The Ethical Dilemma of Using Primates In Smallpox Research

When the deadliest diseases are constantly on the brink of being weaponized, the eradication of smallpox is a monumental victory.

However, the lingering presence of this virus in secure labs poses a haunting question: at what cost does humanity continue to protect itself from potential bioterrorism?

This question takes a compelling turn as the U.S. government funds research to bolster defenses against smallpox, employing our closest biological relatives in the process.

The ethical considerations surrounding this practice go deep into the heart of moral philosophy, questioning the value we place on life itself, whether human or non-human.

The Historical Context of Smallpox & Scientific Research

Smallpox, a disease that once ravaged humanity, has been eradicated for over four decades, yet its specter looms large due to the possibility of its use as a bioweapon. This fear has spurred the U.S. government into funding research to enhance treatments and vaccines against the virus.1

Given the ethical challenges of exposing humans to a lethal pathogen, scientists have turned to primates for research. This practice, while not new, raises significant ethical questions.

Animal testing has been a cornerstone of scientific progress for centuries, often sacrificing non-human lives for the greater human good. This methodology reflects a deeply ingrained belief in the superiority of human life, yet it also invites us to reevaluate the moral implications of such a stance.

Philosophical Quandary Regarding The Value of Life

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Image Credit: Tim Archer/Shutterstock.

At the heart of the debate on animal testing lies a philosophical conundrum: how do we assign value to life, whether human or non-human? The concept of moral status plays a crucial role in this discussion.

Traditionally viewed as binary, moral status dictates that beings either have their interests considered for their own sake or they do not. Historically, this perspective has favored humans, relegating animals to “things.”

However, contemporary thinkers like Shelly Kagan suggest that moral status may vary in degrees, complicating the ethical landscape.2

Rationality, Suffering, and Moral Consideration

The criteria for granting moral status have long been debated. Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant emphasized rationality and the ability to act with intention as the basis for moral standing, effectively excluding non-human animals.

Conversely, utilitarian principles, as proposed by Jeremy Bentham and furthered by Peter Singer, argue that the capacity to suffer is what makes an entity worthy of moral consideration.

This inclusive approach dramatically broadens our moral responsibilities, challenging conventional views on the value of non-human life.

The Social & Intellectual Capacities of Primates

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Image Credit: Maria lobakina/Shutterstock.

Primates, our closest genetic kin, exhibit remarkable social and intellectual abilities. Their cooperative societies, individual recognition, and response to inequality suggest a complex emotional and cognitive life, underlining their capacity for suffering.

Despite these qualities, societal norms still prioritize human life, often justifying the use of primates in research for the greater human good. However, this rationale faces scrutiny when considering the incremental moral status of non-human animals, forcing us to question the ethical balance in such decisions.

The Uncertainty of Scientific Outcomes

The ethical dilemma deepens when considering the uncertain outcomes of scientific research.

While the intention behind smallpox research is to safeguard humanity, there’s no guarantee that these efforts will prevent future outbreaks or mitigate bioterrorism threats.

This uncertainty challenges the moral justification for using primates in research, especially when the potential benefits are speculative. The ethical calculus becomes even more complex, pushing the boundaries of evaluating risk, benefit, and moral obligation.

Navigating the Ethical Landscape

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Image Credit: Papa Bravo/Shutterstock.

As we grapple with these ethical considerations, the decision to use primates in smallpox research becomes fraught with moral complexity. Whether guided by the binary concept of moral status or the nuanced view of moral consideration, the justification for such research demands careful thought.

Ultimately, our ethical choices must be underpinned by a well-reasoned understanding of the value of life, the scope of our moral responsibilities, and the inherent uncertainties of scientific endeavor.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.