculture – which may actually be worse than their treatment in laboratories because it is subject to less legal regulation. Should not the findings in one branch of medicine (nutrition in this case) inform the behavior of all of the branches?

We may be willing to cut the individual doctor or researcher some slack, for the same reason one might refrain from, say, lecturing a smoker. Our accustomed diets are surely as habitual and possibly even as addictive as smoking is to the average smoker. (For the same reason I would grant the individual antivivisector some, although less, dietary slack.) Thus it may seem more appropriate to extend pity and a helping hand than to condemn.

Of course both smoking and carnivorousness are moral matters since they concern the welfare of not just the person doing the act (of smoking or eating) but also other sentient victims (“secondary smokers” and the animals being eaten, respectively). Still, if reform of behavior is what we seek, moral chastising may not be the most effective means. I am willing, therefore, to couch the issue in terms of what standards the medical profession should adopt.

The analogy of smoking is again apt: It makes perfect sense for the medical profession to promote an end to smoking by its own practitioners as a matter of professional ethics, and to offer them incentives, including information and clinical support. Just so for an end to meat-eating.

If the medical profession resists this suggestion, then one might have reason to suspect the reasons it gives in favor of animal experimentation. I don’t think this suspicion would be an instance of the logical fallacy of ad hominem, whereby one judges the soundness of an argument on the basis of the (lack of) integrity of the person who is giving it. I have already acknowledged that dietary habit may be as addictive as smoking. However, if the person did not also express or at least harbor the desire to give up the habit of eating animals and animal products, like the addicted smoker who wants to stop smoking, then the situation would become more problematic. And when the medical profession itself insists on the moral importance of limiting animal experimentation and making sure it is carried out humanely, while yet remaining silent about meat-eating, the situation borders on the bizarre (if not, to borrow a term from another branch of medicine, schizophrenic).

The argument has even been put forward in defense of animal experimentation that our society approves meat-eating. But meat-eating is itself a medical issue, so citing the behavior of laypersons seems beside the point. It would be like pointing to the number of smokers as evidence for the healthiness of smoking and for the professional ethics of retaining the prerogative to smoke by medical practitioners.

An editorial in Nature advises animal experimenters to “be ready to deal with the broader ethical questions involved.” It argues that if the researchers are unprepared, they “risk being caught wrong-footed when the debate inevitably takes off” and adds that “researchers have won several political victories by addressing the issues openly.” But it seems to me that the sincerity of the relevant professions on this question is properly called into question if they do not come out with equal forcefulness in favor of vegetarianism, indeed veganism, as consistency would require.

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a scholar at Yale University's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. He acknowledges Ian Smith and Mark Sheskin for sharing insights for this essay.

  

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 12/28/2010 10:42:12 AM | 


Comments
I fail to follow the logic here.

The argument is that if person behaves in a (purportedly) morally impermissible way(eating animals), then his arguments for the moral permissibility of a different act (the use of animals for medical research) should be automatically rejected.

It is well accepted that the use of fossil fuel in our cars pollutes and threatens our environment, the wildlife and human health. Most animal right activists drive cars (I assume Prof. Marks does too). Would it then be Ok to argue we cannot take their arguments against animal research seriously?

Of course not.

If tomorrow all animal researchers became vegetarians would that stop the criticism of those hat oppose the use of animals in science?

Of course not.

Those that oppose the use of animals in medical research must articulate the moral basis for their arguments, not simply point out that (some) researchers sometimes act in ways they feel are morally impermissible.
Posted by: dario@ucla.edu ( Email ) at 12/28/2010 6:05 PM


>>> The argument is that if person behaves in a (purportedly) morally impermissible way(eating animals), then his arguments for the moral permissibility of a different act (the use of animals for medical research) should be automatically rejected.

Nope, that wasn't the argument. This article didn't even hint at the suggestion that animal research should be "automatically rejected". In fact, the article seemed to take it as given that medical research is morally permissible (under conditions given by researchers themselves).

The point of the article can, I think, be summarized in this way. The use of animals must be justified, and the research community does it by appeal to utility and necessity of animal research -but those same factors do not serve to justify the use of animals for dietary purposes. Therefore, there seems to be a double standard with respect to the use of animals that the scientific community should face up to.

>>> It is well accepted that the use of fossil fuel in our cars pollutes and threatens our environment, the wildlife and human health. Most animal right activists drive cars (I assume Prof. Marks does too). Would it then be Ok to argue we cannot take their arguments against animal research seriously?

Unless I am missing something, this situation you describe is not properly analogous to the article. An analogous situation with fossil fuels would be something like the following. Mary is an environmentalist who sternly refuses to burn fossil fuels, except if it is necessary in order to get to work on the bus. On the weekends, Mary likes to drive around the city in her gas-powered car. We could presumably rightly say to Mary that if the moral propriety of using fossil fuels really does depend on that use being necessitous then she should give up her weekend leisure-driving.

>>> If tomorrow all animal researchers became vegetarians would that stop the criticism of those hat oppose the use of animals in science?

This is a non-sequitur. The point of the article was to illustrate how the accepted standards of the animal research community place a limit on the legitimate reasons for using animals -a limit which appears to preclude the use of animals as food. Whether or not animals continue to be used as food, on this view, has nothing to do with whether animal research is morally acceptable.

>>> Those that oppose the use of animals in medical research must articulate the moral basis for their arguments, not simply point out that (some) researchers sometimes act in ways they feel are morally impermissible.

The point was not to oppose the use of animals in medical research. Nor was it to point out that researchers act in ways that other people feel are morally impermissible. The point of the article was to illustrate that animal researchers, when they eat animals, act in ways that _they themselves_ deem to be morally impermissible, at least according to their professional ethical standards regarding the treatment of animals.

>>> I fail to follow the logic here.

No kidding.
Posted by: neotropic9@hotmail.com ( Email ) at 12/28/2010 9:00 PM


@neotropic9

“The point of the article can, I think, be summarized in this way. The use of animals must be justified, and the research community does it by appeal to utility and necessity of animal research -but those same factors do not serve to justify the use of animals for dietary purposes. “

But scientists are not arguing for the use of animals in food.

“The point of the article was to illustrate how the accepted standards of the animal research community place a limit on the legitimate reasons for using animals -a limit which appears to preclude the use of animals as food.”

okay... but I fail to see why those standards would then apply only to scientists. Why is it that the demand is being being made only on scientists to become vegetarian. Shouldn’t everyone else too?

“Unless I am missing something, this situation you describe is not properly analogous to the article. “

Most animal right activists I know are also committed environmentalists. Yet, they drive their car to work every morning -- no problem with that. There is no need; they could ride a bicycle if they so decided. The analogy is relevant.
Posted by: dario@ucla.edu ( Email ) at 12/28/2010 10:12 PM


Animal research, sometimes, requires (as a point of necessity) that animals be harmed or made to suffer. In drug safety trials, for example, such methods are necessary for obtaining the relevant data.
There is no comparable necessity in food. The omnivore is after sufficient nutritional content, which enjoys non-overlapping instantiations in nature (ie, you can get your protein from meat OR from beans)
On the surface this seem to support the authors overall conclusion: it is precisely because scientists have a kind of choice in what they eat that they do not enjoy in how they conduct their work that they should opt for vegetarianism.
But this does not follow. The common ground of morally relevant factors between animal experimentation and carnivorism is the potential pain and suffering that each activity presents to its victim. The (relevant) moral imperative tells us to minimize the pain and suffering we cause or contribute to. In the case of animal research this imperative is met and arrested by the condition of necessity: pain and suffering in animal research is, sometime, a genuinely necessary evil.
However, this same imperative in the case of food choice, while operational, does not compel vegetarianism. At most it tells us to consume meat, we we choose to do so, that has the lowest "suffering footprint": ie, you should choose free-range over megafarm cattle, hunted game over free-range, and euthanized vs. slaughtered. This does not amount to compelling vegetarianism. At most, researchers may be compelled to forgo veal.

Now it may a matter of practical reason that given the state of the food industry in the United States that virtually all meat that is available has a significant "suffering footprint" but here we should face another question: how do we weigh the negative value of a animal suffering associated with the food we choose to the negative value associated with the opportunity costs (and other similar factors) associated with pursuing alternatives? If all things are considered, I would grant that most researchers are truly ethically bound to greatly reduce their meat intake and change the kind of meat and its source to the extent possible. But I fail to see how the common moral ground between animal research and nutrition compels vegetarianism.
Posted by: dmitri.pisartchik@utoronto.ca ( Email ) at 1/4/2011 11:01 AM