Just a Little Common Sense

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

Posts Tagged ‘Animal Rights

The Ethics of Animal Testing

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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

Vegetarianism: Older Than Christianity

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I get tired of people telling me that vegetarianism is just a fad, a passing trend. Here is one of the latest additions to my collection of quotes, from the writings of the greek philosopher Plutarch (46 – 120 AD):

Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? […] It is certainly not lions and wolves that we eat out of self-defense; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us, creatures that, I swear, Nature appears to have produced for the sake of their beauty and grace. But nothing abashed us, not the flower-like tinting of the flesh, not the persuasiveness of the harmonious voice, not the cleanliness of their habits or the unusual intelligence that may be found in the poor wretches. No, for the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being.

So yes, there already were vegetarians over 2500 years ago. Well known and ancient history even when Plutarch put these lines onto paper, phrasing quite eloquently one of the main reasons for which I abstain from eating flesh: The very idea of feeding on the carcasses of others simply disgusts me.

Written by Phil

November 4, 2010 at 22:43

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