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


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.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In what follows we will refer to nonhuman animals simply as animals and nonhuman primates as primates. We refer to human primates as humans.

  2. 2.

    In Europe the use of great apes for research has been prohibited, with certain exceptions, since 2011 by the European Union Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, art. 8 para 3.

  3. 3.

    For a discussion of the three problems in the context of neuroscientific research, with a focus on rodents, see Olsson and de Castro (2015) and Animal Procedures Committee (2003).

  4. 4.

    See also Ryder's (1999) painism, although Ryder distances himself from utilitarians by rejecting the possibility of aggregating pain or pleasure.

  5. 5.

    Another approach is to use the welfare and wellbeing of the animals as a starting point and then ask how different procedures and handling of the animals affect their welfare or wellbeing. For more about the animal welfare/wellbeing approach see Nordenfelt (2006) and Australian Government (2008).

  6. 6.

    There are many variations on these categories, in the U.S.A. a scheme with effectively three categories is frequently used [the USDA pain and distress categorization (USDA 2011)]; in Europe E.U. Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes uses four severity categories, mild, moderate, severe and non-recovery (European Parliament and the Council of the European Union 2010, Annex VIII). For a further discussion of severity categories, albeit by now somewhat dated, see Elzanowski (2006).

  7. 7.

    For the most influential statement of the value of basic research, see Bush’s (1945) report “Science, the Endless Frontier”.

  8. 8.

    For a discussion of the failures see for example Knight’s (2011) The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments. For a discussion of the success stories see for example Grieder and Strandberg (2002). For a discussion of the utility of primates as research animals see Phillips et al. (2014) and Bateson et al. (2011).

  9. 9.

    The Boyd Group, and others, have suggested a similar approach to evaluating benefits (Smith and Boyd 1991, pp. 138–147).

  10. 10.

    There are schemes based on quantification, most notably Stafleu et al. (1999).

  11. 11.

    For a list see Animal Procedures Committee (2003, Annex D).

  12. 12.

    The Bateson’s cube was originally proposed in Bateson (1986).


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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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Correspondence to Gardar Arnason.

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Arnason, G., Clausen, J. On balance: weighing harms and benefits in fundamental neurological research using nonhuman primates. Med Health Care and Philos 19, 229–237 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11019-015-9663-4

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