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