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Pavlov’s Children

by Ronald Binnie

Ronald Binnie
MPhil/PhD in Visual Culture

Some people are highly sensitive to issues of justice and ethics: others have only a limited awareness of such principles.
Peter Singer
Practical Ethics, Second Edition

The ‘visual’ is at the core of my research, investigating the connectivity between emotional, cultural and political responses through our sensory and intellectual experiences of the world. This is specifically applied to our problematic relationships with the nonhuman in contemporary culture.

When humans do ‘wrong’, they are held to be responsible for their actions. When humans are held responsible for their actions, they are treated as moral beings or moral agents. Nonhumans are generally not held to be morally responsible for their actions. However, some humans also fall into this category such as children or those with mental impairment. They are defined as moral patients. Those who use nonhumans as experimental material often seek to justify such experiments by utilitarian claims that they will lead to beneficial discoveries for humans. If this is so there must be some consensus that humans and nonhumans are alike enough for any results to be valid.

In the past, attitudes to the use of humans and nonhumans were less about any perceived species divide or any consideration of the inherent value of moral beings. Thus a child could be seen as much as experimental material as a nonhuman subject. It is well known that Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936), experimented on nonhumans, specifically dogs in the 1890’s. Indeed the phrase Pavlov’s dogs and its associations with conditioned reflexes have entered popular culture. It is perhaps less well known that Pavlov undertook many similar experiments on children.

This work seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate concerning the validity and moral justification for experimentation on nonhumans, whilst examining the changing attitudes to what was once considered morally acceptable and testing our reactions to the ethical notion of the moral patient.

Pavlov’s Children (Detail)
Oil on canvas, (2012)

Date: June 20, 2012

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