Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Animal welfare and testing

Glenn Boyle and VMC argue that the harms that would have been inflicted on animals as part of the legal highs testing regime would have outweighed any benefits. [see comments to my linked post]

It's rather hard to tell whether that's correct. It seems unlikely to be right if we take as fixed the requirement that drugs be proven safe via animal testing before sale, as the consumer surplus over the entire market would likely dominate, but if the legislation did not require such stringent safety-proofs, then it likely wouldn't.

More broadly, I wonder whether the animal testing regime in place is right. Currently, anyone undertaking animal testing must use an ethical review board and must demonstrate, to the board's satisfaction, that the costs to the animals are dominated by the benefits of the research, and that the lowest-harm way of undertaking the research was chosen. But where some research applications, like legal highs, get folks' backs up, we wind up with a politicised regime with patchwork bans on testing.

An alternative framework would have the review board only assess whether the harms likely to be experienced by the animals were trivial, moderate, serious, or "wish I'd never been born" bad. Run that against a fee matrix that charges based on the severity of harm and the animal's sentience, so an earthworm would basically be free to abuse but fees for primate testing would be close to jury awards for compensatory damages for somebody torturing children. Then, use the collected funds to run retirement homes for former lab animals.

Advantages: no politicisation of which benefits get to count;
Disadvantages: We might miss out on those medical advances that cannot be achieved without primate testing. And, there's no guarantee that some politician wouldn't use animal testing as an excuse to ban things he didn't like regardless of the regime.

Utilitarianism gets messy when animals start counting. Here's Tyler Cowen on policing nature and on vegetarianism [book chapter here].



  1. Why not protect the ethical review board from legislative interference and let them continue to assess every case on its merits?

  2. I would certainly be interested to hear the results of assessing legal highs on the basis of that the costs to the animals versus the benefits of the research.

  3. For situations where the benefits to humans are potentially substantial
    (e.g., some pharmaceuticals), the 'alternative framework' could work well. But in cases where
    the benefits are trivial (e.g., so-called legal highs, cosmetics),
    surely the self-testing solution is simpler and cheaper. Many of us (in
    younger and more risk-tolerant days) used to follow precisely this
    principle with respect to strangers' home brews. With self-testing, those with
    the highest marginal benefits get to incur any costs. Yes, there'll be
    some 'accidents'--just like there was with the home brew!--but these will
    be borne by those most willing to bear them.

  4. I was taking as constraint that policy forbids self-testing. Relax that and I'll agree.