Critics of the current practice of experimenting on animals tend to fall into two groups: abolitionists and reformers. Abolitionists usually rely on the principle that the end does not justify the means. To inflict pain and death on an innocent being is, they maintain, always wrong. They point out that people do not think that the possibility of advancing scientific knowledge justifies taking healthy human beings and inflicting painful deaths on them; similarly, they say, the infliction of suffering on animals cannot be justified by reference to future benefits either for humans or for other animals (Ryder; Regan).
A weakness of the abolitionist position is that when the end is sufficiently important, most people think that otherwise unacceptable means are justifiable if there is no other way of achieving the end. People do not approve of telling lies, but most people accept the idea that politicians should tell lies to mislead the enemy when their country is fighting a war that they believe is right. Similarly, if the prospects of finding a cure for cancer depended on a single experiment, most people probably would think that the experiment should be carried out.
In response to objections along these lines, some abolitionists argue that although a single experiment, taken in isolation, may appear justifiable, the benefits of such experiments do not outweigh the suffering inflicted by the institution of animal experimentation as a whole. One also must take into account, these abolitionists would say, two other factors: First, a large (if uncertain) proportion of experiments are worthless; second, even if no pain or distress is caused by the experiments, experimental animals typically have been raised in conditions that constitute severe deprivation for beings of their species. The common laboratory rat, for instance, is a highly intelligent animal with a strong urge to explore new surroundings. Rats also like to get into small, dark spaces, yet in most laboratories they are kept in bare plastic buckets with a bit of sawdust at the bottom. Such treatment indicates the lack of consideration for the interests of animals that prevails in the world of animal experimentation, and abolitionists doubt that this will ever change as long as people continue to regard laboratory animals primarily as tools for research.
Reformers believe that a changed practice of experimenting on animals could be defensible. They demand that any benefits that are believed to be likely to arise from the experimentation should be sufficiently probable and sufficiently great to offset the costs to the animal subjects; they urge that every experiment should come under close and impartial scrutiny to determine whether this is the case.
Reformers point out that although during the 1980s and 1990s several countries (for example, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) developed legally obligatory systems of review based on an institutional ethics committee's review of proposals to carry out experiments on animals, experimenters usually are well represented on such committees, whereas animal welfare advocates either are not represented or are heavily outnumbered by experimenters. An impartial committee that weighed the cost to the animal in the same way that people would weigh a comparable cost to a human would, the reformers maintain, approve at most a small fraction of the experiments now performed. In other countries, such as the United States, institutional ethics committees exist but are not legally required for corporations or other institutions that do not receive federal funds, and their coverage of animal experimentation is incomplete. Moreover, in the United States these committees do not always have the authority to prevent experimenters from going ahead with painful experiments if the experimenters assert that alleviating the animals' pain would interfere with the purpose of the experiment (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment; Dresser; Smith and Boyd; Gavaghan; Orlans).
Among opponents of current practices of animal experimentation the line between reformers and abolitionists is not clear-cut because questions of long-term goals and short-term strategy intervene. A threefold division might be more appropriate: In the first category one could place those whose long-term goals do not extend beyond better regulation and control of animal experiments to eliminate the most painful and trivial experiments. In the next category would be those who have the long-term goal of abolishing all or virtually all animal experiments but who consider this an ideal rather than a realistic objective for the immediate future. This group therefore seeks reforms in the interim period, and its short-term goals do not differ significantly from those of members of the first category. The third category consists of those who aim at abolition and are not interested in advocating anything less.
Although members of these three categories disagree sharply among themselves, they all agree that the current situation is indefensible. They also agree on promoting the use of alternatives to animal experimentation. The use of such alternatives by cosmetic companies to replace the
Draize eye test was mentioned above. Opponents of animal experimentation suggest that alternative methods would be developed more rapidly if they received more substantial government support (Ryder; Rowan; Balls).
The ethical stance of those in the first category, who seek only limited reforms, is often of a relatively conventional type: They can be thought of as following an "animal welfare" line rather than accepting an ethic of "animal rights" or "animal liberation." They accept the idea that animals may be used for human purposes but want safeguards to ensure that the purposes are serious ones and that no more suffering occurs than is necessary for the purpose to be realized. Those who take an animal rights or animal liberation stance want to narrow the ethical gulf that separates humans from other animals in regard to conventional morality. They thus raise a philosophically deep question with implications that go beyond experimentation, extending to the treatment of animals in general.
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