What do we mean by ethics?

In the context of animal research and testing, 'ethics' encompasses the 3Rs, the harm-benefit assessment and wider issues concerning what, all things considered, should be done.

Ethics is a system of moral principles that includes ideas about right and wrong, and how people should (or should not) behave in general and specific cases.  The term is used to describe ways of life (for example, Buddhist or Christian ethics) and within professional codes of conduct (as in the Declaration of Helsinki for medical ethics and the code of conduct for veterinary surgeons in the UK). It is a component of research integrity and many scientific journals now have ethical guidelines.

The practical application - 'doing ethics' - provides a framework to help decide what it is 'right' to do when faced with dilemmas involving competing interests. For example, whether a research project should go ahead that could benefit humans, animals or the environment, but would cause pain, suffering or distress to experimental animals. Decisions like these are usually made through a system of ethical review, involving critical assessment of all the available evidence, taking account of different values and perspectives.

A common belief is that 'doing ethics' just means applying the 3Rs, but this is not the case. Harms must be identified and minimised (as in the R of refinement) but benefits must also be critically assessed. There are often wider ethical issues that also need to be considered. For example, is it always 'right' to seek new medicines for conditions that can be treated using non-medical interventions, such as social prescribing or social policy measures? Do research groups liaise enough with clinicians and patient groups, to check whether the outcomes of each project would be wanted and needed? The answers to questions like these are important for animal and human welfare, and the greater good, yet these wider ethical issues are rarely addressed. Committee members can be mindful of this when reviewing project applications and when participating in general discussions about practice at the establishment.

There are also general ethical questions to identify and consider from a 'local' perspective to help develop the Culture of Care. Examples include whether to pursue particular research directions, the emotional wellbeing of staff required to kill animals, whether to use certain species, or whether the use of some invertebrates should be reviewed locally in the same way as 'protected' species (for more examples see section 9 of the RSPCA/LASA Guiding Principles for AWERBs (PDF 1.76MB)). Stimulating these kinds of discussions is one role of the UK AWERB, and similar bodies in other countries, but this function is often neglected (see The AWERB as a Forum for Discussion PDF 2.83MB)).

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