Rights View

There is an obvious sense in which, in focusing on overall improvements in welfare, the utilitarian treats sentient beings as mere instruments. The utilitarian believes that it is ethically justifiable to sacrifice the welfare of one individual when this sacrifice is outweighed by connected gains in welfare. Rights theorists object to this, holding that it is always unacceptable to treat a sentient being merely as a means to obtain a goal. Historically, rights theory is associated with the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. In Kant's view, human beings have "an intrinsic worth, i.e., dignity" and should therefore be treated "always as an end and never as a means only." Clearly, this view is at variance with the utilitarian's willingness to sacrifice one individual's welfare when this leads overall to welfare gains. Kant himself confined the right to be treated as an end to human beings, but later rights theorists, such as the American philosopher Tom Regan,23 have argued that the principle of dignity should be extended to animals:

.Attempts to limit its scope to humans only can be shown to be rationally defective. Animals, it is true, lack many of the abilities humans possess. They can't read, do higher mathematics, build a bookcase, or make baba ghanoush. Neither can many human beings, however, and yet we don't (and shouldn't) say that they (these humans) therefore have less inherent value, less of a right to be treated with respect, than do others. It is the similarities between those human beings who most clearly, most noncontroversially, have such value (the people reading this, for example), not our differences that matter most. And the really crucial, the basic similarity, is simply this: we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death — all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they, too, must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.

Regan (1989) The Case for Animal Rights, in Animal Rights and Human Obligations

What implications does the rights view have for animal experimentation? The answer to this question will depend on whether we are prepared to go along with Regan and ascribe rights to animals. If we refuse to take this step, rights theory will have little to tell us about animal research. However, if we allow that animals possess intrinsic dignity and have rights, various things will follow. To begin with, the balancing of human benefits against animal suffering that has been central in our discussion so far becomes, to some extent, a background issue. No benefit can justify disrespect for the rights of an individual — human or animal — so where an experiment violates an animal's rights, there is no reason to look for its expected benefits. To find out whether an experiment is morally justified, we need only ask whether it is respectful and preserves the animal's dignity. The implications of this way of looking at matters are radical, as Regan23 explains:

.. .Having set out the broad outlines of the rights view, I can now say why its implications for farming and science, among other fields, are both clear and uncompromising. In the case of the use of animals in science, the rights view is categorically abolitionist. Lab animals are not our tasters; we are not their kings. Because these animals are treated routinely, systematically, as if their value were reducible to their usefulness to others, their rights are routinely, systematically, violated. This is just as true when they are used in trivial, duplicative, unnecessary, or unwise research as it is when they are used in studies that hold out real promise of human benefits.The best we can do when it comes to using animals in science is — not to use them. That is where our duty lies, according to the rights view.

Regan (1989) The Case for Animal Rights, in Animal Rights and Human Obligations

This view is radical enough to merit repeating. It does not matter that an experiment will cause only minor harm to the animals it involves. It does not matter that this experiment is of extraordinary importance to humanity at large. Animal experiments are simply unacceptable because they treat animals as means to an end.

Categorical abolitionism of this sort probably goes further in its attempt to limit the utilitarian trade-offs than most of us would consider necessary. After all, weighing costs against benefits is part of our daily life. Every day, we balance outcomes and seek what is best overall in private decisions that involve friends, family, and ourselves. We expect others — for example, employers and government bodies — to do the same. In all this, we accept that we are not treated, and do not treat others, purely as ends. On the other hand, most people would presumably allow that certain rights are sacrosanct, and that there are limits to the extent to which an individual can be sacrificed for an overall benefit. Only (what we might call) a moderate rights view is likely to command widespread acceptance.

How would such a moderate view apply to animal research? The detail would depend on what rights we take to be fundamental. The right to life — or more accurately, the right not to be killed — is often regarded as basic. Curiously, however, this does not appear to be a basic right that people would ascribe to animals: after all, most of us happily eat animals that have been killed just for this purpose. Something like a right to protection from suffering, or significant suffering, seems to be much more promising. We might agree that all animals should be protected from suffering if this involves intense or prolonged pain or distress that the animal cannot control. We might conclude that such suffering in experimental conditions is always unjustified. This would be consistent with the toleration of some balancing of animal and human interests.

In essence, this is the view on which animal research legislation is based in some countries, such as the U.K. and Denmark. Through this combination of utilitarianism and the moderate rights view, animal research that promises to deliver human benefits is allowed as long as the animals are guaranteed protection from serious pain and distress.

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