Ethical Theory and the Moral Status of Animals

By Russow, Lilly-Marlene | The Hastings Center Report, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

Ethical Theory and the Moral Status of Animals


Russow, Lilly-Marlene, The Hastings Center Report


Members of an institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) spend much of their time inspecting laboratories and care facilities, and studying regulations. Yet one of their most important duties is to grapple with ethical problems: whether specific experiments involving animals are morally justifiable and whether they should be permitted. Yet this is often also the duty with which IACUC members feel most uncomfortable.

Understandably, perplexed decision-makers might turn at this point to moral philosophy for some guidance. They will be sadly disappointed if they hope to find an adequate and generally accepted moral theory that will generate unassailable, defensible solutions. For every ethical theory advanced in philosophic discussion, several oppose it, and consensus among moral philosophers is not to be found. Nevertheless, moral philosophy can still make an important contribution to the debate about the moral status of animals and their use in biomedical research by analyzing relevant intuitions and arguments. Our intuitions, specific decisions, and even feelings of conflict are implicitly shaped by and reflected in the ethical theories that historically have engaged the attention of moral philosophers. We can better understand and evaluate those intuitions and decisions if we understand more clearly the theoretical commitments that underlie them. Even our disagreements about specific issues often implicitly reflect deeper conflicts between moral theories. Understanding the nature of these conflicts is a necessary first step toward resolution.

Thus, the following survey of ethical theories is intended to serve as a son of toolbox for IACUC members to help them refine, evaluate, and justify their decisions, and perhaps even to resolve or at least better understand conflicting intuitions. We shall pay particular attention to ways in which these various ethical theories fit together, and to how tensions between them reflect our conflicting intuitions about specific cases. This approach is grounded in a fact about both real-life ethical dilemmas and abstract debates in moral philosophy: a satisfactory answer is most likely to be found in a judicious combination of theoretical commitments. However, a plea for tolerance and compromise should not be confused with accepting inconsistency, carelessness, or arbitrary switching from one theoretical ground to another--whether for the sake of convenience or to preserve intuitions and prejudices. Utilitarianism

The most important version of teleological or consequentialist theories-theories that focus on the consequences of actions-is "utilitarianism," which was first explicitly articulated under that label by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and developed more fully by John Stuart Mill (18061873). (4,22). The basic theory that grew out of their philosophy, now generally known as classical utilitarianism, is essentially this: In deciding whether an action is morally right, we sum up the total amount of good the action will bring about, and weigh that against the total amount of harm that will be caused. An action is light if and only if it brings about a better balance of good consequences over harm than any alternative action. Bentham explicitly identifies the "good" in question as pleasure or happiness; pain, suffering, or the diminution of happiness constitutes "harm."

Classical utilitarianism appears to fit well with many of our ordinary decisions, especially about the use of animals in research: Probably the most common justification is that the benefits gained from such research (e.g., curing debilitating illness) far outweigh the suffering of experimental animals. However, this argument must be examined more closely. Inasmuch as animals are capable of feeling pleasure and pain we must include these goods and harms in our utilitarian calculation of whether an action is morally fight. Bentham recognized this explicitly, (4) and a contemporary utilitarian, Peter Singer, has applied such calculations to animal research and concluded the vast majority is immoral. …

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