A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education profiles UCLA Professor Jentsch who uses vervet monkeys in his research. The article includes a truncated description of a dialogue I had with Jentsch over a lunch organized by Chronicle reporter, Robin Wilson.
In one passage, Wilson recounts her version of a question that I supposedly put to Jentsch, namely, "What gives you the right to experiment on primates for the benefit of humans?"
Though this is not the kind of question I would ask, what she recounts as Jentsch's response leads to a few important points. She writes:
Mr. Jentsch had a ready answer: "Normal people on the street." He likes to cite a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that found that 52 percent of the public favors the use of animals in research. "They have thought through this issue," says Mr. Jentsch, "and have acquired a comfort zone....Society has grappled with these issues and thinks using animals is legitimate. But we are constantly called upon to redefend it.
I think Jentsch's response raises some interesting ethical, pedagogical, and professional issues.
One thing it raises is the question of ethical relativism. Does Jentsch really believe that what ethically justifies animal experimentation is that 52% of the culture believes it to be a morally acceptable practice? I wonder how Prof. Jentsch would respond if, say, Pew repeated the survey in a few years and it turned out that at that time only 48% of the public supported the use of animals in scientific research. Would he then make a public pronouncement declaring the use of animals in research immoral?
Another issue raised by his response involves the question of the amount of education graduate students and professors who work in labs receive on the subject of animal ethics, specifically, the ethical issues surrounding animal experimentation. Regarding such programs at UCLA for instance, students receive just one hour of instruction on the guidelines for the treatment of lab animals, taught not by a professional ethicist, but by a scientist. Given that in the US alone, over 100 million animals suffer and die in laboratories every year, requiring that researchers (and future researchers) take a rigorous course in animal ethics taught by a professional trained in ethical reasoning seems at least a reasonable minimum.
Jentsch's responses to the ethical issues raised by his work—which involves addicting monkeys to methamphetamine—and the work of others like him point to a larger issue regarding the attitude that people (even PhD'd research scientists at elite universities) take toward ethics as a practice and profession. Though most people agree that scientists, those who conduct research using animals, medical professionals, airline pilots, auto mechanics, and baristas require varying levels of rigorous training to become specialists in their respective fields, it is widely believed that anyone with an opinion and an argument to back it up can do ethics. But becoming a professional ethicist—as with most academic disciplines—requires rigorous study at the graduate level, usually culminating in a PhD. Professional ethicists are rigorously trained experts schooled in those theoretical complexities involved in (among other things) assessing and weighing the value and merits of various ethical arguments and positions one may take with regard to a multitude of practical ethical situations and dilemmas. Were this fact acknowledged by the university-animal-research-industrial complex, questions regarding the use and treatment of animals in scientific research would be put in the hands of professional ethicists, not scientists familiar only with so-called ethical guidelines such as those found governing IACUCs or NIH guidelines for the treatment of lab animals. We let professional scientists do science, we should let professional ethicists do ethics, and let's hope they can more regularly work together. We are all too aware of the dangers that can occur when science does its thing without ethical reflection and oversight.