White Western Hegemony – Tested on Lab Rats

White Western Hegemony — Tested on Lab Rats

Do environmental ethics provide a useful framework for evaluating the use of animals in research?

Animal Experimentation has come a long way since the inception of the 3R’s: replacement, reduction, and refinement, Italy, for example, will ban the breeding of dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates for research. The National Institutes of Health will decommission most of its chimpanzees (Nature 2013). However, there are still practices which remain and are often glanced over, which, I argue, many would still find abhorrent. Three of these will be outlined.  In the examination of these issues, we will consider ethical theories which would reject Aristotle’s ontological Scala Naturae (Ladder of Nature), by granting equal moral value to non-human entities: this is the definition of environmental ethics in this essay. The extent to which the theories grant moral value to non-humans, and their underpinning motivations, differ. The five theories considered are: Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life, Leopold’s Land Ethic, Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology, and Tom Regan’s Animal Rights. After this, we will consider some of the arguments against the theories and their conclusions, realising that accepting environmental ethics requires several leaps of faith, from biting the accusatory bullets of ecofascism and subjectively motivated ‘bridge-gapping’, to embracing a lack of action guidance in difficult conflicts.

Foetal Bovine Serum is a necessary medium for growing cultured cells. All labs which work with mammalian cell lines require this culture, and it would be difficult to find a research institute which does not research on mammalian cell lines. Foetal Bovine Serum is often just referred to as FBS. FBS is required to culture cells as the blood has less antibodies, alongside containing the necessary nutrients to encourage cell growth, hormones, proteins, vitamins, and growth factors (van der Valk 2018). FBS is collected from calf foetuses which have been discovered upon slaughter of the mother for meat. A small percentage of cows are discovered to be pregnant and then the foetus is removed, still living, from the body. The serum is then harvested by cardiac puncture until the required amount is collected. The foetus can experience pain in this time, and, as foetuses are more tolerant to anoxia, they experience pain for longer (van der Valk 2002). The second example is Western Blotting, or Immuno-blotting. This process is used to accurately identify proteins and thus applied in all areas of basic research. The use of animals here is rather indirect, and as such is often overlooked and so, overused. To produce antibodies which attach to and identify your protein of interest, you first have to inject an animal with your protein, often a rabbit, a few times over the course of a few months. The animal produces the desired antibodies, at which point the creature is ‘bled’, i.e. killed, and the blood collected again via cardiac puncture. The third example is the more typical use of mice to examine diseases like Alzheimer’s, or other brain disorders. The mice are treated well and there are strict guidelines for euthanising once they cross a certain pain threshold. Nevertheless, the genes in these mice are expressed to accelerate the development of the disease, and the mice are eventually killed and their brains, or other tissue, is removed and sliced thinly for examination. The results of the tissue can then be compared to the speed with which a mouse has reach its terminal point, and so trends can be identified. Whilst these examples may be intuitively immoral to some, it is important to consider the philosophical frameworks under which we can identify exactly what is wrong with them.

            Singer’s Animal Liberation is a utilitarian theory. It is strictly quantitative and hierarchical in nature. The theory focuses on maximising happiness and minimising suffering, and his particular take on utilitarianism is known as interest or preference utilitarianism. This demands an “equal consideration of interests” (Nordgren p.25), but this is only extended to sentient beings: “if a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing left to be taken into account”, as these are the kind of beings possible of entertaining interests (Nordgren p.25). Sentience is necessary as it allows for both the experience of happiness and suffering, and as a utilitarian, if an action causes harm to an animal, more harm than happiness arising as a result, then the action is prohibited (Nordgren 2010 p.25). Singer makes no distinction between the importance of pain among different species: saying famously “pain is pain” (Singer p. 20). A distinction does arise however, when we consider death. Beings with a capability for future-oriented preferences are placed above those without, and Singer lists these from sheep to whales and monkeys (he concedes that these species may even include all mammals (Nordgren 2010 p. 26)). And the degree to which this future-orientated preference is felt is higher in those species with high cognitive capability. Whilst this theory was progressive in its inclusive attitude towards animals; recognising their ability to suffer as comparable to human desires and needs, it nonetheless grants higher moral status to some species over others, and places humans at the top of this pile “taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being” (Nordgren p.25).

Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life Theory is an amalgamation of: Schopenhauer’s Will-To-Live, used to both prove the empirical world and a universal existential driving force; and Nietzsche’s modern philosophy: to reconcile the theory with Darwinian evolution and to embark on current societal critique. Schweitzer’s theory was secular and designed to be both an ontological theory as well as an ethical theory which could be directly applied. (Goodin 2011, p.114) Schweitzer battled with the consequences of modernity, much as Marx and Engels did with the realisation that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ (Thate 2016). For him an economic life would “perpetuate the causes of social decline” (Goodin p.15), acting in direct opposition to ethical development in the same breath that it threatened our identity, “We are all more or less in danger of becoming human things instead of [true, self-determining] personalities” (Goodin p.17). The result of which was a theory which called for compassion, in which “the distinction between I and Not-I disappears” (Goodin p.53). A thread, the Will-To-Live, connects the two. Upon the nihilistic reflection of our mortality, a mortality predetermined by our biology, Schweitzer leads the reader to the conclusion that they must live sincerely, after they have recognised the unique spiritual freedom granted to humans and rejected a “self-seeking egotism” (Goodin p.98).  This is the Will-To-Live triumphing over a resignation in the face of our mortality. This freedom can then be turned towards compassion “if I am thinking [and sincere] being, I must regard this other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself” (Goodin p.99).

Leopold’s Land Ethic can be summarised by his dictum: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (Leopold 1949). Leopold’s Land Ethic includes the abiotic environment: this is part of the Land Pyramid on which living things rely.  It includes both soil and water, as well as the insects, birds, rodents, and carnivores (Leopold 1949 p.215). This philosophy is often called ecocentrism as it values the whole ecosystem. Whilst Goodin argues that we can use Schweitzer’s theory as normatively equivalent to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. (Goodin p. 150) This is rather indirectly the case, the focus of Schweitzer being that of individual life, which through his actions was expressed as an appreciation of necessity for the ecosystem, but is not necessarily the focus of his theory. Whether or not this is an important distinction to make will be examined when we consider animal experimentation.

            Arne Naess’ deep ecology is in many ways similar to Leopold’s Land Ethic. His ethic can be understood as two concepts, although there is also a clear and more pragmatic outline of seven principles (Naess 1986). Self-realisation is a conflation of the idea of an isolated self with the greater entity of diverse life. Hence the Self is capitalised to signal this distinction from a self in solitude (Rothenberg 1989). This theory, in its conception, places focus on a need to discover an ecological consciousness, which is a psychological process. This “phenomenological spirit” (Frodeman 2007) is emphasised over moral dicta, as the need to develop such principles is removed once one is in a state of Self-realisation. This theory comes a little from Naess’ use of the term gestalt, which is normally a psychological concept, referring to how the concept of parts and whole are connected “the experience of those few tones is very different form how they would be experienced if we had never heard the piece”. (Rothenberg 1989 p.58). The concept puts emphasis on the “infusion of the character of the whole into each single part”.

            Tom Regan’s Animal Rights is based on the concept of inherent value. Moral rights are ‘unacquired’ meaning that they are not contingent on a position or agreement within society. He contrasts this idea of inherent value, as somewhat external, opposed to the intrinsic values purported by preference utilitarians, those of the experience of happiness or preferences — “individuals have inherent value, not their experiences” (Nordgren p.31). Which animals then have inherent value? Those that are subjects-of-a-life and have: “beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and plain…psychophysical identity” (Regan 1983 p. 243). The species included here are mammals one year old or more, so it is worth noticing that it is slightly less inclusive than Singer’s theory.

Now these theories will be considered with respect to animal research. Singer criticises animal experimentation for basic research, arguing that it is only acceptable when there is no suffering caused. Singer wants to put emphasis on the uncertainty with which results will reduce suffering in humans, with the certainty that they will cause suffering in animals. However, he does also mention that “If one, or even a dozen animals had to suffer experiments in order to save thousands, I would think it right” (Nordgren p.22). Pain is then unacceptable in the majority of cases, and in general applies only to animals who have preferences (which may be most), yet there is a hierarchy of moral consideration, given that some animals have a higher or lower capacity for future-orientated interests.

Tom Regan, the proponent of Animal Rights, was appalled by experimentation. He argues that it harms the animals, in the sense that it harms their right to respectful treatment — this use of ‘harm’ is an important distinction to Singer’s usage. A common argument defending the use of animals in research is that the animals don’t suffer. They are fed well, handled carefully, anaesthetised when being examined, and peacefully euthanised. Animal Rights theory then still argues against such research as there is “harm in terms of reduced welfare opportunities and untimely death” (Regan 1983 pp 387-388). Only field studies would be permitted, as they do not interfere with an animal’s opportunities. An issue with Regan arises, however, when considering conflicts between rights holders. In a lifeboat situation, if we had to weigh up between throwing a man or a dog overboard, the dog should be chosen, as dogs have a lower number of opportunities, and as such a human being suffer more ‘harm’ if he were untimely killed. Whilst this does put Regan in a speciesist camp with regards to animal treatment as a whole, he still maintains a stronger view on animal experimentation. He argues that research is not comparable to a lifeboat situation, as the animals would not be harmed if they were not used. One might then argue that Regan would accept ‘life-boat’ research in which it was absolutely clear this would save a human life.

Schweitzer Reverence for Life focuses on the value of individual life after careful consideration of the value of one’s own life. The consequence of which is a sort of biocentrism, in which sacrifices may be made in order to promote life as a whole biotic community. Schweitzer’s theories are somewhat open to interpretation due to a couple inconsistencies, so here I will try elucidate one version. Most importantly, Schweitzer refuses to rank life-forms (Globokar 2009). Schweitzer’s philosophy can be seen as a form of Virtue Ethics, as it requires self-reflection and cultivation. The different tenants can be combined in different ways, but as long as one has truly considered the virtues (to maintain and promote life), then surprising outcomes acceptable. Take, for example, Biologist A who considers his research essential (after careful reflection for the Reverence of Life) and will sacrifice a few animals in the process. Or, similarly, Schweitzer own example: “In order to keep a heron from starving if it has broken its wing, we must condemn that many fish to death. We can show mercy only if we act without mercy at the same time” (Globokar 2009). Schweitzer argues these actions are permissible, but come at a cost. What happened to the Reverence for Life of the fish or research animal? Schweitzer requires that we are conscious of these consequences: the effect of our actions on every living being. When such outcomes are inevitable to live morally, we must consider a debt to be paid, he named this debt Schuld. We must have a sincere desire to repay the trade-offs through fostering life elsewhere. ‘Schuld’ thus grants us a certain freedom of action to pursue a conscientiousness improvement of the biosphere as a whole (Goodin p. 150). It is in this context that Leopold’s Land Ethic and Schweitzer’s Reverence of Life can be considered equal. Deep ecology, similar to Animal Rights, Leopold, and Schweitzer’s theory, may maintain that use of animals is possible only when absolutely necessary “to satisfy vital needs” (Naess 1986). 

One consequence of the ‘permissible when satisfying vital needs’ conclusion from Deep Ecology is their belief that we need to adapt our society, as “the flourishing of non-human life requires such a decrease” in human population. This is a bold conclusion. In fact, they reach this same conclusion from another direction, in response to the defence of animal experimentation by claiming that knowledge has value in itself, and is our highest achievement. Deep Ecology suggests that we must change these attitudes and change our outlook on technological, ideological and political structures. The focus is on appreciating life’s quality rather than higher standard. Is this an unreasonable conclusion? The economic post-growth movement comes to similar conclusions, arguing from the environmental effect of our economic actions (Paech 2012). Discoveries have improved the quality of human life immensely, but this progress comes at a cost. There may be other reasons to question the wanton pursuit of discoveries; Nick Bostrom’s thought experiment on the urn of discoveries warns us against possible outcomes of blindly searching in the dark. Are we medically advanced enough to halt animal experimentation completely? Would this put pressure on the development animal-alternatives. Perhaps the focus should be on distributing the current knowledge equally and fairly across the world, before continuing as before, at the cost, according to Deep Ecology, of both ourselves and nature.

These views on human population come close to ecofascism, a sacrifice of human and individual interests as dictated by the needs of the environment and its creatures. What if the person who could be saved by the research was someone close to you? Deep Ecology (and the others) would ask us to embrace this loss of life. Whilst we may be able to bite the bullet here, the question still remains, how to we truly weigh up the needs of a group versus the needs of the individual? Leopold’s Land Ethic often has the same issue with such conflicts. Callicott addresses this objection to the land ethic by suggesting two principles which are essentially an appeal to nested communities. We live in nested communities within a larger community, which itself is part of a larger community, etc. In questions of weighing up between those close to us and those not, we have an obligation to those who are more intimate to us (Callicott 1999 p.73, Newman 2017 p. 322 p.349). This is, however, a slippery slope to anthropocentrism, indeed even racism. We may be able to refute this objection by arguing that there is an optimal selection of ‘zones’, an optimal way to prioritise groups, however, the issue remains, how do we define these zones? Have we not just pushed the question back upon the original one? (Yamauchi p.60).

Further issues arise: Land Ethics and Deep Ecology ask us to develop moral sentiments for the land and animals, based on a presumed pre-existing capacity for this development. They have identified no independent qualities to motivate this, other than a self-reflection. In some senses, they have “bridge[d] the gap between the descriptive and prescriptive” (IEP). Reverence for Life also relies on personally acknowledging the interconnecting thread from humans to living things, the Will-To-Live, and from this realisation we draw our moral values. In Leopold’s Land Ethic: “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land”. It is then, again, the recognition of this interconnection that demands we grant the land moral status. The issue remains however, of those who do not feel this sentiment. Deep Ecology tries to bridge this gap in the same vain, by placing a focus on a psychological realisation of one’s place in nature (Self-realisation and gestalt). It seems then, that a theory is necessary that motivates based on less subjective values, otherwise they risk begging the question.  Again, as with the criticism of ecofascism, we may be able to bite the bullet here in response; perhaps not everyone has the capability for moral decision making.

            All of the theories conclude that the animal experimentation is excessive and immoral. However, often this is by appealing to a state of realisation and psychological readiness which the reader may not have reached or ever be capable of reaching. In one sense, the criticism is that the theories are subjective, here it is worth noting that ethical theories are often criticised for being too rational, and don’t recognise the emotional nature of morality, so this can go both ways and could be considered a strength. In another sense, the issue is that they are not action guiding, and can’t deal with conflicts, but rather rely on an internal capability. Virtue Ethics suffers similar criticisms, but answers that moral decisions are difficult and there are no easy answers. It follows our intuition that one must work at becoming moral. Some theories are affected less by these criticisms, Schweitzer’s Schuld, for example, grants a little leeway, but most are. Perhaps, also, we must accept the conclusion that in practice, some may have a harder time reaching an adequate level of moral decision making.

Do environmental ethics provide a useful framework for evaluating the use of animals in research? The theories provide relatively uniform answers on the use of animal experimentation, rejecting it in all but the most explicit of cases, although they lack action guidance in complex situations. We may argue here, as virtue ethicists might, that this reflects the difficulty of moral decision making. Some theories lead to conclusions which may be labelled as ecofascism, for which we must bite the bullet. Most make a jump from the descriptive, how nature is, to how we should feel and act about it, based on an assumed capacity to realise and place value on the connection between us and the environment. We can bite the bullet in response to this, and accept that some people may not have this capacity to act morally, or argue that morality must be based on more subjective capacities. However, all together, these present a series jumps which must be made in order to embrace the motivations behind the theories, and the conclusions they make. The theories may still be useful, but given their weaknesses, we must be careful and not treat their conclusions as moral absolutes.


Why then, should we take these leaps of faith, bridge this gap, bite the bullet, or embrace difficulty weighing up conflicts? We can answer this perhaps by asking a similar question, why do we need biocentric ethics at all? What value is there in their conclusions and approach, if it is not to be found in their philosophical resilience, which may lead us to embrace them wholeheartedly? The short answer is that biocentric theories overlap with theories of equality, in sexism, racism, or classism, and that this isn’t a coincidence but rather reflects the unified immorality of discriminating against diversity, diversity as heterogeneous to those who dominate.

To answer this in detail, we must first consider the motivation behind these biocentric theories. Leopold comments that: “when god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence…The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong”. He continues: “Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still seen as property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations” (Leopold p. 203). Leopold argues that it is the next logical step to expand our sense of equality to the Land, or as Goodin puts it, our stewardship of the land “is not an entitlement, but a responsibility” (Goodin p. 152). “In short, a land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community…it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community” (Leopold p. 204).

Ecofeminism is based on the connections drawn between these spheres. It recognises that a rejection of sexism, and racism, can and should be followed by a rejection of anthropocentrism. In Neolithic cultures, gods and spirits were often associated with women and animals, in a celebration of cycles and fertility. However, patriarchal cultures and religions replaced these earthly symbols and demonized them, “accordingly, in the book of Genesis, it is a woman, a tree and an animal that are blamed for the Fall of Man” (Gaard 2002 p. 126). Indeed, it draws the connections further to racism “For the past two thousand years, women, animals, nature, and people of color have become conceptually associated in Western patriarchal thought, and it is their…” closeness to nature” …that authorizes and reinforces their subordination.” For example: a woman’s capacity to reason was and is often claimed to be limited by their natural hormones, and African men are often conflated with beasts: as Shakespeare highlights with Iago’s derogative description Othello as: “an old black ram” or “Barbary horse” (Shakespeare 1.1.85-86, 1.1.108-109). No matter how people may argue, these issues still remain today: from research showing that, in New York, a white man with criminal record will be hired before an African-American (Coates 2008), to Rebecca Solnit’s paradigmatic Men Explain Things to Me.

            Schweitzer’s motivation for Reverence for Life, as previously mentioned, partly came from new discoveries in evolutionary biology, but also from his somewhat Marxist reflection on the effect of modernity. — the loss of identity and dilution of moral values resulting from “Western worldview” on economics (Goodin p.7). He believed that a new philosophy was required to form a foundation for civilisation, one which redeemed “the colossal collective moral failure that led to the First World War” — we must not allow ourselves to become a “soulless cog in the machine” (Goodin p.17). It is not a coincidence that the theory he created from this foundation espouses equal treatment between humans and animals.

            Why should we give environmental ethics the benefit of the doubt? They are useful because it is clear from human history and our future outlook, that we need a biocentric theory, and that it is the next step after recognising the immorality of racism, sexism, and classism. Part of Kris Bartkus’ Malthusian Tragic (Bartkus 2018), is not only our realisation that we are not innocent to the devastation of our environment, but the realisation that those (countries) we exploited in the pursuit of this material gain are those who will suffer the most at the hands of its environmental effects. Similarly, it is animals who both serve as a means to improve the human quality of life, and who suffer at the fruits of this labour: as we continue to expand our domination of our planet and reduce its diversity. Ecofeminism recognises the need we have for a new way to navigate ourselves morally and that solutions in the form of ethical frameworks in one area, can equally map onto another.

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