Many times in class, the idea of animal “selves” has arisen and great discussions on this scientific debate have followed. Our class has linked our senses of “self” to episodic memory, particularly the ability to create new memories and retrieve old ones, which seems crucial for self-awareness; however, episodic memory in animals has yet to be ‘proven’ though many animals show some of the components. Nevertheless, animal’s inability to communicate has rendered many researchers mere speculators. I have given this much thought recently, and have come to the radical conclusion that subconsciously, animal researchers do not want their subjects to have a sense of self for obvious reasons.
Last week, a rat on which I performed a hippocampal lesion escaped from its recovery cage and was found wandering in one of our testing rooms a day later. I kept thinking to myself, “Poor rat! Without a hippocampus she has no idea who she is or where she is going. We’ll never find her!” Fortunately I was wrong, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t completely confused. I then started to think about how ethical a hippocampal lesion would be if a rat did have a sense of self. Would I ever get IACUC approval for a project if it was proven that rat is self-aware? I think not! This line of thought continued for a few days. While changing food and water, I would hold the rat and they seemed to be looking straight into my eyes like they knew their fate, and I questioned the ethics of my work.
After a glass of wine and some Epictetus to calm the nerves on a Friday night (wish I was kidding), I began to review my own moral philosophy and how it related to animal testing. I began to consider my morals concerning the issue from a Smithian view of moral sentiments, namely that my values are socially constructed. Given that a majority of people in the United States do not have an issue with (or stance for that matter) on animal testing, that many people benefit from the work that animal researchers do, and that a human life is considered to be worth more than an animal life (generally speaking), I concluded that my work was not only morally justifiable, but morally demanded. I should add that there are many more factors that went into this conclusion, but I highlighted only a few.
I was able to take this stance largely due to the lack of definitive proof of human-like episodic memory in animals and their consequent self-awareness, and suddenly a light went on. I tried in every way to prove to myself that an animal didn’t have a sense of self so that I might be absolved from guilt, and many animal researchers likely feel the same way. (They just don’t know it.) Furthermore, if it were ever discovered that a rat is self-aware, I might be charged with war crimes or something along those lines, so I have a vested interest in disproving and disbelieving in an animal self.
Unfortunately, I truly love animals, and my dog is truly my best friend. Realistically, I treat him like a human and ascribe a “self” to him. I see personality and love in his eyes that I just don’t see in rats. Someone mentioned something about a scale of consciousness, and I had not really thought about my own feelings in those terms, but I guess a scale can apply. No proof of episodic memory in animals allows one a considerable flexibility with how they view different animals. Some maybe can, some maybe can’t, so whatever perspective works to my benefit I will take because it’s ultimately up in the air. Is this fair to do? Can one use a lack of proof as a basis for denial? Should we solve this issue before we move forward with animal research? That’s realistically impossible, but perhaps this debate should have been resolved long before animal testing became institutionalized.