On Ethical Grounds
Written by Ava   

Janet D. Stemwedel (or Dr. Free-Ride as her blog psuedonym goes) is a study in contrasts.  She's a philosopher now but but earned her Ph.D in physical chemistry. She muses on scientific research, but prides herself on promoting ethical conduct.  

Janet uses her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, as a means to muse on responsible conduct of scientific research with ethical means, but points out on the site that she usually ends up focusing on irresponsible conduct with an unethical means.  

Thus, I thought it would be appropriate to ask her her thoughts on the ethical or unethical nature of animal research for scientific purposes.  And she responded with some amazing insight from a philosophical and scientific standpoint.

Here's what Dr. Free-Ride had to say: 

What are you focusing on as a philosophy professor and how did you get from physical chemistry to there?

Both my teaching and research activities focus on the philosophy of science and the ethics of scientific practice.
Philosophy of science examines issues like how scientists evaluate their theories (on the basis of evidence from the world and other considerations), how they choose between theories, how they work out what kinds of evidence are useful (and what kinds of observations or experiments might be able to generate useful evidence), and so forth.

The ethics of scientific practice, not surprisingly, has to do with how scientists ought to behave in conducting their scientific work, in interacting with other scientists, and in interacting with non-scientists.  There's a pretty deep connection between the ways scientists ought to behave (ethically speaking) and the project of knowledge-building that is at the center of scientific activity, and I try to bring that out.  Ethics isn't just a matter of getting pesky government regulators (or goody-goodies from the philosophy department) off your back.

How I came to be a philosopher from being a physical chemist is kind of a long story.  The short version: my experience training to be a physical chemist (both learning how to make new knowledge in my area of science, and learning how to be a grown-up scientist in that community) ended up making me really interested in big questions (why are we committed to the idea that experiments give us insight into the deep structure of reality? why do so many scientists seem to view ethical behavior as an extra that is sometimes dispensable?) that I couldn't properly make the focus of my research if I stayed in chemistry.  Since the questions that captivated me were philosophical questions, I figured I ought to become a philosopher and pursue them.  After all, what's another half-dozen years of school?

Why focus so much on ethics? Is ethics truly important to a philosopher?

I suppose it depends of the philosopher.  As a research focus, some philosophers find ethics -- especially applied ethics (which looks at the particulars of what it means to be ethical in a particular context, like a scientific community) -- pretty pedestrian.  I think tastes in research focuses are pretty personal, though.

Myself, I find it exciting to work on questions that matter to more than just a small handful of professional philosophers.  Scientists, and especially people who are training to be scientists, are very interested in thinking about what kinds of behavior will help them and their communities build a solid body of knowledge -- and what kinds of behavior are likely to hurt that knowledge-building project.

More generally, since ethics is a matter of getting along a world with lots of different people with lots of different interests, it strikes me as important for everyone except maybe the most committed recluses.  And with the internet, even the recluses get sucked into interaction with others.

Are the things animal rights extremists are doing to prove their point ethical or unethical?

This is a hard question to answer.  There are people who hold an animal rights view (basically, that non-human animals deserve the same kind of regard as humans, which means humans are not entitled to use them in research, or for food or fiber or labor, or even as pets) but are not involved with groups like PETA, HSUS, PCRM, or ALF.  I'm thinking of folks who try to present good arguments to support their view.  Rational argumentation is a pretty ethical way to make your point.

There are other people who clearly fall into the "extremist" camp, who place incendiary devices on doorsteps or under cars, who make threats to harm researchers and their family members, and generally who rely on actions that inspire fear to try to bring about the results they think are right.  I'm pretty comfortable labeling this crowd unethical in its tactics.

Then there's a group in the middle where things get grayer.  If you make a donation to a group like PETA and it ends up being used to provide legal defense for someone who has torched a lab, are you unethical for making that donation?  For not exercising due diligence as far as how PETA uses donations?  I'm inclined to think that we all have responsibility -- probably more than we exercise most of the time -- to be aware of the effects our actions have.  If I'm going to buy eggs, I should probably find out what conditions were involved in producing those eggs.  And if I'm going to donate money to an organization, I should probably do some legwork to find out how that organization directs donated funds, and what effects they have.

What’s your take on animal testing and research from an ethics standpoint?

There are some questions here that are interesting philosophically -- for example, the competing philosophies of animal rights and animal welfare (a view that does not hold that non-human animals have rights in the same way that humans do, but that recognizes that we have obligations to ensure the welfare of animals in our care).  There are also questions about how a society as big and diverse as that in the U.S. comes to anything like moral consensus when it comes to our relationship to animals and their use.

As it happens, U.S. law has enshrined an animal welfare standard that applies to, among other things, the use of animals in scientific research.  Scientists who work with animals are usually fairly well educated about the burdens they need to meet in providing care for these animals, minimizing their pain and distress, enriching their environments, reducing the numbers of animals needed to generate meaningful data, refining their techniques, and so forth.  Launching research with animals involves making the case that you couldn't get the knowledge you're seeking any other way, and even then considerations of animal welfare provide a constraint that limits what you can do.

When the system works, scientists are in communication with an IACUC (institutional animal care and use committee) that represents interests from beyond their institution and from beyond the scientific community, and IACUC oversight helps scientists live up to (and even beyond) the federal animal welfare requirements.  Of course, there are instances where the system doesn't work as well as it should.  That's a problem of getting all the humans in the equation to take their responsibilities seriously.

There are, of course, plenty of members of the public and even scientists who don't work with animals who imagine that scientists have a totally free hand to do whatever they want to puppies and kitties and bunnies in the name of science.  That's not the reality.  Scientists are bound by a societal commitment to animal welfare -- because the public feels itself harmed by animal suffering, scientists must work to minimize it.  In other words, scientists are a part of the larger society and are committed to playing by society's rules.

What’s your take on animal testing and research from a scientific standpoint?

From a scientific standpoint, there are some questions that can only be answered by studying a whole organism in operation.  If these are questions worth answering, then animal research is an important part of the scientific tool kit.

You write a great deal about animal research in your blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science.  Why is this an issue of particular interest to you?

The use of animals in scientific research is a topic that brings up the interaction between scientific interests and the interests of the broader society -- something that gets a readership that includes scientists and non-scientists involved with the topic and with each other.  Also, scientists who do work with animals have some experience grappling with some of the gray areas, and with recognizing the costs involved in achieving the benefits of the knowledge they're trying to produce.  As I alluded to before, the problem of balancing many different societal interests -- we want to prevent harm to animals, we want scientists to develop effective treatments for what ails us, and a good many of us also seem to want to be able to get a cheeseburger at the drive-through -- is where the rubber hits the road in ethical decision making.

Lately, I'm sad to say, much of my blogging on issues around animal research has been driven by events that indicate an increasingly dangerous climate for those who do research with animals.  When doing your job within the bounds of the law and recognized ethical standards can expose you or your family to targeted violence, something has gone badly wrong.  I hope that conversations like the ones that happen on my blog might help us get the discussion about scientific use of animals back on the right track -- which is to say, that we work out our disagreements with discussions rather than firebombs.

Why focus particularly on Dr. J’s depiction of testing on cats?

My reading is that Dr. J's post conveyed both the raw emotional connection many of us feel to animals (especially companion animals) and the vague understanding many people -- even scientists -- have about what kinds of research are actually conducted with animals.  It pointed to both a gap in information and a visceral commitment to a line that should not be crossed.

Both of these play a role in how we in society, whether scientists or non-scientists, talk about the use of animals in scientific research.  Filling in the gaps in information (by laying out what kinds of research take place and what kinds of boundaries animal welfare regulations set on research) can keep the discussion focused on the realities rather than on wild hypotheticals.  (Of course, in a climate where describing your research with animals publicly may make you a target of harassment or violence, it's going to be harder to fill in those gaps.)  And, recognizing where your line is, that it isn't the kind of thing you can justify with reasons much beyond "this is how I feel about it", and that other people have different lines, can at least help us understand our problem of coming up with a line we can agree upon as a society.

One of your blog entries talks about different strategies one can apply to ethical reasoning.  Can you tell us how to use these strategies when they applies to ethical reasoning about animal research and rights?

A good basic strategy for ethical decision making is to figure out who is an interested party in the situation you are trying to figure out (and what the interests of those parties are), what obligations you have to the various parties, and what conflicts those interests and obligations seem to set up.  Then the challenge is to come up with a plan of action that resolve the conflict, or that recognizes that the obligations on one side are strongest.

In thinking about animal research, it's crucial that scientists recognize animals and the animal-loving public as interested parties whose interests need to be taken on board.  By the same token, the animal-loving public needs to take into account the interests of scientists, of patients (both human and veterinary) who look to science to develop treatments for what ails them, and of those who may have different philosophical commitments about animals and our relation to them.

In your opinion, is it possible to do animal research on ethical grounds? When?

When scientists do research with animals that aims to answer an important question that couldn't be answered without using animals, when they have worked hard to design an experiment that gets an amount of data that will let them draw meaningful conclusions from as few animals as possible, when measures to monitor and address animal pain and distress are worked out and applied, then animal research can be ethical.  Indeed, a lot of the work scientists do with animals fits this description, maybe most of it.  (I haven't personally monitored all of it, and I know some people are reluctant to trust what monitoring agencies like the USDA have to say about the research projects and facilities they oversee.)

Of course, using a mouse as a research material has a different ethical weight than using a chemical reagent from a jar.  There is always an ethical cost to our animal use.  But this means that scientists must commit themselves to efforts to minimize this cost, and to maximize the benefit that comes from the knowledge they produce with the help of animal research.

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