Action Potential

The science of dignity

A recent Nature news article regarding the latest battle on the animal research front takes us to Switzerland. There, the University of Zurich and another research institute are taking a case to the Swiss Supreme Court arguing against the rulings of a lower court, which banned two primate-based experiments that had been approved by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The proposed experiments were said to potentially offend the dignity of the animals, according to an external advisory board, overruling a decision by the veterinary office (responsible for animal welfare) who allowed the experiments to proceed.

This stems from a change in Swiss law back in 2004, which suggested that the dignity of animals had to be considered (see Article 120). As the accompanying editorial points out, using a subjective concept like dignity as our guiding compass in determining the moral legitimacy of research proposals is not only absurd, but dangerous.

Here is a dictionary definition of dignity:

Main Entry: dig·ni·ty

Pronunciation: \’dig-ni-tē\

Function: noun

Inflected Form(s): plural dig·ni·ties

Etymology: Middle English dignete, from Anglo-French digneté, from Latin dignitat-, dignitas, from dignus

Date: 13th century

1: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed

2 a: high rank, office, or position b: a legal title of nobility or honor

3 archaic : DIGNITARY

4: formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language

I am hoping to find someone who can explain to me how any of these definitions can be objectively, systematically, and fairly applied to research subjects as varied as plants and monkeys. If a serious governmental policy is going to be based on such a concept, then consistency is paramount. There is no doubt that animal research needs to be well-controlled and monitored, but placing unrealistic constraints on the approval process for experiments adds yet another challenge for researchers struggling to provide the results demanded by the public.

In the end, I see this policy doing more to hurt the future of high-quality research in Switzerland (the best scientists will not want to work under such constraints) rather than protecting our favorite research subjects.


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    Lizzie said:

    I don’t understand—they weren’t doing genetic work with the monkeys, so how does the Gene Technology article apply?

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    Noah Gray said:

    Hi Lizzie. The Swiss crammed a distinct line within that article that is relevant from the court’s perspective (at least in my interpretation of the situation):

    “It takes thereby into account the dignity of the creature and the security of man, animal and environment…”

    The issue of dignity is raised in this article, but nowhere else that I could find in the constitution. As a caveat, the link I provided is a translation and there could be some things lost in the conversion.

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    Flug said:

    Animals do not have dignity. Dignity describes a human value, for example a man may have dignity because he does not torture animals. As an essential differentiation animals are not able to control their drives, whereas human beings mostly do, which is called dignity.