The Ethicist: Should I Stay at a Lab That Makes Animals Suffer?

October 28, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Should I Stay at a Lab That Makes Animals Suffer?”.

I am an undergraduate researcher in a university-affiliated biology lab. The research we are doing involves subjecting many mice to disease, suffering and death. I haven’t interacted with the mice directly, but I use their serum in my experiments. The thought of animals suffering for the data we produce really bothers me; I am vegan for ethical reasons. My only justification is that the research we do will hopefully provide disease prevention in the future. However, I don’t know if that is enough considering the slim chance of developing a therapy and the many mice that are suffering right now.

The lab offered to have me continue to work throughout the upcoming semesters. The people I work under have been exceptional mentors; remaining in the lab would be extremely valuable for me professionally, and I am fortunate to be given this opportunity. On the other hand, I don’t know if I am sacrificing my values to focus on academic and professional goals. Can I continue to work in this lab? Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

I recommend a different perspective than asking others if you can do something. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel bothered—an emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

You ought not participate in research that involves wrongful suffering. Whether the suffering in question is wrongful depends in part on whether the research might yield important benefits to people or other animals and whether the suffering could be mitigated or avoided altogether. The guidelines in Britain get at some important precepts here, usually referred to as the 3Rs: replacement (substitute nonanimal alternatives where possible), reduction (minimize the number of animals used) and refinement (adjust procedures in order to minimize animal suffering). In the United States, of course, there are laws and regulations about animal welfare that your university is presumably complying with, but many people think those rules are too lax. You should inform yourself further by talking to your mentors.

If they are responsible, they will want to assure you that what they are doing is morally permissible. Animal research has, after all, led to treatments that save millions of lives. But once you have the whole story, you may disagree with their assessment. If you do, and the principal investigators aren’t inclined to change their procedures, you shouldn’t continue to work in this lab. (That itself won’t save any animals, but the fact that others will continue a wrong if you withdraw isn’t a reason to carry on participating.) You should also make the case to the university authorities that they ought to stop or reform the work. There is a vast scope for research in the life sciences that does not involve the wrongful treatment of animals. And there’s good news in the longer term: Emerging technologies — such as the use of the complex cellular structures known as organoids — may reduce the need for animal models.


I have an acquaintance who is a good friend of my sister’s. She is the caregiver for her elderly parents. Decades ago, her father had an affair, and a child was conceived. My sister’s friend never knew of the affair, and she has no idea she has a half sibling. I feel guilty for keeping the truth from her but would never reveal it while her mother is alive. But if her mother passes away before her father, I would confront him and tell him that if he didn’t reveal the truth, I would. I think my sister’s friend should know that she has a sibling. My sister says that we should mind our own business. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

You don’t say how you came by this knowledge; let’s stipulate that you don’t have any obligations of confidentiality. Let’s agree further that it would be good for your sister’s friend to learn the truth about her family at some point. But one thing that strikes me is that your connection to all this seems rather indirect. Your sister presumably knows her friend better than you do and thinks her friend doesn’t need to know about her secret half sibling.

Nor do you think that the right to know the truth trumps everything else. You think the truth would be so painful for your acquaintance’s mother that it should be kept from her. You give little weight to the cost to the adulterous father of the revelation, evidently because he was in the wrong. But do you really think this gives his suffering no weight at all? All this is aside from the prospective cost to your friend of learning of her father’s betrayal, which your sister apparently believes would overwhelm the value to her of having a better understanding of her family’s history. Truth matters, but as you already know, it isn’t the only thing that matters.


After my mother died, I asked one of her oldest friends if she knew if my mother ever had an affair while married to my father. (My father is also deceased.) She told me that my mother had an affair with someone I knew, but she would not disclose his name. I became obsessed with trying to figure out who it was. My husband and I would discuss different scenarios but never came to any conclusions.

A few years ago, my mother’s friend finally told me who it was. I was shocked! She said that this man had made my mother very happy and that she had never planned on leaving my father. I had no judgment toward my mother because this man had brought so much joy into her life. (He was also married at the time. He then got a divorce and has since died.)

His daughter was a good friend of mine. Now that all the parties have died, I would like to tell my friend. I know she knew that her father cheated on her mother; perhaps she even knew of this relationship and doesn’t want to tell me for fear of hurting me. It would feel comforting to talk with her about it, but it’s possible this will change my friend’s feelings about me or my mother. Should I take this indiscretion to my grave? Name Withheld

My response: “Should I . . . ?” Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

You sound out of control of your emotions. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

People are entitled, where there aren’t strong countervailing considerations, to know the truth about their families. In this case, unlike the previous one, your involvement in the story is direct, and the adulterers and the spouses they betrayed are all dead. The harm there will be reputational, and we aren’t entitled to reputations we don’t deserve. So my default view is that you may indeed share what you’ve learned. But again, when you make decisions, you should bear their consequences in mind, and you might take a moment first to think about whether this revelation will damage relationships among the living.

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