The Ethical Dilemma

Behind questions such as these lies an "ethical dilemma." Ordinarily, when we describe someone as facing a dilemma, we mean that the person is in a no-win situation: whatever he or she does, the result will be unsatisfactory in some way. An ethical dilemma is a special case of this. It again involves a no-win sit

* Questions like these are examined at greater length at the end of the section entitled "Claim (1): The Need for Animal Research."

uation, but this time, whatever the person does, the result will be morally unsatisfactory in some way. The ethical dilemma that animal experimentation presents is summed up by the following four claims:

1. Live animal research is the only effective way of bringing certain important benefits to mankind, particularly in the prevention and therapeutic treatment of serious human diseases.

2. It is morally imperative to find new ways to prevent or treat serious human diseases.

3. In the course of live animal research, individual animals will inevitably be caused suffering or distress, and the interventions will not benefit the animals concerned.

4. It is morally imperative to preserve the welfare of animals, and in particular, one should not cause an animal to suffer if that suffering is not compensated for by a corresponding benefit of some kind.

It is easily seen that these claims are in conflict with one another. To ease the tension between them, we need to show that at least one of the claims is false, or at least an overstatement. Unsurprisingly, people who oppose animal research are normally skeptical about one or other of the first two claims. Some argue that there are ways of obtaining the necessary research results without animal experimentation and that the first claim is therefore incorrect. Cosmetics are an obvious example of a product for which this might be claimed. Much less commonly, it is suggested that we do not need to refine new medical responses to serious human diseases and hence that the second claim is misguided. This attitude is sometimes found among those with deeply held religious or ideological convictions.

By contrast, people who argue for continued animal experimentation reject the third and fourth claims. They maintain, in other words, either that animals do not suffer at all because they are not conscious in the way required for feeling, or that animals, unlike humans, do not matter from a moral point of view. Either way, the conclusion is that there is no dilemma because what we do to animals does not matter from a moral point of view.

As already mentioned, serious skepticism about the suggestion that it is morally imperative, or at least highly desirable, to discover ways of preventing or treating life-threatening human diseases is rare. We can, therefore, assume for the purposes of this chapter that the second claim is overall correct. The first, third, and fourth claims are a great deal more contentious, however, and we therefore need to examine them with some care.

Claim 1: The Need for Animal Research

It is often said that live animal research must be performed if we are to enjoy human benefits of the kind it brings. How true is this? Obviously, we cannot here scrutinize specific projects involving animal experimentation. Let us, instead, first note that it is extremely implausible to suggest that live animal research is totally unnecessary — that all the human benefits it delivers could be secured using methods that do not involve animals. With this noted, we can now look at reservations about the need for animal research that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

One reservation is so obvious it hardly merits mention. Some experiments are badly designed, or are carried out in unsuitable conditions, or unnecessarily repeat previous research. It cannot be claimed that these experiments are essential in bringing important benefits to mankind because they do not produce new benefits at all. Ill-conceived experiments of this sort may indeed be morally wrong, regardless of any animal suffering involved, because they waste material resources. Causing animal distress under such conditions can never be justified.

Doubts about the need for animal research can arise even when an animal experiment is well designed and capable of delivering valuable results. Suppose an alternative research method — a method involving, say, cell lines, bacteria, or human volunteers — will deliver the sought-after results equally readily. Here, it cannot be said that animal experimentation is required. Again, it might be possible to secure certain health benefits by encouraging people to change their lifestyles or avoid risky behaviors. Where ill health can be avoided in this way, it would be misleading at best to insist that we need to develop drug treatments using animal research.

In certain cases, doubts of the kind described in the last paragraph are fuelled by the fact that economic profit is a dominant motive within the pharmaceutical industry. Is it not conceivable that the R&D departments of pharmaceutical companies are guided as much by potential monetary gain as the aim to relieve human suffering caused by disease? And similar suspicions arise when we turn to toxicology and safety testing. The immediate goal of such testing, whether or not it involves animals, is to protect human health and the environment by preventing hazardous products from being marketed and thus allowed to enter the biosystem. However, some products that undergo toxicological analysis and safety testing are of questionable human importance. How important is it to provide a new garden herbicide? Do we need a new kitchen disinfectant or a shampoo with a different formula? Where these products do not offer substantial human benefits, any connected animal research can hardly be described as essential in bringing important benefits to mankind.

Finally, we have already mentioned that some animal experimentation is undertaken in fundamental research in the life sciences. This research produces information that may come to be useful in the understanding of disease, but it is mainly pursued with the aim of advancing general knowledge. Some might deny that such experimentation plays a vital role in the delivery of substantial new human benefits. Against this, it should be pointed out that efforts to combat human ailments always depend to some degree on knowledge gained through more fundamental research.

Perhaps this problem — the problem of predicting benefits — is quite general. In many experiments, fundamental and applied, it can be hard to know at the outset whether the hours spent in the laboratory will result in human benefit. It might be said that in applied studies, at least, it is often possible to guarantee benefits at a late stage in the research process: for instance, when studying the dose effect of a substance that has already been proven efficient. However, it is an unavoidable fact that the later stages of research cannot be reached without going through previous ones, and while they go through previous stages, researchers will often have to follow leads that will turn out to be fruitless. This complicates the assessment of experimental necessity. It means that we will not always be able to look merely at the human benefits of single experiments: at times, the net gains of research projects, or even of entire theoretical approaches, will be what we should try to assess. Often, scientific quality will be the only criterion to which we can appeal if we wish to know whether the relevant experiment will secure important benefits for mankind.

Claim 3: The Animal's Experience of Pain

Let us now turn to the claim that individual animals are inevitably caused suffering and distress in the course of live animal research. There is a long tradition of animal experimentation in the natural sciences. For centuries, such experimentation must, at its worst, have caused terrible pain and suffering to animals because anaesthetics and analgesics were virtually unknown. Had they been available, however, these palliatives might still not have been used, since for a long time, it was believed that animals were automata and incapable of feeling pain in the way human beings do.* In the following passage, a seventeenth-century eyewitness describes the undeniably grim implications of this view for experimental animals:

They administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they had felt pain. They said that the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck, were only the noise of a little spring which had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation.

Fontaine (1968/1738) Mémoires pour Servir à L'Historire de Port-Royal

How did scientists come to think in this way? Why did they adopt the view that sophisticated animals were mere mechanisms, rather like clocks, capable of producing visible behaviors, such as crying, but incapable of feeling? The view has its origins in the work of the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. Descartes is associated with what is referred to today as mind-body dualism. He believed that men and women consist of a material body and an immaterial soul. He could not accept, however, that animals have a soul, so in effect, he was materialist about nonhuman animals. The upshot of this can easily be guessed. According to Descartes, feelings are properties of

* Although physicians from the ancient Egyptians onwards were aware of the sedative qualities of both alcohol and opium, genuine anaesthetics suitable for human use were not available until the 1840s. It was not until the late 1800s that anaesthetics were routinely used with animals.

the soul. Since animals do not possess souls, they cannot have any feelings: animals are, in effect, machines.

Generations of natural scientists inherited this belief. Their modern heirs no longer believe, of course, that human beings have immaterial souls. More to the point, most would deny that possession of such a soul is a prerequisite of feeling. However, the view that animals are devoid of feeling has persisted in parts of the scientific world into the twentieth century.18

Descartes' view that animals cannot suffer prevents an ethical dilemma from arising even in the most invasive animal experiments. It does so by implying that our third claim is false. However, is it at all plausible today to deny that animals experience feeling? Descartes' own case for such a denial was, primarily, that in the absence of language animals cannot communicate feelings. However, we do not rely exclusively on linguistic behaviors in diagnosing other people's feelings: nonlinguistic behaviors and facial expressions often communicate as much as speech. Thus, seeing a sprinter limping off the track with distorted facial features, we rarely feel the need to await a verbal pain report. We know enough already to be sure that he or she is feeling pain. There seems to be no reason why we should not draw a similar conclusion about, say, a dog that holds an injured paw close to its body, whimpers, and turns to bite anyone who attempts to touch the leg.

Today's scientists largely agree that all vertebrates, and some invertebrates (such as octopuses), have the capacity for pain, but a further complication arises at this point. The complication arises because it can sensibly be asked whether the pain that animals have is actually felt as an unpleasant mental state — and it can therefore be asked whether animal pain involves suffering. This is a contentious issue, and one to which both philosophers of mind and scientists might be expected to contribute. In defense of the view that animal pain does not involve feeling, it has been claimed that to feel pain, it is necessary to have cognitive capacities, and hence, a developed prefrontal cortex of a kind that most animals other than anthropoid apes do not possess.19 On the other hand, it is clear that animal pain, like human pain, is causally connected with aversive behavior, and some observers believe that this causal connection between peripheral nociceptive nerve signalling and centrally controlled aversive behavior could not occur in the absence of unpleasant feelings, and thus in the absence of suffering.

As we have said, this issue is contentious. Nevertheless, most of us, including most scientists, are convinced that animals can suffer. In view of the seriousness of the issue, agnostics should probably also adopt a reasonable measure of precaution and give animals the benefit of the doubt. They should act as though animals are capable of suffering and assume that a procedure that is painful to humans is also painful for animals. The adoption of this working assumption does not necessarily force us to accept the third claim. For clearly, even if animals have the capacity to suffer, it does not follow that in the course of live animal research, they will inevitably suffer. And, as will be obvious to most scientists reading this, animal suffering and distress during experimentation can be reduced or eliminated in several ways. Refinements in experimental methods, such as more rapid and exact sampling techniques, or the introduction of noninvasive sampling methods, as well as extended use of anaesthetics and analgesics, reduce the distress an experiment causes. Likewise, improvements to the conditions under which experimental animals are housed using so-called environmental enrichment mitigate animal stress. And through improved animal models and the correct use of statistics, the number of animals needed to obtain valid results can be reduced, thus reducing the total amount of any inevitable suffering.

Claim 4: The Moral Status of Animals

Suppose none of the aforementioned pain-reduction strategies were available. Would this show that the relevant research should cease, or be radically limited, on moral grounds? If we were discussing the pain of human volunteers, the reply would almost certainly be "yes."* But where animals are concerned, matters are less straightforward. This is because, traditionally, animals have been thought to be less important than human beings, morally speaking. It is this claim that we need to examine now.

The attitude that animals matter less than human beings is widespread in western society. It is often linked with the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which much of our culture is based, for according to the Bible, man occupies a special position in the world: he was created in the image of God and given dominion over other living creatures (Genesis 1:26-28). However, other reasons can be given for the

* Although complications turning on consent would arise. Of course, animals cannot give consent. Interestingly this seems to have implications for the regulation of animal research: see the section entitled "Ethics Committees".

view that human beings have a different moral status from animals. A common argument runs as follows: only human beings are known to possess language and to be able to reason in abstract terms. Because animals can neither reason nor communicate reasons, they cannot act morally, and therefore we have no moral obligations towards them.

But should the capacity to act morally determine whether an individual should be given moral consideration? The notion that it should is not obviously correct. As early as the eighteenth century, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked why we deny animals moral rights that we ascribe to ourselves. He wrote:

Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old...The question is not, Can they reason?, nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?

Bentham (1789) The Principles of Morals and Legislation

In this well-known passage, Bentham does two things. First, he offers a philosophical argument designed to embarrass those who suggest that human beings are morally superior to animals because they possess intelligence and language. This argument is simple and proceeds in the following way: certain human beings — Bentham speaks of infants, but we could also mention the mentally impaired — have lower levels of intelligence and linguistic ability than some higher animals. Therefore, intelligence and linguistic ability cannot be the criteria of human moral superiority. This argument is basically sound. It obliges us either to offer an alternative rationale for the view that human beings matter more than animals or to drop that view. Bentham himself takes the latter course, for the second thing he does is to suggest that it is the capacity to suffer that confers moral status. This suggestion brings infants back into the moral realm. It also brings in any animals that are able to suffer. Bentham would have regarded both of these implications as welcome.

The contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer is Bentham's modern heir. Having explored the options at length, he claims that it is impossible to identify a difference between human beings and animals that separates them morally. And he concludes that when we imagine that animals have no moral standing or a lower moral status than human beings, we are laboring under a moral prejudice similar to that found among racists or sexists:

I am urging that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species.. .The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly, the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case.

Peter Singer (1989) All Animals are Equal, in Animal Rights and Human Obligations

Again, the problem for those who prioritize human interests is to explain what they take to be the moral difference between animals and human beings. Singer's point is that just pointing to a difference in species does not seem to be sufficient.

Most of us assume, most of the time and more or less consciously, that human beings deserve special moral consideration — consideration that is not due to animals. In this section, we have seen, however, how difficult it is to provide a compelling rationale for this assumption. The discussion has been more exploratory than conclusive. To make further progress with the issues, we need to look at morality in general terms. We must enquire into its basis and purpose. In other words, we must examine ethical theories.


At this point, it may be wondered whether animal researchers really need to be familiar with ethical theory. What possible objection could there be to the scientist who simply proceeds in an intuitively humane manner? Surely the ethical theorizing can be left to philosophers and theologians. This attitude is understandable. However, there are, in fact, several ways in which scientists can benefit from explicit appreciation of ethical theory. Here, we shall briefly sketch three such benefits.

In today's society, there are many different views about what we are entitled to do to animals in the name of scientific progress. Animals and animal materials continue to be used in laboratories, yet this usage is repeatedly challenged. Gruesome images of cats, dogs, and monkeys in experimental conditions have been put before the general public by animal rights organizations. They often evoke strong feelings in observers, but there is absolutely no doubt that people also want access to effective medical treatments and safe chemical products. Indeed, they may even be willing to support the research such access entails through taxes and fund-raising campaigns. Likewise, when asked if scientists should be allowed to continue to experiment on animals, 64% of the participants in a British survey opposed the use of living animals in research.20 But when the question was prefaced with the statement, "Some scientists are developing and testing new drugs to reduce pain, or are developing new treatments for life-threatening diseases, such as leukaemia and AIDS. By conducting experiments on live animals, scientists believe they can make more rapid progress than would otherwise have been possible," disapproval dropped to 41%.

The first problem, then, with being led by one's feelings, rather than approaching matters through ethical theory, is simply that people's feelings about animal research are often unstable or ambivalent. Such feelings cannot be relied upon as a rational guide. This immediately leads to a second problem. This ambivalence encourages double standards, and these standards are both morally objectionable and logically indefensible.

However, the third problem is perhaps the most serious. It is clear that, at present, we are engaged in the West in an increasingly serious debate about the rights and wrongs of animal use. However, it seems unlikely that scientists and others taking part in this debate will be able to communicate effectively while they merely press their intuitively held beliefs. These beliefs are normally sincere, and often strongly held, but they can be extremely difficult to understand and highly resistant to change. The ideal of meaningful and transparent discussion that leads to mutual understanding of the arguments is attainable, however. For people's gut feelings about matters such as animal research are often based on underlying ethical theories, and these theories are much more susceptible to rational assessment than the individual beliefs to which they give rise. The suggestion we wish to make here, then, is that if laypeople and scientists are willing to think a little about fundamental ethical theory, they will have a much greater prospect of communicating with one another effectively, articulating their convictions in a coherent manner, and perhaps even reaching a compromise upon which all can agree.

Moral philosophers distinguish a number of types of ethical theory, and, in principle, any of these might underlie a person's views about animal experimentation. Here, we will discuss three prominent theoretical positions: contractarianism, utilitarianism, and rights views. These have been selected because they have direct and obvious implications for the ongoing debate over animal use.

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