Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Poor Monkeys

[Written several weeks ago in a late-night, I-can't-sleep fury, in response to an article in the Isthmus, which is the local (Madison, Wisconsin) alternative weekly newspaper. The article detailed the ongoing torture and killing of monkeys at the Primate Center at the University of Wisconsin. Everybody in Madison knows about this, but nobody does anything about it. I never sent in the letter, because I'm a wimp.]

I was appalled by the descriptions of the tortures inflicted on monkeys in the primate research center here in Madison. Immediately, the question comes to mind: is all of this really necessary?

I am a layman and completely unqualified to judge the importance of these experiments, even if the research itself could be explained to me. Most readers of the Isthmus no doubt find themselves in a similar quandary. We are disgusted by the descriptions of the experiments, and we would very much like for them to stop. But the experts are telling us they have to continue. We both trust and distrust the experts. Despite our suspicions, we finally feel that we just don’t know enough. We have to submit to the scientists’ judgment on this issue. We decide to just put down the newspaper and try to forget that it’s happening, because it’s not going to stop anyway.

But let’s step back a minute. Let’s imagine a world where we take seriously the thought that animals, especially highly intelligent animals such as these monkeys, should not be tortured indiscriminately. We would ask, in a serious fashion, whether the center should be shut down. People would speak on the pro and the con sides. Arguments would be weighed. And the center’s existence might continue, or it might not.

Any research program that involves the use of animals, especially highly intelligent animals, has some moral down side. We all know that some research programs are more worthwhile than others. Some are critical, some are just sort of interesting. If we were to take the suffering and death of animals seriously, we would point out that some of these programs, some of the time, are not morally justified, and should stop.

So let’s ask: is this research program, conducted at our university, morally acceptable?

Of course, the individuals involved will insist that the specific procedures involved in this research program, even with all the pain and suffering they cause, are necessary as part of the growth of knowledge. No doubt stopping these experiments would have untold negative effects on human life in the future. No doubt the net effect on human suffering is negative. No doubt these animals, like animals all over the world, must suffer for the benefit of humanity. Are we going to outlaw eating meat next? The university, government, and all other institutions with a stake in the continued existence of the program will leap to defend the program with arguments like these.

In a world where we took the suffering of primates seriously, though, there would be some challenges to this thinking. Let me put forward just a couple of easy ones.

Point 1. If the Madison experiments are not morally justified, the people involved in the program will not be the ones to point this out. When and if the quality of the research deteriorates to the point that the suffering of the monkeys is not being justified, nobody involved in the program will be out front demanding that it be shut down for the sake of the animals.

The university gets grant money. The individual researchers get paid. The reviewers of the scientific proposals get paid. Also making money, directly or indirectly, because of the suffering and death of the monkeys: a university dean or two, some supervisory faculty, building and program staff, a few janitors. No doubt several scientists’ reputational futures, complete with tenure, depend on the continued existence of the program.

All of these people will be upset, to one degree or another, if the program is shut down. Together with other people, and the institutions that bind them together, they form a self-perpetuating network.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. If the program is ethically justified, then it should continue. But let’s not pretend that the forces keeping the system going are really all about the future benefit to humanity. Let’s take seriously the reality that the program continues because programs like this take on a life of their own.

This means that if there are morally serious questions about whether the program should continue, those questions are going to have to be asked by people who are outside the program. That’s just the way institutions work. In the words of the popular book, these people know where their cheese is, and they don’t want it moved.

Even if they aren’t directly involved, every scientist who uses animals in research would find their professional lives much more difficult in a world where animal testing research programs are even occasionally shut down for moral reasons. They all have a stake in this, and none is likely to go out on a limb by condemning one of these research programs.

How many working scientists who do animal research, in the history of the world, have ever come out strongly against the continued existence of any research program that uses animals? (A serious question. Does anybody have any examples of this happening?) The animal suffering of a series of experiments can be immense, and their scientific value close to zero, but animal-using research scientists will rarely if ever speak out in favor of shutting them down.
In short, there are good reasons not to trust the moral judgments of the scientific experts, because they are among those who benefit (directly or indirectly) from the program’s existence.

Point 2. You can trust an expert – but only if they have a stake in coming to the right answer, not the easy answer.

So we can’t trust the experts. They’re the ones with the scientific judgment, but they also benefit from the center’s existence.

What then do we do?

In the real world, not much. Seriously. In the world we live in, this program is going to continue, and nobody is going to do a damn thing about it.

In a world where people took seriously the suffering and death of highly intelligent animals, it would be very easy to take steps in the right direction. We could construct mechanisms to make sure that scientists really believe that their experiments on these animals are justified by the scientific benefit.

One simple way would be like this.

We would ask our scientist friends, how many of these monkeys’ lives are worth the life of one human being? A thousand? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? Pick a number, any number, but live with that number. Human life is valuable, but it is not infinitely more valuable than any other type of life. (If it is infinitely more valuable, then there is no moral problem! You can sacrifice infinite numbers of rats, monkeys, cats, and dogs just to add one minute to the life of one single human being.)

So, take your number. Let’s say a hundred thousand. That’s an incredibly large number of monkeys to sacrifice just to save the life of one person, but let’s use that number. (We could maybe use a million for cats and dogs, and ten million for rats.)

Then every monkey being tortured and killed in the city of Madison is equivalent to the torture and murder of 1/100,000th of a human being. So, to make sure that scientists are serious when they say that this experiment requires the sacrifice of this many monkeys, we will ask them to put their humans where their mouth is.

For every monkey you want to use in this experiment, we will roll some dice. In 99,999 cases out of 100,000, you can use your monkey. But in the incredibly unlikely 1 in 100,000th case, we are going to use a human being in this experiment instead. We will use exactly the same procedures on the human being that we were using on the monkey. We will keep him or her in the same cages (adjusted for size, no doubt), with exactly the same protocols. We will treat him or her exactly as we treat the monkeys. In the end, if the monkey has to be euthanized, then we do the same for the human.

Which human? No doubt justice would call for using the scientist him or herself. Or perhaps his or her thesis adviser. Maybe the professor who reviewed and approved the experiment. How about a dean?

Just imagine the ceremonies, the hoopla, as the few who died would be honored in their martyrdom for their willingness to sacrifice for the future benefit of humanity. They would join the glorious ranks of those who have died for the truth. Oh, the splendor of it all!

Imagine a world where this policy actually existed. Imagine how much more careful research scientists would be before they claimed that their work was worth the sacrifice of these monkeys’ lives. Imagine how much harder they would work to ensure that there really was no other way to advance scientific research. Imagine how much more serious the oversight committees would be.

It’s really easy to imagine that world. You can see it, can’t you? Not necessarily the world where humans are sacrificed, but the world where every scientific experiment that uses intelligent animals is subject to that kind of oversight, that kind of care, that kind of pressure to explore every possible alternative to animal testing. In that world, the horrible, horrible things reported in the Isthmus article really would only happen when they were absolutely necessary.

That’s the way the world would look if we actually gave a damn.

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