Ethics: Is it the Thought That Counts?

by Derek Fong, VMD, DACLAM, clinical veterinarian at the University of Colorado Denver

John P. Gluck, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology and senior advisor to the president on animal research ethics and welfare at the University of New Mexico and research professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, painted a broad overview of animal research and ethics during his talk yesterday at the 2014 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference.

Dr. Gluck highlighted numerous historical events where concern about progress may have outstripped ethical reflection. For example, he noted that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, expressed regret over his role in its development. He described his own work as a graduate student in the Harlow Primate Laboratory during the 1960s and 1970s, where ethics was considered basic husbandry, such as clean cages. He recalled the surprise he and others felt when a colleague raised an ethical question about the use of animals in research.

While emphasizing the importance of the historical perspective, Dr. Gluck was clear that the role of ethics in science has improved, but is still not ideal. He shared an example of a bone marrow transplant patient who had undergone numerous procedures and clinical trials and wanted to leave the hospital, knowing she would likely die from infection, but would spend her remaining time with her family at home. However, the doctor running the clinical trial persuaded her to stay in the hospital, where she ended up dying two weeks later. This example struck home with me—my wife is a clinical psychologist on a bone marrow transplant unit and addresses these issues commonly. It also reinforced the need for more research to find better treatments and cures.

Dr. Gluck expressed the need for scientists to be professional ethicists. I’m not an ethicist and will likely never call myself one. I have taken classes in ethics, but always seem to walk away unsatisfied with the lack of concrete answers. Ultimately, my novice and, likely provincial, view is that ethics provides guidelines for thought, but does not generally provide a right or wrong answer at the time a choice has to be made. It is my personal belief that when confronted with an ethical question, it is the thought process, not the actual answer, which is most important.

The historical perspective provided by Dr. Gluck demonstrated how our ethical viewpoints continuously and significantly evolve.  Perhaps these ethical thought processes contribute and are necessary to spur larger changes observed over time. I often wonder how people will look back upon our field and our practices in 20, 50, or 100 years. What will seem arcane and what will seem prescient? I strongly believe in our work, but I also know that only time will tell how it is viewed when we, too, are a part of history.