Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Animal Experimentation

 Virtually all drugs and surgical treatments for people are developed or tested on animals. Medicine and surgery benefit and save the lives of many people and the apparent gain to humanity seems to outweigh the subjectively perceived negative treatment to the animals. Consequently dissent about the use of animals in research laboratories went largely unheeded for a long time.

However, it is more widely known today that laboratory animals can undergo procedures such as:

  • Depredation of water, food or sleep.

  • Force feeding, poisoning, burning, gassing, electrocution and physical injury.

  • Induction of heart attacks, ulcers, cancer or mental stress.

  • Infection with disease.

  • Severing of limbs or other body parts.

  • Brain damage and destruction of sensory organs.

  • Consequently, some people question whether animal experimentation is cruel or morally justifiable and ask:
  • Should animals be deliberately subjected to physical and emotional harm in experiments and be confined to impoverished living conditions?

  • Do gains for human health and well-being outweigh the suffering of animals?

Animals Used

Worldwide the most used laboratory animals are rats and mice. Cheap to house, easy to handle, they breed quickly and make up 90 per cent of animals used in the US and 80 per cent in Britain.

Other animals used in experiments include apes, monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, guinea pigs, rabbits, reptiles, amphibians and fish.

For details see Laboratory Animals.

The Experimenter's Rational

The experimenter's rational for experimenting on animals is that experimenting on humans is illegal and immoral, but that animals and humans are sufficiently similar so findings on one can be applied to the other. (But see Experimental Contradiction.) Indeed, for some experiments animals can make better research subjects than humans. The living conditions of animals (diet and food intake, lighting and ambient temperature, etc) can be controlled more easily and the shorter life span of animals makes possible the study of several generations of experimental subjects.

Experimental Areas

Main areas of animal experimentation are:

  • Medicine
    Testing the efficacy and safety of drugs for curing diseases, like cancer, AIDS and heart disease. Drugs are tested on animals basically to rule out any remedies that are assessed as too dangerous to try on people. Also, researching afflictions, like epilepsy, obesity and infertility, and researching injuries, such as to the brain or spinal chord.

  • Surgery
    Exploring procedures like organ transplants and heart surgery. Testing artificial body-parts like heart-valves and arteries. (See Xenotransplantation). Finding out how to repair injuries to the brain and nerves.

  • Science
    Understanding physical, mental and behavioural processes such as learning, perception, effects of stress, understanding ageing, infertility and birth defects.

  • Toxicity Testing
    Evaluating substances and products to assess their safety for human and environmental use, such as cosmetics, food additives, alcohol, tobacco, household substances, agricultural chemicals and industrial substances.

  • Military
    For instance researching radiation or poisoning, and exposure to extreme conditions. For example Bends Experiments.

  • Education
    Teaching at schools, colleges, universities and medical schools, from simple dissection in schools to surgical techniques for medical and veterinary students.

  • In addition to the above, institutions keep many animals as breeders to maintain the level of animal stocks.

    Compact History of Animal Experimentation

  • Begins in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago.

  • Continues into Roman era.

  • Passes on to Arab medical schools and ceases in Europe in Dark Ages.

  • 16th century
    Revives in Italy and spreads throughout Europe.

  • 17th century
    Many fundamental discoveries made, eg function of lungs and circulation of blood.

  • 1860's
    General anaesthesia developed, starting with ether and chloroform. Now experimenters can render animals unconscious before an operation. Hitherto they tied down and cut open conscious animals. However, even today not all animals are anaesthetised.

  • 1881
    250 experiments carried out in Britain, the first year that records on the number of animal experiments are kept.

  • 19th century
    The first laws are passed in a few countries to act as guidelines on how animals may be used for experimentation. But many countries today still have no laws.

  • Present
    Between 40 million and 100 million animals are experimented on annually worldwide. See Laboratory Animals.

  • Glossary

    Three useful terms often used when dealing with laboratory animals are:

    Vivisection - cutting into live animals. From the Latin: vivi for live, and section for cutting. Today the term broadly refers to any physical (not behavioural) experiment with or without surgery or anaesthetic on the body of a live animal.

    Biomedical research - the study of the living body to understand its functions and find cures for diseases.

    A procedure - usually means a single experiment on a single animal.


    Human Superiority
    The opinion that forms the basis for experimenting on animals is epitomised by this anthropocentric quote from the House of Lords (Chapter 2: Ethics. Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures Report, United Kingdom Parliament, 2002):
"...the whole institution of morality, society and law is founded on the belief that human beings are unique amongst animals. Humans are therefore morally entitled to use animals, whether in the laboratory, the farmyard or the house, for their own purposes."
Of course humans are unique, but then so are chimpanzees, tigers and elephants. Each is a particular and singular species. Humans are not more unique than any other species; they are simply different, which is why we are a separate species. However, if humans were somehow superior to other animals then we should demonstrate that superiority through being morally responsible by not harming animals. Our superiority would be that we are a morally mature and compassionate species.

Laboratory animals are not respected as independent living beings in their own right, as subjects of a life, but as a means to human ends (such as better human health or weapons testing). If you support basic animal rights then incarcerating, vivisecting or forcing behavioural research on animals is a fundamental violation of the rights of animals to live their own lives.

Double Standard
Vivisectors say the results from experiments on animals are useful because animals are like humans. If this is so then experimenting on them is as morally wrong as experimenting on humans is morally wrong (see Experimental Contradiction).

Bad Science
Animal experimentation is bad science if animals have a sufficiently different body chemistry compared with humans (see Dissimilarity, below). Perpetuating bad science is immoral because its results are likely to be wrong and therefore not lead to cures as well as waste animal lives.

Unnecessary Suffering
Reputable experimenters try to avoid 'unnecessary' suffering. But 'necessary' suffering is still suffering, animals cannot distinguish between 'necessary' and 'unnecessary' suffering, and many people would say the one is as immoral as the other.

Weighing Pain
As a utilitarian you might justify animal experimentation by claiming that it prevents more (human) suffering than it costs the animals who are experimented on. But as a supporter of Painism you would maintain that the pain of individuals in one group cannot be added up and weighed against the pain of individuals in another group and therefore experimentation is immoral.

Many people hold the view that using animals to test the safety of substances simply because laws say it must be done, as for example the Draize Test, is inane Legalism, does not encourage non-animal testing (see Three R's), and therefore is immoral.

Easy Availability
Anyone can argue that making animals easily available for use in experiments is immoral because it delays finding more efficient experimental scientific techniques and thus retards the advancement of science, especially medical science and the benefits that might come from it.

For & Against: argue your case

Grey Matter
  • Animal activists are mental lightweights who can only respond to emotional pictures of kittens with electrodes in their heads.

  • First rank animal liberation philosophers and scientists put up logical and rigorous arguments for the case against animal experimentation.

  • Rights
  • Claim: No one has the right to stop animal experiments if these experiments can cure the suffering of people. Even sick animals needing a cure benefit from animal experiments.

  • Claim: Individual animals have the right not to undergo forceful procedures which harm them or from which they themselves will not benefit.

  • Drugs
  • Claim: Human health is better off for testing drugs on animals because of the development of improved and safer drugs and vaccines to combat disease.

  • Claim: Drugs are not as wonderful as some people make them out to be. Tens of thousands of people die and millions of people are made seriously ill every year by swallowing drugs. Only cancer, heart disease and stroke kill more people than drugs.

  • Alternatives
  • Claim: Experiments on animals are not essential. Diseases can be cured using alternative research methods (see the Three R's).

  • Claim: We have to understand how all the parts of the whole living body interact to cope with diseases and treatments. For example, scientists can detect the harmful effects of treatments on foetal development by using whole animals but cannot by using only tissue culture or computer modelling.

  • Whole Animals
  • Claim: Most fatal diseases occur at the level of the cell, cancer and AIDS for example, making whole animals unnecessary. Therefore experimenters can use cells and tissues in test tubes.

  • Claim: Some experiments require whole animals. For example, digestion and other body processes may alter a drug so that it becomes less effective or more harmful in the body. Experimenters may therefore need a whole animal to test the drug on.

  • Dissimilarity
  • Claim: Animals and humans have sufficiently different body chemistry that tests on animals largely tell us about animals, not people. For instance, species react differently to the same drug: strychnine is deadly to people but not monkeys, belladonna kills humans yet is harmless to rabbits. Only tests on humans are reliable for humans.

  • Claim: Humans are physically very similar to other mammals, with the same organs: heart, blood, nervous system etc. Animal experiments, therefore, are a guide to what is likely to happen with humans.

  • Similarity
  • Claim: Mammals are sufficiently physically like humans to show how a drug or surgical procedure influences a living body and can show up previously unpredicted side effects.

  • Claim: This is a double standard. If mammals are physically so similar to humans that they can act as substitutes, then it is as wrong to use them in experiments, just as it is wrong to use humans.

  • Disasters
  • Claim: Testing drugs on animals has not protected the public from disasters, like the thalidomide tragedy. Pregnant mothers on this drug gave birth to babies without fully formed limbs in the 1960's. This effect did not show up in prior experiments on animals. So safety testing on animals does not work.

  • Claim: Testing drugs on animals works on the whole. Thalidomide was not tested on pregnant animals, which shows there should be more testing on animals - pregnant and non-pregnant - not less testing.

  • Public Health vs Experimentation
  • Claim: Experimentation on animals makes only a modest contribution to health. The major gains to health are from public health work, ie preventing diseases occurring in the first place by improving personal hygiene, diet, lifestyle, sanitation and access to clean water.

  • Claim: Animal experimentation has allowed new techniques in surgery, eg open heart surgery and hip replacement, and new treatments for diseases, eg antibiotics, anaesthetics and vaccines. We also face new diseases, like HIV. Old diseases, like tuberculosis, are becoming resistant to existing drugs. So we still need animal experimentation.

  • Measuring Suffering
  • Claim: Animal experimentation saves a huge number of human lives and prevents tremendous human suffering. This exceeds the harm done to the animals experimented on.

  • Claim: It is impossible to measure the pain and suffering of humans and other animals and compare them (see Painism). You can only claim that the benefits to humans seem more important to you, in which case you are speciesist.

  • Cruelty
  • Claim: Deliberately giving animals diseases, like AIDS and hepatitis, forcing them to undergo major surgery and injecting them with untried drugs is cruel.

  • Claim: Research is concerned with human welfare not animal welfare. The only welfare animals need is reasonable maintenance so that the animals make useful experimental subjects. Mistreating animals is bad only if it jeopardises experimental results.

  • Living Conditions
  • Claim: Laboratory animals live bored or distressed lives in barren, inadequate and cramped living conditions. Confining animals like this prevents them carrying out many of their important natural behaviours and is inhumane.

  • Claim: Researchers ensure animals are healthy and adequately fed and housed because sick, stressed or frightened animals reduce the reliability of results.

  • Numbers
  • Claim: Most animals used in US research are rodents, about 90 per cent of the total, mainly mice and rats. In Britain 80 per cent of animals are rodents, less than 0.5 per cent are cats or dogs, and less than 0.2 per cent are primates.

  • Claim: Even mice and rats have rights. Even if cats, dogs and primates amount to only a few percent of the total number of animals used it is still a lot; thousands are experimented on annually worldwide.

  • Misery
  • Claim: Motorists kill millions of animals every year on the roads. Billions of people eat billions of animals every year. So we need not worry about relatively few laboratory animals.

  • Claim: We should not disregard one category of animals because of the greater number of animals in another category. Even if only a single animal were ever experimented on, we should not turn a blind eye to that animal's suffering.

  • Pain
  • Claim: Laboratory animals suffer great pain and distress. Distressed animals in pain kept in unnatural conditions will not provide accurate or consistent experimental results.

  • Claim: Most experiments are mild procedures, like giving an injection or taking a blood sample, and do not cause significant pain or distress. Anaesthetics are used when necessary in more complicated procedures. Experimenters try to minimise distress to animals in the few experiments that cause pain and anaesthetics are not used.

  • Claim: There may be relatively few experiments which cause pain when no anaesthetic is given, but this involves a great many animals, owing to the large number of animals used in experiments.

  • Unnecessary Experiments
  • Claim: Many experiments on animals are unnecessary and pointless, often repeating work already done.

  • Claim: Competition by experimenters for money to finance experiments is intense. Most applications by experimenters for financing are turned down. The selection process usually weeds out any worthless, trivial or repetitive proposals.

  • Wasted Experiments
  • Claim: Scientific journals publish very few results of experiments for dissemination. The other experiments, said to be important at the time, are forgotten, wasted and no good to anyone.

  • Claim: Many animal experiments will not lead to anything. This is the nature of science. You cannot always predict if any particular experiment will have a definitely useful outcome.

  • Laws
  • Claim: Laws - local, national and international - protect research animals. Most universities have ethical or animal care committees which assure they do animal welfare-friendly research. Britain, for example, has the most comprehensive regulations in the world.

  • Claim: Animals used in research are not protected by law in most countries. Where animal protection law exists it is inadequate to protect animals used in research, even in Britain. Ethical committees organise animal research according to their needs, not animal needs; they cannot effectively regulate themselves.

  • Secrecy
  • Claim: The secrecy of scientists about their animal experiments is not warranted, especially when they say their research is done for and paid by the public.

  • Claim: Scientists wish to be open, but sometimes violent and dangerous responses to their research drives many to be defensive and elusive. (See Terrorism.)

  • Further Reading

    Greek, C.R. & Greek J.S. (2002): Specious Science: how genetics and evolution reveal why medical research on animals harms humans. New York: Continuum. The subtitle of this book speaks for itself. In particular see the sections 'Why the Animal Model Fails' and 'Why Animal Experiments Persist'.

    See Three R's and Laboratory Animals.

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved