Moral rights and wrongs

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Helen Haste tackles the problem of discussing the ethics of animal testing

Young people, but especially girls who are interested in science, are sensitive to the ethics and context of scientific developments. The Government is taking necessary steps to control extreme animal rights protest but teachers should be aware that animal experimentation is one of young people's concerns. In a recent national study, 66 per cent of girls and 51 per cent of boys agreed that "experimenting on animals is always morally wrong". Even though this attitude is considerably moderated when there are medical or environmental benefits, it is still a pressing issue.

If we are to engage young people effectively with science we should not try to separate the teaching of scientific knowledge wholly from its ethical and social context. It is essential that young people understand the principles of logic and the scientific method, and how to evaluate evidence. It is also essential that they understand how to use evidence and reasoning in the cause of ethics.

How can the classroom fruitfully combine science and ethics, in relation to animals, or the environment, or genetic manipulation? It is tempting to point out factual errors and misunderstandings, but just parading facts in order to dismiss ethical concerns is unlikely to be effective. However immature they may seem, feelings about Fluffy the rabbit for example, are the primitive foundation of an ethical response on which we should build, not simply reject.

In one successful intervention a class held a vociferous discussion on the ethics of animal experimentation. Their task was then to draw up a blueprint for legislation that would meet their concerns. In fact, to their astonishment, their blueprint was not as rigorous as the laws which currently apply. This was a major learning experience both about the actual "facts" of the situation, and also in how to reason about ethical issues.

Science teachers may reasonably argue that they are not trained in ethics, and this looks more like moral education than science, but activities like this also manifest the best scientific traditions of drawing conclusions from logic and evidence.

The history of scientific advance includes both ethically impeccable and ethically dubious practice. There are many opportunities to combine teaching the actual details of scientific advance, their human benefits and the context of how and why animals were used in the research. To take a human example: the science behind vaccination can be an enriched learning experience if teaching includes discussing the ethical dilemma of whether Edward Jenner should have used his own son as a guinea pig. By conjoining, not separating, the ethical and social context and the scientific details, a young person can learn to deal with both. As well, he or she is less likely to harbour an alienating worry that "scientists don't care" about things that matter to real people - and matter particularly, as we noted, to those girls who are most interested in science.

* Helen Haste is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bath, and Research Director of the Nestle Social Research Programme, which conducted the research

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