Ethics and Animal Use in Science

A morally good person is, among other things, someone who is kind to animals and people, and is truthful and fair in what he or she does and says. An ethically good person has some understanding of why he or she is like that and thinks about this understanding. So morals focus mainly on what we decide actually are good or bad, or right or wrong thoughts and actions, whereas ethics deals mainly with how we decide what is right or wrong, or good or bad.

We all adopt moral and ethical positions, whether or not we know it and can describe them. Over the centuries thinkers in ethics have tried to explain these different positions. They have also developed many different concepts to help us decide what is good and bad, right and wrong, in all aspects of daily life. These include how we can decide what are acceptable and unacceptable ways for people to use animals in farming, health, recreation and, more recently, in all aspects of animal-based science.

As a result, we now have available to us a range of ideas on how to decide what is ethical behaviour towards animals. Some of the ideas, which relate particularly to the use of animals in research, teaching and testing, are briefly outlined below.

  • Animal liberation

    In the mid 1970s Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, wrote a book called Animal Liberation. In it he outlined the ethical principle of equal consideration of interests. This principle is designed to help us work out if the ways we use animals are acceptable or not. It is applied to those higher order animals which can suffer or can be harmed by our actions. It is not applied to any lower order animals which are unable to suffer or be otherwise harmed. According to this principle, when thinking about whether particular animal uses are right or wrong, we should give the same weight to the interests of the animals involved as we would give to our own interests if we were used in the same ways. Now, this does not mean that the interests of animals and people are the same. In fact it can easily be shown that they are often different. It means that the interests of animals, whether or not they are the same as ours, should be regarded as being just as significant for them as our human interests are for us.

    Singer argued that if we say it is alright to use animals in ways that cause suffering or other harm simply because they belong to another species, because they are “only animals”, this is a sort of prejudice like racism or sexism, and is just as morally unacceptable. This prejudice is now known as “speciesism” and is said, by those who oppose “speciesism”, to underlie all our uses of animals which cause them harm.

    Some animal protection groups use these ideas to support their wish to abolish what they call “exploitation” of animals by people. Exploitation to them means any ill-use of animals by people which harms the animals by taking their lives or causing suffering. Such exploitation includes the use of animals in research, teaching and testing, and in farming, circuses and zoos. For some groups it includes all use of animals by people, even keeping pets. The aim of such groups is to free – to liberate – animals from oppression by people, hence the phrase “animal liberation”.

    Singer opposed most animal use in science. However, he did not think that the principle of “equal consideration of interests” totally ruled out the use of animals in science, but it does very substantially reduce it. In his view, scientific animal use might be justified, but only if all of the following very stringent conditions are met: any harm done to the animals must be very low indeed, and the human or animal need to be met by using animals must be exceptionally compelling, and the likely success of meeting that need by using the animals must be very great.

  • Animal rights

    In the early 1980s Tom Regan, an American thinker, developed the notion of animal rights. The idea of animal rights is that each conscious animal has “inherent value”. Inherent value is an in-built worth which arises from the animal’s conscious experience of its own life and the importance of that experience to the animal itself. Inherent value has nothing to do with how useful the animal is to people, nor with what we might feel about the animal – whether we like or loath it, welcome or fear it, admire or disdain it, praise or criticise it. Thus, a snake, a rat, a sheep, a dog, a monkey and a person each has inherent value.

    Giving equal rights to all such animals protects their inherent value and confers on those animals moral status. Clearly, giving equal rights to animals and people means that they would deserve equal protection against death, suffering and other harm. Regan argued that all dealings people have with animals involve some form of exploitation of the animals’ rights. With this in mind, he totally opposed the use of animals in science, no matter how great the benefits of such use would be for people.

  • Antivivisection

    The word “antivivisection” literally means against live cutting (anti-vivi-section) – in other words, opposition to the cutting into or dissection of living animals. People who oppose such cutting operations are known as “antivivisectionists”.

    The antivivisection movement began in Britain in the mid 1800s to stop the cruel practice of trying to find out how the body works by cutting open living, fully conscious animals. Anaesthetics, which could be used to make animals and people unconscious during cutting operations, were first discovered at about the same time. Laws were soon passed in Britain making it illegal to cut open a living animal unless it had been properly anaesthetised. The antivivisection movement can justifiably claim some credit for that. Since then the term “antivivisection” has come to mean total opposition to all scientific uses of animals in research, teaching and testing.

  • Animal welfare

    Animal welfare emphasises how well an animal is coping with its environment and how well it is being managed by people. When an animal’s major needs are being met its welfare is good. There are five main areas of need. These can be broadly described as nutritional, environmental, health, behavioural and mental needs. These areas of need can guide us when we want to find out how to prevent an animal’s welfare from being harmed. They also show us where animal welfare problems can occur, and they help us work out how to prevent or correct those problems.

    People who are concerned about animal welfare mainly emphasise giving practical help to improve the lot of animals as they are used now. Their focus is on the animal’s state of welfare, not on how important we think animals are in relation to people. This contrasts with the main focus of animal liberation and animal rights groups who want to make fundamental changes to the ways we think about the place of animals in our world. Thus, animal welfare groups tend to emphasise working in the world as it is, and animal liberation/rights groups tend to emphasise changing the world into what they think it ought to be. Both welfare and liberation/rights groups aim to improve the lot of animals, but they often disagree on how that should be achieved.

    Animal welfare groups usually oppose the use of animals in research, teaching and testing. They have a long-term goal of ending such animal use. However, they know it is not realistic to expect that the scientific use of animals will come to an end in the very near future. So they work actively to improve the welfare of the animals used in science until abolition of that use can be achieved. They therefore strongly support all measures that minimise any harm done to animals used in science (see harm minimisation - the 3Rs.)

  • Duty of care

    Our “duty of care” towards animals highlights our obligation to meet the welfare needs of all the animals we control or own. This means providing for their nutritional, environmental, health, behavioural and mental needs, so that animal welfare problems are avoided or are corrected quickly.

    We need to make sure that we know how to meet the needs of the particular species of animals we control or own. This means finding out what those special needs are. We also need to make sure we properly provide for those needs. We can do this in the following ways.

    • By giving the animals fresh water and the right food in the right amounts at the right time.
    • By keeping them in a place (indoors or outdoors) which suits them well and in this way minimising, for example, exposure to extreme weather or physical discomfort.
    • By watching for signs of ill-health or injury and getting veterinary help when necessary.
    • By giving them appropriate exercise and, when appropriate, the company of animals of their own or another type.
    • By keeping anxiety, fear, pain and distress as low as can be practically managed.

    If we meet all these needs of animals, we automatically avoid cruelty.

    We can also breed animals which tolerate particular environments, are less susceptible to disease and are more at ease when managed by people. However, we would still have to make sure that their remaining welfare needs are met, even if they are more resistant to some problems than are other animals.

    Under Australian State and Territory law our “duty of care” towards animals can be partially suspended during research, teaching and testing, but only when very stringent conditions are met [see control of animal use in science]. Thus, not meeting one or more of these needs can be accepted, but only if any harm that might be caused is kept as low as it can be and the benefits of the work justify it (see balancing harm and benefit).

  • Reverence for life

    The “Reverence for Life” philosophy was developed by the Nobel peace prize winner Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). It emphasises the mystical awe felt when life forms, from the simplest to the most complex, reveal their exquisite elegance and their inherent will-to-live. People, when acting naturally, honestly and with wonder at the mystery of life, recognise their own will-to-live. They also feel compelled to give to every other life form with a will-to-live the same reverence for its life as they give their own.

    “Reverence for Life” does not distinguish between lower or higher life forms, animals or plants, or animals or people. Nor does it mean that causing pain or the death of another creature is wrong. Rather, it is causing pain or death when it can be avoided that is wrong. People guided by “Reverence for Life” will only cause suffering or the death of an animal in cases of inescapable necessity, never from lack of care.

    This has particular relevance to the use of animals in science. “Reverence for Life” means that there should always be misgivings when a life is taken or other harm is done to an animal which has a will-to-live, no matter how great the expected benefit. Schweitzer thought that in each and every case these misgivings should motivate animal-based scientists to make sure that there is a very real need to use an animal for the particular purpose if that purpose involves taking the animal’s life or causing it harm. Moreover, scientists must take the utmost care to keep any harm they do as low as it can be.

    This last sentiment obviously parallels that lying behind the 3Rs Principle, and is achieved in practical terms by animal-based scientists very carefully applying that principle (see below – Achieving the Most Good with the Least Harm).

  • Achieving the most good with the least harm

    Many thinkers consider that what count above all other things are the consequences – the outcomes – of our actions. But they go further. They also say, and this is important, that actions can be judged as good only if they bring the greatest good to the greatest number. The use of the word greatest, instead of the weaker word greater, reduces the risk that this way of thinking can be used to justify getting the greatest good at the expense of a small number of victims. Achieving the greatest good therefore also means causing the least harm.

    This has direct relevance to the use of animals in research, teaching and testing. Animal-based scientists have brought many benefits to animals and people. It is true that often, but not always, the animals involved experience pain, suffering or other harm, even when great care is taken to avoid it or minimise it. Even so, the Australian public wants the further benefits that animal-based science can bring in the future. That is especially so because very many more animals and people are expected to benefit than the number of animals that will be used in the required studies. But it is also on the understanding that any harm done to the animals used in research, teaching and testing must be kept to the minimum level it can be. The main way this is done is to apply the 3Rs Principle of replacement, reduction and refinement. Careful application of this principle ensures that animals are only used when non-animal alternatives are not suitable (replacement), that only the smallest number of animals required to achieve the aims of the work are used (reduction), and that if any pain or suffering is caused during the work, it is kept as low as possible (refinement).

    It is also worth noting that ideas about Animal Liberation, Animal Rights, Antivivisection, Animal Welfare, Duty of Care, and Reverence for Life not only influence those people who agree with them, but also influence animal-based scientists and lead them to consider very carefully how much harm can or cannot be justified by the benefits of research, teaching and testing when they apply the principle of "achieving the most good with the least harm".