The moral stresses of animal experimentation and why they’re a good thing



Most scientists who perform animal experimentation do not write about the emotional impact that such actions have on them. This silence arises from a number of factors: worry that other scientists do not feel similarly, a belief that emotional responses have no place in the objective world of science, and a fear that this kind of emotional display would be seen as a vulnerability that could be exploited by animal rights activists. Despite these misgivings, both Dr. Clive Marks from the University of Melbourne and Dr. Mike King from the University of Otago decided that sharing their experiences was important enough to warrant the risks.

Animal experimentation is an unfortunate necessity. Though some people disagree with all experiments that involve living animals, King writes that “any reasonable view accepts that animal experimentation is sometimes justified.” This kind of thinking requires a “big picture” view of morality. He continues: “The justification given for harming animals in research is often the improvement of the lives of humans and/or non-human animals, perhaps others of the animal’s species.”

Though some experiments involving animals may be justified, this does not mean that those who perform the experiments don’t feel bad about it. According to both Marks and King, experimenting with animals is very emotionally taxing. King calls the lasting emotional response to animal experimentation “moral stress.”

Scientists often work closely with the animals before putting them through the harmful experiments, in order to make observations of the animals’ healthy state. King writes, “A bond can develop in these circumstances, and one’s actions can seem like a betrayal of that bond, and that can contribute to moral stress.” Both Marks and King note the correlation between working closely with the animal subjects and strong feelings of moral stress. King expands on this, confirming the implication that division of labour reduces the amount of moral stress felt by those conducting the experiments.

But despite the fact that moral stresses are, as King writes, “burdensome, unpleasant emotions, emotions that are negative in tone,” both men emphasise their importance. According to Marks, “no biologist should expect to carry the burden of killing for science too easily. Because only a psychopath kills without emotion.” And after a lengthy analysis and self-exploration, King states that experimenters should have an “understanding of the ethics of what they are doing….this will include being aware of [the experiment’s] moral costs, and working to reduce these as a matter of moral progress.”

Moral stress is taxing and potentially harmful to mental health, and so should not be taken lightly. Division of labour can be used to reduce the amount of stress felt by any individual. However, moral stress still ought to have enough of a presence during animal experimentation that care is taken to ensure that the animals are treated as ethically as possible, and that practices that are too unethical are stopped.