Ingesting Pesticides

Qiwi's post below reminds of a discussion I had in my Ethical Theories course a few weeks ago.

The professor said that it is legal to test experimental drugs on humans if certain conditions are met. One condition is that the compensation for participating in the experiment cannot be above a certain amount, because we are worried that poor people will feel pressured into becoming test subjects. High compensation is considered "exploitive," because it would force poor people into an undesirable situation simply because they are poor and have no other options.

Of course, the problem with this argument is that even if it is true, depriving poor people of exploitive opportunities makes them worse off. The only way this argument could work is if we believe that we know how to run poor people's lives better than they do, and we if know that it is in their best interests to not participate in this study. I argued that there is no reason to think we know how to run poor people's lives better than they do, nor do we know whether abstaining from participation would be better for them in the long run.

A second condition was that the purpose of testing the experimental drug must be to address a medical ailment or in some other way improve the health of the test subject. This requirement prevented scientists from testing the effect of pesticides on humans, because no one claimed that the pesticides would have a positive effect on the subject.

The utilitarian in me immediately objected. What difference does it make whether or not an experimental substance directly benefits the test subject? The purpose of a pesticide is to kill bugs that prevent crops from growing. More crops means cheaper food and less malnutrition and starvation. Although nobody claims that ingesting a pesticide will benefit a test subject directly, a pesticide may provide more benefits to society than an experimental drug. Drug manufacturers do not invest millions of dollars into research and development simply to benefit test subjects; they do so because they believe their drugs will benefit society. What practical difference is there between an experimental drug which may or may not have some small benefit for the test subject, and a pesticide which may or may not benefit society? Why should we value protecting test subjects from pesticides more than we value protecting society from expensive crops, malnutrition, and starvation?

Qiwi is quite right; there would be little to no perverse incentives to test experimental drugs on unwilling children if researchers were permitted to pay a market price for voluntary test subjects without fear of being labeled "exploitive." Just like minimum wage laws, prohibitions against exploitive compensation do little to help the poor, and instead hurt both poor people and society in the process.

Share this

The professor thought a

The professor thought a voluntary exchange where one party benefits from increased information about it's product and the other gets handsomely compensated for participating is exploitative?

There are times I don't miss college.

This ties in with another

This ties in with another story I've seen lately: the sale of human body parts. One news anchor gasped when told a cadaver could be stripped down and bring $200,000 for its various parts. "What can we do about this?" he demanded, in outraged tones.

Nothing. When government artificially restricts the sale of a commodity in demand, that people are willing to supply, or sets price controls to avoid "exploitation," a black market will arise. And the prices in that black market, reflecting scarcity and risk, will be very high. There's nothing all the governments in the world can do to stop a buyer and seller from making a deal, if they put a high enough personal value on the transaction.