Sadly, the Australian summer just gone has once again seen as increase in deaths and hospitalizations associated with drug use at music festivals. As of January 2019 the state of New South Wales (NSW) coroner’s office announced it would investigate five recent deaths at music festivals. For the past decade deaths and overdose hospitalizations following ingestion of MDMA, ecstasy or other party drugs at music festivals has prompted debate about whether pill testing services should be made available at such events.
The topic of testing on animals as a form of scientific research has been contentious for quite some time. In most cases, the discussion tends to focus on whether it is morally permissible to test various products and procedures on animals in order to determine whether they would be safe and beneficial for human use. Animal experimentation is not always conducted simply for the benefit of human beings—sometimes the parties that stand to benefit from the research are other non-human animals, often including other members of the same species as the animals being tested.
Defenders of the practice of testing on animals for the benefit of humans argue that the benefits for humans substantially outweigh the harms incurred by animals. Some argue that our moral obligations extend only to other members of the moral community. Among other things, members of the moral community can recognize the nature of rights and obligations and are capable of being motivated to act on the basis of moral reasons. Non-human animals, because they are not capable of these kinds of reflections, are not members of the moral community. As such, defenders of animals testing argue, they don’t have rights. In response, critics argue that if we only have obligations to beings that can recognize the nature of moral obligations, then we don’t have obligations to very young children or to permanently mentally disabled humans, and this idea is morally indefensible.
Other defenders of animal testing argue that it is both natural and proper for human beings to exercise dominion over animals. These arguments take more than one form. Some people who make this argument are motivated by passages from the Bible. Genesis 1:26 reads, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Some argue that this passage suggests that humans have divine permission to use animals as they see fit. The use of animals for the benefit of humans seems morally defensible to these people for this reason.
Others argue human dominion over other animals is appropriate because human beings have demonstrated their superiority over non-human animals. We are no different from other animals in the sense that we use our natural skills to climb as high on the food chain as our circumstance permit. As rational creatures, our needs extend farther than the needs of non-human animals. As a result, we can use non-human animals to solve a wider range of problems. We can use them not only for protein, but to make our lives longer, better, more beautiful, and more convenient. Critics of such a view argue that might doesn’t make right. What’s more, our enhanced rational capacities also give us the ability to make moral judgments, and these moral judgments should extend to compassion for the suffering of all living creatures.
Arguments against research on animals also come in a variety of forms. One approach focuses on suffering. Famously, Peter Singer argued that what makes a being deserving of moral consideration is their capacity to suffer. If we treat equal amounts of suffering unequally simply because of the species to which the animal happens to belong, our behavior is speciesist—we are taking seriously considerations that are morally irrelevant. Rights based approaches, like the one argued by Tom Regan point out that non-human animals are subjects of lives. There is something it is like for them to experience the world in the unique way that they do. In light of this, we should recognize that non-human animals have intrinsic value and they should not be used as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of human beings.
How should we assess the situation when the research done on non-human animals is done, not for the benefit of human beings, but for the benefit of other non-human animals? In these cases, one major criticism of testing disappears—researchers can’t be accused of failing to take the interests of non-human animals seriously. After all, concern for the interests of non-human animals is what motivates this research to begin with. Vaccines for rabies, canine parvovirus, distemper, and feline leukemia virus have been developed through the use of animal research. These critical procedures improve and even save the lives of non-human animals. When we engage in a consequentialist assessment of the practice, testing on non-human animals for the benefit of other non-human animals seems justified.
On the other hand, it may be that speciesism is rearing its ugly head again in this case. Consider a parallel case in which research was being conducted for the good of human beings. Imagine that a tremendous amount of good could be done for human beings at large if we tested a particular product on a human being. The testing of this product would cause tremendous physical pain to the human being, and may even cause their death. Presumably, we would not think that it is justified to experiment on the human. The ends do not justify the means.
One might think that one major difference between the case of testing on humans and the case of testing on animals is that humans are capable of giving consent and animals are not. So, on this view, if we kidnap a human for the purposes of experimenting on her to achieve some greater good, what we have done wrong, is, in part, violating the autonomy of the individual. Animals aren’t capable of giving consent, so it is not possible to violate their autonomy in this way.
Under the microscope, this way of carving up the situation doesn’t track our ordinary discourse about consent. It is, of course, true, that humans are free to use freely (within limits) certain things that are incapable of giving consent. For example, humans can use grain and stone and so on without fear of violating any important moral principle. In other cases in which consent is not possible, we tend to have very different intuitions. Very young children, for example, aren’t capable of consent, and for that very reason we tend to think it is not morally permissible for us to use them as mere means to our own ends. Beings that are conscious but are incapable of giving consent seem worthy of special protection. So it seems wrong to test on them even if it is for the good of their own species. Is it speciesist to think that the ends can’t justify the means in the case of the unwilling human subject but not in the case of the unwilling non-human animal?
Testing on non-human animals for the sake of other non-human animals also raises other sets of unique moral concerns and questions. What is the proper rank ordering of moral obligations when the stakeholders are abstractions? Imagine that we are considering doing an experiment on Coco the chimpanzee. The experiment that we do on Coco might have implications for future chimpanzees with Coco’s condition. The research might, then, have a beneficial impact for Coco’s species—the species “chimpanzee.” Can the moral obligations that we have to concrete, suffering beings ever be outweighed by obligations that we have to abstractions like “future generations” or “survival of the species”?
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NPR recently reported on the efforts of scientists who are growing small and “extremely rudimentary versions of an actual human brain” by transforming human skin cells into neural stem cells and letting them grow into structures like those found in the human brain. These tissues are called cerebral organoids but are more popularly known as “minibrains.” While this may all sound like science fiction, their use has already led to new discoveries in the medical sciences.
The impetus for developing cerebral organoids comes from the difficult situation imposed on research into brain diseases. It is difficult to model complex conditions like autism and schizophrenia using the brains of mice and other animals. Yet, there are also obvious ethical obstacles to experimenting on live human subjects. Cerebral organoids provide a way out of this trap because they present models more akin to the human brain. Already, they have led to notable advances. Cerebral organoids were used in research into how the Zika virus disrupts normal brain development. The potential to use cerebral organoids to test future therapies for such conditions as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s Disease seems quite promising.
The experimental use of cerebral organoids is still quite new; the first ones were successfully developed in 2013. As such, it is the right time to begin serious reflection on the potential ethical hurdles for research conducted on cerebral organoids. To that end, a group of ethicists, law professors, biologists, and neuroscientists recently published a commentary in Nature on the ethics of minibrains.
The commentary raises many interesting issues. Let us consider just three:
The prospect of conscious cerebral organoids
Thus far, the cerebral organoids experimented upon have been roughly the size of peas. According to the Nature commentary, they lack certain cell types, receive sensory input only in primitive form, and have limited connection between brain regions. Yet, there do not appear to be insurmountable hurdles to advances that will allow us to scale these organoids up into larger and more complex neural structures. As the brain is the seat of consciousness, scaled-up organoids may rise to the level of such sensitivity to external stimuli that it may be proper to ascribe consciousness to them. Conscious organisms sensitive to external stimuli can likely experience negative and positive sensations. Such beings have welfare interests. Whether we had ethical obligations to these organoids prior to the onset of feelings, it would be difficult to deny such obligations to them once they achieve this state. Bioethicists and medical researchers ought to develop principles to govern these obligations. They may be able to model them after our current approaches to research obligations regarding animal test subjects. However, it is likely the biological affinity between cerebral organoids and human beings will require significant departure from the animal test subject model.
Additionally, research into consciousness has not nailed down the neural correlates of consciousness. As such, we may not necessarily know if a particularly advanced cerebral organoid is likely to be conscious. Either we ought to purposefully slow the progress into developing complex cerebral organoids until we understand consciousness better, or we pre-emptively treat organoids as beings deserving moral consideration so that we don’t accidentally mistreat an organoid we incorrectly identify as non-conscious.
Cerebral organoids have also been developed in the brains of other animals. This gives the brain cells a more “physiologically natural” environment. According to the Nature commentary, cerebral organoids have been transplanted into mice and have become vascularized in the process. Such vascularization is an important step in the further development in size and complexity of cerebral organoids.
There appears to be a general aversion to the prospect of transplanting human minibrains into mice. Many perceive the creation of such human-animal hybrids (chimeras) as crossing the inviolable boundary between species. The transplantation of any cells of one animal, especially those of a human (and even more especially those of the brain cells of a human) may violate this sacred boundary.
An earlier entry on The Prindle Post approached the vexing issues of the creation of human-animal chimeras. It appeared that much of the opposition to chimeras was based in part on an objection to “playing God.” Though some have ridiculed the “playing God” argument as based on “a meaningless, dangerous cliché,” people’s strong intuitions against the blurring of species boundaries ought to influence policies put in place to govern such research. If anything, this will help tamp down a strong public backlash.
Changing definitions of death
Cerebral organoids may also threaten the scientific and legal consensus around defining death as the permanent cessation of organismic functioning and understanding the criterion in humans for this as the cessation of functioning in the whole brain. This consensus itself developed in response to emerging technologies in the 1950’s and 1960’s enabling doctors to maintain the functioning of a person’s cardio-pulmonary system after their brain had ceased functioning. Because of this technological change, the criterion of death could no longer be the stopping of the heart. What if research into cerebral organoids and stem cell biology enables us to restore some functions of the brain to a person already declared brain dead? This undercuts the notion that brain death is permanent and may force us to revisit the consensus on death once again.
Minibrains raise many other ethical issues not considered in this brief post. How should medical researchers obtain consent from the human beings who donate cells that are eventually turned into cerebral organoids? Will cerebral organoids who develop feelings need to be appointed legally empowered guardians to look after their interests? Who is the rightful owner of these minibrains? Let us get in front of these ethical questions before science sets its own path.
The prevalence of drug usage at many music festivals is not a secret, but how should we care for those who choose to take them? Recent drug-related deaths at music festivals around the world have sparked a call to action. But instead of banning drugs altogether, one Australian doctor suggests drug testing to promote safer usage among festival-goers. The process would involve festival attendees visiting an on-site laboratory to submit a sample of the drug they plan on taking. Workers would take 20-45 minutes to test the ingredients in the drugs and then pass along the information to the customer. Those who choose to take drugs will then know exactly what they are putting into their bodies. Similar testing techniques are already being implemented at select music festivals in parts of Europe and North America.