In the long run, the ethical principles applied to animal research depend on the views of society at large. However, there are enormous differences of opinion among members of the public. Some people are totally opposed to all animal experiments, whereas others are in favour of animal experiments so long as unnecessary suffering is avoided. In order to obtain some factual information, Furnham and Pinder (1990) gave a questionnaire examining attitudes to animal experimentation to 247 young adults. As might be expected, their average views were not extremely for or against animal research. We will consider the arguments in favour that received good support followed by the arguments against that were well supported.
On the positive side, most young adults agreed with the statements that “Research from animal labs produces great benefits in the lives of both animals and people”, and “There should be more animal experimentation in areas of medicine where cures are not yet known (AIDS etc.)”, and they disagreed with the statement, “I believe in total abolition of animal experiments”. Other studies have indicated that people who are older or less educated tend to be more in favour of animal experiments than those who are younger or better educated (Mukerjee, 1997).
There is a higher level of public support for animal research in the United States than in Europe. However, even in the United States there has been a decline in support. In 1985, 63% of Americans agreed with the statement that “scientists should be allowed to do research that causes pain and injury to animals like dogs and chimpanzees if it produces new information about human health problems”. Ten years later, that figure had dropped to 53%. It is not surprising that the views of society have changed over time. As Herzog (1988) pointed out, our moral codes depend on what he referred to as “human psychology”. Thus, our particular values, emotions, and beliefs determine our position on ethical issues. Herzog argued that an alternative approach would be one based on “pure reason”, but ethical issues don’t lend themselves to any simple logical resolution.
Ask yourself: Is the rise of vegetarianism and conservation groups responsible for changing attitudes to the use of animals in research?
On the negative side, most of the young adults surveyed by Furnham and Pinder (1990) agreed that “All lethal experiments on animals of all sorts should be banned”, and “There is no justification for the use of animal experimentation in the testing of cosmetics”, and they disagreed with the statement that “Fundamental (for no specific purpose) research using animals is valid”. In general, females were more opposed than males to animal research, left-wing people were more opposed than right-wing people, and vegetarians were more opposed than non-vegetarians.
Ask yourself: What factors might account for these results?
We have just considered the views of society with respect to animal research. There has also been a heated debate among experts on animal research concerning arguments for and against the use of non-human animals in research. A key issue among experts is whether non-human participants deserve (as far as possible) to be as fully protected as humans by ethical guidelines. This issue relates to the notion of speciesism, which is “discrimination and exploitation based upon a difference in species” (Ryder, 1990). As we will see, some writers (e.g., Gray, 1991) are in favour of speciesism, whereas others (e.g., Ryder, 1990, 1991; Singer, 1991) are strongly opposed to it.
Gray (e.g., 1991) accepted that it is ethically wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on the members of any species. However, he also argued that, “we owe a special duty to members of our own species” (1991, p.197). It is thus acceptable to inflict a fairly high level of suffering on animals to avoid a smaller level of suffering by humans, as is often the case in medical research. However, Gray accepted that there comes a point at which the level of suffering inflicted on animals becomes unacceptable. Gray’s major reason for believing in speciesism is that, “It is likely . . . to be better for lions, tigers, mice, and men if they each put the interests of their conspecifics [members of their own species] ahead of those of members of other species” (p.198). In his opinion, there are powerful evolutionary and biological reasons for this preference, namely that in order to perpetuate one’s genes one should place greater value on individuals who are more closely related (the concept of kin selection).
It can be argued in favour of speciesism that the human species differs in important ways from other species, and so our needs should come before theirs. For example, the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes argued that animals are very much like machines, lacking the soul (with its powers of thinking) that is the supreme human characteristic. Humanistic psychologists argue that a key feature of humans is our need for self-actualisation, which involves full realisation of our potential in all ways. Other species lack this need, focusing instead on much more basic needs such as those for food, drink, and sex. Within the context of the humanistic approach, members of the human species are very different and more complex than those of any other species. However, that also raises ethical issues—if other species are very different from us, then studies on them cannot tell us much about human behaviour.
According to Singer (1991, 2005), the notion that we should put the interests of our own species above those of other species can lead to the idea that we should give preference to the members of our own race over those of other races. Thus, there are links between speciesism and racism, and both should be avoided. However, while he regarded himself as a non-speciesist, Singer was willing to favour the human species over other species in certain circumstances. For example, if he saw a lion fighting a man, he would shoot the lion rather than let the man die. His reasoning was that it is better to save the life of a being that can plan for the future than a being that cannot.
Ryder (1991, p.201) put forward a powerful argument against speciesism. He proposed that speciesism, racism, and sexism all:
discriminate unjustly against individuals on irrelevant grounds such as skin colour, physical sexual characteristics and quadrupedality [having four legs]. The infliction of pain or distress upon others without consent is wrong—regardless of their race, sex, or species.
Ryder also rejected Gray’s argument that speciesism is acceptable because it has biological origins. According to him, what is ethically right should not be based on biology. As Ryder pointed out, “Presumably, Gray would also defend rape, pillage, and murder . . . where these behaviours have ‘biological origins’” (p.201).
Those who oppose speciesism tend to argue that the human species is very similar to many other species. The basic point is the following:
If animals are close enough to humans that their bodies, brains, and even psyches [minds] are good models for the human condition, then ethical dilemmas must surely arise in using them.
The argument that humans resemble some other species (e.g., primates) receives support from Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to which the human species has evolved out of other species. Of course, many species have evolved in very different ways to the human species, but other primates share about 98–99% of their DNA with humans. More generally, the basic physiology and nervous system of nearly all mammalian species are very similar.
Darwin’s (1872) work on emotions is of particular importance to the use of animals in research. He was impressed by the similarities in the expression of emotional states between humans and other species. His findings suggest that it might be unwise to assume that animals experience emotions in very different ways from humans. We cannot be certain, however, because there is no way of knowing for sure the emotional experiences of members of other species.
It is important to distinguish between absolute morality and relative morality. Immanuel Kant and other philosophers argued in favour of an absolute morality in which the ends cannot justify the means. In contrast, most people probably agree with the notion of relative morality, according to which the acceptability of actions is judged in terms of the benefits that accrue.
The notion of an absolute morality may have some appeal, but it tends to be inflexible and unrealistic in practice. For example, the moral principle “Always tell the truth” sounds very reasonable. However, if a madman with a gun demands to know where your mother is, it would make very little sense to adhere to the principle. In similar fashion, consider individuals who have experienced traumatic events such as abuse in early childhood. They may totally understandably be reluctant to reveal the true extent of their suffering when discussing their childhood with other people.
The alternative view that the ends can justify the means is favoured by most psychologists. It was expressed in the following terms by the American Psychological Association Committee on Ethical Standards in Psychological Research: “The general ethical question is whether there is a negative effect upon the dignity and welfare of the participants that the importance of the research does not warrant.”
Costs and benefits
The notion that decisions about the use of animals in research should be based on an analysis of the benefits and costs involved is sensible. Suppose, for example, a proposed experiment will inflict considerable pain on several animals. This would surely seem less acceptable if the experiment were designed to produce improved cosmetics than if it were intended to lead to the development of treatment for a dreadful disease affecting humans.
In practice, however, there can be problems. First, it is often impossible to know what the benefits and costs of a piece of research are going to be until after the experiment has been carried out. Second, one person’s assessment of the benefits and costs of a piece of research may not agree with someone else’s. These issues are discussed further in connection with Bateson’s cube on the next page.
Levels of suffering
There is the difficult matter of deciding how much suffering a given experimental procedure inflicts on an animal. As we cannot ask an animal directly what it is experiencing, we have to rely on its behaviour. However, this may be a misleading guide to its feelings. What needs to be done is to find out as much as possible about each species. In spite of the problems involved in assessing animal distress, attempts have been made in several countries such as Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands to develop pain scales. According to this form of assessment, 54% of the animals used in the Netherlands in 1995 suffered minor discomfort, 26% had moderate discomfort, and the remaining 20% suffered severe discomfort.
Ask yourself: When do the ends justify the means? If we cannot ask an animal directly how much pain it is suffering, is it safe to guess how it feels just from observing the animal’s behaviour? Do you know for certain when a cat is in distress?