Ethical code

From Ethics

An ethical code is based on a consideration of the ethics of animal welfare.

It was not until the end of the twentieth century that legal process finally made defunct the notion of humans as a master race. By law, we do not consider that there is an inferior race of humans who are subject to experimentation for the benefit of others. We believe that superior knowledge, technology or economy are insufficient to justify exploiting any human over another. What restrains us from human experimentation is clearly a moral/ethical code founded in law. This moral code stems from a fundamental belief in social cohesion brought about from centuries of religious, philosophical, legal, scientific and social reformation. There is however, a paradigm shift from thinking all humans equals to thinking all animals (including humans) equal. The dichotomy between humans being separate from nature and humans being interconnected with Nature is what forms the basis of our entire moral and ethical treatment of animals and nature. It also forms the basis of most religions. Only recently has our natural dominance been challenged. The postulates of Galilean heliocentricity, Darwinian evolution, quantum mechanics and chaos theory have reduced human's prominence in the universe to relative obscurity[1][2]. Even doctors, once hallowed as God-like creatures, have begun to accept that the patient often times knows best[3].

The presence or absence of pain/stress does not solely measure animal welfare. Other factors such as whether the animal’s environment is stable or changing are important. Studies in various species confirm that a stable environment is far less stressful than a changing one. An animal’s ability to cope with changes also influences behavioural and physiological responses including fitness, growth rate, reproductive performance, injury and immunology[4][5].

The ethics which are pertinent to veterinary care are based on five morally relevant criteria; facts, concepts, moral virtues and vices, duty of care and supererogation (doing more than duty requires)[6].

  • Facts - these are the essential data on the case, devoid of any emotional or personal bias. Who are the stakeholders (people/animals) involved? While facts tell us what is the case, it cannot tell us what must be done.
  • Concepts - this involves understanding personal interpretations of the facts by the relevant parties involved.
  • Moral virtues and vices - recognises that moral integrity varies between individuals. Some people are naturally more aware of moral values than others. Moral virtues (e.g. honesty, integrity, responsibility, courage and fairness) are better than moral vices (e.g. lack of integrity, dishonesty, cowardice, irresponsibility and unfairness). However, asking ‘How would a morally responsible person act in this situation’ does not necessarily help solve an issue.
  • Duty of care - an assumption is made that to act morally is the ideal, rather than adopting a nihilist attitude (nothing matters). Duty has an assumption that we have to decide between not what is right and what is wrong (never so easy) but what is right and what is more right (i.e what has the greater moral claim on us). From this, five kinds of duty can be distinguished; non-discretionary duties (treating everyone in the same way), discretionary duties (helping special groups, based on personal choice), special duties (duties prescribed by our profession, specifically to alleviating the suffering of animals), duties of justice (duty based on legal and moral rights as asserted by law), and duties of utilities (practical application of helping others to reduce suffering and maximising pleasure).
  • Supererogation (doing more than duty requires) - based on individual moral effort ‘above and beyond the normal call of duty.’ There are no legal or moral requirements, but such actions are praised by society.

Considering all these matters, we can then decide an appropriate course of action based on moral and ethical choices: What should be done?, What is the right action?, etc. Ethics is primarily concerned with the capacity to suffer by animals, and is clearly a strong argument for establishing moral rights for them. The capacity to suffer (if proven) confers on all animals a right not to suffer[7].

Nurturing in order to stave off such suffering is the first act of the community toward the individual, primarily in infancy. Hence autonomy, the gradual growth of self-determination in individuals, is grounded in a broader moral commitment of the community, that of beneficence. The community not only has an obligation to refrain from harming individuals (nonmaleficence), but it also has an active duty to ameliorate and prevent, as far as possible, the suffering of its members. Thus, if there is a social contract, it is one of nurturing one another to overcome the vulnerability of suffering, not primarily one of protecting autonomy. This is most significant for clinical ethics as well. Once the primary obligation to ameliorate suffering is no longer necessary, when the individual loses or does not have the primary moral worth prompted by the capacity to suffer, then secondary and symbolic obligations emerge. Thus, a ‘calculus’ of moral worth emerges. This means that our obligation to individuals in a permanent vegetative state or to anencephalics (where the individual has lost the capacity to suffer through some cerebral event) be balanced against other primary obligations. However, we cannot prove that suffering in animals is the same as in humans. Because of this, the capacity of animals to suffer is still debatable as a universal ethic[8].

Human morality bases itself on such things as right of life, liberty and freedom to pursue individual endeavours. With respect to humans, it has been said that our needs far outweigh the needs of animals[9]. It seems that legal protection is the only covenant given to animals, however fickle this law may be between states and countries. Pain and suffering, which is the crux behind any moral debate, occurs in all animals. In attempting to bring animals to a level commensurate with that of humans, the President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk, recently remarked that ‘a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.’ She takes the extremist’s point of view that even if one mouse dies in research to save an a thousand human live cannot justify that research. But our moral imperative must not paint such a black and white picture of what is moral and what is immoral, only that we should consider the consequences of our actions. To allow an animal to live a relatively long, pain-free and stress-free life and then kill it painlessly for food consumption is morally preferable to having that animal suffer a short, painful and stressful life before death by consumption.

In 1959, William Russell and Rex Burch published The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique in which they say that if animals were to be used in experiments, every effort should be made to;

  • ‘replace’ them with non-sentient alternatives
  • ‘reduce’ to a minimum the number of animals used
  • ‘refine’ experiments to minimise pain and distress.

These guiding principles, the ‘3 Rs’ of animal research, have influenced new legislation in many countries including Australia aimed at controlling the use of experimental animals. In the United Kingdom they have become formally incorporated into the Animal (Scientific) Procedures Act. Although aimed at improving animal welfare, it still does not address the issue of whether the research is required in the first place. Nevertheless, adoption of the 3Rs will improve the quality of science[10]. Appropriately designed experiments that minimise variation, provide standardised optimum conditions of animals care and minimise unnecessary stress or pain, often yield more reliable data. One can argue that biomedical experimentation on animals is justifiable because of its enormous benefits to human beings and therefore it is morally insignificant since the benefits of research incalculably outweigh the evils. This defence of animal experimentation is likely to succeed only by rejecting moral presumptions[11].

Some scientists and animal rights activists argue that even if non-human animals have less moral worth as humans, experimentation is justified only if the benefits are overwhelming. Since this is rarely the case, they propound that researchers cannot substantiate their claims on behalf of animal research since there is currently no acceptable utilitarian defence of animal experimentation[12]. Moreover, it is unlikely that there could be one. Since most apologists of animal experimentation rely on utilitarian justifications of their practice, it could be concluded that on these grounds biomedical experimentation on animals is not morally justified. Take for example the contemporary bioethicist Peter Singer. He approaches the ethics of scientific research on a basis of classifying organisms as either sentient or insentient. Accordingly, any sentient organism requires moral consideration. Anything that lacks cerebral development (e.g. a stone or an eighteen week foetus) is incapable of feeling pain and cannot be classified sentient.

‘Sentience is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing with respect to that being to be taken into account in considering equally the interests of all morally significant beings[13].’

This utilitarian argument avoids the issue of human potentiality, belittles foetus’ capacity to sense pain, and leads Singer to logically justify euthanasia, infanticide and homicide. Logic, per se, can be fraught with errors. However, he does this intellectual experiment to argue a case for avoiding experimental research in animals unless we would do the same for an intellectually-disabled person or foetus. The extreme case, of arguing that all experimentation causes pain to animals and therefore should be banned, is a form of absolutism and ultimately is wrong. The question is ultimately reducible to ‘How much pain can be inflicted on animals in research to provide the minimum pain in humans in terms of disease.’ And when we consider the health improvements of human society over the last two hundred years, ninety five percent of those improvements have not come from scientific research but through the implementation of diet and sanitation measures in homes, and via civil engineering in our cities.

There are research benefits which could never have arisen without the use of animals as experimental models, including Harvey’s work on animal circulation of blood, Banting’s discovery of insulin and the advent of a poliomyelitis vaccine, open-heart surgery and organ-rejection studies, to name a few.

In scientific research on animals, there are three basic moral points-of-view; contractarianism, utilitarianism and deontologism[14]. According to contractarianism, the essential issue is concern for the sentiments of other humans in society on whose co-operation those responsible for research depend. Thus, it is acceptable to use animals as long as most people can see the point of the experiment and not offended by the methods used. According to utilitarianism, the essential ethical issue is about the consequences for humans and animals. Thus, use of animals for research is justified if enough good comes out of it in terms of preventing suffering and creating happiness, and if there is no better alternative. In the deontological approach, the primary duty of beneficent research for humans is weighed against not harming animals and respecting their integrity. By balancing these priorities, the moral problem of animal experimentation exists in finding which duty is the most optimal for humans and animals. These three views, however, all justify animal experimentation to some extent.

According to the argument against animal experimentation, the theory of evolution ‘undermines’ the idea of a special human dignity and supports ‘moral individualism.’ The latter view implies that if it is wrong to use humans in experiments, then it is also wrong to use animals unless there are relevant differences between them that justify a difference in treatment. No such differences are found with respect to animals. The argument in favour of animal experimentation is based on evolutionary psychology. It states that humans, like all social animals, are speciesists by nature and this should be taken seriously in ethical considerations. This does not mean that animal interests should not be considered, only that vital human interests may outweigh them. For pro-animal experimentation, the evolutionary argument in favour of animal experimentation is judged more convincing than the one against[15].

We are custodians of this planet, and have the power to either sustain or destroy the ecosystems of the planet. Therefore, we have a responsibility for the welfare of all life on this planet. It appears counterproductive to halt all scientific research, for many life-saving advances have been made over the last two hundred years of scientific endeavour. Yet, we must recognise that all animals have a moral right to live in an unrestrained, peaceful and productive environment, and that we do an animal a moral disservice by denying this solely for pecuniary gain. We cannot assume that animals lack the cognitive skills to be aware and/or fear our labs, schools and abattoirs. As a part of the evolutionary web of life, we have a responsibility to ensure no life (animal or human) is lost unnecessarily. We should maintain an impartial respect for life, regardless of the number of legs, colour, or type of skin.


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