How Animal "Rights" Activists Are Trashing Science

Jonathan Dale jdale at
Sun Jul 18 01:30:51 EST 1993

This text is a paper I wrote for my bioethics course.  I think it does a
good job of exploring some of the problems with establishing a strong
philosophical framework for any position regarding animal research.  
Hopefully it will start some discussion in a productive direction.  I have
not altered it before posting (except in formatting), despite temptation
to do so, because I wanted to post it right away.  Please post or email
thoughtful comments.

By the way, I might mention something about where I'm coming from.  I 
completed an undergraduate thesis studying starfish behavior and learning.
I intend to start working with lobsters in the fall, behavior and 
neuroanatomy.  So I have some pro-research basis.  On the other hand,
I don't eat mammals.  Go figure.  I consider the morality of all this
an open question.  

Incidentally, I make a brief reference to the Silver Spring case.  Franklin
also refered to it, suggesting that the researcher had done no wrong and that
recent examination of the case showed there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.
I'm curious about the truth of the matter, having seen and heard pretty
strong accounts.  Either way, though, it isn't terribly relevant to my paper.

---Jonathan Dale
   jdale at



     For millennia we have used animals for food and clothing, and use of
animals in scientific research goes back at least to the third century BC
in ancient Greece.  Earliest uses of animals (for food) were probably not
justified beyond "I'm hungry," but we moved from an attitude of believing
that animals exist to serve our purposes to one where our use was
acceptable because animals were incapable of thinking or even feeling pain. 
As we gained a better understanding of the interconnectedness of the
environment, more awareness of complex animal behaviors and social
interactions, and used an appeal to rights to strive for equality of
minorities and women, some began to question the use of animals.  Early
animal welfare societies were joined by more extreme groups, such as the
Animal Liberation Front whose first act was to raid the New York University
Medical Center and liberate a cat and two guinea pigs (Baird and Rosenbaum,
1991, 25).  By 1991, some 10 million people were estimated to belong to one
or another animal rights groups in the United States, many protesting the
use of some 17-21 million animals in research each year.   
     For animal researchers, such attention was surprising.  The number of
animals used in research is significantly lower than the number eaten each
year.  Further, most researchers consider themselves to be aiding in the
quest for knowledge, and either directly or indirectly reducing human
suffering.  Those who opposed animal research (often referred to as "animal
rightists" or "antivivisectionists", neither term accurately describing all
holding this position) saw research as a clear violation of rights just as
much as slavery had been, or saw limitation of research as a clear
consequence of the fact that animals can suffer.  Each side seeing totally
separate aspects of the issue, there was little communication and a great
deal of emotionalism.  An abundance of emotional, but not logically
consistent, arguments were advanced.
     One aspect of the debate has been whether or not animal research has
produced any useful information.  Those against animal research routinely
claim "Animal research is trivial and produces no benefits" or label
scientific research "gratuitous."  Researchers tend to cite every medical
advance in the last century as a benefit of animal research, including
cures for diseases such as polio, cholera, smallpox, and tuberculosis. 
This debate is largely irrelevant to the question of whether the use of
animals is _ethical_ or not, and will not be addressed again in this paper. 
Some scientists have a similar approach to accusations of cruelty: Ojeda
says "It would be, I believe, extremely difficult to find a scientist who
is not concerned about the humane treatment of animals and who does not
strongly advocate procedures that upgrade the care and treatment of
laboratory animals.  I also find it hard to believe that there are some
among us who deliberately abuse animals." (Ojeda, 1990)  This argument from
personal incredulity is rather weak in the view of cases of clear abuse,
such as the infamous Silver Spring case.  In any case, the assertion that
researchers are basically nice people is not material to an ethical
     Similarly, animal research has been labeled with strange new insults,
being called "vivisection" (which literally refers only to dissection of
live animals) and described as "speciesist," a label which asserts it is
equivalent to racism without troubled to establish why this might be so. 
Tom Regan even goes another step and invents the term "sentientism" to
label discrimination against non-thinking beings, such as plants (Regan,
1982, 184).  These descents into mud-slinging do nothing to illuminate the
substantive ethical issues involved.  In the same way, both sides compare
their opponents to the Nazis.  Those opposed to animal research claim it is
an equivalent violation of the rights of animals as the Nazi treatment of
humans in the concentration camps; supporters point out that the Nazi
regime banned animal experimentation and boldly assert that Nazi-style
human experimentation is the inevitable result of not doing animal
research.  Once again, these blatant emotional digs get us nowhere in
actually understanding the issues.
     Finally, those on both sides often cite a mysterious "Judeo-Christian"
ethic, which somehow both supports animal research by giving us total
"Dominion" over animals and refutes it by saying our duty of "Stewardship"
bans such treatment of them.  We will leave this debate to the theologians,
because religious arguments rightfully have no place in determining the
ethics of a religiously diverse society.
     The point of this paper is to extract the basic ethical and
philosophical arguments for each side and consider just what the basic
ethical issues involved are.  Do animals have rights?  Do we have duties to
them?  Can they suffer?  Do they have interests?  Which characteristics are
morally relevant?  Although we will probably not definitively answer any of
these questions, we will examine them carefully.


     One of the strongest ethical systems today is formalism, as expressed
by Kant.  In Kant's system, all moral agents have rights because they
universally legislate these rights for themselves and all other moral
agents.  Moral agents in this conception are characterized by the ability
to do right or wrong and to tell the difference.  It is generally accepted
that animals are not moral agents in this conception (which may exclude
some humans), but we will briefly address this issue again when we consider
what criteria are morally relevant.  Another formalist, Michael Fox, states
that moral agents have "critical self-awareness; the ability to manipulate
complex concepts and to use a sophisticated language...; and the capacity
to reflect, plan, deliberate, choose, and accept responsibility for
acting." (Fox, 1986, 50).  He goes on to assert that animals are incapable
of understanding the reasons why things are wrong, beyond the idea that
doing something may cause a negative result for the animal.  To answer the
claim that these requirements exclude some humans that we might think ought
to have rights ("infants, the severely mentally retarded, and those who are
senile, autistic, mentally ill, badly brain damaged, comatose, and so on"),
he says "a reasonable position to take would seem to be that here
membership in our own species ought to count for something, in the sense in
which a charitable attitude toward those less developed or less fortunate
than ourselves, for whom we feel some especially close kinship, is
particularly compelling to a morally mature person" (Fox, 1986, 60).  Here
we have the baldly stated claim that membership in our species is a morally
significant feature.
     Both Kant and Fox feel that we should not abuse animals carelessly. 
Kant suggests that cruelty to animals will lead to cruelty to humans, and
thus is morally wrong, but Fox attacks this belief and says rather that we
should avoid cruelty to animals because it is inhuman and beneath human
dignity (Fox, 1986, 77).  Neither of these claims are particularly strong
or well-founded, so one might take a formalist position and claim that no
treatment of animals can be immoral. 
     More commonly, animal research is supported by the use of
utilitarianism (usually not explicitly, however).  Utilitarianism defines
good acts as those that increase overall happiness and decrease overall
suffering.  Animals are either not considered in the equation, or
considered to be less significant in the weighing of alternatives.  This
view can be seen in positions like that of the American Medical
Association, whose recent statement on animal research indicated:
     "...animals sometimes must be sacrificed in the development of methods
     to relieve pain and suffering of humans (and animals) and to affect
     treatments and cures of a variety of human maladies.... The
     immeasurable benefits of animal research are undeniable.... Love of
     animals and concern for their welfare are admirable characteristics
     that distinguish humans from other species of animals.... However,
     when the concern for animals impedes the development of methods to

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