Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 229–237 | Cite as

On balance: weighing harms and benefits in fundamental neurological research using nonhuman primates

  • Gardar ArnasonEmail author
  • Jens Clausen
Scientific Contribution


One of the most controversial areas of animal research is the use of nonhuman primates for fundamental research. At the centre of the controversy is the question of whether the benefits of research outweigh the harms. We argue that the evaluation of harms and benefits is highly problematic. We describe some common procedures in neurological research using nonhuman primates and the difficulties in evaluating the harm involved. Even if the harm could be quantified, it is unlikely that it could be meaningfully aggregated over different procedures, let alone different animals. A similar problem arises for evaluating benefits. It is not clear how benefits could be quantified, and even if they could be, values for different aspects of expected benefits cannot be simply added up. Sorting harms and benefits in three or four categories cannot avoid the charge of arbitrariness and runs the risk of imposing its structure on the moral decision. The metaphor of weighing or balancing harms and benefits is inappropriate for the moral decision about whether to use nonhuman primates for research. Arguing that the harms and benefits in this context are incommensurable, we suggest describing the moral consideration of harms and benefits as a coherent trade-off. Such a decision does not require commensurability. It must be well-informed about the suffering involved and the potential benefits, it must be consistent with the legal, regulatory and institutional framework within which it is made, and it must cohere with other judgments in relevant areas.


Coherent trade-off Ethical decision making Incommensurability Nonhuman primates Weighing harms and benefits 



The authors would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This research was funded by the German Research Foundation DFG within the Primate Systems Neuroscience research unit (FOR 1847): Project C2 “Ethical considerations and standards”.


  1. Allen, C. 2004. Animal pain. Noûs 38: 617–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Animal Procedures Committee (APC). 2003. Review of cost-benefit assessment in the use of animals in research: Report of the cost-benefit working group of the animal procedures committee. London: APC.Google Scholar
  3. Australian Government, National Health and Medical Research Council. 2008. Guidelines to promote the wellbeing of animals used for scientific purposes; the assessment and alleviation of pain and distress in research animals. Canberra: Australian Government.Google Scholar
  4. Bateson, P. 1986. When to experiment on animals. New Scientist 109(1496): 30–32.Google Scholar
  5. Bateson, P., H. Johansen-Berg, and D.K. Jones. 2011. Review of research using non-human primates. Independent review commissioned by The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome Trust. London, UK: BBSRC, MRC & Wellcome Trust. Accessed 22 May 2015.
  6. Beauchamp, T.L., H.R. Ferdowsian, and J.P. Gluck. 2014. Rethinking the ethics of research involving nonhuman animals: Introduction. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 35: 91–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bermond, B. 1997. The myth of animal suffering. In Animal consciousness and animal ethics, ed. M. Dol, S. Kasanmoentalib, S. Lijmbach, E. Rivas, and R. van den Bos, 125–143. Assen: Van Gorcum.Google Scholar
  8. Bermond, B. 2003. A neuropsychological and evolutionary approach to animal consciousness and animal suffering. In The animal ethics reader, ed. S.J. Armstrong, and R.G. Botzler, 99–112. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Bentham, J. 1823. Introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bliss-Moreau, E., J.H. Theil, and G. Moadab. 2013. Efficient cooperative restraint training with rhesus macaques. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 16: 98–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bush, V. 1945. Science, the endless frontier. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 48: 231–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Carruthers, P. 2000. Phenomenal consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Desimone, R., C. Olson, and R. Erickson. 1992. The controlled water access paradigm. Ilar News 34(3): 27–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Elzanowski, A. 2006. Establishing the three Rs principle: A Plea for an International Severity Standard. ALTEX 23, Special Issue.Google Scholar
  15. European Commission ScientificCommitteeon Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER). 2009. The need for non-human primates in biomedical research, production and testing of products and devices. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  16. European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. 2010. Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.Google Scholar
  17. FELASA. 2005. Principles and practice in ethical review of animal experiments across Europe: A report prepared by the FELASA Working Group on Ethical Evaluation of Animal Experiments. Ipswich, UK: Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Associations (FELASA). Accessed 22 May 2015.
  18. Grieder, F.B., and J.D. Strandberg. 2002. The contribution of laboratory animals to medical progress: Past, present, and future. In Handbook of laboratory animal science: Essential principles and practices, 2nd ed., vol. 1, ed. J. Hau and S.J. Schapiro. Boca Raton, FL: CRC press.Google Scholar
  19. Hackam, D.G. 2007. Translating animal research into clinical benefit. BMJ 334: 163–164. doi: 10.1136/bmj.39104.362951.80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Knight, A. 2011. The costs and benefits of animal experiments. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Knight, A. 2012. Weighing the costs and benefits of animal experiments. In Altex proceedings, 1/12, Proceedings of WC8, 289–294.Google Scholar
  22. Koch, L., and M.N. Svendsen. 2015. Negotiating moral value: A story of Danish research monkeys and their humans. Science, Technology and Human Values 40(3): 368–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McMillan, J.L., et al. 2014. Refining the pole-and-collar method of restraint: Emphasizing the use of positive training techniques with rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science 53(1): 61–68.Google Scholar
  24. National Research Council (NRC). 2009. Recognition and alleviation of pain in laboratory animals. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Accessed 28 Aug 2015.
  25. Nordenfelt, L. 2006. Animal and human health and welfare: A comparative philosophical analysis. Cambridge, MA: CABI.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nordgren, A. 2010. For our children: The ethics of animal experimentation in the age of genetic engineering. Amsterdam: Rodopi.Google Scholar
  27. Olsson, I.A.S., and A.C.V. de Castro. 2015. Does the goal justify the methods? Harm and benefit in neuroscience research using animals. In Current topics in behavioral neurosciences, vol. 19, ed. M.A. Geyer, B.A. Ellenbroek, C.A. Marsden, and ThRE Barnes, 47–78. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  28. Perel, P., et al. 2007. Comparison of treatment effects between animal experiments and clinical trials: Systematic review. BMJ 334: 197–202. doi: 10.1136/bmj.39048.407928.BE.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Phillips, K.A., et al. 2014. Why primate models matter. American Journal of Primatology 76(9): 801–827.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Prescott, M.J., et al. 2010. Refinement of the use of food and fluid control as motivational tools for macaques used in behavioural neuroscience research: Report of a working group of the NC3Rs. Journal of Neuroscience Methods 193: 167–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ryder, R.D. 1999. Painism: Some moral rules for the civilized experimenter. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 8: 35–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Shanks, N., R. Greek, and J. Greek. 2009. Are animal models predictive for humans? Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 4: 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Shriver, A. 2006. Minding mammals. Philosophical Psychology 19(4): 433–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Singer, P. 1979. Practical ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Smith, J.A., and K.M. Boyd. 1991. Lives in the balance: The ethics of using animals in biomedical research: The report of a working party of the institute of medical ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Stafleu, F.R., et al. 1999. The ethical acceptability of animal experiments: A proposal for a system to support decision-making. Laboratory Animals 33: 295–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sughrue, M.E., et al. 2009. Bioethical considerations in translational research: Primate stroke. American Journal of Bioethics 9(5): 3–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. UK Home Office. 2014. Annual statistics of scientific procedures on living animals; Great Britain 2013. London: House of Commons.Google Scholar
  39. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2011. Guidelines for Preparing USDA annual reports and assigning USDA pain & distress categories. Accessed 28 Aug 2015.
  40. Weatherall, D. 2006. The use of nonhuman primates in research. London: Academy of Medical Sciences.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Ethics and History of MedicineUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany
  2. 2.Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience (CIN)TübingenGermany
  3. 3.International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)TübingenGermany

Personalised recommendations