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Thinking The Unthinkable About Scientific Progress

Orac's recent rant* against animal rights supporters raises an interesting blind spot in debates over morally controversial research. Like most staunch defenders of animal testing, he points out the many scientific and medical advances that we have made through animal testing. He asserts his own efforts to avoid "unnecessary" suffering on the part of the lab animals he uses, where suffering (presumably) becomes "necessary" when any way of avoiding it would limit what we are able to learn. More interesting is that he reminds me (in the course of rebutting it) that animal rights proponents claim that the same advances could be made without harming animals. All animal experimentation is "unnecessary" in exactly the same sense as I inferred Orac used the term. They're unwilling to say that many new treatments may be delayed or never developed, and that that's a price worth paying to protect the animals who would otherwise suffer in the labs.

From animal testing to stem cells to the repatriation of Native American remains, the moral imperative of the advance of science is never questioned, except by those who are opposed to science. Nobody seriously considers whether, while the advance of science is ceteris paribus a very good thing, in some cases the costs of achieving some non-trivial knowledge might unfortunately be too high. So animal rights proponents insist that equal results can be achieved through cell cultures and computer models, President Bush declares that the existing stem cell lines are plenty, and repatriators tell inspiring stories of the research bonanzas that follow repairing relationships between archaeologists and tribes. (By what I'm sure is sheer coincidence, my own judgment is that the desirability of restriction is highest, and the negative impacts on scientific progress lowest, in the case of repatriation, and conversely in the case of stem cells). The only people willing to entertain the possibility of a slowdown in scientific progress as the price of serving other ethical goals are people like Vine Deloria Jr who have little regard for science in the first place.

As counterexamples to my thesis, we could certainly come up with scenarios where ex hypothesi huge advances in understanding may be gained from horrifying Nazi experiments. So it's true that neither the pro-research nor anti-research sides is aiming at the total maximization of scientific progress without regard to the ethical cost. What's really happening, then, is that neither side is willing to admit to a reduction in the socially-established default or baseline rate of scientific progress. Certain ethical principles, such as constraints on directly killing innocent humans, are so deeply embedded that to violate them in the name of research is unthinkable, and thus they do (usually unconsciously, or consciously but self-evidently) constrain the rate of progress. But once this rate, minimally constrained by consensus ethical principles, is established as the status quo, proponents of further restrictions are unwilling to admit that their proposals would reduce that status quo rate.

*I call it a mere "rant" because he indulges in a good deal of guilt-by-association-with-your-extremists, one of my least favorite rhetorical strategies. And he amusingly declares that animal rights views are not based on reason, while offering in support of his own animal-noblesse-oblige view the ironclad contention that it's "ridiculous" to belive otherwise.


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