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Can an animal rights activist accept medical treatment invented through animal testing?

In the comments to a recent post, Jenn asks

And I'm still curious to know how many animal rights activsts refuse medical treatment for themselves or someone they love based on its history in animal experimentation?

I have no idea what actual animal rights activists think about this question. I can only speak for myself -- and as animal rights activists go, I'm a pretty sorry excuse for one, since I still occasionally eat meat when traveling or visiting. Nevertheless, I don't think it's necessarily hypocritical for someone committed to animal rights to accept the use of a medical treatment whose development required animal experimentation.

The philosophical basis of animal rights is generally consequentialist -- that is, what makes an act right or wrong is its effects on the welfare of humans and other animals*. Medical animal experiments offer a tradeoff: the decrease in the welfare of the animals used in the experiments developing the treatment, versus the decrease in the welfare of the sick humans (and animals) who could have been cured had the experiments been done. Animal rights activists typically conclude that the welfare reductions from refraining from the experiments are morally preferrable to those from doing them (after all, if they didn't, Jenn would have no argument with them)**.

The key reason why it would make sense to accept medical treatment that has already been invented, while opposing the use of animals in the invention of new treatments, is that the harm to animals done in creating it is a sunk cost. Those same animals have been harmed regardless of how many or how few people later benefit from the treatment. Once the experiments have unfortunately been done, the tradeoff is not between harming animals to help people, or letting people suffer to save animals. It's strictly a matter of helping people versus letting them suffer.

Imagine, as an analogy, that I have a car that you want. You offer me $10,000 for it, which is the accepted market value of the car. I refuse to sell it, because it's worth more than ten thousand dollars. My refusal makes you angry, so out of spite you drive your truck full speed into my driveway, totalling the car in question. We go to court, and the judge orders you to pay restitution of $10,000 (assume that filing an appeal to try to get a better settlement is out of the question). Now, should I refuse to accept any restitution, since I didn't think the loss of my car was worth $10,000 when you offered to buy it? Does my acceptance of the restitution entail that $10,000 for the car was a fair deal after all, and thus I was wrong not to have sold it to you? Of course not. The car is lost no matter what, so I might as well get whatever benefits I can out of the situation.

Another way to think of it is this: I imagine a situation in which medical experiments were being done on unwilling humans, and I was one of the unlucky victims. In that situation, I would hope that the research being done on me discovered a cure for a deadly disease, and that that cure would be widely used by people with that disease. And I can hold that hope while still believing that it would have been better, all things considered, for me and my fellow victims to have not been forced into the experiment, and therefore for the cure never to have been developed. If I'm going to die anyway, I'd rather give my life for some benefit (however small) to others, rather than giving it for nothing.

In a later comment, Jenn raises a contrast with buying leather goods. After all, they don't wait for you to order the shoes before they go and kill the cow to make them. One important factor that distinguishes the two cases, of course, is the size of the benefits that come from using the animal product -- a life-saving medical treatment certainly creates a greater and more important welfare increase than getting to wear leather instead of some other material.

The benefits of abstaining from leather come through a deterrence or boycott mechanism. The more shoes sit unsold on the shelf, the less incentive Nike has to produce additional pairs, and hence the fewer cows it will have killed. With medical treatments, the connection between taking what exists and producing more is not so close, and so the deterrent effect of a boycott is reduced. In the production of leather, the purchase of one good spurs the producer to produce another just like it, using the same animal-harming process. But accepting a medical treatment most directly incentivizes the provision of the same treatment to additional patients -- which we've already established wouldn't directly harm any animals. The incentive given to the development of a new product line is more diffuse. Things are further complicated because the leather industry is, from farm to retailer, purely a creature of the profit motive, closely integrated by market forces. The medical sector, on the other hand, includes institutions (hospitals and university research labs) which at least claim to serve higher goals (health and knowledge) alongside profit. For this reason the incentive that use of a treatment provides for development of additional treatments will not be as strong. The different institutions are also often less closely linked than in the case of leather. Much medical research is funded by the NIH, whose funding decisions are not connected directly to the rates of use of existing treatments, but rather are based on the review boards' conceptions of what are important avenues of further research.

Thus the cost-benefit ratio for accepting a life-saving medical treatment invented through animal experimentation is more favorable than that for buying leather, so it's not prima facie implausible that someone could say yes to the medical treatment but no to leather. Obviously one could dispute someone else's decision of where to draw the line, or challenge the facts they've used to decide which side of their line a particular act falls on. But then we're into the territory of analyzing specific people's particular versions of animal rights, not animal rights activists in general. (My own unresolved feelings on this issue probably aren't a particularly good test case, since I recently purchased a pair of leather shoes.)

* Though there's disagreement about whether we should focus on the overall welfare of all beings taken together (utilitarianism) or on securing a certain basic level of welfare to each individual being (a true "rights" view).

** Some do hold that certain experiments would be morally justifiable -- if the amount of suffering caused in the experiment is small enough, if the experiment is fairly certain to contribute directly to the finding of a cure, and if the disease being cured is sufficiently painful and widespread (and for some, if the disease being cured substantially afflicts the species being used in the experiment). Utilitarians would typically be more likely to accept a wider set of experiments.


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