The ethics of animal research

Animal use has been a hotly contested moral issue for hundreds of years. In the 17th century René Descartes, a French philosopher, argued that animals were no more than automata and could not feel pain. This was rejected by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century who extended his utilitarian conception of rights to animals due to their capability to suffer. This was expanded by Peter Singer, in 1975, who wrote in Animal Liberation that arbitrarily treating humans above animals – particularly in marginal cases where animals may be as intelligent as young children or severely cognitively-impaired adults – was not justified.

Animal rights philosophy is distinct from proponents of animal welfare who argue that we must provide adequate conditions for animals in our care – a position held by the RSPCA among others. The scientific community has often been the driving force for these improvements, arguing that better conditions for animals was conducive to better, more replicable, scientific results.


Animal Liberation (Peter Singer) was an immensely influential book which discussed the ethics of animal use (including animal research). It is often considered the forerunner to the animal liberation movement. This is, perhaps, the core piece of literature on  animal rights philosophy. 
- Singer, P., 1995. Animal Liberation. 2nd Ed. London: Pimlico.

Do Animals Have Rights? (Alison Hills) is an objective assessment of the case for whether animals should have rights and what rights those should be. Hills discusses their ability of mind, whether all animals should be regarded as equal, and what that means. Hills concludes with a graded scale of animals rights. 
- Hills, A., 2005. Do Animals Have Rights? Cambridge: Icon Books.

The Case for Animal Rights (Tom Reagan) is another major piece of philosophical writing which argues for animal rights on the basis of their similar cognitive abilities. 
- Reagan, T., 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy (Wesley J Smith) takes its title from a quote from PETA president, Ingrid Newkirk. It is a useful book covering many issues of animal rights activism and philosophy. In Chapter 18, Smith creates his argument in favour of animal research on the basis of human rights and duties. 
- Smith, W.J., 2009. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. New York: Encounter Books.

The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice (Beauchamp et al.) investigates a number of difficult issues regarding the use of animals in society. Through 16 case studies, and plenty of ethical theory, the authors attempt to navigate the moral minefields involved. 
- Beauchamp, T.L., Orlans, F.B., & Dresser, R. Morton D. and Gluck J. 2008.  The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

An Odyssey with Animals (Adrian Morrison) investigates the relationship between humans and animals, and explains why efforts to halt animal research would be damaging to human health. 
- Morrison, A., 2009.  An Odyssey with Animals. New York: Oxford University Press

Online resources

Ethics (Pro-Test) looks at the question of whether animals have rights, concluding that their lack of understanding does not allow them to participate in the system of rights and duties. 
- Pro-Test.  Ethics. [online]Available at:

The ethics of research involving animals (Nuffield Council on Bioethics) is an independent report on the use of animals for medical science. Although it looks at the whole issue, it pays particular attention to the ethics, specifically in chapter three. 
- Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2006. The ethics of research involving animals. [online] London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Available at:

Animal Rights Beliefs (SR) provides a polemic disagreeing with Bentham’s basis of animal rights. It also investigates the question of whether animals should be considered “innocent”. 
- Speaking of Research. Animal Rights Beliefs. [online] Available at:

The Ethics of Animal Research (Simon Festing and Robin Wilkinson) provides an insight into the ethics of animal research, including a look at public opinion and the animal welfare regulations. It also has a useful and extensive references list. 
- Festing S. and Wilkinson R., 2007. The Ethics of Animal Research. EMBO reports. Available at:

The moral relevance of human intelligence (Dario Ringach) – this blog post by Prof. Ringach discusses the arguments made by animal rights activists about marginal cases – how do we compare the moral value of a baby, or brain damaged person to a mouse or monkey. 
- Ringach, D., 2012. The moral relevance of human intelligence.  Speaking of Research. [blog] 12 Sept, Available at:

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