Is animal research ethical?

Posted: by John Meredith on 16/02/22

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Is animal research ethical?

How can it be right to use an animal for research where we could consider it unethical to use a human being? This is a fundamental question that confronts anybody who benefits from research using animals. If we claim that causing harm to animals is sometimes justifiable where it would be unacceptable to inflict a similar harm or risk on a person, then it seems we are assuming that animals must, in some sense, have less moral value. But is that a justifiable assumption, or is it just a self-serving prejudice? Are there solid rational arguments for treating humans differently from other animals, or are we simply falling back on outmoded habits of thought, a smokescreen that helps us avoid looking the ugly truth of our actions in the eye?

Moral status of animals

In the past, the moral status of animals did not merit a great deal of consideration; raising questions about whether humans were entitled to exploit animals would have struck most people as quaint or absurd. The great moral philosopher Rene Descartes, for example, the man famous for the phrase cogito ergo sum - ‘I think therefore I am’ - believed that animals had no inner life at all, that they were essentially as lifeless as clockwork dolls, incapable of emotion, self-awareness, or even feeling pain.  

Such ideas seem laughable to us now. We take it for granted that most animals experience pain and many have complex emotional lives that can depend on relationships with other animals and which can deliver feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Since Descartes’ day, the growing study of animal behaviour makes this seem obvious, and cleverly designed experiments have confirmed what has been learned from observation, forcing us to acknowledge that sentience – inner life – exists in a great number of other species and sometimes at a very high level. 

But what implications does all this have for the moral consideration of animals? How should it affect the way we treat them? Philosopher Peter Singer, whose book Animal Liberation transformed the public debate on animal welfare, believes it should have deep and wide-reaching consequences. Singer argues that it is wrong to inflict harm on a person not because of any cosmic or biblical law about harm but because it is against that person’s interests as they themselves understand them. Considering moral questions in that light, he argues, explodes any idea that we can justify distinctions between individuals based on their sex or race, distinctions that have been passionately defended over many centuries. There are many differences between people of all kinds including, of course, both sexes, but they all have interests that are alike: an interest in avoiding pain or hunger for example. There is no rational basis for preferring the interests of any particular individual, or people of one race or sex class over those of another, that is simply racism and sexism. This is an idea has become widely accepted, if only recently, and it doesn’t seem particularly radical to us today, but Singer takes the idea a step further. 


If there is no non-arbitrary reason to prefer the interests of one human animal over another, how can there be any good reason to prefer the interests of a human animal over a non-human animal? Claims that humans are of special moral interest because of their intelligence or capacity for language or any of the many other things that have been suggested cut no ice.  A less intelligent human has as much interest in avoiding pain as a mathematical genius does, and the same goes for a dog, or a mouse, or a fish. To deny this, says Singer is to make a moral mistake akin to sexism or racism and he calls this way of thinking speciesism.

One objection to the argument from speciesism is that it implies that there can never be a reason to prefer the welfare of a human being over any other animal where considerations of interest are the same. This strikes most people as counter-intuitive to say the least. Jean Kazez, philosopher and animal rights activist, suggests a thought experiment. Imagine a dedicated vegan responsible for the care of ten young children. It so happens that famine strikes and the children are all in danger of starvation except that our vegan carer owns a cow. Would it be morally acceptable for the vegan to stick by her principles and refuse to slaughter the cow to save the children? If the answer is no, then there seems to be some problem with the speciesist position. It would probably not be considered acceptable to slaughter one of the children to feed the others, after all. So, our intuition is that there must be some foundation for our moral preference for a human over an animal, at least in some extreme conditions. Perhaps the intuition is that there is moral value in feelings of kinship because this is a necessary feeling in order to be a fully healthy human, to flourish as a human being. If that is the case, then, kinship, for humans, is a kind of interest in the Singer sense and one that overrides other interests. That may be why we don’t find it reprehensible when a mother prefers the welfare of her child over that of another.

The moral value of ‘kinship’ overrides speciesism

If kinship carries moral weight, then the speciesist argument loses ground and a possible justification for preferring animals over human beings in research emerges.  Medical research is an attempt to save human lives and reduce human suffering (it has similar benefits for animal as well, of course, but we can set that aside for now, for the sake of simplicity). If, as scientists argue, this can only be achieved with the use of an animal model, then we are morally entitled to prefer the use of a non-human animal, so long as kinship has the moral value we are claiming for it and the suffering and distress of the animals is minimised as much as possible.

But what if this is all just a complicated exercise in justifying what we want to do anyway, what if our moral intuitions are just wrong? It is easy to imagine a Singerian arguing, in the case of our starving children and vegan nanny, that the cow has as much moral standing as any of the others: it has the same interest in living and not suffering the pain of hunger as the others and, what’s more, it may be better able to survive the famine given its ability to eat vegetation that cannot sustain humans. In that case, it seems the advocate of speciesism must argue that they all should starve together in the interests of admirable intellectual rigour, even if it feels a little hard on the children.

Using utility to resolve moral conflicts

As usual, though, the situation is more complicated. Peter Singer and his followers recognise that there is often a conflict of moral interests and so we need a framework for finding a resolution. This framework should not be ad hocor arbitrary or based on scripture or any other culturally specific text or tradition but should be rational. Within Singer’s argument the rational moral grounding is provided by utilitarianism the ethical doctrine first proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century. Utilitarianism argues that when two actions are in conflict, the morally correct one is the one that delivers the most happiness for the largest number (Bentham called this ‘utility’ for obscure reasons). In other words, the morality of an action is decided by its consequences, not by the intentions of the actor or anything else. Applied to the problem of our starving infants and their increasingly paranoid cow, a utilitarian might argue that killing the cow is justified despite it having a similar interest in living to the children because the slaughter would maximise future happiness (utility). If they all die, happiness would be at zero, and if a child was sacrificed to save the others, that would reduce overall happiness because of the distress of the survivors at their loss, the suffering endured by the child selected to die, and the indifference of the cow. 

How do you measure happiness?

Problems with utilitarian ways of thinking immediately suggest themselves: how can happiness be measured? How can the ‘happiness’ of a mouse, for example, be weighed against a person, or any other animal? Must we consider a well-intentioned action that has bad outcomes immoral instead of just unfortunate? The literature goes into all these problems and more at great depth, but for our purposes, it is at least clear that a utilitarian moral framework allows for the use of research animals in some circumstances. The human happiness delivered by a successful medical treatment can be great and long lasting while any pain or distress caused to the experimental animals is kept to a minimum and is of very limited duration. In the utilitarian scales, this tips firmly towards an ethical justification of animal research. It is a surprise to many people that Peter Singer, the father of the modern animal rights movement, comes to the same conclusion, although he argues for stricter controls and more work to reduce and mitigate the use of animals. Even without appealing to concepts such as kinship, in other words, the concept of speciesism, perhaps the most formidable intellectual weapon aimed against animal research by protest groups, does not carry the day. It is perfectly possible to allow the moral value of an animal’s interests and still justify its use in research – even if that research causes the animal harm or distress – so long as the future outcomes maximise happiness. 

Animal rights arguments

The only significant ethical argument against animal research that remains is based on the idea of rights. Just as humans have inalienable rights, the argument goes, so do animals. According to this view, the use of animals for research can never be justified for exactly the same reasons that we cannot justify using humans. But argument from rights has many more problems than argument from interests: from where are rights derived? What specific rights do animals have? Should rights be protected even when this is damaging to the welfare of the animal? This last point is perhaps the most salient. If we allow an animal has a right to its freedom, say, not to be kept in captivity (one of the key rights usually claimed by activists), then we are not only committed to ending all ownership of animals, but to the immediate release of all domestic animals into the wild even if that were to the detriment of the animals’ welfare as it surely would be. The problems mount at every step. How can it be possible to reconcile a vole’s right to life with a falcon’s right to eat? What possible mechanism could be constructed to resolve such conflicts and how much irreparable harm to natural ecosystems would follow if we built one? Without answers to questions like this it is hard to see animal rights arguments as much more than rhetoric.

Maximising future happiness and minimising present suffering is enough for an ethical justification of animal research

The case for ethical animal research, then, does not need as much building as it might at first appear. None of the major philosophical arguments for animal welfare exclude the possibility of ethical animal research. The harm that is done to animals in well-regulated research environments serves a higher moral purpose: the reduction of death and suffering by disease and other disorders. Of course, this is only true if pain, suffering and distress, are minimised – as they are through animal welfare regulations in the UK and EU for example. These regulations also require the application of the principles of the 3Rs – but it is quite obvious, all other things being equal, that the use of a mouse in an investigation into cancer development, for example, will create less suffering than using a person for the same purposes. 

So, a utilitarian calculation of maximising future happiness and minimising present suffering is enough for an ethical justification of animal research even for tough minded opponents of animal exploitation such as Professor Singer. But maybe justification is the wrong word. 

Are we not morally obliged to use animals in research?

If, as the biological sciences are almost unanimous in claiming, we cannot have new medicines without some animal research, and if there are hundreds of devastating human illnesses that will continue to cause misery, pain, and heartache without those new treatments, should we not think of animal research as a moral obligation instead? It is difficult science to do, both technically and emotionally, but if we choose not to carry it out, we are effectively choosing to allow human suffering to continue in the future that our efforts today have the potential to reduce or eliminate. We don’t know which suffering we will be successful in mitigating when, but we can be certain that progress is being made. Remove animal research and we don’t not remove suffering, we simply transfer it from the animals now (where it is carefully controlled and minimised, very often to nothing) to future humans. That is the heart of the ethical case for animal research and one that needs to be better addressed by those who oppose it.

Last edited: 7 April 2022 12:16

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