In a recent Wired science article, “Mice show pain on their faces just like humans,” we learn, just as the title implies, that in response to pain, mice grimace. The article points out that this might be no surprise to “pet owners and Cute Overload readers,” implying that if we paid even a modicum of attention to other species we would already be aware that they exhibit recognizable facial expressions in response to pain, but the author wrote this article anyway, as if this is some important scientific breakthrough, without, and this is the crux of this post, questioning the ethics of such experiments.

In order to “discover” that mice have similar facial expressions as humans when they’re experiencing pain, the experimenters inflicted pain upon them. Nowhere in the article does the author explore whether inflicting pain upon a non-consenting, sentient creature is ethical.

For decades, those who support animal experiments have argued that other animals are so similar to us that we can learn so much by experimenting on them. At the same time, they have argued that they are so different from us that we are justified in causing them to suffer and die in experiments that would be immoral if done to humans, consenting or not.

The irony of this particular experiment is that it points out a particular similarity between mice and humans that should, one would think, most undermine the argument that it’s ethical to experiment on them. If they are alike us enough to grimace in pain, making recognizable facial expressions of suffering, aren’t they like us enough to be worthy of protection from such abuse?

The great majority of the time when I read about animal research, the author never questions whether the research is ethical. Even when I was in Divinity School and read a book on pastoral care and counseling for victims of domestic violence, no one but I raised the ethical issue imbedded in the book, which cited Martin Seligman’s “learned helplessness” experiments. In these experiments, he administered severe, painful electric shocks to dogs, who howled out and urinated in response, and after preventing them from escaping “discovered” that the dogs eventually gave up even trying to escape. For this, Seligman became famous, and he is now renowned in the positive psychology movement and a former president of the American Psychological Association. His “learned helplessness” theory is cited again and again as a huge breakthrough, yet clinical observation of (and then aid to) victims of domestic violence or political prisoners would have revealed the same information, without the scientist purposefully causing terrible suffering to unwilling victims.

Whenever you are reading about experiments, in the news, in books, on blogs, please dig below the surface and ask yourself how this information came to be acquired and whether it is ethical. Until we question, we won’t see. Until we see, we won’t act.

Zoe Weil
Author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education and Most Good, Least Harm

Image courtesy of a_soft_world via Creative Commons.

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