The ethics of animal research


Can we justify experimental medical treatments on animals?

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

As human beings, we enjoy the prestige of being the planet’s dominant species. We are capable of protecting ourselves from all but the most dangerous circumstances, shaping and changing our environment to fit our own needs and wants.

Our critical thinking skills set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As a species, we work together to mentally outmanoeuvre every other animal in the world.

The nature of the evolutionary process has produced a strong desire for all animals – humans, of course, included – to strive for dominance in the animal kingdom. This drive is an important thing for developing species that are competing with other animals for resources and territory. There is no doubt that most organisms without this drive would have perished a long time ago.

But human intelligence has increased and human technology has progressed faster than our ability to evolve. What this has left us with is a world full of people equipped with supreme technology and power but armed with the same primal psychological drives that we had during the first few hundred thousand years of human existence.

We still have an underlying drive to dominate the animal kingdom and have a surplus of power do so. Thus, we have spent a large portion of our history enslaving, maiming, and eating other animals.

This is somewhat reductive. People do not just kill and destroy animals; they also work alongside them. We use them to help us with agriculture, and we invite them into our homes as companions.

There’s one other especially significant way that animals affect our lives. Since all species have evolved from a few common ancestors, studying animal physiology provides humans with the opportunity to learn about themselves.

Some argue that animal research is one of the most important contributions the field of medicine. Others believe that this is simply fear-mongering by doctors and scientists backed by big businesses terrified of taking a hit to their bottom line.

While human intelligence is at the root of human dominance, it also allows us to empathize with animals on a level that they could never return. As people, we are not only conscious beings, but we are also the only species – to the best of our knowledge – that is aware of the concept of consciousness in general. Other animals are certainly aware of their surroundings; however, they cannot use that knowledge to make inferences about other organisms’ feelings and emotions. Humans can. We not only know when we are hurting another animal but also know how that experience must feel for it.

Which leaves us in an interesting position. We are atop the animal hierarchy, but exerting our dominance often means hurting other animals and understanding the pain we are causing.

All of this has inevitably sparked a heated debate about the right way for humans to treat animals. On one side, individuals who believe that animals have the same rights as people. On the other, individuals who believe that humankind’s dominance of animals allows us to do, really, whatever we want.

Animal testing and research

Many of the technological improvements over the course of human history have been the byproduct of science. In order for scientists to conduct experiments of increasing complexity, new technology and devices need to be created to fulfill the needs of the experiment.

Medical science is no different. With vast swaths of the human population afflicted by conditions like cancer and diseases like AIDS, new and innovative experiments are required to search for cures.

So the medical community turns to the animal kingdom. All mammals come from a common ancestor, after all, which gives scientists an opportunity to test out treatments on other organisms.

This prevents humans from undergoing treatment that could be more damaging than the disease itself. What is more, no ethical doctor would infect healthy human patients with dangerous diseases. Animals, on the other hand, are fair game. Scientists can test experimental treatments without putting human lives in danger.

There is, understandably, resistance to this idea. As noted earlier, humans are unique in the sense that we can understand animal suffering from an empathetic position. We understand how they must feel while taking part in experiments. The fact that these animals participate unwillingly compounds the problem.

The debate over animal testing is really a tug-of-war between two separate philosophies: utilitarianism and moral idealism.


Utilitarianism asserts that the morally right thing is whatever increases the overall happiness and well-being of the maximum number of people. Under this view, making smaller sacrifices for the greater good is not only acceptable, but the morally right thing to do.

The Royal Society, a London-based fellowship of scientists, claims, “Every major medical breakthrough in the 20th century is the result of using animals in some way.

Many prominent scientists, including members of the Scientific Steering Committee for the European Commission (SCC), one of the European Union’s lead scientific bodies, have stated, “Experiments on live animals are powerful ways of better understanding the complex biological mechanisms.”

The members of the SSC point towards the importance of research using chimpanzees, who share 98.5 per cent of their DNA with human beings – in fact, most mammals share about 90 per cent of their DNA with people. Scientists who follow the utilitarianism model can effectively reduce the overall pain on a human being to zero while simultaneously working towards improving the overall health of humanity.

From a utilitarian’s point of view, there is no other way. For the vast majority of people on the Earth, testing on humans is considered unethical and morally deplorable.

Indeed, some of the world’s worst atrocities have involved human experiments. In Kamera, the Soviet secret service’s poison laboratory, prisoners from the Gulags were administered deadly poisons and told it was medicine. The scientists of the KGB were attempting to develop a poison that left no smell or visible signs of usage in the victim. Hundreds of prisoners died painfully in the .

Through their research, the Soviets developed several ways to administer their arsenal of poisons – injections, topical gels, pellets. But they never did find the perfect, silent killer they were looking for.

From the utilitarian’s point of view, the options for research are simple: either give up medical research, or perform experiments on animals to increase global well-being.

Peter Singer illustrates this point of view in his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology.

“If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important,” he writes, “taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.”

However, animal testing for the development of medical therapies is not the only use science has for animals in research. Universities across the world, including the University of Regina, use them for educational purposes.

Dr. Kyle Hodder, chair of the university’s President’s Committee on Animal Care, told the Carillon that animal research at the U of R focuses on treating all animals as humanely as possible.

“I can confirm that the majority of animals used in research are captured and released, not euthanized,” he said. “Every animal is reviewed for humane care.”   

The U of R, Hodder explains, believes the use of animals in research and teaching is acceptable 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 animals or humans.

“The university regards the use of animals in research and teaching to be an integral component of continued progress in science and education, which has resulted in benefits for human, and animal, health,” he continued. “Our researchers and instructors make every effort to involve animals in research and teaching only when no alternative exists, and to refine experimental procedures to minimize pain and distress.”

Hodder also noted the U of R only uses animals for education and research. Animal testing is not part of the program.

While education and research do not harm animals, a lot of animal research globally does constitute animal pain and often euthanasia. Scientists will constantly have to wrestle with the ethical problem of hurting animals for the betterment of humanity.

Scientists like Frederick K. Goodwin believe there is no alternative. In fact, he claims that animal rights movements are at risk of getting in the way.

“Actions taken by animal rights organizations to end biomedical research threaten to undermine medical progress,” Goodman said on his radio show, The Infinite Mind.  “In fact, many important breakthroughs in the medical field, such as the use of lithium for the treatment of manic-depression, would not have occurred without the use of animal testing.

“If we can’t test on animals, biomedical research comes to a stop.”

Moral Idealism

However, there are people who take another view.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is moral idealism, which asserts that each sentient being’s suffering is not worth the potential rewards that could come from animal tests.

Under this view, testing on animals to further the progress of medicine, or for any reason, is a no-go. The idealist would argue that humans do not have the right to capture animals against their will and subject them to life-threatening experiments.

“We are unequivocally opposed to the use of animals in experimentation,” said Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigation with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “A statement like ‘animal rights movements could stop biomedical research’ is really just a bunch of fear-mongering.

“Certainly there is no evidence, at all, that biomedical research would stop if animal experimentation stopped. I think that most animal researchers would be the first to admit that most research doesn’t require animals at all.”

Goodman has been working with PETA for the past five years and, as he puts it, the expansion of technology is only providing more alternatives for researchers.

“Certainly, in the 21st century, there are ways of doing research that used to involve animals but no longer do,” he said. “Whether it is computational modelling, using human cells and tissues, or doing clinical research with humans, there are certainly a lot of ways to do research without hurting animals. Saying otherwise is really just fear-mongering to drum up support for something that is growing in distaste amongst the general population.”

Despite the fact there are a large numbers of scientists are practicing ethical experiments with the intention of helping humanity, there are also endless examples of terrible animal rights violations in corporate research facilities worldwide.

“We want to get animals out of laboratories,” Goodman said. “One of the ways that we do that is with the use of undercover investigations.”

According to Goodman, these investigations are usually the result of a disgruntled employee who has been disturbed by the treatment of animals in testing. These investigations involve PETA making contact with an individual who works in a relevant field and helping to covertly get them a job at the facility in question. After that, the spy then collects as much information as possible and hands it over to authorities.

“These investigations uncover violations against the law that went previously unknown by past inspectors,” he said. “They have led to facilities being fined, shut down, and just recently the first felony charges for cruelty-to-animals.”

Last year, a North Carolina judge indicted four individuals who all worked at the Professional Laboratory Research Services facility on 14 counts of felony cruelty-to-animals. The facility was a commercial research lab, meaning that various companies would hire it out to conduct research for them and relay the results.

“When we went undercover there, we saw dogs and cats who where physically beaten and scarred,” Goodman said. “They were showing the psychological effects of abuse, extreme fear of humans, malnutrition.

“We also saw rabbits that were being used to grow ticks. They had hundreds and hundreds of ticks who were affixed to the rabbit’s skin; there was blood everywhere. They were also ripping cats’ nails out by pulling them across chain-link fences.”

No matter your philosophy, blatant animal abuse – such as what went on in the PLRS facility, is a gruesome sight. Thankfully, this is not the case everywhere. Plenty of universities across Canada – the U of R included – conduct humane animal research, and in the case of the U of R animals are eventually released back into the wild.

But that does not matter from the moral idealist view. If any animal is harmed, for any reason, it is unacceptable from the idealist perspective. The ends never justify the means.

From the vantage point of organizations such as PETA, we need to find other ways to conduct research. From its point of view, if we cannot find solutions to our health problems without hurting animals, then humanity is out of luck.

Despite the prevalence of this view throughout the world, it is unlikely that we will ever see a world that a moral idealist would envision. Without massive leaps in technology, living and breathing organisms appear to be the most efficient way to get results. Whether people support it or not, it appears that animal research is not going anywhere.

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