Just a Little Common Sense

For a life based on reason, ethics, literature and art.

The Ethics of Animal Testing

with 2 comments

The one thing people bring up in defense of animal testing are the huge medical and scientific advances it provides us with. There’s immensely important treatments out there that could not have been developed without experimentation on animals, and nobody seriously denies that.

From a utilitarian point of view, ethics are a cost-benefit calculation: The end does justify the means: While killing people is generally a bad thing to do, assassinating Hitler for example would have been ethically permissible because in that case, the benefit of preventing or at least stopping a genocide outweighs the cost of killing a single human being by several orders of magnitude. By the same token, sentencing a few hundred mice to a death of agony may be morally permissive when it leads to the discovery of, say, a cure for cancer – the future prevention of great suffering outweighs the suffering inflicted upon a few mice in the here and now.

While that is a perfectly valid point to make, it is ridiculous to try to justify all animal testing by pointing out that there are a few experiments among the millions of tortured creatures that significantly advance medical science. The huge majority of animals are being tested on just to show that shampoo X is safe to use on your kids without producing a burning sensation in their precious little eyes, as if there weren’t enough safe ones available already. There is so little scientific or medical progress in these areas that it wouldn’t even justify harming a single fly.
Once that is pointed out, most proponents of animal testing retreat to defending “medical animal testing”. Unfortunately, for that field the same thing holds true: Only a tiny fragment of cruel experiments yield significant results, while the vast majority inflict incredible amounts of suffering for little or insignificant data in return.

The second line of defense for most proponents of animal testing boils down to “but they’re just animals” – They question that animals have any rights at all, or sometimes attack the idea of “rights” itself as being useless and without basis in reality. In essence what they’re saying is that “animals are less able than us, therefore it is okay for us to treat them however we wish.”

Now here is where the discussion gets interesting. Let me start by pointing out that most people would agree that it is wrong to experiment on a less able person. It’s wrong to experiment on the elderly, children, or mentally disabled adults – only very few people would disagree with that.
The problem here is that any argument that can be used to justify the suffering of animals can equally be used to justify inflicting suffering onto less able humans. Perhaps disabled ones, or all below a certain IQ? Or why not experiment on convicts, alcoholics or the homeless?

If you invoke a hierarchy of ability to grant humans a higher ethical status than animals, you have to accept that the “lower” class that includes animals would also include less able humans. The only other real option you have is to invoke an ideal of equality based on the ability to suffer.
Suffering is the only thing that all humans share, and coincidentally is also shared by all other conscious creatures on this planet. So by its own virtue the argument extends to include, without discrimination, all beings capable of suffering.
The question is not whether there is actually such a thing as a “right” to life or to anything – the point is that to whatever extent rights do exist, there is no justification for awarding them to humans without extending them to other animals too.

With regards to animal testing this doesn’t mean we should put a stop to all experiments run on animals. Not all of them inflict a great amount of suffering on the test subjects, and some of them return results important enough to justify the harm inflicted. What it means is that we need a shift of paradigm in the public perception of the issue. Rather than the current idea that animal testing is generally okay and only in especially cruel instances may be morally questionable, we need to accept and recognize the idea that inflicting suffering on any conscious being is generally wrong, and only in certain instances may be permissible.

Setting humans apart from and above all other species is purely arbitrary, much in the same way that racism arbitrarily declares one race to be superior to others.


I’d like to end with a few lines that beautifully sum up the single most important argument that can be made in this debate; it was written well over two centuries ago by Jeremy Bentham, in his work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned […] What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? 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 conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month of age. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?


Written by Phil

February 24, 2011 at 11:57

2 Responses

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  1. everything you say is sad but true. I’m busy writing a play where animal testing is at the forefront of a full-scale human disaster. Fingers crossed it’s produced – might do some poor creature some good.


    May 14, 2011 at 14:45

    • Interesting. Do you plan to publish that play online at some point? I’d very much like to read that.


      May 15, 2011 at 15:18

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