Go to Home page <--

Unit One Ethics of Animal Use

This unit starts at the beginning by asking you to think about the human-animal relationship, both intuitively and in terms of basic ethical theories.

 

Readings:

Nell Kriesberg. “Introductory Ethics.” From Contemporary Science, Values and Animal Subjects in Research, 2003.

Before looking at the readings, or beginning the following discussion, take the “Survey on the Moral Status of Animals,” which will help you start thinking about your views on the status of animals. In the discussion we’ll refer to the survey and look at responses from other groups.

 

Thinking about the human-animal relationship

Some basic questions that arise when thinking about our relationship with animals include the following:

• What is the correct understanding of the moral status of animals?
• Which animals belong in the moral community (of humans)?
• What (if any) moral obligations do humans owe animals, and why?
• What (if any) are the morally relevant differences between animals and humans?

The last question is where discussions often start, not necessarily because that is the most rationale place to start, but because most of us have the intuitive sense that there is something that separates us from animals, and that that something is relevant to how we ought to treat them. Indeed, an acceptance of our traditional uses of animals necessitates a view that there’s something fundamentally different between Daisy, the cow (who most of us would cheerfully eat, if properly prepared) and Grandma. Each of the following, or a combination, has been suggested as a morally relevant difference that separates animals from humans:

• soul
• intelligence
• reason
• autonomy
• language
• creativity
• intent
• conscience
• emotion
• self-awareness
• capacity for suffering
• capacity for moral behavior

Even if one or more of the above justify exclusion of animals from the moral community, does that mean that we have no moral obligations toward animals? Imagine this scenario: You are on vacation in a pleasant riverside city that boasts moonlight tours by horse and buggy. As you approach the starting point, you see a man beating his horse repeatedly with a whip; you soon realize that there is no effort to move the horse forward, but simply a rampage on the man’s part. Few of us would not recoil from such a picture, and would judge that the actions of the man are clearly wrong. But why?

Some might argue that the man’s actions are wrong because it’s bad for the man, or because it promotes violence in other ways, or simply because it offends other people witnessing the event. But for most of us, senselessly beating a horse is also wrong for the horse’s sake, i.e., there’s something about the horse that’s worthy of moral consideration.

Surveys, such as the one you were asked to complete at the start of this Unit, are sometimes useful in helping to understand our relationship with animals. Over the years, we’ve used this survey with first year veterinary students at North Carolina State University to help them (and us) better understand their feelings about animals. More importantly, discussion of the responses stimulates critical thinking about the basis for judgments on the status of animals. The results are a limited sample, but are instructive.

The first question in the survey asks respondents whether they agree with the following statement: “Animals are just like humans in all important ways.” Over the years, 50-60% of veterinary students have agreed with this statement, either “somewhat” or “strongly,” and their comments have been instructive. “All important ways” is often interpreted to mean with respect to basic biology (e.g., the genetic code, possession of circulatory and nervous systems, reproductive drive, etc.) or basic needs for survival (food, water, shelter, etc.). Additional questioning often reveals that students are thinking of their companion animals when they respond, i.e., typically not earthworms, frogs, or rats. Those that disagree with the statement typically have a sense that there are fundamental differences between animals and humans, such as suggested by the bulleted list above; religious individuals, at least in the Christian tradition, see possession of a soul by humans, but not animals, as an obvious difference.

 

2000
 
2001
 
2002
 
2003
 

 

%

1. Animals are just like humans in all important ways

agree strongly
agree somewhat
disagree somewhat
disagree strongly
N/A

 

The second question asks whether respondents agree with the following: “An animal’s right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a human’s right to live free of suffering.” Perhaps not surprisingly, a large majority of veterinary students agreed with this statement, but note also that 10-15% disagreed. Why is that? The answer has to do with the issue of rights, which we discuss below, but also involves a basic question of whether living free of suffering is a right even for humans. As above, veterinary students typically are thinking in terms of their companion animals and, when asked their response if the “animal” is an antelope on the African plain, there is a predictable increase in uncertainty.

 

%

2. An animal's right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person's...

agree strongly
agree somewhat
disagree somewhat
disagree strongly
N/A

 

The third question provides an interesting contrast with the second, asking respondents if they agree with the following: “An animal’s right to live should be just as important as a human’s right to live.” The distribution of responses is interesting in at least two ways, i.e., the different distribution compared with the previous question on suffering, but also the number of students that still agree with the statement. One interpretation is that students don’t have a good appreciation about what constitutes a “right,” and we’ll discuss this further below.

 

%

3. An animal's right to live should be just as important as a person's...

agree strongly
agree somewhat
disagree somewhat
disagree strongly
N/A

 

We’ll look at the rest of the survey in the next section.

 

Ethical theories/frameworks

There are a number of ethical frameworks, or moral philosophies, which can help us consider rationally what the appropriate moral status of animals is. These frameworks represent the life’s work of many philosophers, and a simple introduction would easily occupy an entire course. In this unit, discussion will be even more basic, providing just a taste of how these frameworks work for ethical problem-solving. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an extensive section on “Animals and Ethics.” The following discussion has relied on the assigned reading, but also the Introductory chapter in the text by Orlans et al. (The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice, Oxford University Press, 1998.)

“The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

"There surely is ethical truth. If people did not believe that certain ways of behaving were morally better than other ways they would not bother arguing about right and wrong. But at the same time, ethics is intensely personal. Each of us must decide for ourselves what we think is right and wrong. The questions we find pressing and the answers we find satisfying often have a great deal to do with what we have experienced and what we feel most deeply." (J Tannenbaum. Preface. Veterinary Ethics: Animal Welfare, Client Relations, Competition and Collegiality, 2nd ed. Mosby, St. Louis, 1995.)

 

What is the ethical truth (see text-block) when it comes to using animals in research, or, for that matter, when using animals for any human purpose? Is it perhaps always appropriate to use animals, because humans have dominion over them, or is it never appropriate, because there really are no morally relevant differences between humans and (at least some) animals? A great deal has been written about what is the correct moral status of animals, and debate on the topic is by no means limited to recent years.

Rene’ Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher and scientist who held that animals were little more than machines, without minds and incapable of experiencing pain. This, of course, relieved humans of any direct obligations towards animals. Many other scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries acknowledged that animals felt pain, but those who experimented with animals justified inflicting pain based on a literal interpretation of man’s dominion over animals, in the context of the value/ importance of their work. Charles Darwin’s writings were influential in this debate, because his work emphasized the similarities between animals and humans rather than the differences.

It is useful to begin with discussion of two basic ethical frameworks, i.e., utilitarian and deontological. These not only provide a sharply contrasting way of looking at questions of right and wrong, but also are the bases for two of today’s most influential thinkers proposing a higher moral status for animals (i.e., Peter Singer and Tom Regan). Their approaches to the questions are very different, but their conclusions are in many respects similar.

Utilitarian theories are consequentialist, i.e., they are theories based on the consequences of an action. An action is right when it results in the greatest balance of good consequences (or the fewest bad consequences) for all affected parties; the basic principle is one of utility, i.e., to maximize good. The concept of balance is key to understanding this approach, because the correct action is based on a weighing of all the goods (and harms) for all stakeholders.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an early utilitarian who argued that animals deserved moral consideration because of their ability to feel pain: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” In other words, a proper balancing of goods and harms accounts for an animal’s ability to feel pleasure and pain. Peter Singer is a contemporary utilitarian who has argued strongly (e.g., in Animal Liberation) that human use of animals in research, and otherwise, is not justified if animal pain and interests are properly considered, and is due to “speciesism,” a prejudice, like racism, which humans hold against nonhuman animals.

Use of a utilitarian approach can result in conclusions that animals ought not to be used by humans in traditional ways, but it’s important to recognize that this same general approach may justify animal use, depending on how the goods and harms are weighed; this is a basic difficulty that many have with this approach. For example, in the area of biomedical research (research conducted to find the causes and cures of human disease), if the harms to animals (i.e., the experimentation, with or even without painful procedures) are judged to be no less than the harms that humans experience (as victims of disease), then the work is not justified. Singer and others also suggest that the benefits of research using animals are seriously overrated and, therefore, do not outweigh the costs to animals.

Most of us employ a consequentialist (cost-benefit) framework for many of our decisions. Scientists engaged in biomedical research, or other work with animals, typically place a high value on their animals, but a much higher value on the results that may be achieved. This view is supported by a long history of scientific advances, both medical and in our understanding of basic biology, which have depended on the use of animals. It’s worth visiting the web site of the Foundation for Biomedical Research to get a feeling for the magnitude of these advances.

Deontological theories are non-consequentialist; they rely on features other than consequences in determining right vs. wrong action. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the most influential thinkers in this area. His “categorical imperative,” to never treat persons as a means to one’s own ends, is in stark contrast to utilitarian approaches. Kant specifically excluded animals from this imperative, based on their lack of a rational will, but Tom Regan (e.g., The Case for Animal Rights) argues that (at least some) animals should be viewed the same way. Animals are “subjects of a life” and, as such, have inherent value that mandates respectful treatment. The conclusions from these arguments have critical implications for our view of animals and how they should be treated; this abolitionist philosophy means that it is wrong to use animals (at all) for our own purposes, just as it is wrong to use humans without their consent. In this view, then, it doesn’t matter what benefits may accrue from animal-based research, because animals should not be used as a means to that end.

Much of the current public discussion about the status of animals is focused on rights. This is not surprising, given society’s widespread preoccupation with rights language. (Interestingly, Singer has been described as the father of the animal rights movement, even though he is a utilitarian.) Some of the difficulties with rights language are illustrated by the survey results that we introduced above.

Questions 4-7 solicited information about whether it is “right” to use animals in several traditional ways. The distribution of responses from our veterinary student respondents shows some large differences in what constitutes correct treatment of animals, but the results also show that, with the exception of cosmetics testing, most support the use of animals in several important traditional ways.

 

%

4. Do you think the use of animals to test medical treatment is

always right
right sometimes
seldom right
never right
N/A

 

 

 

%

5. Do you think the use of animals to test cosmetics is

always right
right sometimes
seldom right
never right
N/A

 

 

 

%

6. Do you think the use of animals to teach (e.g., anatomy, physiology, pharmacology) is

always right
right sometimes
seldom right
never right
N/A

 

 

 

%

7. Do you think the use of animals for human food consumption is

always right
right sometimes
seldom right
never right
N/A

 

 

Question #8 asked specifically about whether animals have rights. Responses to this question are similar to those for questions 2 and 3, but seem at odds with questions 4-7, which ask about traditional uses of animals. For example, many students felt that animals had rights, including the right to live, but still indicated that it’s acceptable to use animals in medical research or for food. This view of rights differs from that of Regan and, with additional discussion, it is apparent that “rights,” to most individuals, means the “right to humane treatment” or something similar. This view is probably not a “rights” view at all, properly understood, but it does begin to get at the meaning of animal welfare.

 

%

8. Do you think animals have rights?

yes
no
don't know
N/A

 

 

“At some level, many scientists are abolitionists. That is, if we were able to acquire the information needed to adequately answer compelling research questions without the use of animals, who among us would not gladly do so? Nevertheless, one of the best methods we have developed to advance biomedical knowledge involves the use of animals, which, unlike the test tube, have interests. They have interests in obtaining sufficient food, in remaining free from pain, in reproducing themselves, and perhaps in living out a normal life span. Experiments can frustrate the interests of laboratory animals, and most scientists recognize this both in their concern for the humane treatment of animals and in their belief that research should be directed at important problems. The fact that animals have interests does not necessarily mean that we should never use them in biomedical experiments; however, it does mean that any such use should be preceded by a moral judgment. Do the benefits derived from the biomedical research that is being considered offset the associated moral costs?” (Bruce A. Fuchs in “Use of Animals in Biomedical Experimentation,” in Scientific Integrity: An Introductory Text with Cases, Francis L. Macrina, ed. Washington, DC. ASM Press, 2000, p. 121.)

 

Animal Welfare

The American Veterinary Medical Association provides a useful definition of animal welfare on its Animal Welfare Position Statements web site: “Animal welfare is a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well being, including proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia...” The AVMA Position on Animals Used in Research and Teaching is also instructive:

“The AVMA recognizes that animals play a central and essential role in research, testing, and education for continued improvement in the health and welfare of human beings and animals. The AVMA also recognizes that humane care of animals used in research, testing, and education is an integral part of those activities. In keeping with these concerns, the AVMA endorses the principles embodied in the "Three R" tenet of Russell and Burch (1959). These principles are: refinement of experimental methods to eliminate or reduce animal pain and distress; reduction of the number of animals consistent with sound experimental design; and replacement of animals with non-animal methods wherever feasible...”

Jerrold Tannenbaum (see text-block) devotes a chapter in his text to discussing animal welfare and the difficulties in defining precisely what that term means. Despite these difficulties, there is broad consensus that there is such a thing as animal welfare, and that it is both right and necessary that we consider strongly animal welfare in situations where we use animals.

“The concept of welfare, unlike the concept of rights, allows for liberal balancing of human against animal interests and for deciding in many circumstances that human interests should prevail. …Sometimes, a condition conducive to or constituent of animal welfare is so important to an animal that we can say the animal’s claim to this condition rises to the level of a right. Adequate food and water are critically important to animal welfare. …It is therefore not just wrong, but terribly wrong, to deprive an animal one keeps or uses of adequate food and water. One may subject animals to such treatment only for the most important of reasons. Here, those of us who believe that animals have some moral rights would say, is a right based on considerations of welfare.” (J Tannenbaum. What is Animal Welfare. Veterinary Ethics: Animal Welfare, Client Relations, Competition and Collegiality, 2nd ed. Mosby, St. Louis, 1995.)

 

Ethics vs. Regulations

Considerations of right vs. wrong can take place at several levels. (See chapter 2 in the text by Tannenbaum for greater discussion of these levels as they pertain to veterinary ethics.) Most of this unit has addressed normative ethics, which deals with the search for what are correct moral standards for how animals ought to be treated. The AVMA Animal Welfare Position Statements are a type of official ethics, the standards adopted by a professional organization to guide behavior of its members. Administrative ethics are actual rules and regulations of governmental bodies. Those who use animals in research should certainly seek to understand what correct ethical behavior is (normative ethics), but must also be aware of official and administrative standards, if for no other reason than to avoid repercussions associated with failure to do so. Administrative ethics are the focus of the Unit Two.

 

Study Questions

1. Choose three characteristics of humans that are absent or different in animals, and provide reasons, both pro and con, for whether these differences are morally relevant.

2. Most would agree that animals have interests. Discuss how these interests impact decisions on using animals, from both a utilitarian and animal rights viewpoint.

3. Provide arguments, both for and against, the following proposition: The possession by animals of moral rights means that they may not be used in any way by humans for our purposes.

 

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think is a morally relevant difference between animals and humans?

2. Is keeping a pet a violation of its moral rights?

3. What are some of the costs of NOT using animal in research?

4. Do humans have a “right” to use animals?

 


Go to Home page <--