Philosophical Issues

Ethical problems related to research on nonhuman animals are grounded in the assertion that animals have conscious experiences and that their lives can go well or badly. Central to this issue is the belief that nonhuman animals can experience pain and other unpleasant or distressing mental states. The seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes denied this (Regan and Singer), and one or two contemporary philosophers continue to deny it (Carruthers). On the whole, however, popular opinion and the overwhelming majority of contemporary scientists and philosophers agree that animals, especially vertebrate animals, can suffer (Smith and Boyd; DeGrazia, 1996, 2002). To take a contrary view, one must refute not just the experience of everyday owners of animal companions but also the increasing body of empirical evidence, both physiological and behavioral, suggesting close parallels between animal behavior and human behavior (Dawkins, 1980, 1993; Rollin; Griffin). Moreover, these behavioral parallels are supported by the known similarities among the nervous systems of all vertebrate animals and by the fact of common animal and human evolutionary origin (Rachels).

It is difficult to believe that despite all these similarities the nervous systems of human and nonhuman animals operate in radically different ways. Many codes regulating animal experimentation instruct regulating committees to assume that procedures that would cause pain in humans also will cause pain in vertebrate animals unless there is evidence to the contrary. From this point, therefore, the existence of animal suffering will be taken for granted.

Before considering the ethical questions that arise from the existence of animal suffering, however, it is necessary to provide some further information.

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