Animal Research: A Matter of Moral Relevance


by Bernard E. Rollin, Ph.D.

Philosophers have shown that the standard reasons offered to exclude animals from the moral circle, and to justify not assessing our treatment of them by the same moral categories and machinery we use for assessing the treatment of humans, do not meet the test of moral relevance.

Such historically sanctioned reasons as “Animals lack a soul,” “Animals do not reason,” “Humans are more powerful than animals,” “Animals do not have language,” and “God said we could do as we wish to animals” have been demonstrated to provide no rational basis for failing to reckon animal interests in our moral deliberations. For one thing, while several of the above statements may mark differences between humans and animals, they do not mark morally relevant differences that justify harming animals when we would not similarly harm people.

For example, if we justify harming animals on the grounds that we are more powerful than they are, we are essentially affirming that “might makes right,” a principle that morality is in large measure created to overcome. By the same token, if we are permitted to harm animals for our benefit because they lack reason, there are no grounds for not extending the same logic to nonrational humans. And while animals may not have the same interests as people, it is evident to common sense that they certainly do have interests, the fulfilment and thwarting of which matter to them.

The interests of animals that are violated by research are patent. Invasive research such as surgical research, toxicological research, and disease research certainly harms the animals and causes pain and suffering. But even noninvasive research on captive animals causes pain and suffering, and deprivation arising out of the manner in which research animals are kept.

Social animals are often kept in isolation; burrowing animals are kept in stainless steel or polycarbonate cages; and in general animals’ normal repertoire of powers and coping abilities—what I have called their teloi, or natures—are thwarted. Indeed, Tom Wolfle, a leading laboratory-animal veterinarian and animal behaviorist formerly at the NIH, has persuasively argued that animals used in research probably suffer more from ways in which they are kept for research than from the invasive manipulation they are exposed to within research.

The common moral machinery that society has developed for adjudicating and assessing our treatment of people would not allow people to be used in invasive research without their informed consent, even if a great benefit were to accrue to the remainder of society from such use. This is the case even if the people to be used were cognitively disabled.

A grasp of this component of our ethic has led many philosophers to argue that one should not subject an animal to any experimental protocol that society would not be morally prepared to accept if performed on an intellectually disabled human. There appears in fact to be no morally relevant difference between intellectually disabled humans and many animals—in both cases, what we do to the beings in question matters to them, as they are capable of pain, suffering and distress.

While we do indeed perform some research on the cognitively disabled, we do not do so without as far as possible garnering their consent or, if they are incapable of giving consent, obtaining such consent from guardians specifically mandated with protecting their basic interests. This was not always the case—witness the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments on poor, uneducated, rural African American men over the forty-year time span from 1932 to 1972. They were told only that the government was giving them “free health care,” but they were never treated with penicillin, even when it had been proven to cure syphilis. Numerous invasive studies on uninformed humans were performed throughout the twentieth century, until the federal government responded to the Tuskegee revelations by mandating strict rules for research on humans.

Applying such a policy to animals would forestall the vast majority of current research on captive animals, even if the bulk of such research is noninvasive, given the considerations detailed above concerning the violations of animals’ basic interests as a consequence of how we keep them.

The above argument applies even more strongly to the case of animals used in psychological research, where one is using animals as a model to study noxious psychological or psychosocial states that appear in humans—pain, fear, anxiety, addiction, aggression, and so forth. Here one can generate what has been called the psychologist’s dilemma: If the relevant state being produced in the animals is analogous to the same state in humans, why are we morally entitled to produce that state in animals when we would not be so entitled to produce it in humans? And if the animal state is not analogous to the human state, why create it in the animal at all?

In short, what entitles humans to use animals in ways that harm, hurt, kill, or distress them in research for human benefit?

Excerpted from A New Basis for Animal Ethics: Telos and Common Sense, ©2016

Bernard E. Rollin, Ph.D., served as Science Advisor to the National Anti-Vivisection Society, as well as a Scientific Advisory Board member of the International Foundation for Ethical Research. The 2016 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the organization Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, he also served on the Pew National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production as well as on the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources Council of the National Academy of Sciences. His autobiography, Putting the Cart Before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals, was published by Temple University Press in 2011.