The Ethics of Chimpanzee Testing

The editors at Scientific American recently posted an article calling for the U.S. government to ban or better regulate biomedical testing on chimpanzees. The thrust of their argument is that chimpanzee test subjects experience psychological distress very much comparable to a human’s reaction, therefore… they shouldn’t be used. Unless you really need to, in which case you should treat them nicely. 

I think there’s a lot to be said for their point but they don’t say it. The third viewer comment on the article points out that they don’t draw any actual line on what is and isn’t acceptable. Other, less intelligent animals can also be distressed and traumatized; so what is the actual basis for wanting to ban chimpanzee testing only (again, unless you really need to)? 

There’s an ethical trade-off involved in animal testing. The closer an animal is to a human, the more accurate of a model it is, which is why using chimps is desirable even if using mice or worms or flies is much easier. But the closer an animal is to a human, the more unethical we feel it is to be cruel to them. Seeing psychological trauma in fruit flies probably does not worry those researchers too much; seeing it in chimpanzees, I imagine, could be a traumatic experience in itself. 

So there’s a continuum and it gets dicier as you go up towards humans. We’ve made the decision to not use humans for the vast majority of research, and regulations on human testing have gotten progressively stricter over time. I wouldn’t be surprised if testing on chimpanzees were indeed banned at some point in the future, but unfortunately I feel that the only arguments for or against it are emotional, not logical, and that neither side could claim the moral high ground, except perhaps in specific, clear cases. 

This article did indeed make an emotional appeal by describing in some detail the cruel plight of some chimpanzee subjects, but the fact that their main description was based on a case that was already against our current rules was discouraging – asking for a ban on something that’s already banned. It was a bit dishonest.

In any case I’ll be interested to see which direction society takes on this question in the future – I for one think that as science gets more sophisticated and people extend their empathy in wider and wider circles (I can’t for the life of me remember what that concept is called, please remind me if you do), stricter and stricter ethical regulations will be inevitable. 


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