Should We Make Sacrifices for the Greater Good in the Name of Science?

October 15, 2017
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“Do not do good, that good may result in”, as echoed in a Bible scripture. Following a recent spate of excitement after samples of mice with Alzheimer's disease showed signs of recovery, there arose much contention regarding the morality of such animal-testing procedures, especially since many unfortunate samples perished before this groundbreaking discovery.  The quote encapsulates the immorality of such “sacrifices”,  the harming of live animal or human samples in biomedical science, and herein the controversy lies. Is it ethical, and necessary, to make sacrifices such that we can benefit the majority? Or are these procedures merely an immoral and unnecessary wastage of innocuous lives? I posit that it is acceptable to make sacrifices for the greater good because it provides a more accurate insight to boost progress of science, and can be justified by long term benefits that can benefit more people than those it harms.

Firstly, it is justifiable to make sacrifices because we are able to obtain more accurate and reliable results that can lead to beneficial scientific progress to help the majority.  By obtaining these results, scientists might look into conducting experiments on animals as scientists believe that sacrificing real samples - both human and animal-  can give more accurate insights as compared to abstract computer modelling. While computer modelling may give us approximations to the actual results, algorithms in computer modelling fail to take into account certain allergies, genetic disparities and the immunity system. Whereas live sampling is not limited by these imperfections, and provide a more accurate insight into how drugs and medicinal techniques affect our body.

For example, researchers who have conducted experiments on mice for Parkinson’s disease have found more promising results which could possibly be used to reverse the symptoms of this previously incurable disease. As compared to computer algorithms with limited processing power, live sampling provides a more effective tool for us to achieve surefire and successful results. For example, half a mouse’s brain can only be mapped by the world’s fastest supercomputer Blue Gene, yet still “lacked the structures seen in real mice brains [despite] sharing similarities with a mouse’s mental make-up.” With these samples being in abundance, using a few of them for research purposes is justifiable as the potential new insights that can be derived can catalyze useful discoveries that can benefit the majority, such as the ultrasound technology derived to help patients stricken with Alzheimer's, rather than slugging through complicated but less reliable computer data. Therefore, I believe that it is justified to conduct these sensitive experiments on live samples, as it will paint a clearer picture on the metabolism and effects on our bodies, and ultimately benefits the majority with better biomedical technology.

Secondly, it is justifiable to sacrifice for the greater good because the long term benefits outweigh the short term sacrifices. With many differing moral opinions from the crowd, most forms of scientific experimentation involving a form of “sacrifice”, a word with a negative connotation, is expected to draw disapproval and dissent from some without understanding the nuances in the procedures. I believe that all experiments involving sacrifices should not be banned to pacify these sceptics, due to their potential to reap unprecedented scientific progress. As aptly summarized by the principle of utilitarianism in the scientific realm, “we cannot please all men but we can be a blessing to many.” This is evident in the case study of embryonic stem cell research which drew contention regarding their procedures which “destroy” embryonic stem cells for the purpose of replacing damaged tissues. However, these procedures were then continued and soon gave rise to a new series of life-saving procedures that could cure debilitating diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Undeniably, the long term benefits do justify short term sacrifices, evident from the number of people who benefit ultimately (an astounding 30,000 patients in Europe annually). Since it is impossible to please everyone with our limited resources and prevalent issue of scarcity, scientists have to use these resources efficiently and please the majority by deriving useful biomedical technology from seemingly contentious procedures that sacrifice a much smaller number of live samples. This has further been emphasized in “Living Proof”, a novel by Kira Peikoff, exclaiming that such sacrifices are indeed justifiable when done for a noble cause. Therefore, I believe that with the theory of utilitarianism, it is justifiable to make sacrifices especially since we are likely to benefit much more people ultimately than those we harm or offend in the process.

However, some contenders have argued that these acts generally are morally wrong especially since we have advanced to the point where there are more ethical alternatives present. They believe that everything has an alternative perspective as long as effort and money is placed, and cite the example of President Bush limiting federally funded stem cell research, which has encouraged more scientists to think out-of-the-box and come up with better and more ethical methods. A prime example would be the use of pluripotent stem cells that modifies adult cheek cells into the desired body tissue, with similar efficacy as embryonic stem cells. Therefore, these critics believe that sacrifices are not justifiable due to the deontological principle by Philosopher Immanuel Kant, which frowns upon all behaviours that harm any living being. With the presence of better and more ethical alternatives of similar viability as their “more contentious half”, there is no reason and moral room to sacrifice, even if is for the benefit for the larger good.

In my opinion, I do agree with the contenders that there exist better and more ethical alternatives to some of the scientific procedures, but research has shown that such cases are in rare exception, and most alternatives actually end up compromising other moral boundaries instead. For example, when the inoculation of human genes into live chimpanzees to investigate how human genes would function in a genetically similar but biologically different animal, was replaced with the “more ethical” procedures of combining human and chimpanzee genes in a culture stock, scientists whooped with joy. However, when traces of life soon arose in the culture that bore both chimpanzee and human characteristics, their joy was short-lived as they soon realized that this “more ethical alternative” became a direct affront to human dignity and identity, and continued to represent as an unethical procedure of “playing with God”. Hence, this evidently shows how it is nearly impossible to find a completely clean and ethical method to replace all the contentious ones present in today’s scientific realm.

In conclusion, to synthesize, I believe that the first priority would definitely be to engage in any of the better and more ethical alternatives, if they exist. However, should that be nearly improbable to achieve, making sacrifices for the greater good is still justifiable as we are able to achieve more accurate and reliable results, make better use of our resources to please the majority by utilitarianism, and how it remains the most logical and reasonable approach in science since we cannot please everyone. Nevertheless, the most important thing is that the scientists must be responsible, and have social responsibility on their minds. They need to be careful and justify each experiment they are conducting, whilst doing it in a highly scrutinized and controlled environment to protect the welfare of any humans or animals in their experiments. Only with this necessary pre-requisite assumption, would making sacrifices for the greater good be a justifiable approach in the biomedical sector.

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