A Tincture of Introspection

"What do the red ribbons on their lapels stand for?” my daughter asked as we watched Broadway celebrities present the Tony Awards. "AIDS awareness – it’s a way of showing that you support research for a cure,” I answered. To which she responded, "Well, then how can they be against research?” I should preface the discussion by saying that my daughter is participating in a summer apprenticeship program with the EPA, and earlier that same day we discussed her recent tour of the animal research laboratory. As is usually the case with my daughter, her questions come in threes – and the third one is always a doozy. She asked, "Can a person be both for animal research AND for animal rights?”

It is one thing to ban the cosmetic industry from using the Draize eye test on rabbits merely to observe the side effects of mascara, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent; but, it is quite another thing to suggest banning all animal experimentation. In fact, the small country of Liechtenstein stands alone as the only country in the world that bans all animal experimentation. I propose the following hypothetical case study to test your skills and competencies in ethical reasoning as well as call for a moment of quiet introspection:

The effect of a new drug designed to reduce thermal damage to deep tissue is tested on 20 dogs. The left front paw of these dogs will be placed in a boot especially designed to produce a third degree electrical burn. Unlike second-degree burns, which can cause severe pain, third degree burns go all the way through the skin, destroying nerve endings that produce pain. Ten dogs will receive the experimental drug. Ten dogs will receive a placebo. The dogs will be monitored for swelling, extent of tissue injury and signs of general disease. Do you think the study is justified? Would the study be more justified if done on mice?

The skills and competencies relevant to ethical reasoning require familiarity with professional and institutional guidelines governing responsible research. Because these guidelines are based on the traditional Cartesian view that animals lack rationality, medical researchers can claim that apart from "humane treatment” animal experimentation does not require ethical justification. The ethical debate is won because it is never begun. Twenty dogs will receive burns that will be treated with cleaning and debridement, IVs and antibiotics. Ten of these dogs will have the potential benefit of a drug that may promote rapid healing. Ten dogs will be given a placebo (as an aside, just wondering why dogs are given placebos if they are incapable of higher order thinking and theoretically incapable of receiving any benefit from a placebo-effect). Full-thickness burns lack pain; so, anesthetics will not be necessary. And, even if there is some pain, assuming dogs feel pain, it would be far more unethical to deprive human beings advances in medicine that might result from animal research studies. After all, laboratory animals are objects and, as such, property of the research lab and humanity at large.

The previous argument relies solely upon skills and competencies relevant to conducting animal research within established guidelines. But ethical behavior requires a moment of self-reflection, without which we would be doomed to living an unexamined life – a life not worth living, according to Socrates. The call for a moment of quiet introspection can be elicited by emotional appeals based on vivid images of animal abuse provided by animal rights groups such as PETA:

"Right now millions of mice, rats, rabbits, primates, cats, dogs and other animals are locked inside cold, barren cages in laboratories across the country. They languish in pain, ache with loneliness, and long to roam free and use their minds. Instead, all they can do is sit and wait in fear of the next terrifying and painful procedure that will be performed on them.”1

Many medical researchers believe that arguments against animal research are nothing more than sentimentality, and that emotions have no place in objective science. Yet, in all fairness, justification of animal experimentation by medical researchers can also be viewed as an emotional appeal that is based on vivid accounts of humans who suffer from disease. Working within the positivistic realm of medicine and its allied health sciences, medical researchers discount claims of animal cruelty and abuse based on the fact that pain, loneliness, and fear are mental states that cannot be measured in an animal; if the mental state of an animal cannot be measured, then scientific reasoning concludes that animals do not think and feel – at least not like humans think and feel. Ethical principles require the medical researcher to always treat another human being as an end unto himself (or herself), and never as the means to an end.2 But this Kantian edict does not apply to an animal, which may be used as a means to an end because it lacks rationality. Without a doubt, this argument is essential to defend and preserve the "humanity” of those conducting animal research. This is not such a strange notion – the very same motive drives the ethical practice of clinical medicine.

To preserve our own "humanity” as care providers, we act only when the benefit of our actions far exceeds any potential harm: to do otherwise would be considered sadism or, at the very least, malpractice. When I tell my dentist, "Ouch, I can still feel that,” she usually takes me at my word, injects more anesthetic, and gives it extra time to numb up. If I continue to flinch, she will either doubt my "mental state” and continue with the procedure, or reschedule the procedure for another day. How else can dentists cut, grind and chisel away on another human being’s teeth without being accused as sadists? (The dentist in the play Little Shop of Horrors aside).

Doc Martin is a British version of American television’s pompous Dr. House; but, instead of House’s drug addiction, Doc Martin is haemophobic (he is afraid of blood).3 He acquired the fear all of a sudden, realizing in the middle of surgery that a living, breathing, feeling person was bleeding before his very eyes. Subsequent to a little bit too much introspection, Doc Martin finds that he is no longer able to objectify a person’s bleeding as mere "loss of fluid;” so, he retires from his London practice as a vascular surgeon to become a general practitioner in a small Cornish village.

How can the process of introspection have a positive influence on an ethical resolution for our hypothetical case of animal research when emotions are subjective and usually deemed irrelevant to medical research? Well, to begin with, a tincture of introspection can help keep the researcher on task by confronting questions about meaning and purpose. Degrading the value of any form of life other than human life can have a toll on our own moral significance. Think of the worst job you ever had and how working in an oppressive environment threatened your own sense of dignity and integrity. For me, it was when I was 19, working for a veterinarian whose sole practice consisted of clipping ears and bobbing tails on dobies and boxers. I walked out of the office halfway through my first shift. Even Darwin believed that dominion over other animals guaranteed by religious doctrine referred to the duty to act as stewards rather than demigods. Darwin took on the vivisectionists of his day with a call for introspection on the vivid image of a laboratory dog "who licked the hand of the operator; who, unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.”4

Too much introspection, however, can lead to catatonia and the inability to perform even simple and clearly beneficial tasks (such as Doc Martin’s inability to draw blood). In the hypothetical case study described above, a tincture of introspection helps make sure we are not ignoring important questions about the humane treatment of animals just to avoid a guilty conscience. A tincture of introspection can answer if a dog’s right for humane treatment is being respected, or whether the reality of a dog’s life has been conveniently shrunk to fit professional and institutional guidelines. A tincture of introspection can answer why it is easier to shrink the reality of a rodent’s life to fit the scientific model. If after a tincture of introspection you find that shrinking the reality of laboratory animals does not help you sleep at night, then perhaps you ought to work for an ethical reformation of animal rights…either that or move to Liechtenstein.


  1. PETA. [Internet]. Animals used for experimentation. Available from http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/default.aspx. Accessed June 15, 2012.
  2. Kant, I. The grounding of the metaphysics of morals. In Ethical Philosophy, Trans. by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.; 1983.
  3. Doc Martin. Acorn Media; 2004.
  4. Darwin, C. The descent of man. New York: D. Appleton & Co.; 1871.


Submission Location