From the time when I first became interested in the ethics of our treatment of animals, I have always regarded the use of animals in research as a more difficult ethical issue than the use of animals for food. It is more difficult because we have a wide range of tasty and nutritious food to eat, and it is obvious that we can live healthy, flourishing lives without eating animals or animal products. It is true, sadly, that not everyone in the world has the luxury of being able to choose what to eat. For the vast majority of people living in developed countries, however, there is no need to eat animals or any animal products; and the animal products they eat increase the risks to their health (see Chapter 4 in this Volume). Those who continue to eat animals do it out of habit or because they like the taste. On the other hand, some scientists tell us that to cease using animals in biomedical research would greatly impede medical progress and, in the long run, could lead to millions more premature deaths and additional human suffering.
I am a philosopher, not a scientist, and my approach to issues relating to animals has always been from an ethical perspective. Some people think that taking an ethical approach to animal issues means that scientific claims about the benefits of animal research are irrelevant because, even if research on animals could save many human lives, the end does not justify the means. That is not how I see the issue. Although Kantians, and some other deontologists, hold that the end does not justify the means, consequentialists regard the right action as the one that will bring about the best consequences, so they hold that the end can justify the means. I am a utilitarian, and utilitarianism is the best-known form of consequentialism, so I share that view. As we can see from this book, there is a case to be made for the view that continued animal research could, in fact, be impeding scientific progress.
When it comes to protecting animals and giving proper consideration to their interests, utilitarians have always been in the lead. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, wrote about animals, saying that, “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?”. Implicit in the utilitarian emphasis on the capacity to suffer, and to experience pleasure, is the idea that all sentient beings have interests, and that similar interests should receive equal consideration, irrespective of race, sex, or species. In contrast, the mainstream Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all treat humans as entitled to use animals more or less as they wish,
Suppose that research on non-human animals turned out to yield misleading results, and only the use of one hundred human subjects, instead of the one hundred animals, would lead to the cure that would save thousands of lives. Defenders of animal research are loath to acknowledge that one implication of their defense of the use of animals in research might be that, in some circumstances, it would be justifiable to use humans. One objection to substituting humans for non-human animals would be that the greater self-awareness of the humans means that they have more to lose and, so, would suffer more from the knowledge that they are being experimented upon, than would the non-human animals. But not all human beings have more self-awareness than non-human animals. Anencephalic infants do not, nor do people who are brain dead, or in a persistent vegetative state from which they will never recover. The grounds on which Kant insisted that non-human animals are merely means to our ends, rather than ends in themselves, would seem to apply to these human beings as well. If they do not, why not? Should we give preference to human beings, irrespective of their consciousness, merely because they are biologically members of the species, Homo sapiens? How is that different to giving preference to members of one race or gender, merely because they are members of that race or gender? The institution of animal experimentation is clearly based on speciesism. Chapters 14 to 20 in this Volume explore the difficulties in extrapolating findings from animals to humans. These difficulties sharpen the question why we are willing to perform painful or lethal experiments on non-human animals, who are clearly capable of suffering, while we are unwilling even to contemplate similar experiments on human beings, who are not capable of experiencing anything at all.
When I wrote Animal Liberation, which first appeared in 1975, it was shockingly easy to find accounts of horrific suffering inflicted on animals in the course of experiments. These were not accounts written by animal rights activists (there were virtually none at the time anyway). They were written by the researchers themselves and were published in leading scientific journals. All I had to do to make the case that the interests of the animals were being utterly disregarded was to quote from these journals, and I did so extensively. Since
This Volume, with its many distinct critical perspectives on research with animals, is therefore very timely, particularly as I write this when Directive 2010/63/EU is under review. I hope it will transform discussion about the ethics and the science of research involving animals.