When is animal research morally permissible? Answers may vary.

The use of animals in research and experimentation has long been considered a staple of science. Instances of animal research have been recorded as early as ancient Greece. Since then, animals have been used in drug development, toxicity testing, and other experiments, assisting in a number of discoveries and breakthroughs. However, it is only within the last century or so that we’ve begun to grapple with the ethics of animal research.

The issue of whether or not animal research is morally justified transcends political beliefs and eludes public consensus, largely because there is no one moral framework for considering non-human animals. 

“There are a few different frameworks for thinking about issues in bioethics,” says Megan Cvitanovic, acting executive editor at the American Journal of Bioethics. “Two of those are deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology is focused on rights and obligations; utilitarianism is this idea of maximizing good.” 

Deontological Debates

Because deontology classifies the intentions of actions as right or wrong, much of the deontological debate over animal research hinges on the question of who—or what—can be morally wronged. If non-human animals can suffer moral wrongs, then much of animal research can be considered unethical, as animals used in research are often subjected to pain, distress, and death. 

However, while most would disagree with René Descartes’ assertion that animals are unfeeling machines, exactly where animals stand in terms of moral status, at—least in relation to humans—is still unclear. 

Human exceptionalism describes one viewpoint that attempts to distinguish humans from non-human animals, justifying humanity’s exclusive moral status, while excluding animals from demanding the same moral considerations. Human exceptionalism relies on identifying certain characteristics or capabilities that only humans possess. A few contenders have been our capacity for empathy, our use of language, or our intelligence. 

Junior Sohpia Wang recently interned for the Factory Farming Coalition, an organization that aims to increase awareness about the exploitation of animals. She finds herself agreeing with this idea.

 “I think I would argue that an animal’s life is, to us, less important than a human’s life,” Wang says. “We are animals, but like, we can connect with other human beings more, and I think that would make people more hesitant to hurt other human beings.”

Some philosophers argue that humans shouldn’t be granted any sort of superior moral status, given that human exceptionalism doesn’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny. Humans are fundamentally no different from non-human animals. Thus, the same ethical standards used to evaluate the treatment of humans should apply to the treatment of animals, which would render most animal research unethical.

By this view, Cvitanovic explains, “We cannot inflict harm on them because they’re able to feel and think, and they relate their moral status to those of humans.” 

These two perspectives represent opposing ends of a spectrum of deontological frameworks: from “humans are morally above all other animals” to  “humans are no different from all other animals.” The former permits the use of animals in research, while the latter seems to call for abandoning the practice altogether. 

Consequentialist Considerations

In opposition to these deontological paradigms are consequentialist ones, which judge the ethicality of actions based on their outcomes, and not their intentions (as deontological views do). Consequentialist views reject the idea that actions are intrinsically right or wrong.

Utilitarianism is one such consequentialist moral theory, which operates under the idea that the only morally correct actions are the ones that maximize good things in the world, such as pleasure and happiness.

Because utilitarianism aims to produce good and minimize suffering, it circumvents certain deontological difficulties, such as defining what is morally considerable or not. Anything that has an interest in avoiding suffering is thereby morally considerable. Jeremy Bentham, creator of utilitarianism, put it as such: “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

As animals used for scientific and medical research undoubtedly suffer, for the infliction of such suffering to be justified, an animal’s interest in avoiding suffering must be outweighed by some human interest. Often these interests include developing treatments for conditions and diseases, or advancing basic scientific knowledge.

“You could say, you know, we’re going to do this experiment on these mice, and they’re going to be harmed,” Cvitanovic says. “But ultimately, humans are going to receive a lot more benefit from this, so that justifies that research and that harm for the animals. You just can’t produce needless suffering.”

Wang agrees that such human interests are enough to justify animal research. However, she denounces the use of animal testing in cosmetics and other more trivial interests as an examples where utilitarianists might draw the line. 

“I would argue, in that vein, cosmetics, are absolutely not necessary for you to cause animal pain, suffering or death,” Wang says. “On the other hand, good things, like medicines, are necessary for people. You can’t tell someone, I don’t think you should take your medicine anymore.”

Whether utilitarianism permits animal research or not, then, is contingent on multiple factors, varying on a case-by-case basis. The possible good of an experiment must be considered against the amount of suffering that would be inflicted, a task complicated by the fact that scientific results aren’t always foreseeable. 

For all the philosophical considerations of the issue, the use of animals in research, as Cvitanivic aptly notes, remains “a really big question mark.”

Science, founded in empiricism and observation, recoils slightly at the introspection demanded of such a moral dilemma. Poring over the issue through various deontological lenses, or attempting to crack it via utilitarian arithmetic, seems unlikely to yield a consensus any time soon. And animal research, having persisted in science and medicine for centuries already, is likely to stay for the time being.

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