The Ethics Of… Animal Experimentation

Ethics can be a bit of a frustrating pursuit. Sure you get to poke at people’s most fundamental beliefs and tangle in some of the most furiously disputed topics of the day, but all too often you realize that – in the grand scheme of things – these debates are just the bluster after a storm that’s already passed by. Sexism, Racism, even Homophobia are debates that have pretty much been won already. Oh sure there’s still plenty of arguing going on, but look at the overall trend of these issues and it’s all pretty clear that their time on this earth is limited – now it’s just a question of how long they manage to hang around until we eliminate them entirely.

But animal ethics? That’s another kettle of fish entirely if you’ll excuse the pun. As far as right and wrong goes, this is one debate that has barely even gotten started yet and it’s still way too early to say how it’s all going to turn out. Will animals one day be elevated to personhood, granted rights of equal value to humans? Or will they keep their current status as slightly complicated property, for human to do what we wish with? Or will the answer sit somewhere in between?

Furries, nobly striving to offer us a third option.

Nowhere is this debate more raw than in the question of using animals for experimentation. On the one hand you have those that find the entire idea utterly barbaric; the systematic torture of innocent, terrified creatures purely for human benefit. And on the other side you have those that argue that ultimately any level of animal suffering is justifiable in the face of the enormous benefits the research provides.

This debate has recently hit the news in my home town of Melbourne, where it was revealed that the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons routinely uses live animals to train its students in surgical techniques. Unsurprising there were plenty of people who felt that this was horrifying given the suite of alternative training methods available, such as dead humans, dead animals, surgical manikins and virtual training programs. Equally unsurprising were the many who came to the defense of the practice, arguing that live animals provided by far the most realistic training for students and inevitably saved human lives as a result.

In terms of ethics, it doesn’t get a lot grayer than this because no matter which option we choose, harm will occur. Either we use animals in medical experiments at the cost of their lives, or we don’t and put human beings at risk. This is a no-win scenario, and straight away it makes any hope of a clear-cut deontological solution impossible. You can argue til you’re blue in the face about the right of the animal to be free of cruelty, versus the rights of humans to the best chance of survival and you’ll never get anywhere. Why? Because much like with the abortion debate, you can’t calculate rights. Seriously, how do you weigh up the Right to Life against the Right to be Free of Pain? They’re both excellent ideals, but in this situation one of them has to come second to the other – and on what possible basis can you argue one is more important?

So let’s save ourselves some time and get right down to a utilitarian approach: do the benefits of animal experimentation outweigh its costs?

Obviously answering this question depends a lot on the specific medical experiments taking place; are they well run, heavily regulated, properly funded and conducted by professionals? Or are they slap-shod processes, purely profit-focused, with little to no regard for the safety of the test subjects? Obviously the second scenario, such as may be found in developing nations, cosmetic testing or abattoirs, is clearly unethical – massive and preventable pain for questionable or bluntly non-existent benefits.

As if fashion isn’t moronic enough in its own right

Professional medical research and training on the other hand, as practiced by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and university research facilities, is run to very high standards. These institutions are very heavily regulated and monitored to ensure that good quality precautions are taken to minimise the suffering of any animals involved. There is a clear-cut code of practice, numerous ethical review panels, and training actively provided to those working with research animals. It’s fair to say then that legitimate animal research that upholds these standards, seeks at least to prevent and minimise as much suffering to the animals involved as possible. In the case of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons the animals involved are fully anesthetised at all times, effectively meaning that no pain occurs whatsoever during the process.

But does this limitation of suffering make animal experimentation ethically clear? Not by a long shot. Even in cases where the animals used are unconscious for the entire procedure – and that is extremely rare when it comes to experimentation – harm still occurs. For starters you can’t practice trauma surgery without the trauma. So you have to injure the animals first. And even if they don’t die during the surgery, sad to say that our furry/woolly friend still doesn’t get a happy ending – they simply euthanize them on the table rather than go through the lengthy process of recovery.

But is there actually anything wrong with this whole process? Sure deliberately injuring, slicing up and then executing a defenceless animal does sound pretty horrifying, but assuming it’s for a good cause and the animal doesn’t suffer, where’s the harm? These are generally sheep and pigs we’re talking about here, it’s not like we’re robbing them of a future full of potential here.

Rather than being slaughtered for meat or carking it in a field somewhere, their lives are being put to good use in seriously important work. Opponents to using animals can argue that alternative training methods such as manikins, cadavers and virtual simulations offer viable alternatives, but why even bother with these convoluted substitutes when real flesh and blood is ethically justifiable?

But if all we’re worried about here is whether the animals are suffering and/or being robbed of their potential, then that raises a fairly worrying counter-argument; why aren’t we using live humans for this research?

Sure I doubt we’re going to get anyone seriously arguing that your average pig’s life is comparable to your average human’s, but what about humans that really aren’t average? What about patients that are braindead or in permanent comas? They have even less potential to look forward to than a pig does, and since they’re already mentally cactus, you won’t even need the anaesthesia to ensure they don’t suffer. Add on the major bonus that both surgery training and all other medical experiments for humans are much more reliable when conducted on humans, this plan is vastly superior to the use of animals.

Of course the big flaw is that that just isn’t all that many braindead humans going around. No matter though, there’s plenty of other humans with less potential than a pig that we can hook up to anesthesia and use for these purposes. How about terminal patients? They could get free access to euthanasia and help medical science in the progress! What about serious criminals locked up in prisons, draining resources for no benefit? By breaking our laws and hurting others they are in fact significantly worse than animals – a pig may not have much potential to work with, but at least they don’t conspire to hurt others. That’s like negative potential right there! Surely rather than take innocent animal lives for lower quality test results we could make use of these human failures instead? And if we’re really short on test subjects then let’s just all say what we’re secretly thinking and consider those suffering from a crippling mental or physical disabilities. In many cases they face lives full of pain and confusion, with even less individual agency than an animal (I mean an animal can service its own survival needs, right?), so why not just get it over with? Perhaps in death they can achieve more through medical research than they could ever hope to alive.

Got your first batch of ‘volunteers’ right here.

More than likely you’re recoiling in horror by now, but if we stick to the same justifications given for using animals in medical research, then the conclusion is as clear as it is awful: the use of humans with low, zero or negative potential, under anesthesia to prevent suffering, offers exactly the same minimal costs as using animals, with notably increased benefits through more reliable research.

You may be disgusted or distressed by the suggestion that we proactively harm and kill human beings to further research, but given the cold hard calculus up there, on what basis can you object?

Human life is sacred? I’ll take that objection seriously when god tells me so himself.

No amount of medical advancement is worth such brutality? But we’ve already establish that there is no pain or potential lost, so there is no brutality.

It would distress the loved ones of the humans used? That would be putting temporary human emotions in front of saving lives through superior research and training. How selfish.

There has to be a better way? Well we could invest in all those manikins, virtual simulators and human cadavers, but they’re just so gosh-darned expensive, don’t ya know. And besides, are you really willing to risk you loved one’s life with anything other than the very best quality research and training?

Stick to the cold hard thread of logic and the hypocrisy of animal testing is laid bare. We do not use animals because it guarantees the best outcomes for either research or training – if we were so dedicated to that we could use humans under precisely the same justifications. Nor do we refuse the alternative training and testing aides because they lead to lower quality results, because so does using animals in comparison to humans. No, the reasond we use animals in medical experimentation are so much simpler than that:

We do it because it’s cheaper.

We do it because it’s easier.

And we do it because, unlike humans, animals can’t stop us either legally or by force.

At its core, the use of animals for invasive, dangerous or lethal experimentation, testing and training comes down to the very simple philosophy of ‘Might makes Right’. We use them because they cannot object and very few people have the empathy necessary to object on their behalf. This is, to be frank, a disgusting state of affairs that we justify to ourselves though wilful ignorance – no doubt much the same as others wilfully ignored the injustices of racism, sexism and more recently homophobia, because to do otherwise would raise too many uncomfortable (and expensive) questions.

“You have any idea how much it would cost me to get this cotton picked without slaves? Emancipation will destroy the economy!”

I mentioned before that many of the great ethical debates of our times have really already been won. Well, this one is most firmly still up for grabs, and whether we like it or not it will fall on our shoulders to fix. In many ways animal rights are the ultimate ethical challenge for humanity; a civil rights campaign fought exclusively for those who will never help themselves, nor understand or thank us for fighting for them.

It will be the ultimate act of justice. I wonder if we are capable of it.


Thanks to Georges-François Du Château for the requested topic this week. I hope it met your expectations!

5 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Animal Experimentation

  1. Excellent article. For me, personally, the problem with a lot of animal experimentation is that it reinforces a separation between human life and all other life. It furthers this idea that humans are somehow apart from all other life on the planet, apart from nature.

    And while we’re certainly intellectually superior, we’re far from the most important lifeforms on the planet. All life depends on other life, and in my opinion our attitudes toward other life are self-destructive.

    It also seems like we still operate under a lot of assumptions when it comes to animal cognition. Every year science seems to further the notion that animals feel and are aware of more than we realize. To me, there are still a lot of gray areas when it comes to whether animals are suffering. Even if physical pain isn’t inflicted upon an animal, separation and captivity might constitute suffering. That still may be outweighed by the benefits of medical experiments, but it changes the conversation.

    And one final note about dissecting. As someone who works in the medical world, dissecting pigs and cats or whatever does nothing to further your readiness to actually operate on a human being. It’s not even close to the same experience.

    • Hi ryan59479, thanks for the comment!
      That’s an excellent point and I agree – there is a strong tendency for us to view ourselves as separate to nature and animals as things rather than creatures with comparable needs to ourselves. Oddly the exception that proves the rule here are pets; animals we treat almost exactly like humans, even to the degree of buying them outfits and toys to ensure they are intellectually engaged. When you have a culture that treat some animals as slightly dumb humans and others as products that can be used and disposed of, something is off to say the least. Largely ‘out of sight, out of mind’ I suspect. Hopefully a hypocrisy we come to address some time soon.

      • Good point about pets! I hadn’t even thought about that, but you’re absolutely correct.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Racist Milk | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Priorities (Farewell, for now) | The Ethics Of

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s