Philosophy - Index > Testing - Index

August 29, 2005
The High Price of Animal Experimentation
by Robert Bass, Ph.D.

You do not settle if an experiment is justified or not by merely showing it is of some use. The distinction is not between useful and useless experiments, but between barbourous and civilized behavior. Vivisection is a social evil because if it advances human knowledge, it does so at the expence of human character. - George Bernard Shaw

Animal exploiters and their apologists, like Brian O'Connor, have trouble focusing on the real issues. O'Connor briefly adverts to Gayle Dean's article before launching into a long, rambling catalogue of allegations against PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). This is puzzling. You might think that Dean's article had been written about how PETA has a squeaky-clean record. O'Connor's catalogue would then make a certain amount of sense. In fact, Dean's article had been hardly concerned with PETA at all, except to point out that the organization had compiled a strong and well-documented case that the biomedical research firm, Covance, had engaged in unconscionable cruelty to their animal test-subjects. Never mind any question of animal rights: Covance appears guilty of egregious violations of existing animal cruelty law. (See for yourself at Since Dean's article was not a defence of PETA, the enumeration of their alleged sins appears to be merely an ad hominem attack: O'Connor does not like the message, so he attacks the messenger.

Still, though the supposed misdemeanors have no logical relevance, citing them makes a certain strategic sense on O'Connor's part – at least if he seeks to distract attention from the real issues. It is tempting to try to answer each allegation, to show how quotes were ripped from their contexts, and to counter the fundamentally unfair tactic of taking different things, said by different people, on different occasions, as the expression of a single sinister view. The problem with that is that editors will not tolerate having their pages taken over by the explanations. He who makes the most accusations wins by default. Evidently, O'Connor has no intention of losing for lack of enough accusations.

Rather than being drawn into the thankless task of point-by-point reply, however, I will mention just one case where O'Connor's eagerness to believe bad things of PETA has betrayed him. He speaks of Fran Trutt, "who tried to kill the director of a medical lab." He doesn't bother mentioning that the whole thing was a put-up job, deliberately designed to make the animal rights cause look bad. Who did the designing? The lab director himself, who also made sure police were on hand to make the arrest – all of which came out at the trial, with incriminating tape transcripts to prove it.

The more important issues here are three-fold. The first has to do with O'Connor's conception of animal rights. The second is the important scientific question of whether animal research is needed. And the third is the moral question of what to do about it.

O'Connor sums up the animal rights view in a single principle, "that the life of an animal and that of a human are of equal value," and proceeds to deduce a string of consequences, asserting that animal rights advocates (ARAs) must all be extremists who believe (and perhaps practice) monstrous things. The problem is that his evidence is sadly lacking. Many, but not all, ARAs accept some kind of equality between humans and other animals. For those who do not, his initial statement of the position already errs by exaggeration. More importantly, even those who accept some kind of animal-human equality don't understand it the way O'Connor does. He imagines ARAs ready cavalierly to trade off some number of human lives for just that many animal lives, plus one more. That's a caricature on the face of it. Someone who believes in human equality doesn't automatically have to think that, if you must choose, the thing to do is always to save ten Alzheimers' patients over nine healthy adults. If human equality doesn't imply such crude accounting, no more should it be assumed that human-animal equality requires it. Nor is such crude accounting accepted by leading animal-rights thinkers. Peter Singer defends a principle of equal consideration of interests, whether human or animal interests are at stake, but argues that normally, if we must choose, a human being is to be saved rather than some other animal. From a different theoretical framework, Tom Regan reaches a similar conclusion.

Easily correctable mistakes like these about what ARAs think call into question how carefully O'Connor has thought about or investigated the position. The larger problem, though, is not that he misrepresents people, organizations or ideas, but that in the process the public is distracted from the real issues connected to animal experimentation and its moral costs. One issue is whether research must be done on animals for the sake of saving human lives. Many people have some sympathy with the argument that if we had to test on animals to save human lives, then it would not be wrong. Knowing how animals in research facilities are made to suffer and die, however, they would add that if the animal experimentation is not necessary, it should not continue. The professional animal-exploiters will be quick to assure you that there is no "if" about it, that medicine can progress in no other way, and that human lives are at stake if we listen to the ARAs rather than vigorously pursuing animal research.

There is room for reasonable doubt, however. The animal-exploiters and their spokespeople are unlikely to mention it, but many scientists doubt the value of animal testing. In a recent article, Dunc an Campbell and David Adam cite "Kathy Archibald, a geneticist and the director of Europeans for Medical Progress," commenting upon those who try "to create the impression that there is unanimous support [for animal testing] in the scientific community, and that is not the case. There is enormous doubt about the testing.... Looking at the evidence overall, animal testing is positively harmful." Further doubt comes from the fact that our evidence is contaminated. Regulatory requirements mean that a new drug cannot go to market without being tested on animals. We do not see, and so cannot judge, what would happen instead if comparable resources, intelligence and skill were devoted to non-animal-based research.

Thus, even in the best case for animal experimentation, we are comparing a doubtful benefit, that some crucially important medical discovery can be made in no other way, to a certain cost, the suffering and death of many millions of animals a year. Rethinking our priorities may be in order.

But that is not all. There is a simple argument that animal experimentation to gain insight into human health, disease and well-being is either morally or scientifically dubious: The animals must be a great deal like us for the results to be scientifically unproblematic, but very different from us in order to be morally unproblematic.

When we want scientifically useful results, the more like us the animals are, the better. When we want clear consciences over causing disease, suffering and death to innocent creatures, the more like us the animals are, the worse. How can we have it both ways?

Perhaps we should grow up and quit trying to have things both ways. When, as Shaw suggests, doubtful benefits are purchased at the price of our character, the price is far too high.

Robert Bass, Ph.D.

Robert H. Bass, Ph.D, is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Florida. His current research centers upon the relation of virtue ethics to politics and to our treatment of animals.

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