Speculative Philosophy, the Troubled Middle, and Ethics of Animal Experimentation

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Speculative Philosophy, the Troubled Middle, and the Ethics of Animal Experimentation

The human use of animals, particularly in scientific experimentation, is a highly contentious and vexed question. Passions run deep, and level-headed thinkers often lose their balance and good sense. This in itself is highly interesting. We seem confronted by ultimate issues about the meaning and significance of human and organic life for which we are ill-prepared. It is not just that extreme emotionalists refuse to listen to reason. The reasoners themselves, the philosophers, are deeply divided over how ethically to judge the use of animals. The "animal issue" exhibits a more fundamental and pervasive feature of philosophy, ethical theory, and social mores. On ultimate philosophic, ethical, and social matters there is no consensus.

The controversy over animal experimentation crucially hinges on the question of the relative value of animal and human life. At one extreme, there are steadfast champions of human welfare and scientific progress who claim that animals have no inherent value or worth and thus are not objects of ethical concern. All value accrues to man or God, and we can use animals as we will, as long as we do not endanger or violate our own humanity. At the other extreme, there are ardent and vocal advocates of animal rights, those broadly in the antivivisectionist tradition, who claim that at least certain animals, if not all life, have an ethical significance comparable to our own. We ought not to use or treat animals in ways that we would not treat human beings. In short, animals are in crucial respects our moral equals. The animal rightists point to undeniable instances of animal abuse and radically call into question the moral justification of animal experiments. They would significantly reduce, if not altogether eliminate, scientific research on animals irrespective of possible human benefits.

Then there are those in the troubled middle who find an inherent goodness in organic life and concrete values manifested in individual animals. But they also believe that the relatively superior goodness and value of human life, coupled with our vulnerable and "needy" status in the world, warrant the ethically judicious use of animals in scientific research. These middle ones recognize the legitimate and often conflicting needs and requirements of both human and animal welfare. In short, they wish to balance the undeniable benefits that result from scientific research with a genuine concern for the well-being of animals. With respect to experimentation, they are the ones most truly vexed by ethical questions of what and how many animals to use; of whether alternatives to animal use are scientifically efficacious and justified; of whether research protocols are sound and important enough to warrant the infliction of harm, suffering, or death; and of how to reduce animal suffering and harm without jeopardizing legitimate benefits that might accrue to both human and animal life.

These are questions that typically animate the more ethically concerned members of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs). Under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, as amended in 1985, The Health Research Extension Act of 1985 (National Institutes of Health), and the animal welfare policy of the Public Health Service (1985), IACUCs are mandated for all institutions receiving federal funds for research on animals. The committees, which have monitoring functions analogous to Institutional Review Boards for human experimentation, oversee the care of laboratory animals and review research protocols for their scientifically legitimate and humane treatment of animals. The general aim of IACICs is to encourage the best and most beneficial scientific research with the least possible animal use and suffering.

Yet all is not well with IACUCs. They are plagued by nagging practical and theoretical problems. …