The Moral Status of Animals in Science
Written by Dr. Katharine Browne
Katharine Browne is a faculty member of the Department of Philosophy at Langara College in Vancouver, BC. She holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto and has held positions in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and at the Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN) at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her main research and teaching interests are in ethics, especially biomedical ethics. She has a long-standing interest in animal rights issues, and has also published on ethical issues emerging from reproductive technologies and vaccination development and policy.
The research by Dr. Frederick Banting and Charles Best that led to the discovery of insulin involved the use of dogs as research subjects. Their experiments built on an earlier discovery by German researchers Dr. Oscar Minkowski and Dr. Josef von Mering that diabetes could be induced in dogs through the removal of the pancreas. Banting had the idea that pancreatic extracts could be used to treat diabetes. To test this, Banting and Best removed the pancreases of dogs in one group. They then tied off the pancreas ducts in another group of dogs. This caused the pancreas to degenerate and produce a secretion, which was then harvested to treat the diabetes in the dogs who had their pancreases removed. Banting and Best were initially supplied with ten dogs on which to perform their experiments, the majority of which died from infection and complications from the surgical procedures they endured. As their research continued and depended on having dogs, Banting and Best eventually resorted to purchasing additional dogs on the streets of Toronto.
You may be troubled by the thought of using dogs as research subjects. If you are, what bothers you about it? Do you think of your own beloved pet? Would you be less bothered if the animal in question were a mouse or rat? The fact is that animals are widely used in scientific research. In Canada alone, an estimated three to four million animals are used for scientific research every year. The vast majority of these animals are mice, birds, and fish, but larger animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, and non-human primates are also used (CCAC Animal Data Report, 2019).
The use of animals in research is often justified on practical grounds. In many cases, the animals that are used are physiologically similar to humans, and so serve as good models for the human case. Indeed, dogs develop a form of diabetes that is similar to that developed by humans. As we see in the case of insulin research, there is no question that the use of animals in science has benefits for humans. But we might ask whether such research should be allowed, morally speaking. This question is part of a more general discussion about the moral status of non-human animals. Do the lives of animals matter? Does morality require that we consider their interests? We typically treat the lives of animals as mattering less than those of humans. We eat them, wear their skins, buy and sell them. We use them for our entertainment, and we experiment on them. We would not dare do such things to humans today. The question is whether there is good reason to treat animals differently from humans. In this article we will take up some of the different ways we can answer this question and what the implications are for the permissibility of animal research.
Why Should Human Lives Matter More Than Those of Non-Human Animals?
Perhaps the most common reason one might offer to justify treating animals differently from humans is that they are not human. Some people argue that humans, by their very nature, have an inherent dignity that commands respect. This dignity would be violated if we, for example, used humans in experiments without their consent. Non-human animals, by contrast (so the argument goes), lack this dignity. It is thus acceptable, according to this view, to use animals for our own purposes, as we do when we experiment on them. But it would not be acceptable to do the same in the case of humans.
However, we might ask, what’s so special about being human? Why should human lives matter more than those of non-human animals? Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, has argued that prioritizing the lives of humans over non-human animals just because they belong to a different species is a kind of discrimination he refers to as “speciesism” (Singer, 1974, p.107). Singer thinks speciesism is objectionable in the same way that racism or sexism are. In all cases, members of one group are given priority over members of another group on the basis of characteristics (i.e., skin colour, sex, or species membership) that are irrelevant to whether their interests should count for any less. Thus, if racism and sexism are wrong, so is speciesism.
One might suggest that animals are not as intelligent as humans, and so their lives should count for less. But here again, we can ask another question: Why is it permissible for individuals with a higher intelligence to take advantage of those with lesser intelligence? The fact that we can do something does not necessarily mean that it is morally acceptable to do so. Just because Jane can beat Susan up and steal her lunch money does not mean that it is morally acceptable for her to beat Susan up and steal her lunch money.
Furthermore, even if we did want to say that intelligence makes a difference in determining which lives should matter more, appealing to intelligence will not sharply distinguish all humans from non-human animals. Wherever we set the bar for intelligence, there will be some animals that might meet it (e.g., some non-human primates or dolphins) and some humans who will not (e.g., individuals with severe cognitive impairments). Indeed, Singer asks us to imagine replacing all animals used in science with humans who have similar mental capacities. If we are not willing to replace animals with humans in these cases, we are guilty of the same kind of bias as racists or sexists in prioritizing the lives of one group’s members over those of others.
Thus, the lives of animals cannot be discounted merely because they are animals (or are not human). We now move on to two approaches—namely, welfare-based and rights-based—that assign a moral status to animals based on the kinds of capacities that they do possess. In saying that an animal has a moral status, we mean that the animal matters, and that we need to take its interests into account. But what interests an animal has and how much we need to consider them will depend on whether we adopt a welfare-based or a rights-based approach.
Why Care About Animal Welfare?
Animal welfare-based approaches are most famously associated with the philosophical moral theory known as “utilitarianism”. Utilitarianism is a variety of consequentialism, which maintains that the rightness or wrongness of actions lie solely in their consequences. Utilitarians believe that happiness is ultimately what matters and think that morally correct actions are those that maximize happiness. The amount of happiness an action produces can be measured by subtracting the total amount of pain it causes from the total amount of pleasure it causes.
The utilitarian will determine the morally correct action by looking at its consequences and determining whether there is more happiness contained in those consequences for everyone than the consequences of alternative actions. According to this view, the action that results in the most happiness is the morally correct action, and all other actions are wrong.
Suppose that Jane’s friend Adrian has just returned from the hairdresser and has received a terrible haircut. Adrian asks Jane what she thinks. Jane can either tell the truth and hurt Adrian’s feelings or she can lie—say the haircut looks great—and brighten her friend’s day. A utilitarian will say that Jane must lie in this case, if that is the action that leads to the greatest amount of happiness.
The utilitarian does not just think that human happiness matters. For the utilitarian, the capacity to feel pleasure and pain—a capacity referred to as “sentience”—gives a creature a moral status. Any creature that has the capacity to suffer has at least an interest in not suffering, and we are morally obligated to take that suffering into account. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who is regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism, states this as follows:
The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden [sic.] from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. 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 old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Bentham, ch.XVII).
We can now see how the utilitarian will respond to the question of the permissibility of using animals in research. The dogs used in the insulin research conducted by Banting and Best underwent invasive procedures, and many died. But this research ended up saving millions of human lives. The utilitarian will determine how much pain is involved for the dogs and how much happiness is produced for everyone else. If the consequences of using those dogs generated more happiness than the alternatives, then such research is morally permissible.
It is important to note here that the utilitarian will allow the above research only if it creates better consequences than its alternatives. Thus, if there are less invasive ways of delivering the results, or if there are ways of making the discovery without the use of dogs (or with fewer dogs), then one must choose those options instead.
This is largely the reasoning underlying current practice in Canada. The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) is responsible for creating and upholding the standards for animal use for scientific research in Canada. According to its mandate, research involving animals is permissible “only if it promises to contribute to understanding of fundamental biological principles, or to the development of knowledge that can reasonably be expected to benefit humans or animals” (CCAC, “Why is Animal Science Conducted in Canada?”). The CCAC aims further to improve the lives of animals used in science, by reducing the number of animals used for scientific purposes wherever possible, refining techniques for using animals so that they are minimally invasive and enhancing the welfare of animals that are used.
We might, however, ask whether it is enough that the animals used in research are treated well. Should they be used at all? Animal rights-based approaches, to which we will now turn, take a stricter line against the use of animals for human purposes.
What Rights do Animals Have?
Animal rights-based approaches will consider the possibility of ascribing rights to animals, where rights are understood broadly as inviolable protections or entitlements. A rights-based view will say that animals are entitled to certain protections, for example, from being used for our own purposes (as happens when we use them as research subjects). A rights-based approach will hold that research on animals is strictly impermissible and call for the abolition of all practices that violate animal rights.
But first we need an account of why animals should have rights. What characteristics does a creature need to have in order for it to have rights? This approach is influenced by the “deontological theory of morality.” Deontology means the study of duty or obligation. Deontologists think that the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences, but instead on whether they fulfill our duties. The most famous deontological view is that of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant thought that we had a duty to respect rational individuals. A rational individual is one that is able to reflect on its reasons for action. Suppose that you find a wallet full of money on the sidewalk. What would you do? Would you keep the money for yourself or would you return the money to its rightful owner? The fact that you are now able to think about what you would do in such a scenario makes you a rational creature.
Kant thought that rational creatures had the right to be respected, and that rights could not be brushed aside in order to maximize happiness. In the example above involving Adrian’s unfortunate haircut, Kant would say that Jane must not lie to Adrian, no matter the consequences. Adrian is a rational creature and deserves to be respected. Kant thought that we show a lack of respect to persons when we lie to them and that lying is therefore always impermissible.
Thus, rationality is what matters for Kant. However, Kant also thought that animals lacked rationality and so had no rights. We thus have no duty to respect them or to refrain from using them for our own purposes. It would not be wrong, based on his reasoning, then, to use animals in experiments.
Not everyone agrees with Kant. Some defenders of animal rights have argued that animals may lack rationality as Kant describes it, but that they do nonetheless have characteristics that command us to respect them (Regan, 1983; Korsgaard, 2012). For example, some will argue that any creature that has a life that matters to it should be treated with respect.
What does it mean for an animal to have a life that matters to it? Consider the family dog. She might not be able to reflect on whether she was a bad girl for chewing Timmy’s shoes, and so may not be rational according to Kant’s view. But there are nevertheless things that are good for her and bad for her, from her perspective. She might prefer wet food to kibble, and may like walking in the forest better than walking on the beach. She may not like the little dog who lives next door and might be fearful of the vet. Proponents of animal rights will argue that the existence of these preferences, desires, and experiences mean that the family dog has a life that matters to her, and that is what entitles her to rights. And once a creature has rights, we have a duty not to disrespect them, which includes using them for our own purposes. On this view, Banting and Best’s insulin research would have been strictly impermissible, no matter the good consequences that came from it.
Banting and Best’s research saved millions of human lives and dramatically improved the prognosis of persons living with diabetes, but this came at a significant cost to the dogs who served as research subjects. Whether we think such research was justified—and whether research involving animals in general is permissible—will depend largely on what we take the moral status of those animals to be. We have seen that animal welfare and animal rights-based approaches agree that animals have a moral status, but for different reasons. Animal welfare advocates think that sentience is what matters. This view will lead to a refinement of many practices that involve animals, but not a strict prohibition of all. Rights-based advocates, by contrast, hold that animals have inviolable rights. It is not enough, in this view, that we consider the welfare of animals that are used for our purposes; rather, we must not use them at all. Whichever outlook we choose, it is clear that animals deserve more than we sometimes give them, and that we owe them much gratitude for the role they have played in scientific discovery.
Bliss, Michael (2013). The Discovery of Insulin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bentham, Jeremy (1970). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart.
Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC). Animal Data Report 2019. Retrieved December 10, 2020 from https://www.ccac.ca/Documents/AUD/2019-Animal-Data-Report.pdf
Canadian Council on Animal Care. Why is Animal Science Conducted in Canada? Retrieved December 10, 2020 from https://www.ccac.ca/en/facts-and-legislation/animals-in-canadian-science/why.html
Korsgaard, Christine. M. (2018). Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Regan, Tom (1983). The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Singer, Peter (1974). All Animals Are Equal. Philosophic Exchange, 5(1), 103-116.