Philosophy - Index
Testing - Index
Response to Article
by Jonathan Ball
What Does Animal Welfare Really Mean?
By Robert Bass, Ph.D.
October 15, 2005
Biomedical industry lobbyist Frankie Trull has once again been touting "the essential need for animals in medical research." Repeatedly, she tells us that animal testing was important or necessary for this or that medical discovery. She never mentions the failures of animal-modeled research - for example, that animal models predicted that Vioxx would be good for instead of dangerous to our hearts. More importantly, she never gives details about just how the animal models are supposed to be necessary. This is important because regulations prevent new drugs being brought to the US market without animal testing. Until those laws change, it will always be possible to say that we wouldn't have Life-Saving Treatment X without animal testing. That doesn't mean the animal testing was necessary for anything more than compliance with the law. It also does not answer the question what could have been accomplished had comparable resources, intelligence and skill been devoted to non-animal-based research.
Trull also talks about overwhelming agreement among physicians and researchers over the necessity of animal testing. She doesn't, however, mention the many dissenters. Nowhere in her article will you discover that better than 80% of British physicians in general practice are doubtful about the reliability of animal data applied to humans or that a similar percentage think it's time for a comprehensive, independent re-evaluation of the science of animal-modeled medical research. Nor will you hear that distinguished researchers like Dr. Charles Mayo said: "I abhor vivisection. It should at least be curbed. Better, it should be abolished. I know of no achievement through vivisection, no scientific discovery, that could not have been obtained without such barbarism and cruelty. The whole thing is evil."
Trull's treatment of the supposed medical necessity and scientific consensus is hardly a model of fairness, but it shines by contrast with her largely unthinking treatment of the moral questions.
She assures us that medical researchers are deeply concerned with animal welfare and committed to "reduction, replacement and refinement" in the use of animals. Beyond those assurances, all she offers is a dismissive misrepresentation of animal advocates as people who "believe the life of a rat is equal in importance to that of a child."
Obviously, Trull does not think that the life of an animal and of a human are of equal value. Apparently, however, it does not occur to her to answer the obvious question and tell us what she thinks is true instead.
I wonder why Trull doesn't address that question. Perhaps she thinks the answer too obvious to bother spelling out. She might think that if the animal advocates want to eliminate animal exploitation, then, if we deny their premise, we can be comfortable exploiting animals. If so, that's a logical fallacy. (The fact that if you eat lettuce, you eat something green doesn't mean that if you don't eat lettuce, you will not eat anything green.)
The question is still open: What does Trull think is true instead, given that she doesn't believe that human and animal lives are equal in value? It's a safe bet that she doesn't think animal lives are more valuable than human lives. And judging from the things she says about animal welfare and concern for animal suffering, she probably doesn't think that animals' lives are worthless or that there is no reason to take their welfare or suffering into account.
That leaves only one possibility. Trull must think that animals have some importance that we ought to consider. Their lives are not, she must be assuming, as valuable or as important as human lives � but they are not mere zeros that we can do anything we like with. They count, they matter � and responsible people will consider animal well-being and suffering when they make their decisions.
What will that mean in practice? We're supposing, with Trull, that animals and their lives have some value � not as much as humans, but some. Let's suppose their value is very small � say, each of their lives a thousandth the value of a human life, and each case of human suffering a thousand times as important as the same amount of animal suffering. That seems safely distant from the extremes of animal-human equality.
Consider what that will mean for the use of animals in medical research. It will be permissible for us to kill a thousand laboratory animals to save a single human life, permissible to cause terrible suffering to a thousand animals to save one human from similar suffering. But we cannot stop there. If the ratio is a thousand-to-one, we will also have to draw the consequence that it is not worth sacrificing 1001 animal lives to save a human life. Virtually all medical experimentation on animals will be ruled out. A conservative estimate gives twenty million as the number of animals sacrificed annually in the U.S. for research purposes, but no one seriously thinks that animal experiments save twenty thousand human lives a year.
The cases for the use of animals for food and garments are in even worse shape. Billions upon billions of animals are raised under conditions of life-long, excruciating suffering, then slaughtered with hardly a thought for their well-being. Even though we have access to healthy and delicious plant-based diets and to cheaper, plant-derived or synthetic fabrics, the sad fact is that we ignore the value of animal lives and the tragedy of their voiceless suffering and death, all for trivial pleasures of taste and fashion. To justify what we do, at least tens of millions of human lives would have to be saved, but that never happens: the cruelties of animal agriculture and the fur farms are almost never needed to relieve even slight human suffering, much less to save a life.
Trull doesn't have to believe in animal-human equality to reach radical conclusions, and neither do the rest of us. All we have to do is think clearly and be honest about the implications of what we already believe. Our society sets the value of animals almost indistinguishably close to zero. If, as most of us claim to believe, animals � their lives, their well-being and their suffering � matter at all, there is much that will need to change.