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Ethical Concepts and Principles

For every ethical question, some ethical concept or set of concepts directly relevant to the question must be identified. One cannot reason well with regard to ethical issues if one does not clearly understand the force of ethical terms and distinctions. Some of the most basic ethical concepts include honesty, integrity, justice, equality, and respect. In many cases, application of the principles implied by these concepts is simple. In some cases it is difficult.

Consider some simple cases. Lying about, misrepresenting, or distorting the facts to gain a material advantage over others is clearly a violation of the basic principle inherent in the concept of honesty. Expecting others to live up to standards that we ourselves routinely violate is clearly a violation of the basic principle inherent in the concept of integrity. Treating others as if they were worth less than we take ourselves to be worth is a violation of the principles inherent in the concepts of integrity, justice, and equality. Every day human life is filled with clear-cut violations of basic ethical principles. No one would deny that it is ethically repugnant for a person to microwave cats for the fun of it. Nor is it ethically acceptable to kill people to get their money or to torture people because we think they are guilty and ought to confess.

Nevertheless, in addition to the clear-cut cases are also complicated cases, requiring us to enter into an ethical dialogue, considering counter-arguments from different points of view. Consider, for example, the question: Is euthanasia ever ethically justifiable? Certainly there are any number of instances when euthanasia is not justified. To consider the question of whether it is ever justified, however, we must consider the various conditions under which euthanasia seems plausible. For example, what about cases involving people who are suffering unrelenting pain from terminal diseases? Within this group are some who plead with us to end their suffering by helping them end their lives (since, though in torment, they cannot end their lives without the assistance of another person).

Given the fact, then, that a person so circumstanced is experiencing intense terminal suffering, one significant ethical concept relevant to this question is the concept of cruelty. Cruelty is defined by Webster's New World Dictionary as "causing, or of a kind to cause, pain, distress, etc; cruel implies indifference to the suffering of others or a disposition to inflict it on others." Cruelty, in this case, means "of a kind to cause" unnecessary pain. It means allowing an innocent person to experience unnecessary pain and suffering when you have the power to alleviate it—without sacrificing something of equal value.

Once cruelty is identified as a relevant concept, one ethical injunction becomes clear: "Strive to act so as to reduce or end the unnecessary pain and suffering of innocent persons and creatures." With this ethical principle in mind, we can seek to determine in what sense, in any given situation, refusing to assist a suffering person should be considered cruel and in what sense it shouldn't.

Another ethical concept that may be relevant to this issue is, "Life is good in itself." The principle that emerges from this concept is, "Life should be respected." Some would argue that, given this principle, life should not be terminated by humans under any circumstances.

As a person capable of reasoning, you should come to your own conclusions. At the same time, you must be prepared to state your reasoning in detail, explaining what ethical concepts and issues seem to you to be relevant, and why. You must be prepared to demonstrate that you have given serious consideration to alternative perspectives on the issue, that you are not ignoring other reasonable ways to think through the question at issue. You must be ready to present what you take to be the most relevant and important facts in the case. You must be prepared to do what any good thinker would do in attempting to support reasoning on any issue in any domain of thought. The fact that an issue is ethical does not mean that you can abandon your commitment to disciplined, rational thought.

Or consider: Under what conditions, if any, is animal experimentation justifiable? Again, one relevant ethical concept is cruelty, for anyone informed about animal experimentation knows that sometimes animals are subjected to extreme pain, anxiety, and suffering in the name of scientific inquiry. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a proactive animal rights organization, focuses on the negative implications of animal experimentation. PETA, at its Web site, makes claims such as the following:

  • Every year, millions of animals suffer and die in painful tests to determine the "safety" of cosmetics and household products. Substances ranging from eye shadow and soap to furniture polish and oven cleaner are tested on rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, dogs, and other animals, despite the fact that test results do not help prevent or treat human illness or injury. In these tests, a liquid, flake, granule, or powdered substance is dropped into the eyes of a group of albino rabbits. The animals are often immobilized in stocks from which only their heads protrude. They usually receive no anesthesia during the tests…. Reactions to the substances include swollen eyes. The rabbits' eyelids are held open with clips. Many animals break their necks as they struggle to escape.

  • Chimpanzees are now popular subjects for AIDS research, although their immune system does not succumb to the virus. Chimpanzees are also used in painful cancer, hepatitis, and psychological tests, as well as for research into artificial insemination and birth control methods, blood diseases, organ transplants, and experimental surgery. Their use in military experiments is suspected, but such information is kept secret and hard to verify…. Chimpanzees are highly active and very socially oriented. When kept isolated in laboratories with no regular physical contact with either humans or chimps, they quickly become psychotic…. Because adult chimpanzees are strong and often unmanageable, and because infected chimpanzees cannot be placed in zoos or existing sanctuaries, many chimpanzees are killed before the age of 10.

  • Sleep deprivation is recognized as a form of human torture. For decades, sleep deprivation has been used by repressive governments to extract classified information or false confessions from political prisoners. But some people do it legally. These people aren't called torturers. Because their subjects are animals, they're called "scientists"…. For more than a quarter century, Allan Rechtschaffen, an experimenter of the University of Chicago, deprived animals of sleep. He started out keeping rats awake for up to 24 hours and then letting them recover. He moved on to total sleep deprivation—he kept rats awake until their bodies could no longer cope and they died of exhaustion. This took anywhere from 11 to 32 days. To prepare the gentle animals for this long nightmarish journey to death, Rechtschaffen stuck electrodes in the rat's skulls, sewed wires to their hearts, and surgically buried thermometers in their stomachs, so that he could track their temperatures and brain waves. To make blood drawing easier (for him), he snaked catheters through their jugular veins, down their necks and into their hearts…. Clinical studies have already shown that humans deprived of sleep suffer from lack of concentration and hallucinations, and that they recover quickly with even brief periods of sleep. So what did Rechtschaffen hope to discover? In his own words, "We established that rats died after 17 days of total sleep deprivation. Thus, at least, for the rat, sleep is absolutely essential."

Information such as this is relevant to the question of whether, to what extent and under what conditions animal experimentation is ethically justified. Some argue that animal experimentation is justified whenever some potential good for humans may emerge from the experiment. Others argue that animal experimentation is unethical because there are always alternative ways, such as computer simulations, to get the information being sought. At its Web site, PETA claims:

  • More than 205,000 new drugs are marketed worldwide every year, most after undergoing the most archaic and unreliable testing methods still in use: animal studies…. Many physicians and researchers publicly speak out against these outdated studies. They point out that unreliable animal tests not only allow dangerous drugs to be marketed to the public, but may also prevent potentially useful ones from being made available. Penicillin would not be in use today if it had been tested on guinea pigs—common laboratory subjects—because penicillin kills guinea pigs. Likewise, aspirin kills cats, while morphine, a depressant to humans, is a stimulant to cats, goats, and horses. Human reactions to drugs cannot be predicted by tests on animals because different species (and even individuals within the same species) react differently to drugs.

  • The Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine reports that sophisticated non-animal research methods are more accurate, less expensive, and less time-consuming than traditional animal-based research methods.

Some argue that, in experiments in which animal suffering cannot be avoided, the suffering is ethically justified because in the long run the knowledge gained from this experimentation reduces the pain and suffering otherwise endured by humans. These proponents of experimentation argue that minimizing human pain and suffering is a superior ethical end to that of minimizing animal pain and suffering.

When reasoning through complex ethical questions, then, skilled ethical reasoners identify the ethical concepts and facts relevant to those questions and apply those concepts to the facts in a well-reasoned manner. In coming to conclusions, they consider as many plausible ways of looking at the issue as they can. As a result of such intellectual work, they develop the capacity to distinguish when ethical questions are clear-cut and when they are not. When ethical issues are not clear-cut, it is important to exercise our best ethical judgment.

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