The Moral Status of Animals

In examining the case for current practices, this entry examined some attempts to justify in ethical terms the sharp distinction that is made currently between the treatment of members of the human species and the treatment of members of other species. The problems noted in this entry bedevil all attempts to make the boundary of the human species coincide with the boundary of human moral obligations. Although it is said frequently that humans are superior to other animals in such respects as rationality, self-awareness, the ability to communicate with others, and a sense of justice, human infants and humans with severe intellectual disabilities fall below many nonhuman animals on any objective test of abilities that could mark humans as superior to other animals. Yet surely these less capable human beings are also "ends in themselves," and it would not be legitimate to experiment on them in the ways in which people experiment on animals. For a contrary view that accepts the moral possibility of harmful experimentation on both nonhuman animals and humans at a similar mental level, see Frey.

Ryder, Singer, Regan, and other critics of current practices claim that respect for the interests of those humans and comparative neglect of the interests of members of other species with equal or superior capacities constitutes speciesism, a prejudice in favor of "our own kind" that is analogous to and no more justifiable than racism. This argument has been seen by many people as the most difficult for defenders of animal experimentation to counter, so much so that a leading philosopher has referred to it as a "won argument" (McGinn).

Certainly the view that species is in itself a reason for giving more weight to the interests of one being than to the interests of another is more often assumed than explicitly defended. Some writers who have claimed to be defending speciesism have in fact been defending a very different position: that the morally relevant differences between species—such as differences in mental capacities—entitle people to give more weight to the interests of members of the species with the superior mental capacities (Cohen; Leahy). If this argument were successful, it would not justify speciesism because the claim would not be that species in itself is a reason for giving more weight to the interests of one being than to those of another. The real reason would be the difference in mental capacities, which happens to coincide with the difference in species. However, in view of the overlap in mental capacities between some members of the species Homo sapiens and some members of other species, it is difficult to see how this argument can be used to defend current practices. In other contexts people insist on treating beings as moral individuals rather than lumping them together as members of a group; it is precisely those who practice racism and sexism who treat all members of a group in the same way (for instance, assuming that women cannot perform heavy physical labor as well as men can) without recognizing individual variation.

Defenders of animal experimentation sometimes have portrayed the animal rights position in an extreme form, for example, as implying that it is as wrong to kill a mosquito as it is to kill a normal human adult. This is, however, a caricature. Animal advocates do not claim that all animals have the same interests, only that interests are not to be given less consideration solely on the grounds of species. Thus, it is compatible with the animal liberation view to say that the interests of beings with different mental capacities vary and that these variations are morally significant (DeGrazia, 1996, 2002). If people are forced to choose between saving the life of a being who understands the meaning of death and wants to go on living and saving the life of a being who is not capable of having desires for the future because that being's mental capacities do not enable it to grasp that it is a "self," a mental entity existing over time, it is entirely justifiable to choose in favor of the being who wants to go on living. This is a choice that is based on mental capacity and not on species membership, as one can see by considering that the former being may be a chimpanzee and the latter being a human with profound brain damage (Singer, 1990 [1975]).

At least one scientist who experiments on animals has attempted to sweep aside such issues by denying that animal experimentation raises a moral issue at all. Robert J. White, whose work has involved keeping severed monkeys' heads alive and apparently conscious for as long as possible, has written that "the inclusion of lower animals in our ethical system is philosophically meaningless" (p. 507). Unfortunately, White does not explain why, to take only one example, the clear proposal of utilitarian writers—that pain as such is evil regardless of the species of the being that suffers it—is devoid of meaning. It may be difficult to compare the suffering of a human and that of, say, a rabbit, but sometimes rough comparisons can be made. It seems undeniable that to put into the eye of a rabbit a chemical that causes the eye to blister or become ulcerated is to do more harm to the rabbit than people would do to any number of human beings by denying them the possibility of using a new type of shampoo that could be marketed only if the chemical was tested in this way. When such rough comparisons can be made, the mere fact that rabbits are "lower animals" is no reason to give less weight to their suffering.

Seen in this light, the argument that restricting experiments on animals interferes with scientific freedom and medical progress appears less conclusive. People do not grant scientists the freedom to experiment at will on humans, although such experiments would do more to advance knowledge of human physiology and be more likely to find cures for diseases such as AIDS than would animal experiments. It would seem, therefore, to be incumbent on the defenders of experiments on animals to show that there is a relevant difference between all humans and other animals that justifies experiments on the latter but not on the former. Success at this task, however, still eludes defenders of animal experimentation.

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