Animals In Medical Research?

When we talk of using animals for biomedical research there are two ground cases as to why it is morally unacceptable; first, it wrongly violates the rights of animals and second because it wrongly imposes on sentient creatures avoidable suffering. In the following I will explain when neither of these arguments is sound based on the misunderstandings of rights and the mistaken calculation of consequence.

When we speak of rights it is understood as the claim or potential claim which one person or party may use against another. To claim that there is a full right we must know who holds the right, against whom it is held and to what it is a right.

The philosopher that I am looking to mostly for this case is Immanuel Kant who puts emphasis on the human possession of a uniquely moral will and the autonomy its use entails. By this I mean that humans are confronted with conflict, not cats or horses, humans are self-legislative and morally autonomous.

Animals on the other hand lack this capacity for free moral judgement. Since an animal can not claim or respond to moral claims, they have none in any sense that we should be concerning ourselves with.

From this, however I am not implying that we therefore are morally free to do whatever we like to animals. We have obligations (which do not reciprocate rights…) to people just as we have obligations to animals. For example my mother may pay my tuition (she doesn’t, I’m just saying…) I do not have the right to this money, but my mother has an obligation to look out for my wellbeing if I am in a tight spot. A teacher has an obligation to teach as best as they can. Adults have an obligation to act and treat young children in a special way. Just as we have these obligations to other humans, we have obligations to other animals. My dog doesn’t have the right to be fed and to be taken for a walk daily, but I have an obligation to do so as I have made a commitment to looking after the dog and doing otherwise would be irresponsible on my part, although not morally wrong.

A common objection to what I am describing above is that the mentally challenged or a brain dead human can not participate in the situation of rights just as animals can not. However, this mistakenly treats an essential feature of humanity as though it were a screen for sorting humans. This is not a test to be administered to humans one by one, I am talking I a whole, in a generalized sense. What a human retains while being disabled is something an animal has never possessed and never will.

Another objection is that animals communicate with one another, and show rationality and independence. However this criticism misses the point entirely. Although animals can demonstrate fear, love and instinct, the process of moral agents remains impossible for them. Actors subject to moral judgement must be capable of grasping the generality of an ethical premise in a practical syllogism.

As for animals feeling the pain of the biomedical research, critics will say since all or nearly all experimentation on animals does impose pain and could be readily forgone it should be stopped. For this I’d have to simply take Bentham’s out of the utilitarian approach in saying that the pain of an animal will outdo the continuing agony of a human based on their rights and moral standings. Also the assumption that all animals have equal moral standing is wholly incorrect. However some will argue that the differentiation of species in this context is a form of speciesism. The most influential statement of this moral inequality of species was made by a man named Peter Singer, who pisses me off:

“The racist violates the principle of equality by giving 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. The sexist violates the principle of equality by favoring the interests of his own sex. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The patter is identical in each case”

This argument is flat out disgusting. Racism has no rational grounds what so ever in any given case, this is the same with sexism. Differing concerns for humans based entirely on whether they are white, black, red, yellow, green, male or female is completely unjust.

However when looking at the morally relevant differences between animate lives there are huge differences, and are almost universally appreciated. Humans have moral rights; a higher level of sentience; humans are morally autonomous and can recognize claims of their own interests. This analogy between speciesism and racism is sinister. Is we are all to be true speciesist we must live with our cockroaches, rats, spiders and mosquitoes, having no bias towards any of these species and let them live their lives as they normally would.

When looking at the pleasures and pains derived from animal testing in biomedical research we have to consider all the suffering and pain which would be continuing now had some animals not suffered or died for the cause. (We could also apply a very nihilist argument to this saying that the purpose of the animal really doesn’t matter, and if we want to elongate our inherently meaningless purpose for our own gratification, there is really no use in crying over a few hurt animals. Sorry, I just watched I Heart Huckabees.)

Animals are the way to science. Disecting a pig in grade 11 science opened up a world of possibilities for us to see the working insides of an animal that would be much like the insides of a human. In fact I see no problem with increasing the amount of animal subjection to biomedical research as to decrease the amount of human specimens being used for research. We surely do have some obligations to these animals; however they have no rights against us on which research can infringe. Calculating the long term benefits of the results is also a vital step in determining if this is ethical or not – and considering all aspects of reduced human suffering for an extended period of time, there is no reason why animals should not be used for biomedical research.

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About Katie Kish


  1. Attempting to gauge the validity or moral positioning of animal rights and their use in medical research places the argument in abstract anthropomorpic terms. To try to ask questions of animal ‘rights’ based on cognitive capabilities, deductive or syllogistic reasoning, or moral capacity, is classically anthropocentric and fails to see “the world as it is” beyond human structuring, posturing, and ethics.

    While it is a fascinating discussion, I feel your use of antiquated philosophers who are stymied by the limited constructs of codified “logos” and reason, fails to grasp important pitfalls of such structuralized thought. The presumption, by logicians and the like, is that meaning is necessarily fixed and dogmatic. This philosopical premise, following post-structuralism and postmodernism, is no longer tenable or “reasonable.”

    Read some Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Rorty.

    Regardless of all the intellectual banter, my feelings regarding the topic are complex. I envy your simplicity, much as I am grateful to be who I am and see the issue in a different way. Inevitably, regardless of how I may anthrophomorphize animals, there is always necessarily the human construct being placed on the animal world in order to understand or explain.

    That being said, to see an animal, shaking in a cage, being injected with needles, being pinned down by all fours, clearly frightened and suffering, is a visceral experience and one that leaves an impact. The experience of being an animal is not one that can be contained by human constructs, only in so far as we are using those constructs to justify our own utilitarian use of animals. Inevitably, humans “use” thousands of living organisms for their survival, from a carrot to a cow hide. For some, paying homage to whatever living being they are “using” is enough. For others, doing everything possible to avoid that death is crucial.

    From a ‘human’ perspective, it is a topic that goes beyond the old rationalization of “well gee, that monkey can’t make moral judgments anyway so…..”

  2. Interesting to discuss animal “use”. What about the way pet owners “use” their pets? Isn’t the breeding of animals for comapnionship and “love” also utilitarian?

  3. Indeed, you could say that. Of course, rescuing animals could be perceived a bit differently although could still be deemed self serving.

  4. I’ve often wondered whether we ‘use’ dogs and cats as pets. A perfect example is that last night one of my indoor cats escaped outside, and I had a hell of a time catching him. Am I really keeping him in a house-sized cage? Probably, but my justification is that there is a busy street nearby that will surely kill him if he runs into it.

    I think that with animals that are domesticated, especially cats and dogs, who have been trained and used by us for thousands of years (and became pets after they became useful to us in other ways), we do have an obligation to house and feed, since in a very real way, humans ‘created’ the versions of the animal (that is, domesticated) that they are now. I am opposed to breeding animals to become pets, because to me, that is the same as ‘using’ them for the way that they look, or for certain behavioral traits. Plus it’s just shameful that you’d pay to produce a dog when there are so many that would just about kill themselves for a good home.

    Also, I have personal experience with dogs and cats since I was a kid, and maybe this is just because I’m hopelessly anthropocentric, but I think my cats and my dog really do love me, and not just because I feed them. (Disclaimer: there is a very warm and fuzzy grey cat in my lap licking my arm as I write this!)

    I am also oppsed to ‘exotic’ pets, since I see that they are ‘used’ in the same way that bred animals are. They don’t belong in a cage in your house, or even freely able to run around, they belong in their natural habitat. So when Paris Hilton gets bitten by her kinkajou, I think that she deserves it!

    But I also think there is an idea put forth by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire…he writes about plants, but I think the idea has possible context for animals too. His theory is that while we are busy ‘using’ an animal, they are just as much ‘using’ us, that it is all an evolutionary two-way street. My cat gives me warmth, purring, kisses, (and often a diva-sized attitude) and I give her really good food, a warm and dry home, treats, and health care. Not a bad deal for the cat, and in the past, that connection with human beings meant their offspring would be more likely to survive. Now cats are SO successful that wherever you go, there are too many of them! An evolutionary success.

  5. And what do you think of animal testing?

  6. Animal research has helped progress medicine and saved both human and animal lives. It has also helped identify dangerous substances which have then been controlled or banned. We might not like the idea of experimenting on animals but it has helped the people and the planet as a whole. I look forward to alternatives being develelped.
    We need a balanced approach and a free debate – that is one free of death threats against scientists and those who support animal experiments.

  7. Just because animals can’t prevent us from imposing suffering or discourse with us on the ‘moral implications’ of those actions doesn’t mean that it’s okay for us to do it. In my opinion, you’re not using your so-called moral superiority very well if you’re using it to justify animal testing in this manner.

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