The Ethics of Animal Research

Most of what we know about the brain comes from experiments on animals. Even when we do fMRI experiments on humans, we’re usually testing a hypothesis that is based on findings from animal experiments. Considering how important animal experimentation has been for the development of the field – and for the development of science and medicine more generally – how morally relevant is the suffering of the animals on which we’re experimenting?

Let me just start by saying that I don’t think animals have any innate rights that we violate by experimenting on them. That may sound like an extreme position, but I also don’t think that humans have any innate rights either. I think that a right is a strictly legal concept that does not refer to anything objective “in the world.” As such, though a lot of the anti-animal experimentation literature focuses on the rights of animals, I won’t be delving into that literature.

Not all research animals suffer. Above is language researcher Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, whose bonobo research facility is exemplary in its treatment of research animals.

I will, however, engage with the utilitarian arguments surrounding animal experimentation, because I think that the utilitarian approach is generally more cogent than the rights approach (though not without its problems, as we’ll see). Perhaps the most famous utilitarian critic of animal experimentation is philosopher Peter Singer, whose landmark 1975 book Animal Liberation is widely considered to be the philosophical foundation of the animal liberation movement. Singer’s 1990 essay “The Significance of Animal Suffering” deals more directly with the issue of animal experimentation by pointing out our “speciesist” tendencies when we weigh animal suffering against the benefits we derive from experimenting on animals.

Singer writes that most people hold all humans to be equal in moral status and hold all humans to be worthy of greater moral consideration than non-human animals. This isn’t simply because of our status as Homo sapiens, but rather because we think we possess some morally relevant qualities that non-human animals lack. Such qualities include the capacity for self-awareness, rationality, and the development of a moral sense. These characteristics, which are arguably more developed in humans than in other animals, can be thought to allow us to live fuller lives than non-human animals. Therefore, our suffering is more significant than animal suffering, and our wellbeing is more important than animals’ wellbeing.

But what do we do with human infants, who generally lack the self-awareness, rationality, and moral sense that we think separates us from other animals? Do we include them in our moral circle because they have the potential to develop these qualities? Maybe, but then what about mentally challenged human adults? They clearly lack even the potential to develop the qualities that would make them worthy of greater moral consideration. And certainly we think it’s unethical to experiment on mentally challenged adults without their consent. So is there a non-speciesist way to include mentally challenged adults and human infants in our moral circle while excluding non-human animals? Can we include them for some reason other than the fact that they are Homo sapiens?

Some very intelligent species, like this macaque monkey, are sometimes kept in terrible conditions.

If we still want traits like intelligence and self-awareness to be the criteria that determine whether someone is worthy of moral consideration, then maybe we can decrease the “lower bound” for how intelligent or self-aware someone has to be in order to be included in our circle of “morally superior” agents. That way we can include infants and the mentally challenged. But if we do that, then we end up including a host of non-human animals that are as or more intelligent than newborn or mentally retarded humans. And then the whole enterprise of separating humans from non-human animals on moral grounds would be lost. The solution, Singer writes, “is to abandon the attempt to draw such a sharp line.” Animal suffering, therefore, is just as significant as human suffering.

Though there are plenty of arguments against Singer’s conclusions, the best I have seen is Carl Cohen’s “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research.” Cohen argues that even if we were to count the pains and pleasures of all animate beings equally – even though he thinks that we shouldn’t – then “a cogent utilitarian calculation requires that we weigh all the consequences of the use, and of the nonuse, of animals in laboratory research.”

I agree. If we’re strictly sticking to the logic of utilitarianism, then we must take into account the consequences of not using animals in research. Remember that it is because of animal research that we have been able to eliminate a host of debilitating diseases, save millions of lives, and increase the longevity and well-being of most humans (and many animals) on this planet. Almost every medical advance we have made has been achieved through experimenting first on laboratory animals. Under a purely utilitarian calculation, not doing some animal research is probably even morally wrong.

But then we come back to one of our central problems: if we are morally obligated to conduct these experiments (according to a utilitarian calculation), on whom do we experiment? Animals or humans? If we are to be utilitarians, then we must run these experiments on someone or something so that we can increase wellbeing for the greatest number of people (and possibly animals). But as utilitarians – following Singer’s logic – we have no way of separating animals from humans, because the suffering of animals is just as significant as the suffering of humans. So utilitarianism leads to a dead end.

One might be tempted to think that we might circumvent the problem using something like computer simulations of the biological organisms being studied. But the truth is that these technologies are far beyond our current capabilities. Though our understanding of biology is remarkable (and largely arrived at through animal research), we are very far from understanding biological organisms so completely that we can not only simulate them on a computer but also simulate how they respond to various experiments.

One could take a value-based approach to the problem. We value an increase in wellbeing for most sentient beings, and therefore we should run experiments on some biological organisms because of the benefits derived from those experiments. We also value humans more than non-human animals, so those experiments should be on non-human animals. The fact that we hold these values doesn’t make them moral absolutes: we just act in a way that is consistent with our values. While this approach is promising, it’s also problematic. In “Some Ethical Concerns in Animal Research: Where Do We Go Next?” Bernard E. Rollin argues that such value-based approaches might be too contingent upon cultural ethos, which could itself be viewed by future generations as morally objectionable. The Nazis, for example, valued Aryan human life over non-Aryan human life. As such, they could justify horrific experimentation on Jews and other minorities. Their actions were perfectly justified under a value-based approach to ethics, so perhaps Singer is right, then, to say that our valuing human life over animal life is speciesist.

So what are we to do? Rollin writes that if in fact the best justification for invasive animal research is the fact that such research can lead to the alleviation of suffering for many, then we should only permit invasive research where the potential benefits do in fact clearly outweigh the costs. But who gets to decide whether an experiment is necessary or justified? Rollin offers what I think is a strikingly original solution, and one that I can accept:

Currently, of course, competing claims for funding are adjudicated by panels of experts in the given field. It is well known that such procedures tend toward conservatism, toward favoring the status quo, toward preserving established paradigms and approaches, and toward in-group domination of a field. Such an approach therefore is unlikely to implement the new sort of calculation we have argued for [in which an experiment is only permitted if the benefits clearly outweigh the costs]. I would therefore argue that funding decisions should be made not by experts, but by the citizenry that pays for research. I would defend the development of panels – grand juries as it were – of intelligent, interested citizens who would look at research proposals and decide if the benefits exceeded the costs, or if the question being asked was the sort that truly needed to be answered. Obviously, such panels would need expert advice to assure that the project was technically feasible, and to translate what was being proposed into nontechnical notions. But, having gotten such information, they would be asked to judge the project in accordance with emerging concern for animals and the cost-benefit notions outlined above. Such a mechanism would do much to move science away from elitism and old boyism and closer to its democratic funding base. It would also assure the ingression of changing ethical ideas into the fabric of science and hasten the erosion of the idea that science was “value-free.”

In short: democratize the process of reviewing research proposals where the lives of sentient beings are involved. Doing so will make what actually goes on in animal research labs more transparent, will better ensure that we only experiment on animals when doing so is necessary or justified, will likely lead to better living conditions for all research animals, and will get the public more involved in the project of scientific research. That sounds reasonable to me.

For more information on current trends in animal neuroscience research, click here.

For more information on regulations pertaining to animal neuroscience research, click here.

For videos of animals in research settings, see here or here. (Warning: graphic content)


Baird, R.B. & Rosenbaum, S.E. (1991). Animal Experimentation: The Moral Issues. Prometheus Books. Buffalo, NY. (Link here).

One thought on “The Ethics of Animal Research

  1. On ethical grounds research should always be conducted by those who volunteer. Even under democracy it is still a kind of slavery. One could argue that slavery is good, because it allows cheap labor to produce goods- and the value of these goods can outweigh the suffering of all slaves. We could even vote on who should be a slave and who should not be a slave, and therefore it is a democracy.

    You see what I’m getting at? Any kind of non-voluntary suffering (whether democratic or not) implies an “in” group and an “out” group. Who decides who is “in” and who is “out”. Of course this argument works nicely with slavery as we are only considering one species. The problem is that the animals (out group) do not have a means to voice opinions. The only way I can see to avoid an in-group and out-group is to allow all subjects to perform things voluntarily. Since we cannot get the opinion from animals, why not just consider humans (otherwise this is a partial democracy).

    Now we can see the true value by just involving humans in research. We can place kinds of rewards for those who volunteer for testing. Now we can value this suffering resulting from research. If we find the dollar value of reward required (value of suffering) outweighing the dollar value of the end result, then we know that this research does not satisfy a utilitarian approach. Conversely, if we find that the dollar value of reward for suffering is considerably less than the results, we will have many volunteers.

    On a side note- It also makes more sense to test on humans since the results we produce are mainly designed for humans. So then, why not test on those biologically similar to the end users? Many nutritional studies are flawed because mice process nutrition different than humans.

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