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Do yes / no debates prevent improvements in regulating research?
01 Oct 2014

Chris Magee ponders Nazi Vegans, Stockholm and Ethics and in doing so proves Godwin’s Law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

I was recently visiting a friend in Stockholm. We were wandering across the Djurgårdsbron and chatting about how my work was going when we came across a police poster warning of a demonstration march to Djurgården. “It’s the local Nazis” said my friend as we both looked at my dark-skinned wife and silently resolved to give the march a wider berth. “Did you know the Nazis were against animal research?” I asked, tying the strands of the conversation together and remembering a poster on the topic.

Although Hitler’s regime failed to fully abolish animal research (a law imposing a total ban on vivisection was enacted on August 16, 1933, by Hermann Göring as the prime minister of Prussia, but it only lasted 3 weeks and wasn't attempted again), modern Nazis are also beginning to recognise what they see as “animal protection” as part of their credo.

A couple of days later, my friend sent me a link to a Rolling Stone article about Nipsters - neo-nazi hipsters. Apparently, there’s more than one neo-nazi vegan cooking show. Vegan Nazis.Checking one out, I noticed that they also boycott Nestle products and Coca-Cola in line with every one of my most “right-on” friends.

What’s weird about this is it’s such an unfamiliar combo. I know plenty of people who subscribe to off-the-shelf philosophies which seem to come in a multi-pack with certain common other ones (Buy “Vegetarianism”, and get “No to GM” and “No To Fracking” free!) but this pick and mix approach is quite novel. I realise that newspapers and magazines have monetized confirmation bias and use this sort of batch profiling to essentially sell people’s opinions back to them, so modern Nazi magazines must be a really weird read.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying that all vegans are Nazis,(very, very, very few are)– quite the contrary: veganism is a good thing and I even know vegan animal researchers.  Nor am I saying that people opposed to animal research are Nazis. What I am saying is, people can consider themselves ethical, yet simultaneously hold unethical views because a small twist on an ethical principle can make it unethical. 

Take water conservation for instance. In principle it’s a good idea, but if the principle is calibrated to mean that no water is to be used for any reason, we find ourselves in a bind if our house catches fire. So it is with medical, veterinary and environmental research. Similarly, there’s a crucial difference between people who wish to see animal research gradually phased out where alternatives exist, and people who want it to end tomorrow.

Thinking about it, if those who wish to see research stopped tomorrow were successful in 2012, when I started at UAR, we wouldn’t have had the experimental Zmapp Ebola treatment, which seems to work “miraculously” on monkeys and humans and is based on the antibodies of three mice. Likewise, the badger TB vaccine needed to use animals in its development. What begins as an attempt to protect research animals, can sometimes ultimately hurt more animals and of a higher order.

To me, binary yes/no debates about using "animals" are a huge distraction from what we really need to be focusing on. Are we regulating research the best we can? Are we licensing the right kind of research, for the right reasons? Should pigs be given the same protections as dogs, where they can only be used when no other animal will do? Our understanding of their capacities has rather moved on since 1876 when the special protections were specified. It is plainly ludicrous to suggest that animal research hasn't been vital to reducing suffering, or that no suffering is incurred in the lab so can we just move on? How can we determine value if we're only looking at the costs or the benefits?

In some ways the example of water conservation is the corollary of those who, on principle, wish to forbid the use of animals and people for research. It sounds pretty wacky if you transfer the principle to other situations. It sounds downright cruel if you think of it as tantamount to visiting Great Ormond Street Hospital to tell the kids there they’re worth less to the world than a mouse. To stretch the analogy to breaking point, the trend towards claiming that animal research is "bad science" is like claiming water isn't best for putting out fires, by cherry picking those incidences in which foam is better.

Other anti-vivisectionist worldviews, however, seem to see a somewhat Victorian separation of humans and “animals”. “Don’t use animals, use humans” they say, but humans are animals. We suffer too. We often suffer more.

I’ve also come across people in this job who see no difference between animal species on principle: none should be used.  In this case, one can ask “Is there a difference between using a fruit fly, a dog or a monkey?” because if there isn’t you may ask well use the monkey since it’s all ethically equal.

However if there is a difference between using those different species we end up with a more useful paradigm, where instead of creating a rift between living things, we see them on a continuum which doesn’t need to be limited to animals and can be used to consider the suffering of, say, plants, Martians or even computer-based intelligence. It’s the chimp’s greater capacity for suffering which means they are never used in research. Suffering and types of suffering must be the benchmark by which we judge the cost side of the equation.

Of course, this is basically the system we’ve adopted in the UK. We exclude from research those animals with the greatest capacity for psychological suffering.  We don’t allow research to take place if there’s an alternative method. We minimise suffering. We use anaesthetic when it doesn't cause more suffering.  We put the dog above the fruit fly every time. We conduct research because we want to end the widespread suffering of various life-forms, and to know how they work so we can treat them.

What’s fascinating is, it doesn’t take much of a twist to this philosophy to entirely reverse its polarity. To let the widespread suffering continue. To leave the Ebola patients without a treatment. To let the house burn down in the name of conserving water.