Working with others, I spent much of the last year trying to get the Dane County Board of Supervisors to sponsor a study of experimenting on monkeys here in Madison, the "Monkey Experimentation Capital of the World." I learned a few lessons along the way.
One lesson was that the people we elect to represent us may hinder our democratic processes. In February, two concerned citizens and I met with County Board Chair Scott McDonell and asked him not to interfere with the legislative process of a resolution that would soon be introduced. He said that he saw no reason to.
Then McDonell undermined the process by encouraging the UW-Madison to create an alternative to the resolution, a planned series of quarterly "forums." He gave the UW an easy way out, which in turn gave some supervisors who could not debate the merits of the resolution an excuse not to support it.
Another lesson was that the UW's power to silence critics is formidable. Citizens had approached the County Board because state legislators were not interested in the monkey issue. Aides explained why: No state legislator in Dane County was willing to oppose the powerful UW.
The Dane County Humane Society chose not to endorse the resolution despite its mission to help animals. Years back, the society declined to take a stand on monkey experiments because it feared jeopardizing its partnership with the UW.
"We feel that we would experience a conflict of interest supporting you in this issue as we have an expansive association with the UW Veterinary School," the president of the society's board wrote me in 2006 (PDF). "We cannot in good conscience jeopardize this relationship."
But the most disturbing lesson was that few people even understand the central question: What makes it ethical or unethical to conduct injurious and fatal experiments on monkeys, who are similar to us in how they think, feel, relate to each other and suffer?
Some UWMadison researchers try to learn about Parkinson's disease by experimenting on monkeys, although the value of monkeys as a research model is limited because they do not get the disease. Researchers simulate Parkinson's by damaging monkeys' brains.
Damaging a monkey's brain outside a laboratory would be criminal cruelty. It's legal inside a lab because Wisconsin's anti-cruelty statute contains an exemption for researchers.
But the act itself is cruel, not humane. Many people feel that it is ethical anyway. Why? Because they believe people might benefit from it.
Think about that: An act of criminal cruelty is considered ethical just because we might benefit from it.
But self-interest is not a magic wand we can wave over any act to make it ethical. I want more money, but my financial self-interest does not mean that taking your money would be ethical.
Self-interest corrupts moral reasoning. Research has shown that people rationalize an unfair act as fair when it serves their self-interest. The UW's experiments on monkeys bring in $50 million each year. Researchers get labs, staff, publications, tenure, promotions and recognition. Of course the UW defends the research.
The UW's experiments on Parkinson's disease help us focus what I call the central question.
My wife has Parkinson's disease, a nasty, progressive neurological disorder. What she and I want more than anything else is a cure for this damned disease or at least better treatments for it. But we still oppose experimenting on monkeys, even if it might help her, because our self-interest does not justify harming others. Knowing the disease firsthand, we can hardly imagine a more cruel, selfish and immoral act than causing the symptoms of it in someone else.
UW researcher Paul Kaufman, the subject of a recent Isthmus cover story ("Man over Monkey," 7/15/10), claims that humans have a moral obligation to experiment on monkeys because they are "not us" and because we are superior to them. This is not an argument for moral action; it is an argument for exploitation. Brutal experiments on people (Jews, blacks, slaves, Chinese, Guatemalans, the poor) have often rested on "not us" arguments and claims of superiority.
UW animal research spokesman Eric Sandgren says that the benefits (to us!) outweigh the costs (to the monkeys!). But Sandgren does not understand the utilitarianism he invokes, and he cannot provide any data on costs and benefits.
Most important, he cannot explain why costs and benefits justify experiments on monkeys when they would not justify the same experiments done on people.
Chancellor Biddy Martin told me that "we are comfortable with the difference in species as long as there are benefits."
All the UW's arguments for experimenting on monkeys rest on the difference in species, but no one from the UW has explained why a difference in species is any more morally significant than a difference in gender, race, nationality, social status or intellect - or why harming others for our own benefit is ethical.
A monkey once went 12 days without eating to avoid giving an electric shock to another monkey. Monkeys may be superior to us in their respect for the Golden Rule. They must be very glad that they are "not us."
Rick Marolt is a college instructor, business consultant and photographer who lives in Madison.