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Animal Research has been a hugely controversial issue both in the UK and abroad. The arguments have taken place in two primary disciplines, science and philosophy. The scientific case has been made in other parts of this website, and deals with the question of whether or not animal research is scientifically useful and valid. Pro-Test, backed by the weight of scientific literature, believes that animal experimentation is both scientifically useful and valid. However this essay will concern itself with the other side of the argument: that of ethics 'Is it right to test on animals for medical (and veterinary) progress?'
It is worth stepping back for a moment to look at what makes an argument 'right' in science and philosophy. Science is a study based in empirical evidence of the world around us. Right and wrong is thus shown by testing hypothesis ('Grass is green', 'animals are biologically similar to humans', 'giving a guinea pig thalidomide while it is pregnant will cause deformity among its litter'). Scientists will gather evidence relevant to their hypothesis before deciding whether the weight of evidence confirms or denies such a hypothesis (or leaves it inconclusive). In philosophy, or more importantly ethics, the question of what makes an argument 'right' or 'wrong' lies in its assumptions and consistency.
Within the assumptions made are intoned the values of your ethical system. If you simply value living things then you might decide your ethical system should grants rights to every living thing. Consistency demands that you would then grant rights to plants and fungi, as well as animals and humans. To check consistency of your ethical code you should always take it to its logical extreme. So if you believe that every living thing has the inalienable right to life, and you take this belief to its logical extremes (that is the most extreme case - while still forcing you to remain consistent to your beliefs) then a human with a bacterial infection must not take antibiotics because it would kill the living bacteria inside of you.
Through a process of logical and methodical examination of the ethical status animals have while attempting to maintain consistency and constant testing by example I will attempt to examine not the scientific but the moral basis for animal research.

Moral Status
Elisa Aaltola correctly states that 'most of the theories [of moral status] argue that the neutral criterion for moral value is consciousness in the phenomenal sense.' In other words she defines it as 'experiencing the world as something' a category which sentient animals fall into. Sentience, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as something 'that feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.' It is this ability to 'feel' whether pleasure or pain that is the criteria which must be used when judging whether an animal has 'moral status'.


As humans we assign moral value to ourselves because we can respond to stimuli and sense whether it is, from our own perspective, good or bad, whether it is pleasurable or painful. It matters to us when something happens and it is this ability to experience sensation that gives us moral value. When we see someone in great distress we feel a moral duty to help because they can suffer and have the capacity to experience pain from a personal point of view where it matters to them. For most people it is inconsistent to argue that it is some greater respect for life that motivates an empathetic response, were that the case they would not be able to eat any sort of living organism as it would be violating the fundamental value of its life. Equally it is not necessarily correct to grant non-sentient beings moral status as their preservation is an important part of the ecosystem we inhabit, there are plenty of aesthetic and self-interested reasons to value and preserve these life-forms without giving them moral status. Simply put, if an organism cannot feel or experience what happens to it, morally, from the point of view of the organism, it is not important what happens to it.

Following from this argument it is logical to conclude that moral status must be granted on the basis of sentience. Therefore, as most animals (particularly but not exclusively those used in animal research) are sentient, have sensation, can feel pain and pleasure and experiences matter to them from their perspective, they must have a moral status and by definition they deserve some sort of respect. We therefore have a responsibility to not expose them to unnecessary suffering or cruelty.

However, does moral status equate to rights and fundamentally a right to life?


What is a right?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a right as 'A legal, equitable, or moral title or claim to the possession of property or authority, the enjoyment of privileges or immunities, etc.' A right is different to moral status in that if something has a right it has as Alison Hills describes it a 'trump card'. Though something has moral status it may be acceptable to kill it if the benefits outweigh the costs. To give an example in 2006 the Kruger Park in South Africa had an estimated elephant population of 12,000 despite only being able to support 7,000. Moves were made to cull the animals based on the destruction they were causing to the environment and the consequent suffering and difficulties other species had to endure. Though an elephant has a moral status, it was not considered as having the 'trump card' of a right to life that prevents one from killing it even if the benefits are judged to outweigh the cost. It is usual for us to assume that humans have this right to life. Most of us would be horrified at the idea of killing humans due to overpopulation and damage to the environment - many would argue this is exactly the state we find ourselves in - yet few would suggest a human culling. Is there then a difference between humans and animals and if so what is it? - are we simply guilty of 'speciesism' as many animal rights activists would claim? Or is there a fundamental difference between humanity and animals that entitles us, and not them, to a right to life?


Within the definition of a right the most critical word is 'claim'. In terms of morality a right is a claim that one party can make against another in a type of contractual agreement. For example I can claim a right not to be attacked by someone else and in return they claim the right not to be attacked by myself, however it would be absurd for me to wander in the African bush and claim the right to not be attacked by a lion. What is the difference here? Were a lion to attack we would not hold it morally responsible in the same way we would a person because it is not a moral agent.

To be a moral agent, one must be able to reflect on decisions, actions and beliefs and evaluate whether they are or were based on good reasons. If one is able to do this then we hold them morally responsible and open to punishment, if one is not capable of assessing ones actions then we do not hold them morally responsible, hence the existence of some sort of 'insanity plea' in many legal systems across the world. As far as we know no animals are capable of reflecting on whether their actions were carried out for good reasons and whether they were right or wrong. Humans are the only species who are in this sense autonomous and can therefore enter into agreements about morals and participate within a moral community. When Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri released A Declaration on Great Apes in 1993 they demanded the 'extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans.' They defined the 'community of equals' as:

The moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights as governing our relations with each other and enforceable at law. Among these principles or rights are the following:
1. The Right to Life
2. The Protection of Individual Liberty
3. The Prohibition of Torture

However it is impossible for all the Great Apes to function within a moral community as the major pre-requisite for doing so is moral responsibility - something they cannot have without autonomy.

Though functioning within a moral community certainly seems a step too far, this theory of ethics has come under criticism for exclusively assigning rights to those who have responsibilities despite the fact we appear to endow people with rights who have no responsibilities and no duty to acknowledge our own rights - examples including very young children and babies and the severely mentally disabled. It is not entirely true to say we don't treat children as not having responsibilities, they are treated as people with potential to become a full participant within a moral community and are therefore taught 'right' from 'wrong' and punished and rewarded on that basis. Similarly babies are treated as having the potential to become fully autonomous and so are treated as though they have rights on the basis that they will one day be responsible, though it is an interesting question to ask whether babies do truly have rights or whether we simply treat them as having a particularly great moral status (something which will be explored later). In the case of the mentally disabled rights are usually given on an individual basis depending on the corresponding responsibility. For example, were someone convicted of murder but was found to be incapable of making a moral assessment of whether it was right or wrong it would obviously be ridiculous to deem them not responsible morally and therefore free from punishment, they would almost certainly have some element of their right to freedom retracted as the benefit to others of not having that person on the street would outweigh the suffering of that one individual whose inability to participate fully in a moral community has led to their 'trump card' of a right to freedom being counterfeited.

It should follow from this that if animals are not autonomous and are not morally responsible they cannot exert a claim upon anyone or anything else and so, despite having a moral status, are not entitled to rights. This extends to the most contentious of rights - the right to life. Humans have the ability to make a meaningful judgment about the fate of their own life. They can decide whether it is best they should live or die and the basic tenet of a moral community is an agreement to respect and honour moral claims acceded to by all parties, this means respecting the decision of another autonomous being on whether it should live or die. Animals are incapable of assessing their own beliefs and actions and so cannot meaningfully either give their consent to be killed or to deny it. The argument that its inability to give consent does not mean that it is not entitled to a right to life is flawed, to follow it to the extreme would result in the granting of rights to plants, bacteria and any living organism as well as inanimate object � after all a blade of grass or a rock cannot give or deny consent yet it would be bizarre to argue that they had any entitlement to rights. The right to life must be based on whether an organism is capable of making a meaningful reflection on whether it should live or die and then giving or denying consent. Alison Hills lucidly summarizes the issue when she writes:
Defenders of animal rights are correct to say that a prejudice towards your own species is wrong, just as racism and sexism are wrong. They go on to conclude that animals and humans have equal rights. But this is a mistake. Humans of all races and all sexes have equal rights because they are equal in ways relevant to having those rights: they can use their vote, they can do the same jobs, they can give or withhold their consent to what happens to them. Animals are not equal to humans in these ways.

A sacred species?

Faith based groups in particular often argue that man is sacred - to be set apart. Without invocation of a particular doctrine it is hard to defend this stance and strikes many, perhaps not unreasonably, as no more than speciesism. It is not my place to comment on the nature of certain faiths and the validity of their beliefs, but interesting to note that this sense of humans being set apart in certain relevant ways is intrinsic to many ethical systems.

Do Animals Matter?

By denying animals a right to life in no way is there an advocating of harming, killing or allowing animals to unnecessarily suffer. It is NOT a natural step to say that as they do not have a right to life they can therefore be killed. As they have a moral status we must remember that what happens to them matters, the reasons for killing must outweigh the reasons for not; these reasons truly are numerous as well. When a living organism is killed it is deprived of potential life - there is obviously a huge difference between killing a young orangutan and swatting a fly. Not only will the orangutan probably live much longer but the quality of its life will almost certainly be better; it can interpret the world around it, enjoy pleasures, think and provide pleasure for others around it as a social being. A fly on the other hand will probably have far less substance to its life and the consequence of killing it is therefore less great (though this does not necessarily justify mindless fly swatting). The further corollary of this is that usually a human's life will have greater value than an animal�s and a young child�s as more valuable than old person's (this raises the question brought up earlier as to whether we actually give babies rights or just give them huge moral status where the situations when it becomes morally acceptable to kill them are so unbelievably limited that in reality it effectively equates to a right to life). Though animals have no 'trump card' which entitles them to life, all these considerations including the necessity of the killing must be weighed before deciding that it is morally acceptable to take a life.

Animal Research

Just as animals cannot give their consent regarding their life or death, they cannot give it in terms of medical research. Whereas people can consent to an experiment - and many regularly do - and therefore their wishes should be respected. Following the argument that consent and the ability to give it is the most important factor, the controversial implications are that in the case of non-autonomous humans it can be morally justified to undertake experiments although the benefits and costs as described earlier must be taken into account. Indeed the Declaration of Helsinki, usually regarded as the document which defends the foundations of human ethics, supports this stance, suggesting that animal research can be morally justified on a basis of consent if the benefits are great enough.

Many animal rights campaigners argue that the benefits are not great enough to justify experimentation and they do a great service in continually questioning and examining the nature of animal research continually ensuring accountability and revision. The efficacy of animal research is expanded on to great length elsewhere on this site ( and so I will go no further than to state that the effectiveness and necessity of animal research is defended by huge numbers within the scientific community and fully supported by a huge body of evidence.

Undoubtedly scientific research must be heavily regulated as indeed it is within the UK by British as well as European law. Wherever possible non-animal research methods must be used; indeed such methods account for about 90% of biomedical research, but usually work to complement studies involving animals and reduce the number of animal experiments required rather than to directly replace them. When animals must be used the number should be kept to a minimum, and at all times though the comfort of the animal must be considered and any suffering minimized. The House of Lords' judgment was both well considered and correct when it stated that:

'The whole institution of morality, society and law is founded on the belief that human beings are unique amongst animals. Humans are therefore morally entitled to use animals, whether in the laboratory, the farmyard or the house, for their own purposes.' - House of Lords Select Committee, 2002

Further Reading

Ethics - there are naturally a vast array of books, articles and journals concerning themselves with the study of ethics, a few are listed below in a list that is by no means and in no way comprehensive:

Dworkin, Ronald 'Rights as Trumps', in Waldron, J. (ed.), Theories of Rights, (OUP, 1984)

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Clarendon, 1975 ) ed. Selby-Bigge, L. & Nidditch, P

Mill, J.S., Utilitarianism (Longmans, 1871 or reprint), for example Warnock, M. ed (Fontana, 1962) or Crisp, R. ed (OUP, 1998)

Scanlon, T.M., 'Rights, Goals, and Fairness', in Waldron, J. (ed.), Theories of Rights (OUP, 1984)

Singer, Peter, 'Is Act-Utilitarianism Self-Defeating?' Philosophical Review, (1972), vol 81, pp 94-104

Animal Rights:

Aaltola, Elisa, �Animal Ethics and Interest Conflicts� in Ethics & the Environment 10.1 (2005) 19-48.

Hills, Alison, Do Animals Have Rights, (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2005) � a superb study from a moderate point of view of the issues surrounding all aspects of animal rights, for greater elaboration of the arguments espoused here this is a great read.

Singer, Peter, �Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals�, (New York Review/Random House, New York, 1975; Cape, London, 1976; Avon, New York, 1977; Paladin, London, 1977; Thorsons, London, 1983)

The following resources may be of interest to those who wish to explore the ethical aspects of research involving animals.

World Medical Association
Declaration of Helsinki

Animal Use in Biomedical Research

World Health Organization/Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences
International Guiding Principles for Biomedical Research involving Animals (1985)

Nuffield Council on Bioethics
The Ethics of Research involving Animals (2005)

House of Lords
Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures (2002)

National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research

Professor Carl Cohen
Why Animals have no Rights.

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