Devices and treatments are often used on animals to determine if it is appropriate to begin clinical studies in humans. Discussion around animal experimentation usually centers around the amount of animal experimentation necessary to show a treatment is safe and effective before allowing humans to participate. One can also ask if animals themselves should be considered morally relevant when undertaking an experiment.
If so, does current policy regarding animals live up to the expectations of our moral theories? Do researchers consider these guidelines or do they ignore them?
Until recently, our collective attitude toward animals has mirrored the doctrines of Descartes. In formulating his position of dualism, Descartes came to the conclusion that animals were merely automata.1 They lacked a soul. This belief manifested itself in his advocacy of vivisection and complete denial of moral consideration to animals.
While his conclusion regarding animals remained largely unquestioned, its dualist foundation crumbled under the scrutiny of other philosophers. A re-evaluation of the moral status of animals has become an area of interest in the last few decades as thinkers have recast the position of animals in the context of ethical theory.
Deontology has traditionally denied moral consideration to animals. Immanuel Kant believed that “the fact that the human being can have the representation ‘I’ raises him infinitely above all other beings on Earth.”2 Deontology concerns itself only with rational agents capable of moral reasoning and self-reflection. Since animals lack this reasoning, personhood becomes a necessary condition for moral consideration.
A difficult issue arises when we consider if personhood is a sufficient condition for moral consideration. Given Kant’s formulation of a morally relevant subject the answer is no. This implies that infants, children, and the intellectually disabled are also morally irrelevant.3 Deontologists have several approaches to resolving this problem of “marginal cases.”
Kant views these individuals as indirectly deserving of some consideration because of the effect cruelty could have on other agents.4 More recently, Wood has suggested that non-persons share in the “infrastructure of rational nature” and even those who lack rational thinking are worthy of ethical consideration.5 Another approach is that of Korsgaard who suggests that the natural capacities of non-persons is enough to grant them moral status.6 The exact nature of the moral status of animals is fuzzy under deontology, but it is clear they must be given some consideration even if it is indirect.
Utilitarians disregard rational ability entirely and ask simply if animals can experience pain. For a utilitarian, “the question is not can they reason? nor can they talk? but can they suffer?” 7
The fact that animals can feel pain is relatively clear. There are obvious similarities between the external expression of pain in humans and many animals.8 Additionally, the physiology of most non-human animals include all the components necessary to experience pain.9
Given these capabilities, one must consider animals in any utilitarian calculation. The “principle of equal consideration of interests” mandates non-preferential treatment where individuals have equal interests.10 Since animals certainly have an interest in their own welfare and in avoiding pain, they should be given equal consideration. Since both moral theories prescribe some basic consideration for animals, one may look at how this is borne out in policy.
In the United States, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 is the only federal law regarding the treatment of animals in research.11 Organizations conducting research on animals often have committees which ensure compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.12 While the law puts forth rules relating to the “transportation, housing, and handling of animals,” the limits of actual experimental procedure are left to the discretion of the researcher.13
The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare does publish a guideline for the “proper treatment of animals” in research.14 It contains numerous sensible suggestions. It dictates that “the avoidance or minimization of discomfort” is imperative and that the fewest number of animals be used to obtain a result.15 While the guidelines are reasonable, they are not federal law and compliance is not always satisfactory.
Other countries have substantially greater regulation over animal experimentation. The British Animals Scientific Procedures Act of 1986 requires that every experiment involving animal experimentation obtain a license from the government.16 Australia has a Code of Practice requiring the approval of every experiment on animals by a committee devoted to ethical animal experimentation. These committees have a structure very similar to the Institutional Review Boards in the United States.17
The U.S. Congressional Office of Technology provides a telling summary in a report which concluded that most other countries “have laws far more protective of experimental animals than those in the United States.”18
The absence of regulation in the United States has consequences for animal welfare. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Air Force conducted experiments on chimpanzees. They used a Primate Equilibrium Platform or PEP to test the monkeys’ ability to fly. They then exposed them to a variety of conditions including “radiation and chemical warfare agents” to study the effect these had on flying ability.19 That same decade the Air Force also proposed tests on beagle dogs which would expose them to different poisonous gases.20 This incident was met with much public outcry, likely due to the fact that dogs are beloved animals in Western culture. Unethical treatment of research animals is not limited to government agencies.
The Boys Town National Research Hospital conducted experiments where “kittens had their heads sliced open and their nerves severed to study deafness.”21 While public concern over the ethics of animal research is a positive development, the principle of equal consideration of interests does not allow for the preferential treatment of particular animals. Much research has been conducted to the absence of public outcry where animals “suffer and die without any certainty that this suffering and death would save a human life.”22
Animals have not historically been considered relevant of moral status. Many contemporary philosophers believe that animals must be considered in our system of morals to one degree or another. Deontology makes somewhat weaker claims about animal welfare, but utilitarianism offers strong and convincing arguments for the proper treatment of animals.
Animal experimentation in the United States remains largely unregulated which has lead to numerous incidents involving the mistreatment of animals. The United States could certainly consider the regulations other nations have implemented to reduce harm to animals. This could lead to a higher compliance with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare’s guidelines and ultimately improve the lives of animals involved in experimentation.