Nearly 50 years ago, a now-infamous study by Stanley Milgram, Ph.D., revealed that most people would administer what they believed were painful shocks to another person if an authority figure ordered them to do so. The shocks weren’t real—but the test subjects didn’t know that. Most kept on administering “shocks” long after the supposed recipient began screaming in “pain” and asking to leave. Recently, a similar study closely replicated those findings. Psychology professor Jerry M. Burger found that 70 percent of test subjects would have continued to shock another “subject” beyond the point that they cried out in pain if they hadn’t been stopped.
Shortly after I heard about this study, I was reading PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk’s book, The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights. In it, she prints an excerpt from a great book by the late Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. That book explores the behavioral similarities between humans and animals, especially primates. In the excerpt cited by Ingrid, the authors talk about a sickening experiment in which monkeys were fed only if they pulled a chain that administered an electrical shock to another monkey who could be seen through a one-way mirror. Eighty-seven percent of the monkeys opted to go hungry instead of pulling the chain, and one refused to eat for 14 days. The authors write:
The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others. If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves—suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others—our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in non-humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others—even those who are not close kin. By conventional human standards, these macaques who have never gone to Sunday School, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a junior high school civics lesson—seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. Among the macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well?
Well, according to Dr. Burger’s study, we probably wouldn’t.
What do you think? If you were faced with being forced to hurt someone or starve, would you be as kind as a macaque? And should experimenters be allowed to conduct invasive, painful experiments on animals who probably wouldn’t treat them with the same disregard if the positions were reversed?