Although the philosophical literature on animal ethics is quite sizable, articles relating to the ethics of animal research only rarely appear in scientific journals, with scientists seldom publishing on the issue in other forums. When such articles from the scientific community do appear, they tend to be short, tend not to substantively engage ethical criticisms and arguments relevant to animal research, and are all too often highly inflammatory. - Rossi & Garner (2018)

The above observation is offered by John Rossi and Samual A. Garner in their essay contribution to the recently published compendium, “The Ethical Case Against Animal Experiments.” In this post I critique a contemporary example of this phenomenon.

Stakes & Claims

I recently encountered an article by authors Silvio Garattini and Giuliano Grignaschi, entitled “Animal testing is still the best way to find new treatments for patients,” published in 2017 in the European Journal of Internal Medicine. From the title it is clear that the authors are making (at least) an evaluative claim about the role of animal experimentation in medical research relative to other research methods. The paper’s first two paragraphs, which serve as the abstract, give a general overview of the experimental scientific process in medicine, and end abruptly with the following conclusion:

Without these preliminary studies in vitro and in vivo in selected animal species it would be unethical to test still unproven chemicals in humans.

Yet, only a few paragraphs later, the authors frame the scope of their paper by stating:

The use of animals has always aroused controversy on ethical or technical grounds. Since the ethical issue is not the subject of this article, we shall analyze how animal experiments could be improved in order to increase their probability of predicting useful clinical results.

If animal experimentation is ever ethically justified, the authors goal is certainly laudable. However, if it did not before, the preceding ethical claim should immediately stand out as a non sequitur to the critical reader. The only justification offered for such a claim, found later in the brief concluding remarks of the paper, is the following:

Given the limited usefulness of computer and in vitro models, for the time being animal models remain the best alternative and their use must continue, considering that patients cannot just wait for better tests to cure their suffering.

This assertion is merely a restatement of the adage that “desperate ills demand a cure,” but the authors provide it no clarification or support. One could just as easily (and indefensibly) counter that “countless animals cannot just suffer for the possibility of quicker cures.” That such an unwarranted ethical conclusion was allowed to be published in a reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journal is unfortunate, because it arguably discredits a paper that contains some important scientific commentary on animal experimentation. For example:

It must be stressed that the progress made in controlling bias in clinical trials has not been translated to animal trials. Although animal publications far exceed the number of clinical trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses are ten times less frequent for animals than for clinical research. Bias related to randomization, double blinding, surrogate end-points, calculation of sample size, statistical analysis, and non-publication of negative results still greatly limits the extrapolation of animal findings to man. The over-enthusiastic attitude of scientists, together with economic interests, have in several cases led to premature clinical tests.

I should note, however, that a critique of the authors’ scientific claims has been offered by Lindsay J. Marshall and Andrew N. Rowan on behalf of the Humane Society International and Humane Society of the United States.

The authors make one further statement worth noting, immediately prior to their claim about patient suffering:

The validity of animal testing is not limited to translation to man, but also to their value for the treatment of animal pathology: a large number of drugs employed in animals are the same as those used in man.

Although benefit to non-human animals is quite possibly a relevant ethical consideration, this observation only serves to highlight the ethical complexity of the very issue they neglect in their article.

Lighting It Up?

It is further unfortunate that the authors concluding remarks appear to contain the very “inflammatory language” that Rossi & Garner describe:

The pressure of public opinion, particularly of organized groups of “animalists”, obliges preclinical and clinical scientists to come out of their “ivory tower” to explain the complexity of translating research results from animals to man. - Garattini & Grignaschi (2017)

Although the “ivory tower” of academia is arguably a general knowledge concept, they offer no citation or footnote to clarify what they mean by “animalists.” It is probably not referring to proponents of philosophical animalism, a position which concerns, in part, the “fundamental nature” of human persons. It is also probably not related to the sense of “animalism” given by my dictionary (New Oxford American Dictionary) as “behavior that is characteristic of or appropriate to animals, particularly in being physical and instinctive.” My best guess is that their usage is in the spirit of my dictionary’s second sense of animalism: “religious worship of or concerning animals.” If I am correct, I imagine their use is analogous rather than literal, probably conceiving of activists’ fervor for animal wellbeing as comparable to religious zeal. Still, it seems hard to deny that choosing “animalists” over other more descriptive terms invites at least the perception of pejorative connotation, if not its intention. Although one could argue they take equal opportunity to condemn “both sides” with their use of “ivory tower,” the authors certainly missed an opportunity to avoid slighting those readers they wish to convince.

The Empty Vase

In his 2007 essay, “Unscientific Ethics: Science and Selective Ethics,” David Benatar highlights the pernicious selectivity with which scientists admit ethical arguments for consideration when evaluating science’s own practices. Through recounting a personal experience with this issue, Benatar illustrates well the way scientists may “pay mere lip service to ethics” without seriously and honestly engaging the issues and views at hand. If we consider that disingenuous attention to ethics can manifest through selectivity, the practice employed in Garattini and Grignaschi’s article is surely a greater failing, for there are no substantial ethical considerations admitted at all. Beyond being selective, leveling ethical judgments without substance is simply empty rhetoric. Conclusions like theirs may be superficially appealing, and may even encapsulate the authors’ views accurately, but they offer nothing of intellectual value.