An Animal Bioethicist in Seattle

Andrew Fenton voices concerns about invisible unnecessary harm to non-human animals and a cost of ethical inconsistency.


I recently had the pleasure of attending the 10th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences in Seattle, Washington. It was an interdisciplinary affair, with lots of scientists as well as philosophers, bioethicists, and representatives from various animal advocacy groups. The sessions I attended were interesting and it was great to see so many, involved in the use, care, or defense of animals used in science under one roof (and engaging each other!). It’s a hazard of our vocation as bioethicists to keep an eye out for incongruities. One jumped out at me. Let me set it up so that it jumps out at you too.

The World Congress, which began to meet way back in 1993 in Baltimore, Maryland, is geared toward the “3Rs” of animal research and facilitates discussions of breakthroughs, advances, and failures of this research, as well as research ethics. What are the 3Rs? In order of their appearance in the foundational text of this research ethics framework (found in Russell and Burch’s 1959 bookThe Principles of Humane Experimental Technique), they are: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. Replacement concerns replacing sentient animals currently used in particular areas of testing or research with either animals who are less vulnerable to harm or are not sentient (such as (many?) insects) or non-animal models (such as tissue cultures or computer simulations). Reduction concerns reducing the number of sentient animals used in particular studies or protocols. Refinement concerns minimizing or eliminating scientifically unnecessary or avoidable distress in the sentient animals used in testing or research. You may have heard the refrain – all animal scientists hope for the day that sentient animals do not have to be harmed to benefit humans. This refrain reflects the 3R legacy of Russell and Burch. What’s crucial for the incongruity that I noticed is the common justification for using other sentient animals in often harmful testing and research: we need to use them in order to advance the relevant sciences to the benefit of both humans and other animals (in truth, it’s mostly about benefiting humans). The use of “need” here amounts to an appeal to necessity.

This year’s Congress had the jingle, “3Rs in action,” on its posters, signs, and website. You could indeed go to sessions dedicated to one or other of the 3rs. Sometimes a session, particularly one on ethics, focused on more than one. You could see various advocates, cautious supporters, or critics in action. “Necessity” frequently hung in the air as various speakers and discussants engaged work that sought to replace, reduce, or refine.

Now for the incongruity I noticed. At lunch time the Congress organizers had arranged for us to have box lunches. As an observer to two of these lunch periods, it effectively brought folks together to eat and socialize. As an animal bioethicist, I couldn’t help noticing that the lunches were not all vegan. I was told that, at first, it wasn’t even easy to find a vegan lunch (that changed on the second day, as far as I could tell). My incongruity detector was sounding loudly in my head.

Why am I bringing up non-vegan box lunches as an incongruity at the Congress? Well, the vast majority of us, including those at the Congress, do not need to eat meat or other animal ‘products.’ For the vast majority of consumers of animal ‘products’ (including those at the Congress), it’s something other than necessity that explains these habits of consumption. I leave it to you to come up with the best explanation. But the ethical foundation of the 3Rs is fairly simple and goes something like this: if you have two choices of action to achieve the same end and one causes less harm than the other, you should choose the course of action that causes the least harm. Ostensibly, this is what 3R scientists are committed to as they go about their work. It’s a fairly good principle (though we need to make sure that the end is morally permissible) and it indicts consuming animal ‘products’ when it’s not necessary to do so.

Is it a problem if the non-vegans at the Congress are ethically inconsistent (after all, who isn’t)? Well, there’s less at stake at lunchtime and yet it looks as though many 3R advocates or cautious supporters do not replace animal ‘products’ for something equally nutritious. If that’s true, what are the chances that they’ll replace sentient animals when the stakes are human benefit—like the reduction of human suffering?

I heard a lot of rumbling at this year’s Congress that not enough is being done to replace sentient animals in testing and research. Maybe, just maybe, the box lunches tell us why.


Andrew Fenton is an assistant professor of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.