Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

April 17, 2008

Ask the Ethicist: Animal Testing

by @ 7:57 PM. Filed under Ask the Ethicist, Autonomy, Biotechnology, General, Healthcare Politics, Medical Science, Personhood, Research Issues, Theory

tgirsch of Lean Left (and my own blogfather!) writes:

I’m interested in the issues surrounding animal testing. I’m certainly not a member of the PETA crowd or anything, but at the same time, I’d certainly think we should keep such testing to a minimum, using it only where it’s necessary, useful, and relevant. But I honestly don’t know what all the issues are.



Thanks for the first-ever “Ask the Ethicist” blog post!

And now, what about animal testing? Just to get the ball rolling, here are some relevant issues:

1. What makes using animals in labs worthwhile?

Animals are generally used for lab tests for several reasons: first, much basic biological research concerns animal biology, for which the relevant animals are obviously the best model, and it is possible to study animal subjects in the lab without endangering the wild population of the same animal; in the case of research relevant to humans, animals may still be preferred because statistical analysis requires large sample sizes, which are easier and cheaper to achieve with, say, gerbils than with humans; testing may be invasive, painful, dangerous, or fatal, which again is more convenient with animal models than with humans, unless you’re running a Nazi concentration camp or a US prison; animals can be subjected to experimental regimens, including drugs, with unknown safety or side effects; animals can be used for inevitably fatal or harmful procedures such as the development of new surgical techniques or the deliberate creation of wounds or diseases for the testing of treatments; animal models can be biologically or genetically tailored to the specific research protocol to produce a uniform test sample; animals can be reproduced in the lab to increase the population with a rare condition, making it easier to test; animals are simply easier to control and don’t inject their personalities into the test procedure.

These benefits are predicated upon two assumptions: that animals are good models, biologically, psychologically, or sociologically, for humans, and that it is permissible to do things to animals that would not be permissible in humans. If both those assumptions are true, then animal testing obviously brings great benefits. Any treatment or procedure that is not tested on animals will have to be tested on humans alone, without preliminary indications that it is safe. If the assumption that animals are good biological models for humans is not true, that undermines the value of such testing and hence its moral justification. If the assumption that it is permissible to harm animals in certain ways is not true, that would prohibit types of research involving that harm, even if it were to be beneficial to humans.

2. What problems are there in using animals in labs?

An important problem is that the animals may not always be good models for humans after all; the literature is filled with examples of drugs that passed safety and efficacy testing in animals and were useless or dangerous in humans, and there are other examples of drugs that are safe in humans but dangerous in animals, and still other cases where drugs were safe in some animals but not in others, making the question of human modelling ambiguous. This is why animal testing is a preliminary step in development of human treatments, but human testing is still required. Some have suggested that this means animal testing can be done away with entirely, since it does not definitively prove a treatment will or won’t work, and does not prevent exposing humans to uncertainty anyway.

Aside from that practical issue, the moral assumption mentioned above is the focus of this discussion. Obviously, to the extent that it’s an open question whether animal tests are morally permissible, those tests are problematic – they may be a source of moral harm (to the animals), not a means of avoiding it (for humans).

3. What controversies arise in considering moral criticisms of such use?

Is it true that it is morally permissible to use animals for procedures that it would be immoral to perform on humans? That is, do animals have some lesser claim on moral protection than humans do? Do they have no moral claims at all?

How do we determine which moral claims take priority, and how does species identity enter into that issue? Why do we accord animals any moral claims at all (such as a right not to be mistreated), and why do we not accord them the same moral claims as humans? What standard do we use to determine such questions, and why that one?

4. What are some relevant moral issues underlying these arguments?

Leaving practical considerations aside, the question at the center of this topic rests on the issue of moral standing: what entities have moral interests, or a claim to moral consideration, and why? How do we mediate conflicts between entities that each have some certain level of moral standing?

There are simplistic moral arguments favoring animals, based on assertions of religious, emotional, or otherwise idiosyncratic personal values – that is, some people simply feel an affinity for animals, hold religious beliefs prohibiting harm to animals, or somehow feel that animals are “citizens of the earth” or “living creatures” and that that fact confers moral status sufficient to prohibit harmful treatment. Others assert a moral value to the natural world, such that it is immoral to destroy part of the natural environment because of its inherent moral worth (rather than because it is useful, or valuable, or necessary for life). The problem, of course, is that these are non-starters for anyone who happens to hold different beliefs or values – and therefore non-starters as policy because our policies cannot be parochial or arbitrary and carry compulsory moral force.

Thus, the assertion of animal interests generally follows some analysis of the moral status of animals that makes harming them a morally significant act.

That can be an argument to the effect that animals are moral persons with equal claim to moral interests, compared to humans. Jeremy Bentham argued that this was an inevitable consequence of utilitarian morality over 100 years ago, and Peter Springer has resurrected that line of reasoning in a way that has been influential in the current animal-rights movement. To make this argument, you have to define the threshhold for personhood fairly leniently. For Bentham, it was merely the capacity to experience pain. (“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”) From this perspective, any creature that can consciously experience pain is a full moral person, whether or not they have any other mental functions – so birds, fish, and of course all mammals are morally equal. This is why Singer promotes vegetarianism, and why some animal-rights advocates are against pet ownership as a form of slavery.

You can also argue that animals have lesser moral status than humans, but are still due some degree of moral consideration. On this ground, it might be permissible to use animals in some ways that did not cause suffering, but perhaps not to kill them, or to do so only when a comparable benefit to humans was expected. This argument would be grounded on a definition of personhood that required capacities beyond those of most animals – for instance, the possession of a unique sense of self-identity, or perhaps some kind of higher reasoning function. If animals have some, but lesser, moral status, then at the least we must alter our animal-handling practices to ensure that they are not excessively cruel, and perhaps we might have to cut out some practices as well – but a wide variety of common behaviors toward animals would still be tolerated, possibly including farming or killing them, or conducting research on them, under specific guidelines.

Finally, you can argue that animals are not moral persons and are thus due no moral consideration at all – they can be treated as if they were inanimate objects, such that the only considerations against using or killing them would be practical ones (maintaining species diversity, stabilizing the food chain, etc.). One might also work in some sort of protections against cruelty or gratuitous pain infliction, on grounds of a general duty not to be cruel, or for moral training purposes (avoiding developing bad habits), but not on the basis of the animal’s moral interests itself. Given this perspective, almost any animal-treatment practices that are not gratuitously cruel – including raising them for food or commercial exploitation, or even conducting relatively frivolous research on them – would be allowed, since there are no countervailing interests on the part of the animals to stand against them.

Note, though, that if we do not take the extreme abolitionist position, then whatever view of animals that we do take will impose at least some limits on our behavior. If we think animals have limited moral claims, there will still be some things we cannot do to them, but, since they stand at a lesser moral plane than humans, there will always be some things we can do to them. How far those limits go in either direction is open for debate, but most people in this position would agree, for instance, that it is wrong to torture animals for fun, but not wrong to use them in medicine to save human lives. Narrowing down those extremes is what the continuing debate is about (if not torture, what about forcing them to perform under stress in rodeos?; what about performing under less stress in circuses?; what about being owned as pets?; if medical uses of animals are allowed, what about medical research?; what about cosmetics research?). Even if we hold that animals have no moral claims per se, respect for suffering as suffering ought to impose at least some check on what we can do to animals capable of experiencing pain.

So, the debate over animals incorporates the debate over the proper definition of moral personhood. It also rests heavily on empirical questions about the degree to which they can feel pain, the degree to which they exhibit emotions or consciousness, and our interpretation of their various behaviors in that regard. This debate thus parallels, and both influences and is influenced by, identical debates taking place regarding humans in the context of abortion, stem-cell research, the treatment of newborns, and end-of-life treatment. It has unique elements, too, in that animal personhood must obviously be of a different type from human personhood, and convey different privileges even if that personhood is recognized (i.e., saying that animals have moral interests does not require saying that they should be able to vote, enter contracts, marry human beings, etc.; conversely, saying that they should not or cannot do those things does not by itself imply that they are not persons).

Species is an important issue in animal-rights debates, too. Animal-rights advocates often accuse opponents of “speciesism”, meaning making arbitrary moral distinctions between living things on the basis of their membership in one or another species. However, it is seemingly impossible to articulate an argument that establishes equal moral personhood for all living things, or even just all animals, without any discrimination between species whatsoever, especially given the huge number of invertebrate or microscopic species that very obviously possess no conception of the moral life; taking that position seriously would also lead to absurdities such as claiming that it is morally wrong for obligate carnivores to eat prey. So, we must make distinctions on grounds of moral personhood, and since species identity more or less determines moral capacity, as a baseline at least, those distinctions are going to include or exclude entire species, possibly with the exception of a few borderline cases where the evidence is more ambiguous. Thus, most animal-rights activists wind up drawing a line somewhere, allowing that it is permissible to make use of species with lesser mental capacity than those at the borderline, but that there are limits regarding species with greater capacities. Many attempt to draw this line to include some ape species; some go farther to include a larger range of mammals; Singer famously draws it provisionally somewhere among the Molluscs.

5. If we are not extreme abolitionists on animal-rights issues, how do we decide what kinds of treatment are justified and which are not?

It must be recognized that the different things we do to animals have different types and degrees of consequences, and also that the different benefits we derive from our treatment of animals are likewise of differing kinds and degrees of significance. The greater the human benefit derived, the greater justification there is for the process of obtaining that benefit; the more harmful the treatment required to obtain it, however, the less justified it is. The general approach to such situations is a “balancing” test of degree of harm vs. degree of benefit.

For this reason, much animal-rights activism has – reasonably enough – focused on particularly egregious harms to animals in pursuit of seemingly trivial benefits to humans: for instance, hunting rare species only for luxury products or gourmet foods; the cruel confinement of veal calves only to produce tender meat; or the use of irritating or deadly chemicals on animals to test cosmetics or soaps. But we do not have a system for establishing absolute degrees of harm or benefit (how bad is it to be immobilized in a pen or cage? how good is it to eat plump chickens or tasty veal?), so we cannot say with authority exactly when the balance of harms and benefits tips in different cases.

Notice, in this discussion, that there is no clear moral distinction between the use of animals in medical testing and their use in other ways – and so I have broadened your question to include all forms of use of animals. The “balancing” approach described above merely asks how much benefit – not of what kind, and likewise how much harm – not why it is inflicted. To most moral philosophers, there is nothing inherently “better” about research to save lives than research to invent cosmetics, except that the one outcome is obviously more significant in the lives of, and more highly valued by, the people benefiting; similar remarks apply to the different kinds of harms inflicted upon animals. Because medical care is so important, medical research on animals is most likely easier to justify than less-vital uses of them, but only for that reason. There may be medical treatments whose benefits do not justify the toll taken on animals to develop them (in light of the fact that most candidate drugs or procedures do not successfully emerge from development, and the few that do still require extensive human testing, it may be that almost no new medical discoveries truly justify the many thousands of animal deaths required to produce them – if we place a sufficiently high value on animal suffering). Then again, there may be less-important non-medical benefits that are justified, if the role of animals in producing them was minimal enough. So, in considering “testing”, we have to remind ourselves that animal use involves much more than the development of new and important medical procedures; it involves a vast amount of unsuccessful medical research and even more non-clinical basic-science research, developmental testing of consumer products (most of which are not exactly in the cure-for-cancer category), and the use of animals to test products and procedures for the farming or treatment of animals themselves. In addition, there are non-testing uses of animals such as for the production of industrial products and materials, hunting, entertainment, and pet-keeping, and the vast animal-based food industry, that must be taken into account.

These remarks may help outline the scope of the problem. You’ll notice no answers are given! But thanks for a great and timely question. The ball is now in the readers’ court!


Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer
The theoretical Bible, and foundational text, of the animal-rights movement.

Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum
A new treatise by two well-respected academics.

Should Trees Have Standing? And Other Essays on Law, Morals, and the Environment, by Christopher Stone
The issue of moral and legal rights for non-person entities, from a legal perspective.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan
A review of the entire US food-production industry, including problems with animal-based foods.

Animal Rights“, “Animal Welfare” and “Animal Liberation Movement“, Wikipedia
Decent surveys of the distinct concepts and their histories, with lots of links and references.

Animal Rights: An E-mail Debate between Peter Singer and Richard Posner“, at Slate
An epistolary debate between Singer and a well-known conservative US Federal judge.

4 Responses to “Ask the Ethicist: Animal Testing”

  1. tgirsch Says:

    Interesting stuff, even if it asks far more questions than it answers.

    As I side note, I’ve heard good things about The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Perhaps a review would be in order.

  2. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Well, you’re the guest-poster. You were supposed to supply the answers!

    As for Omnivore, I’ve also heard good things. I have to admit I put it up there largely on the strength of its reputation. I have a copy but it’s among the million things I have to get around to reading. Maybe I’ll move it up the pile a bit.

  3. Kathrine@Participating in Clinical Trials Says:

    Animal testing would be much preferable compared to humans. because we are humans. I’m not also saying that they are just animals too.

  4. Otunba Ganiyu Says:

    Animal testing should be internationally outlawed, it is not an issue of choice but rather a necessity. As an animal activist and moreover there are other ways to test a product rather than putting animal true horror. They are animals and we know that but still they have life and a right to fair treatment.

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