Friday, 5 October 2012

Animal Research - Cruel or Brave?

A new animal research facility was opened last Friday at the University of Leicester, UK. On Saturday, the left-wing British newspaper "The Guardian" printed a comment by Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre and, bizarrely, a former leading member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The article was titled "Brave, not cruel, science". In it, Fox reminisces about the bad old days, only a decade ago, when animal researchers were demonized and openly attacked for torturing and killing animals in the name of science and human interest. The opening of Leicester's new research facility is a good sign, though. It gives hope that things are finally changing for the better. For too long, Fox feels, scientists have let themselves be so intimidated by animal rights activists and an all too gullible public that they didn't dare to pursue their work openly and to state the obvious, namely that animal research is absolutely necessary and a wonderful thing really. Scientists should be proud of what they are doing because they fight the terrible diseases that haunt humankind. Brave they are and honourable, modern heroes, knights in shining armour, and not cruel at all: "I know many scientists who work on animals. They are not motivated by cruelty but by a powerful desire to push the frontiers of medical research and develop therapies for debilitating diseases. Each one of these scientists is proud of the work they do and, like Leicester University yesterday, they are starting to show that pride to the world."

Now, I'm sure that most scientists who use and kill animals for their research are honourable people, and not, by nature, cruel. But that doesn't mean that their actions are not cruel or morally beyond suspicion. People can do very cruel things without being motivated by cruelty. It is well known that many Nazis who committed atrocities or allowed them to happen were not motivated by cruelty, but rather by a twisted sense of duty. Nazi scientists also used and expended lives in the name of science and progress. In their case those lives happened to be those of fellow humans. Some of the results of that research have actually proven valuable and may even have saved lives. But that doesn't mean that the research was morally justified, and that those scientists were "brave" and that they ought to have been proud of what they were doing, although I'm sure that many of them were.

My point is not that torturing humans to death in the name of science and the greater good is not worse than torturing animals to death for the same reasons. Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn't. My point is rather that the motivation of the researchers is beside the question. Nor is it relevant whether the ends that are being pursued are worth pursuing or not, unless we are convinced that certain ends justify any means that we might have to use to secure those ends. It is not enough to be convinced that those scientists are good people and that they want only the best for us. We still need to ask whether what they are doing is right, whether we are justified in letting certain things be done to animals, no matter for what reason.

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