Of Mice and Moderna

by Mike O’Brien

I recently booked an appointment to be vaccinated. The provincial government here in Québec has opened up vaccine eligibility to people under 45 in 5-year tranches. 40-to-44-year-olds were able to log in to the health ministry’s web portal and book an appointment in a few minutes. A few days later, 35-to-39-year-olds were eligible, and few days after that, 30-to-34-year-olds, and so on and so on (to quote Zizek). I didn’t do much thinking about this decision. Within minutes of the portal opening I received two messages from friends, alerting me to hop on and register. The only consideration, besides getting the earliest booking possible, was which vaccine would be provided at which venues, and even that was a minor point.

Absent from my thinking was any question of whether or not I would get vaccinated at all. There is a growing concern about vaccine “hesitancy”, but this is still thankfully low in Canada relative to our (conservatively) 30% insane neighbours to the south. I have enough background in basic science and medicine to sort out the usual innumerate nonsense that underlies most resistance to vaccination. And while I do believe that there are nefarious, power-hungry cabals of conspirators perverting the workings of government, industry and public discourse, I don’t think that their schemes include putting mind-control chips into syringes. Why go to all that bother just to control people’s minds? That’s what media monopolies are for.

In a few years, we may discover that the vaccines have worrying side-effects. Or they may unexpectedly result in whiter teeth and clearer skin. From the limited vantage of the present moment, however, vaccination is an undeniably better bet for continued good health on the individual level, and so obviously beneficial to collective health that many sober minds might countenance making it obligatory. (I am on the fence about this. For context, note that I am also ambivalent about dispersing anti-mask protests with grapeshot. Happy 200th, Monsieur Bonaparte).

The lack of equivocation and hesitation in this decision bears a curious contrast with how I think about other areas of my health.

I have gone to some inconvenience, bordering on mild grief, in the last few years in order to align my diet with my moral inclinations. I began with vegetarianism because it is fairly straightforward. Is it meat? Don’t eat it. Easy peasy. Veganism came later, and is much less straightforward. Cheese is the most obvious sacrifice, and dearest. Eggs and dairy are a more insidious problem, and finding alternatives makes every meal an experiment. (Ground flax and oat milk, respectively, are the best options at the moment.) Add to this a gluten sensitivity, and the majority of what normal people eat at normal eating places becomes verboten, either by conscience or digestive amour-propre.

The idea behind ethical veganism is that, even if animals are not slaughtered for meat, the conditions under which their renewable outputs are obtained are morally unacceptable. This extends to renewable non-food products obtained from animals, like wool. The raising of animals, being a messy affair rife with surplus biology, also requires the disposal of individual animals who don’t have a role in the business model. To wit, while most milk goats are better treated than most milk cows, male goats have no economic leverage by which to secure their lives. I miss feta. (Insofar as resources like leather, fur and bone require the killing of animals, I think these items ought to be seen as violating vegetarian strictures as well as the more demanding standards of veganism.)

Of course, the fact that something was extracted or exuded from an animal body is not the only indicator that its production inflicts harm and death on animals. Consider the following example. I recently looked at some very nice traditional pocket knives, with half a mind to buy one. (Some people buy superfluous sneakers, some people buy superfluous cars. I buy superfluous sharp things, and superfluous sharpening things.) The sticking point was that the handles were embellished with pieces of antler, presumably from dead stags. This is an easily identifiable no-no. Consider the alternatives to such material, however. Rare wood? Of course not. Gotta conserve those trees. Micarta (a handsome composite of layered fabric, set in phenolic resin)? The product of a world-poisoning plastics industry. What if there was an option to get handles made of some non-toxic, recycled, fully ethical wonder-substance (hemp stalks and post-consumer bubble gum perhaps?). Being a knife, there’s still the matter of the steel, the production of which involves all kinds of ecologically destructive activity, not least of which is the consumption of vast amounts of energy. “There is no ethical consumption under industrialism”, one might lament.

What does this have to do with vaccines? Well, like just about any medication, the coronavirus vaccines have been created at the expense of much suffering and death on the part of captive animals, who never consented to their sacrifice and whose specific kin will not benefit from the fruits thereof. I can forego the purchase of a fancy pocket knife, because I already have one. Ok… twelve. But I do not already have a vaccine, and I need two. “Need”, in the sense of meeting my desire for a certain degree of protection against a certain danger. Society also needs me to get vaccinated, in order to reduce the likelihood that I infect others. I may be playing the knavish moral sceptic here, pointing out that any “need” is just a “want” that we are unwilling to abandon. I don’t really “need” to breath, do I? It’s not like suffocation and death aren’t perfectly available options for my future, after all. I’ve just decided that they aren’t within the range of options that I find acceptable. Ditto for social needs. Do we really need to prevent millions of preventable deaths, after all? Wouldn’t it be more honest to say that we are just very inflexible in our preference for not having millions of excess deaths? (good Lord, is that what the inside of a Republican’s head sounds like?).

Once you abandon the idea of externally real, universally binding moral imperatives, all this “need” business gets a bit squirrely. Moral decision-making becomes a matter of self-consciously building a set of rules that best fits one’s beliefs and intuitions, under conditions of terrible, inescapable freedom. Leaving space for self-care, even for self-preservation is a creative indulgence, akin to a composer’s adding a few bars of riffing because, well, it’s her composition and that’s her prerogative. The survival instinct, already suspect as a biological concept (indeed, many species would cease to propagate if their individual organisms sought to prolong their own lives above all else), is no clue that minimal self-saving enjoys any special status in ethical deliberation. Of course, it would be monstrous to remove the presumption of a special right to self-preservation from our ethical thinking, but monstrosity exists in relation to some natural norm, and naturality is not self-evidently a basis for morality.

Vegetarians are sometimes rebuffed with questions such as “well, would you still refuse meat if you were starving to death?”. Some might say yes, and mean it, though they may overestimate their selflessness. Others might say, “well, no, but everything is situational, and I expect that my own situation will continue to be one in which I can maintain these principles without dying”. My own stance is rather pragmatic, in the common sense. So long as I don’t add to the aggregate demand for animal products, I’m in the clear. On the rare occasions where I encounter meat that will, with 100% certainty, go to waste unless I eat it, I will eat it. If the carnivores for whom it was prepared can save it for later, I don’t eat it, because leftovers displace fresh meat in their consumption habits. As the years pass, I may acquire the same perspective voiced by long-time vegans and vegetarians who claim to no longer see meat as food. Culturally-acquired disgust is a near-universal feature of human diets. For now, though, meat still looks, and smells, and tastes like food. So do eggs, milk and cheese. The parts of me that are disgusted by their production are not the parts most intimately involved with eating them.

(As for the “starving in the woods” scenario, if my survival depends on it, Bambi’s going down. And Thumper for dessert. I’m sure the experience would haunt me, but, unlike dying, I could learn to live with it. But… Socrates said philosophy is preparation for death, and I’ve studied a lot of that, and aren’t we all, existentially, learning to live with our own deaths? Heavy stuff, man.)

I’ve gone hungry, or rather, less sated, on occasions where plant-based options were meagre, though usually the absence of gluten-free options were at least as much of a factor. Were I to forego vaccination because of moral objections to animal testing, would such a decision be closer to going hungry for a single meal, or to starving to death in the woods? I suppose it depends on whether I end up dying from Covid. There’s a middle zone in both cases, where I stay alive but suffer long-term effects that deprive me of my best life, either from malnutrition or “long Covid”. This is both more likely and more richly ponderable than a simple “fine/dead” dichotomy. Let’s compare and contrast (invoking my humble scholastic essay-writing beginnings):

I presume that I can meet all my nutritional requirements without animal products. I do not presume that I can avoid Covid-related ailments without vaccination (if I return to “normal” life, that is).

I am willing to forego meat, eggs and dairy for the rest of my life, in objection to the animal suffering involved in their production. I am not willing to forego social living for the rest of my life in objection to the animal testing that produced the vaccines.

I accept a responsibility to those animals who will be harmed by my adding to the demand for their bodily resources. I also accept a responsibility to those people who may be harmed by my (hypothetical! don’t send me letters) refusal to be vaccinated.

I know very well that there are myriad other ways in which I harm sentient beings and the ecosystems on which they depend, besides these two isolated matters. I use more electricity than I need to. By contributing to this online publication, I am complicit in the increased energy consumption of dozens, perhaps scores, of readers. I am deliberately un-curious about what moral liabilities remain in the products I still consume. I like a nicely finished piece of rare wood. But there seems to be some special responsibility that comes from the use of captive beings, whether or not this translates to some increased quantity of harm in the most actuarial consequentialist terms.

There is hope, however. As my regular readers (do I have such people? They must be miserable…) might expect, this hope is couched in the most dismal, depressing terms. I don’t expect Covid to disappear anytime soon. I don’t even expect Covid to be “the Big One” of my lifetime, or perhaps even of this decade. At a bare minimum, regular vaccinations and re-vaccinations will continue for many years to come. Maybe the first round of vaccines had to use animal testing. “Had to”, in the qualified sense of “need”, as discussed above. But the shock of Covid has shaken loose some calcified assumptions about how public health measures “have to” proceed. Ordinarily, animal testing “has to” precede human trials, but in the case of Covid vaccines there was some overlap between later stages of animal testing and early stages of human testing. (This led to some misleading reports of researchers “skipping” animal tests, which were presumably intended to bolster anti-vaccine scare-mongering, but would have been good news for vaccine-hungry animal lovers.

There are a few reasons why animal testing might be further reduced or even eliminated. One would be extreme expediency, skipping directly to human trials. Another would be if the condition to be treated was so human-specific as to lack any usefully analogous case in other animals. Yet another would be that the animals upon whom drugs are tested are given even the most minimally non-zero status, such that their suffering would have to be justifiable by some benefit to the animals themselves. I think that all these are less likely than a scenario in which computer simulation and lab-grown organisms are developed to a point where they simply do a better job than animals of modelling effects in living humans. Making animal testing more burdensome, through restrictions and political pressure, might accelerate the adoption of alternatives, but it seems unlikely that concern for the welfare of animals would be the deciding factor.

Imagine, however, if computer simulations and organs in vats were not viable alternatives. Imagine also that harmful, indeed fatal, testing on animals was no more of an accepted option than testing on prisoners, or orphans, or people kidnapped from a neighbouring postal code. Imagine if we restricted the burdens of furthering human health to members of humanity. How would this burden be distributed? Could we accept the sacrifices of suicidal or desperate people? Would financial compensation for next of kin, or other beneficiaries (perhaps charitable endowments) be a step too far? Could we tie eligibility for pharmaceutical treatments to enrolment in some kind of research lottery? This evokes ghastly sci-fi scenarios, of course, but arguably no more ghastly (or vast) that the current enterprises of animal testing. The suffering of animal test subjects, whose lives bear little to no value in law, is an un-costed input to the production process. A thousand monkeys, a million mice; what’s a million multiplied by nothing? Certainly less than any multiple of human life.

Would I volunteer for such a scheme? Probably not, if I had the option of being a free-rider. Would I complain about being born into system where such a scheme was already in operation? Probably not, because it seems like a straightforwardly just arrangement. Of course, the rich would buy their way out, and the poor would bear the worst of it, and there would still be debates about which treatments were sufficiently important or of sufficiently wide application to justify being tested. But at least such a system would be defensible on the species-identity of its risk-takers and profit-makers, unlike the current system, in which the greatest sacrifices are made by beings which cannot even conceive of the reasons for their suffering and destruction, let alone benefit from it. We use animals because we can, and we can because we allow ourselves to.

I will still take my shots, after a breakfast of gluten-free cereal, and vegan milk, and coffee transported from thousands of miles away on ships burning the dirtiest oil in the world. Hey, I have to be awake to be woke, amirite? I accept that, without religion or ethical naturalism, making a moral life for oneself is essentially a vanity project. I want to make of myself the kind of person who leaves the natural world, and its other sentient inhabitants, unharmed. I want to be that kind of person for a long, long time. I don’t think martyrdom would be the appropriate move at this juncture, and besides I have some things I’d like to finish first. Lord, grant me ahimsa, but not yet.