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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Ethical Theory and the Moral Status of Animals


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.