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Can Animal Experimentation Be Justified?

Zaid Shehryar compares two opposing views.

In his book Animal Liberation (1975), Peter Singer argues that the vast majority of animal experiments cannot be justified because they offer little new knowledge at a high cost of animal suffering. Singer also claims that such knowledge can be obtained by other means, without killing animals. By contrast, Carl Cohen offers a defense of animal experimentation. In his article, ‘The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research’ (available online), he argues that we have a strong obligation to carry out animal experiments in order to alleviate human suffering and extend human life. Here I will summarize both arguments, underscore potential weaknesses, and ultimately conclude that Singer’s position is more plausible than Cohen’s.

As a utilitarian, Singer grounds morality in the consequences of actions. Furthermore, he believes that a sufficient condition for a creature to have moral standing is its capacity to suffer, that is to say, to experience pain. The basic condition for this is sentience, the ability to experience sensations. Singer believes that, whenever possible, we should avoid causing unnecessary harm to sentient beings, and that many of the animals we experiment on evidently experience in this way. Although some animal testing has led to advances in medicine, Singer argues such progress can always be made in other ways. Adding insult to injury, animal experiments are often trivial or misconceived. Singer cites research going back to the nineteenth century. Most illustrative is a study that locked ten dogs in a hot chamber to induce heatstroke. This experiment caused great suffering to the dogs, and its main conclusion was that heatstroke victims should be cooled.

Singer argues that our willingness to tolerate such morally egregious behavior can be explained only by our ‘speciesism’ – an irrational moral bias against nonhuman animals analogous to racism. Singer goes further, asking why the interests of rational beings (us) should matter if the interests of non-rational beings (other animals) do not? He also wonders what special features human beings must possess to earn their exalted moral status. He argues that there is no morally relevant category that includes all humans but excludes all other animals. For instance, some animals are more intelligent than some people with severe learning disabilities; yet since it is immoral to subject these people to painful experimentation, it must also be wrong to subject these animals to it. Other proposed features allowing the moral superiority of human beings include our capacity for abstract reasoning, language, and introspection. Yet not all people possess these abilities – but it would still be immoral to subject them to painful scientific experiments. In fact, it is immoral to do so for the same reason that it is immoral to hurt nonhuman animals: because of the evil of unnecessary suffering.

Although Singer’s argument is strong, Cohen disagrees with it. He argues that animals have no rights. He claims rights exist only within a community of moral agents, because such rights can only be defended by agents who make moral claims against each other. Humans confront moral choices, and, unlike animals, we consequently lay down codes of conduct for ourselves. But in conducting research on animals, we are not violating their rights, Cohen claims, since there is nothing to violate, since no rights have been established by mutual consent. To state that all animals have the ‘right to life’ or to ethical consideration merely because they have interests is unwarranted. Similarly, obligations result from the relationships we form with other people. A teacher’s obligation arises from the role she plays within her community, for example. However, since animals are outside our moral community and lack such special relationships, their interests can be sacrificed for the welfare of people. Cohen also denies that the pleasures and pains experienced by animals require the same moral consideration as those of humans because animals lack autonomy and membership in the moral community. Singer’s charge of speciesism therefore fails, he says. Indeed, speciesism is ‘essential to right conduct’, since those who fail to make the relevant moral distinction between humans and nonhumans will fail to recognize their real moral duties.

Cohen’s argument is liable to criticism. Consider its syllogistic form:

(1) If an animal does not share our moral community, then it does not deserve our moral consideration.

(2) Animals are excluded from our moral community.

(3) Therefore, animals are not due moral consideration.

Although it is logically valid, this argument is not good. Both premises (1) and (2) are false. First, it is not demonstrated (or true) that those outside our moral community are excluded from our moral consideration. If that were so, human cultures with sufficiently different and far-away traditions would not be entitled to our moral consideration. Being not under our moral consideration, they would then be entitled to conduct any kind of atrocity without being liable to moral criticism from us. That is an untenable conclusion.

Second, it is not the case that nonhuman animals are excluded from our moral community. Cohen might argue that animals are not moral agents: perhaps – but it’s important to remember that under his definition of ‘moral agency’ (as being an acknowledged part of a moral community), neither are many humans. Most people are simply doing their best to navigate their environment with limited information and inchoate moral instincts. Not everyone has time to study ethics, epistemology, or the human condition. Some folks live like bears, apart from the rest of humanity, eating berries and salmon, trying their best. Yet they are still worthy of my consideration. They are conscious, after all, just as I am. They can be happy, and they can suffer.

Since the evil of suffering is the most salient feature in this debate, Singer’s argument is decisive. So we should stop experimenting on animals.

© Zaid Shehryar 2023

Zaid Shehryar is a philosophical medical researcher from Brooklyn, bridging the realms of philosophical thought and scientific inquiry.

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