Lab vs. kitchen

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The use of animals in the laboratory raises ethical questions. It is generally agreed that it should be reduced, ideally to zero. More and more students are trying to avoid animal experiments in the biomedical sciences, i.e. in the lab. In the kitchen, however, qualms about animal use are comparatively limited. – A contradiction?

Refine, Reduce, Replace

Because we don’t want to harm animals unnecessarily, we try to (legally) limit animal testing to a “necessary minimum” and replace it with viable alternatives. The Basel Declaration brings together scientists who are committed to the 3R principles: Animal testing is to be designed so as to be less painful to the animals (Refine), it must be decreased quantitatively (Reduce), and – to the extent that alternatives are available – must be replaced by them (Replace). Accordingly, our law contains a federal duty to further alternatives to animal testing. Article 22 of the Swiss Animal Welfare Act states: “The federal government supports scientific research relevant to animal welfare. (…) It promotes (…) the development, recognition and application of methods that replace animal testing, reduce the number of experimental animals, or result in them being less burdened.”

Necessity as a justification

There seems to be a broad agreement that it would be ethically preferable if not a single animal were ever to suffer and die in a laboratory. The current practice thus requires a solid justification. A proposal that’s sometimes put forward by proponents of animal testing runs as follows: If one rejects pre-clinical tests on humans (that is, human animals), but still wants to promote medical progress, one must accept animal testing. This justification consists of two elements: (1) For some animal experiments there are (currently) no alternatives, i.e. some animal experiments are necessary to achieve (2) medical advances that are of (sufficiently) great ethical weight.

Domain transfer into the kitchen

Cognitive psychology has shown that the human mind-brain has great difficulty in applying general arguments across different domains, especially when motivated reasoning, i.e. a bias towards comfortable and desired conclusions is involved. That’s probably why the logical “argument transfer” from the biomedical lab to the factory farm, the slaughterhouse, and the kitchen rarely happens. The above argument states that we should strive to prevent harm to animals in the lab and replace animal testing with viable alternatives, even though this (1) turns out to be very difficult in some cases, and (2) the purpose of the harms inflicted has great ethical weight (avoiding human suffering through medical progress). This significant purpose unavoidably incurs some costs, at least through the additional bureaucracy required to ensure the necessity of the animal experiments, which eats up research time and slows down medical progress.

Let’s compare this to the use of animals in the kitchen: The replacement by viable alternatives is immediately possible and doesn’t pose any noteworthy problems, and the purpose of the use of animals is not of great scientific and medical weight: It’s clearly not a matter of life and death, but a comparatively trivial matter of palate pleasure (if at all – plant-based food can be equally tasty). So if the 3R principles and a federal duty to research and promote alternatives to the use of animals are compelling in the lab domain, they should be all the more compelling in the kitchen domain. If we (rightly) have qualms about breaking a mouse’s neck for medical purposes, then we should have far greater qualms about the shooting one hundred times more animals in the head for culinary purposes.

Is the Basel Declaration convincing?

If we accept the Basel Declaration and the 3R principles for the lab, important conclusions for the kitchen follow. And they follow all the more if we think it reasonably possible that the Basel Declaration’s protection of animals is too weak – which view is supported important arguments:

It is true that we would incur some weighty medical losses if we stopped testing on animals immediately. However, we do accept massive losses from not perform pre-clinical trials on human animals, which would violate the basic rights of the victims, whose protection we deem of (much) greater ethical importance than the medical opportunity cost. This fact casts serious doubt on the Basel Declaration’s argument: The reference to medical advances and the current lack of alternatives does not, by itself, establish the legitimacy of lethal experiments. If it did, it would strongly militate in favour of lethal testing on humans. It would probably greater medical progress for a smaller number of individuals sacrificed.

The Basel Declaration’s argument thus requires a crucial additional premise: speciesism, i.e. the view that non-human animals should count for much less than humans. Unfortunately, the declaration about what could justify this discrimination. The traditional answer has revolved around the fact that non-human animals are less intelligent than humans. However, newborn and cognitively disabled humans are less intelligent than some non-human animals, and we (rightly) don’t consider higher intelligence to be necessary for having fundamental rights. In debates about animal testing, though, the view that intelligence justifies extreme discrimination is suddenly and conveniently considered acceptable and persuasive. This bears all the hallmarks of bias.


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