A Living Will Clause for Utilitarian Defenders of Invasive Animal Research

Should utilitarians sign a living will to be vivisected if they become mentally disabled?

Background for this Article

In 2003 I was invited by David Ruffieux to do a paper for a symposium on vivisection that he organized at the University of Ottawa. My paper is based on my peer-reviewed journal article published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, although the latter did not get featured in the journal until three years after the talk. It is a radically shortened version of my paper in progress which Mr. Ruffieux placed on the web. Seven years later, I scratched my head and wondered why the short paper was not on my own site. So here it is, only slightly revised for clarity and completeness, although it does not capture nearly all the facets that the journal article does. I argue that if utilitarians are self-consistent, then as an unwanted implication of their view, they "should" sign a living will clause to the effect that they must be vivisected for medical research, with the worst diseases being modeled in their persons, if the humans in question happen through accident or congenital problems to become mentally disadvantaged. Find out why. I am obviously not advocating that anyone be vivisected. This is a reduction to absurdity of utilitarian pro-vivisectionism.

It is a commonplace that although we may not "need" animals for eating, wearing their skins, or entertainment, we somehow need them for experimentation in order to come to new medical discoveries. Although much criticism has been leveled at invasive animal experimentation to the effect that it is not (very) useful, many still believe in its ultimate utility. Utilitarians, in particular, seek to weigh the harm done to animals against the harms that can be prevented by learning what is necessary to cure or otherwise treat people with diseases and debilities. Defenders of animal rights will point out that animals' fundamental interests must not be disregarded for any reason, and that animals ought not to be enslaved for the purposes of medical research or anything else. Some, however, will weigh harms as the utilitarian does, or even see a conflict between rights to life: between humans and animals, and interpret humans as the "winners."

Still, defenders of animal research on the basis that its benefits justify its harms fail to examine a distinctive implication of their views. Supporters of invasive animal research "ought" to be willing to sign a living will clause that commits themselves to be vivisected should they become cognitively equivalent to an animal, whether through congenital defects, accident or injury. First, let us assume that animals' interests in not suffering are considered fairly, without contempt being added because animals are not of the same species, or for any reason. Second, let it be admitted that research on humans is far more revealing for human medicine than research on nonhumans. This is granted on all sides, since animal diseases are no more analogous to human diseases than healthy animals are a representation of healthy humans: the cases are different. So it would be far more useful to use human signatories of the living will clause, although the harm would be comparable to humans and animals of equivalent cognitive capacities.

Moreover, the living will signatories who would be used would most likely not be "human vegetables," any more than most animals invasively treated in laboratories are in a persistent vegetative state: they are acutely aware and emotionally sensitive. They have memories, anticipations of the future, a sense of well-being or lack of it, and demonstrably fixed sets of preferences. They may not, however, be able to use abstract language, as may be the case with many brain-damaged or post-stroke human patients.

Most people would not sign themselves, or even their beloved pets, over to invasive research. The Nuremberg and Helsinki declarations legally protect people from being used for invasive research, after people learned of the Nazi horrors of invasively experimenting on Jews and others while they were still alive. Humans with congenital mental deficits are also protected by such international conventions. Such research has, as its highest priority, replicating the worst of human ills in animals for further study.


Monkey imprisoned for experimentation

Let us suppose utilitarians say "no" to the living will clause. If utilitarians are consistent in their view, if they refuse to submit themselves or others they care about to invasive research, then they must also refuse to force animals into such research, because the use of animals is even less useful than studying humans. If living will signatories are not "good enough" to use for utilitiarians, then much less useful animal studies cannot be "good enough" either. So if the justification of invasive research is the great benefits it confers, people should either give up their utilitarianism, or else they "should" give up their dignity and submit themselves to such invasive procedures.

Or suppose someone is willing to say "yes" to being experimented on. Society would override that living will in that it rejects all vivisection of humans. However, again, if these humans are not "good enough" to use for society's purposes, then animals cannot be good enough either since they afford much less utility than using the humans.

If it is objected that people would care what happens to people more than anyone would care about the fate of animals, it must be remembered that what is sought in utilitarian ethics is an equal consideration of equivalent interests. Favoritism is to be ruled out. An inequitable consideration of interests, based on sentiments or anything else, is supposedly antithetical to utilitarianism.

Of course I am not literally advocating a campaign for everyone to sign this living will clause under consideration. This is a social satire of vivisection, like Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which he argues, ironically in keeping with a particularly perverse take on utilitarianism, that a "solution" to the Irish poverty problem be that poor families raise humans to be eaten, thus providing both nourishment and income.

People are urged to reject utilitarianism because of its unacceptable consequences in this case, because they ought to reject the use of themselves or anyone else "human or otherwise" in invasive experiments. The #1 view used to rationalize vivisection in ethical terms is not only unethical, as I argue elsewhere, but may rule out medical vivisection too if only utilitarians are truly consistent with their own professions of morality.