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Animal Wrongs?

Nicholas Everitt reviews a new book on Animal Experimentation edited by Robert Baird and Stuart Rosenbaum.

Each year in British laboratories, millions of animals are killed. World-wide, the figure runs to tens of millions. Before they are killed, many of these animals are subjected to violent and painful treatment. Rabbits, for example, have liquids dripped into their eyes in toxicity tests. Since rabbit eyes are unable to water in the way that human eyes do, the rabbits have no natural mechanism for flushing out noxious substances from their eyes, and hence seek to scratch with their paws. To prevent this, they are bolted into a frame which holds their head rigid and inaccessible to movements with their legs and paws. In other experiments, monkeys wearing helmets have been repeatedly beaten about the head until they were concussed and sustained heart and brain damage. Other animals are routinely blinded, burned, paralysed, electrocuted, given epileptic fits, or infected with cancer, AIDS, and other lethal illnesses (1). The treatment in general is what would rightly be regarded as loathsome and barbaric if it were found outside research institutions; and it is natural for any reflective person to wonder whether there can be any moral justification for it when it occurs within such establishments. It is to this issue that the collection Animal Experimentation is addressed.

About half the papers in this collection provide a range of possible justifications, some a good deal less plausible than others. Peter Harrison, for example, sets himself the task of trying to show that animals do not feel pain. He agrees that when confronted by what we normally think of as painful stimuli (electric shocks, blows to the body, etc), animals display behavioural responses (such as frantic attempts at flight) which we normally think of as indicating pain. But, says Harrison, they do not feel pain as we understand the term. His ground for this claim is that there is no evolutionary reason why natural selection should have given animals a pain sense, as distinct simply from a propensity to avoid or flee from dangerous stimuli. Since by contrast, humans beings have a power of free choice, which, he thinks animals lack, they have the capacity to override such avoidance or flight propensities, and hence need a more powerful goad to make them avoid danger, and this is supplied by their sense of pain.

Other writers, while not going so far as Harrison in denying that animals feel pain, nevertheless claim that animal pain is not sufficiently understood for anything to be done about it. Timberlake, for example, complains that criticisms of animal experimentation suffer from “the lack of an adequate definition of suffering” (p.71). But there is something disingenuous about such a charge. There are of course interesting questions to be raised about suffering, such as which creatures are capable of suffering, and what sorts of situation impose suffering on them (questions to which perhaps ‘a definition of suffering’ might make a contribution). But it would be absurd to think that recognising any case of animal suffering had to await the production of such a definition. We can rightly be certain that beating a monkey about the head until it suffers brain damage and dies does cause it pain and distress, even if we are unsure whether, for example, a female rat suffers if she is deprived of her offspring.

A prima facie more plausible line of defence of animal experimentation is taken by those authors who argue that although the animals do suffer, their suffering is outweighed by the benefits to humans. This broadly utilitarian line is the one taken in various forms by nearly all the defenders. One would think that it would be essential to this line of defence (a) to list specific benefits to humans which have been gained from specific experiments, (b) to show that those benefits could not have been obtained without causing pain and suffering to experimental animals, and (c) to attempt some quantification, however approximate, of the benefits and the suffering in order to show that the latter did indeed exceed the former. But curiously, only one contributor tries to do this. Robert Wright quotes an experiment in which mice were infected with a diarrhoea- inducing parasite as part of a search for a cure to a disease which kills up to 100,000 children in the Third World each year. The experimenter reckoned that he caused “around 10,000 to 20,000 mice weeks of diarrhoeal discomfort every year” – and also (which he omitted to mention) the deaths of the mice involved (the standard way of killing laboratory mice is by banging their heads against a table edge).

Whatever we think of this as a justification for the experiment quoted, Wright is obviously trying to do what needs to be done for those who pursue his sort of strategy. What he tries to do for one set of experiments is what needs to be done for each set of experiments; and it is a crippling weakness in the arguments of those who use this strategy when they omit details of this kind. After all, it would be perfectly possible for there to be a utilitarian justification for some animal experiments and not for others. The case has to be argued experiment by experiment .

There is, however, one way of sidestepping this requirement and that would be to claim that although animals do indeed suffer, their suffering always counts less than any suffering endured by humans. This is the line pursued in the contributions by Gray and Cohen. Gray argues that just as it is morally permissible of a mother to save her own child from a burning house even if that means letting another child in the house burn to death, so it is permissible for humans to protect their own species even at the cost of great suffering to other species.

But Gray’s argument can readily be seen to be unsatisfactory. In his example, the mother saves her own child at the cost of letting the other child die. In judging that this is permissible, we are surely not saying that the mother would be justified in saving her own child if the only way of doing so was by deliberately torturing and killing another child who would not otherwise be tortured and killed. But in the animal case, we are seeking to save a human life by torturing and killing animals who would not otherwise suffer in this way. Even if this is justifiable in some way or other, it cannot be justified in the way that Gray suggests: the analogy he draws is brokenbacked. Cohen tries a different tack. He seeks to show that some species are morally more important than others, with (naturally!) humans as the most important of all. His justification for this claim is that humans have many more morally relevant characteristics, and have them to a greater degree, than other species (he mentions such things as being morally autonomous and being able to engage in moral reflection). But it is doubtful whether considerations like this will do all the work that Cohen hopes. In the first place, it is clear that not all human beings do have these morally relevant features, and some do not have any of them. A new-born baby, for example, is not morally autonomous and is not able to engage in moral reflection. Would Cohen then approve of breeding human babies for experimentation and death in laboratories? He is silent on this issue, but it would be surprising if he regarded such a conclusion with equanimity. Secondly, it is not clear that if what we are considering is the legitimacy of inflicting pain and suffering on a creature, the relevant questions are “Is the creature autonomous? Does it engage in moral reflection?”, etc. Surely the centrally relevant feature of the creature is its sentience, its capacity to suffer pain. As Bentham famously remarked “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”.

So far, I have been focusing on broadly utilitarian defences of animal experimentation. But utilitarian considerations can also be invoked to attack experimentation, and the anthology includes some papers pursuing this line. The principle contributor here is Peter Singer, represented by two papers. Singer’s general line will be well-known from his other writings in this area. Taking for granted that animals are capable of pain and suffering, he argues that there is no other morally relevant feature that is possessed by all humans and lacked by animals in virtue of which it would be permissible to experiment on animals but not on humans. Many of Singer’s points are well-taken, but one cannot help doubting whether his utilitarianism really gives him enough resources for establishing the conclusion which he wants. If his objection is to the pain and suffering inflicted on experimental animals, then (as well as having to show that it is not counterbalanced by benefits to humans) he needs to ask himself the question whether all his objections would be met if all the animals used were anaesthetised during potentially painful procedures, and then were painlessly killed. His other writings make one suspect that he would not find this morally acceptable. But then he needs to find other grounds for judging experimentation wrong than just that it causes suffering to the animals. It is not clear either that his utilitarian arguments would show that animal experimentation is wrong, rather than that some forms of human experimentation (e.g. on the very young, on the comatose, on the totally senile, et al.) is permissible.

An alternative to Singer’s utilitarianism is provided by Tom Regan, who invokes the idea of animal rights, and whose contribution summarises the theme of his book of that name. What is wrong with animal experimentation and killing (says Regan) is not simply that it produces suffering, but that it violates the rights of the animals concerned. It is not entirely clear from his contribution what rights Regan thinks animals do have, but they apparently include a right to life and a right to be treated with respect. On this basis, Regan favours “the total abolition of the use of animals in science” (p.77, my emphasis). Benefits to humanity from animal experiments cannot in principle justify experimentation, any more than benefits to humanity can justify Nazi experimentation on Jews.

Regan’s line of argument, if it could be sustained, looks as lf it would be more powerful than Singer’s utilitarianism. But other contributors argue cogently that Regan’s position is mired in obscurities. In order to defend his claim that animals have rights, he makes the assumption that all subjects of conscious experiences have what he calls ‘inherent value’, and that all such subjects possess it equally. It is this which gives all humans and animals the moral rights that they have. But in her critique of Regan, Mary Anne Warren argues convincingly that Regan’s position needs but lacks some detailed account of inherent value (who has it? in virtue of what facts about a creature does the creature have inherent value? how precisely does inherent value generate rights? etc).

Even if these further details could be supplied, it is a little unclear what the precise implications are of Regan’s claims. If all animals have an equal right to life, what about the position of natural carnivores? The point here is not of course to make moral judgements about lions violating the right to life of the zebras they kill for food. It is to ask what role Regan’s theory assigns to us who are autonomous moral agents. In general, we think that if we see a person A killing a person B (violating B’s right to life, as Regan would say), then in so far as we can without extravagant risk to ourselves, we ought to prevent the killing from taking place. Is this an obligation on us which is waived if A is a natural carnivore and B is A’s natural prey? Does B still have a right to life? Or is it only a right not to be killed by humans? And what about carnivores (such as domestic cats) whom we feed on animals who have been killed by us? These considerations, of course, take us beyond animal experimentation as such. But then it is characterist ic of the debate about experimentation that the principles invoked both to defend and to attack it have application in other areas, and that part of the test of those principles is to see how acceptable their prescriptions are in those other areas.

As my comments have made clear, the articles in this collection raise more questions than they answer. But this is nonetheless an excellent introduction to the current issues and arguments about animal experimentation. The contributions are recent (most from the later ’80’s, and none earlier than 1980), and by their choice of contributors, the editors have been able to present the arguments as part of an on-going debate. Thus Singer’s position is criticised by Timberlake and Cohen; Regan is criticised by Cohen, who in turn is attacked by Hettinger; and so on. The range of views expressed is wide; and the level of argumentation, though widely variable, accurately reflects contemporary discussions in this field.

(1) For further details of the treatment of animals in research, see Richard D.Ryder, Victims of Science, National Anti-Vivisection Society, 1983.

© Nicholas Everitt 1993

Animal Experimentation : The Moral Issues edited by Robert Baird and Stuart Rosenbaum is published by Prometheus Books and costs £9.50 (paperback).

Nicholas Everitt lectures in philosophy at the University of East Anglia.

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