The ethics gap

I’m a happy chappy this week because my ethics clearance came through and I can go ahead with my research. If you don’t happen to work in research, ethics clearances are things we get from our various institutions after we satisfy them that in the course of our research we won’t transgress the ethical guidelines relevant to what we’re investigating. Of course ethics are never objective, and  this is especially evident to me because I have to apply for separate human and animal ethics clearances. And boy is there a difference.

The ethical guidelines that guide human research emphasize choice and respect for persons. It’s a given that any humans involved won’t be captured, harmed or retrained without their informed consent, and there are a lot of protections in place, especially for children and intellectually impaired humans. As far as research on animals goes, well, er, you know the story. Animals can be captured, restrained, euthanized and anything else as long as you can justify it to an ethics committee. The key to ethical animal research is minimization of harm, but this in itself implies that harm is a given and the main objective is to minimize it.

So what kinds of values does this ethics gap reflect? If you were an alien just arrived on Earth you might think this is pretty straight forward: humans are valued differently to animals. And the difference is definitely rooted in species because it’s the least ‘rational’ humans – the ones not in a position to make an informed choice – who are most protected. Moreover if you looked into the kinds of research where animals are subject to suffering in order to find treatments (or cosmetics) that benefit humans, then you would justifiably conclude that humans are valued, not just differently to, but over animals.

But then you go and hover over a suburban household and observe a dog-owner feeding a tiny tin of expensive gourmet dog food to her silky terrier while blithely watching on TV the suffering of so much human detritus in the ‘developing’ world.  Ok, so you’re a little confused as it looks for all the world like that dog is valued pretty highly to the exclusion of a large number of humans. But then you might have just seen a similar silky terrier in a research facility having a chemical injected into his eyeballs to better understand its toxicity to humans. You’re confused.

Well, alien, don’t throw your numerous hands in the air and write us off as indecipherable just yet. You see, ethical consideration depends in large part on who you are, and in the case of animals, the species to which you belong and the humans with which you’re associated. It’s political all the way down and if I were you, I’d be very concerned about which category we humans choose to put you in. As a non-human you might just end up on the wrong side of the gap. And having so many eyeballs makes you an ideal research subject.

So what do you think? Is the ethics gap justifiable if it benefits humans? Do you think the gap is narrowing?


1 thought on “The ethics gap

  1. It goes even beyond that. Humans are ultra-species friendly, but within our own species we’re more ethical about some humans than about others. We may think that someone who’s a different colour, or not so bright, or different from us in some other way, shouldn’t be treated as well as us, or that inferior treatment of them is justified.
    I try to see all living beings in the same way, and certainly don’t think humans rate higher than other species. In a conflict between human and non-human interests (such as grazing land versus lions in the Masai, attacks on humans by starving leopards and tigers in India, and starving sharks around Australia), my sympathy is with the non-humans. We’re too numerous and too greedy, and we’re crowding all other life-forms out – except bacteria and the like, which will presumably take revenge for the other life-forms in the end. But I might be inclined to put my personal interest before that of, say, a cockroach which decided to visit my kitchen. These days I’d try to put it outside rather than kill it, but I wouldn’t fall over backwards to preserve its life.
    As for research using animals, I believe that new lab techniques for growing cells and computer simulations have made it obsolete. I read recently that scientists (Japanese?) have succeeded in growing a human ear on the back of a rat. It sounds like something in a painting of hell by Bosch. And I have two pet rats …


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