Saturday, June 4, 2011

Animal Research: Emotion and Vantage Point

At NPR, Neal Conan talks to David Martin Davies about using chimpanzees for medical research. There are many things in Davies' framing and word choice to show his function is to defend animal research and convince listeners to support animal research, but I don't want to spend too much time dissecting his language. Instead, I will focus on Davies' framework of rational scientists versus emotional animal rights activists. Davies says:

"The entire scientific community is nervous about this. They're concerned that they are losing a national debate about this topic, which is based mainly on emotional issues. And, yeah, Neal, of course, it's an emotional issue. No one wants to mistreat our great apes, our great cousins, but they realize that there is a need for this and it could benefit humanity."

I would argue that support for animal research relies more on emotion than opposition to animal research, due to the vantage point of who benefits.

Personally, emotion plays no role in my opposition to animal research. I know there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and I have little meaningful emotional reaction to a few specific chimpanzees suffering more. I am, however, a human with people I love and whom I wish to protect. From an emotional standpoint, I would actually prefer that absolutely anything be done to potentially save those that I love. That's not reason: that's emotion.

My individual personal reaction doesn't matter much, of course. But it does connect to what does matter: the human vantage point. When humans discuss animal research, it is always in the context of humans benefiting. Us. We benefit. It is difficult, then, not to have an emotional stake. One group (humans) discusses an activity that benefits itself, even if it exploits another group (animals). There are all sorts of logically framed arguments supporting animal research, but there is always a personal, emotional appeal. We benefit. We get helped. People we love get helped.

Davies' framing of opponents of animal research as dealing with emotion (in opposition to scientists dealing with reason) is particularly bothersome as Davies in fact uses an emotional argument to support animal research:

"the person you got to bring into the conversation is if you are about to undergo an experimental treatment or if you have a condition, do you - you would want to know that everything is possibly been done on this drug before it reached a human person. The first person who takes that drug is going to be the experiment now instead of a chimpanzee."

Here Davies is not asking listeners to examine the situation from an objective position. He is not asking listeners to dispassionately use reason to assess the ethics of a particular practice. He is asking listeners to imagine themselves in a position of need for medical treatment that might require animal research. He is asking listeners not to reason, but to take on a particular emotional state. What would you do if... The attempt of this appeal is to put the listener in a particular vantage point where he or she would benefit from this research. This is a bit superfluous, because as I said, when we discuss animal research we already have the vantage point of the group that benefits. But we can also use this imaginary situation to put ourselves in a different vantage point.

In "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," Harold Herzog discusses The E.T. Dilemma. Herzog says the logic of animal research is that a superior species has the right to use an inferior species for the superior species' benefit. What if, Herzog asks, an advanced alien species, obviously superior to humans, were to use human beings for medical research to help itself? Could this advanced alien species kidnap, imprison, and perform invasive tests on people? If, in terms of superiority, we are to the aliens as great apes are to us? If you assess this hypothetical logically, there really is no getting around it: if we are allowed to use inferior species for our benefit, a superior species would be allowed to use us for its benefit. If you feel otherwise, you are using emotion: you now have the vantage point of the victim of somebody else's benefit.

Opposition to animal research is, I am sure, often based on emotion. But it is also based on a quite logical, quite reasonable question, one that can be asked in a spirit of dispassionate objectivity. How do we justify using animals for research? By what right may we do what we will with animals if it benefits us?