Monday, January 5, 2015

Disrupt Cruelty

You will die.

You will die and your remains will wither to rejoin the earth and the air.

You will die and from the elements you shrug off new life shall arise. Life is fleeting, death is eternal. Because of this, men and women of good conscience treasure the brief gift that is a life well-lived. Because of this, men and women of good conscience inflict no pain, wreak no suffering without just cause. Because of this, because everyone dies alone, humanity has adopted expensive, enduring institutions, occasionally profane, but mostly sacred around the inescapable clutch of the grave.

Does the logic of prohibition apply to animal testing? Recall that by banning alcohol, rum-running hooch-slingers contributed to a gangland culture that gave us such niceties as denatured alcohol and the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. The War on Drugs gave us massive, powerful cartels. And the ongoing offensive against sex work is, well, offensive. But what would happen if governments up and banned live animal testing altogether? It seems rather unlikely that black markets in test monkeys would arise.

In cases like this, I return to my old habit of considering the underlying exchange. With alcohol, the best evidence indicates that with sufficient treatment, subjects obtain classical symptoms of drunkenness. Similarly, a dose of LSD will expose the glowing heart of the hidden universe. The thing itself, the drug, the treatment is just a technology to obtain an effect. With drugs, I think that the opprobrium is against the effect, as the technology is otherwise unobjectionable. With animal testing however, the ends are generally valuable enough to tolerate the abrogation of the tug of the conscience that stubbornly insists on mercy.

In EE terms, the BATNA of animal testing is delayed or eliminated drug tests, constipated disease research, and a halt to cosmetics innovation. I'll take the bold stance that if it means fluffy little bunnies don't have to suffer to produce a new shade of blush indistinguishable from the enormous palette already available, this is probably not a welfare-destroying choice (assuming animals contribute to the social welfare function, which I admit is a contentious claim). But curing (infectious) disease is as close to a pure public good as I can easily imagine.

Wouldn't it be just great if we could get the wonderful benefits of animal testing without having to inflict torture in the name of testing? I think it would.

Unfortunately, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment boilerplate in every spending bill since 1995 restricts the use of federal funding for human embryos in research. The moral intuitions there are interesting. I suspect it engages  Jon Haidt's disgust moral dimension, which means that the alternatives of either animal testing or marginally slower research are likely to stick around.

Of course, people are clever. When we told them they have to pay fruit pickers higher wages, farmers made better, faster machines to do that work. When we told them they couldn't put CFCs in cannisters anymore, hairspray makers switched to finger pumps. Now that we're telling them to hike the pay of fast food clerks, burger slingers are taking the path of the banks in their switch from meat-and-bone tellers to ATMs by automating the ordering process. To borrow a classic Jeff Goldblumism, commerce... uh, commerce finds a way.

Consider the possibility that if instead of incinerating culled embryos, they could be donated to federally-funded research facilities that they might use the insights gleaned to work towards a more cruelty- and morally-objectionable-free research environment. End Dickey-Wicker now.

But don't be too shocked when it doesn't happen. Legislation is notoriously hard to repeal.

R.I.P. Dwayne Goettel

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?