Core questions in the ethical debate
I. The importance of animal experiments for research
II. Legal aspects of research on animals
III. Core questions in the ethical debate
III. Core questions in the ethical debate
The moral status of animals and humans
The answer to the question of whether animal experiments are ethically acceptable does not rest merely in the fact that for many people (for example for consumers or patients) they are useful, possibly even life-saving. On the contrary, it is necessary to ask whether and to what extent human benefit justifies the suffering and death of animals. This is crucially dependent on the moral status enjoyed by animals in comparison to man.
Different theories provide a variety of answers to the question of on what the moral status of a living organism depends and which living organisms therefore have a different moral status. In this respect differences in status may be presumed both within the human species (for example between an embryo in an early stage of development and a grown human being) and - as is relevant to the present context - with an eye to different species.
The argument surrounding the moral status of animals is illustrated below on the basis of three clearly defined positions and the objections that they provoke:
(1) animals do not have a genuine moral status and are therefore not deserving of protection for their own sake,
(2) all living organisms that have a similar capacity for suffering and are able to develop interests (whether humans or animals) have a comparable moral status and
(3), as a "middle" position, animals have a genuine moral status, although this is subordinate to the moral status of man.
1. Animals do not have a genuine moral status: they are not deserving of protection for their own sake
The view that man enjoys a special status from the moral standpoint or that humans are the only living creatures with a morally compelling inherent value has various historic roots (see module Anthropocentrism: Historical Origins).
If man is the only living creature that "counts from the moral standpoint", he is under no obligation to respect animals: their use or harm does not violate any ethical precepts. Yet even within the framework of such a radically anthropocentric - i.e. human-centred - perspective obligations may be established in relation to animals. In this case, however, obligations do not exist vis-à-vis the animals themselves (since they have no inherent moral value); rather, they are indirect or derived obligations, in other words obligations that man has in relation to animals but which are grounded in man's obligations to himself or to his fellow men.
Justification of the prohibition of cruelty to animals without recourse to an inherent moral status of animals was provided inter alia by Immanuel Kant within the scope of his ethics. Kant's argument is to be found in a chapter of "Metaphysik der Sitten" ("Metaphysics of Morals") (§§ 16-18). Kant does not substantiate the prohibition of animal cruelty on the basis that anyone who torments animals is doing them an injustice, but rather with the assertion that the person responsible for cruelty to animals is weakening himself in his capacity to commit moral acts. He is thus in violation of an obligation that he has to himself. What is more, animal cruelty impairs the ability to empathise with the suffering of others (including other humans). Since this capacity is, however, "very useful" for man's co-existence in a society, anyone who wilfully puts it at risk is in violation of an obligation to his fellow men. Such arguments against animal cruelty are referred to as brutalisation arguments (see module Brutalisation Arguments) or pedagogical arguments.
The understanding that the rough and cruel treatment of animals is not wrong per se, but only indirectly through the consequences for one's own moral character and the co-existence of mankind, was criticised early on, inter alia by Arthur Schopenhauer. Numerous authors now consider it more plausible to suppose that harm caused to living creatures with a capacity for feeling is morally questionable as such and vis-à-vis the animals themselves. With this in mind they argue that an appropriate treatment of animals is a matter of justice, not compassion. Yet there can only be justice for animals if they have a genuine moral status, in other words a morally obliging inherent value.
2. Animals have their own moral status
2.1. Animals and humans have a comparable moral status
Two theoretical models have emerged of late asserting that the moral status of humans and of animals with a capacity for feelings and/or interests is identical. These approaches, referred to as the animal interests position and the animal rights position, currently dominate the debate surrounding the appropriate treatment of animals.
2.1.1 Animal interests position
Peter Singer (see module Peter Singer) makes the moral status of living organisms dependent upon their capacity to have interests (for example in survival and freedom from pain). All living creatures that have interests in the same way have the same moral status.
This view results in two consequences: an upward revaluation of the moral status of animals capable of having interests and a downward revaluation of the moral status of human organisms that are unable or have a reduced capacity to have interests. Research on human embryos, for example, would no longer pose an ethical problem (since embryos do not yet have an interest in freedom from pain or survival), whereas painful experiments on mice would constitute a serious moral evil. In his book "Animal Liberation" Singer coins the phrase "speciesism" (see module Speciesism) to describe the view that living creatures such as humans and mice with an equal interest in a pain-free existence could have such a different "value" that the one can be used to benefit the other. For Singer speciesism is a form of discrimination, just like racism or sexism: one group of living creatures is disadvantaged by another without the existence of any morally relevant reasons. Speciesism is thus a form of group egoism of mankind directed against non-human creatures.
What are the implications for the field of animal experiments? Singer does not support an absolute ban on animal experiments (in contrast to the proponents of animal rights). Nor does he speak out in favour of an absolute ban on experiments on humans. Due to their self-awareness and awareness of the future (most) people, in Singer's assessment, have a stronger interest than animals in not being misused as research objects. What is more, humans attach significantly greater importance than animals to their own survival on account of their orientation towards the future (see module Preservation of life and avoidance of pain). Based on man's more extensive interests, Singer believes that to a certain extent the use of animals in biomedical experiments is more justified than the use of human subjects. However, Singer is of the opinion that in moral terms experiments conducted on humans who - due to a lack of cognitive and emotional faculties - have a limited capacity to have interests comparable to that of higher animals (for example infants or the severely mentally handicapped) are of an equal status to certain animal experiments.
Singer's position is pathocentric, meaning that he calls for the attribution of an equal moral status to all living creatures with a capacity for feeling. Yet it has long been disputed whether animals are capable of feeling at all and, if so, the extent to which they have this capacity. In the modern era it was widely held that animals were incapable of thinking or feeling (see module Animal Soul).
2.1.2 Animal rights
In accordance with the "rights view", as it is referred to by Tom Regan, its founder, the essential quality that a living organism must exhibit in order to be a bearer of rights is its "being the subject of a life". Every living creature with its own individual wellbeing has an inherent value and is therefore not merely a means for foreign ends. To this extent the animal interests position (see above) and animal rights position are similar.
The call for animal rights (see module Animal Rights), however, envisages further-reaching consequences than the call to take account of both animal interests and human interests. In contrast to the animal interests position, the rights position asserts that all living creatures that are the experiencing "subject-of-a-life" should be protected by individual rights. At stake here, then, is the question of whether the concept of rights - as it exists with respect to humans - can and should be extended to parts of the animal world. Were animals to possess individual moral rights like humans, animal experiments would then be ruled out even if they promised an outstanding benefit - just as (forcibly conducted) experiments on humans are unacceptable under all circumstances irrespective of the benefit for the common good. Proponents of a rights position therefore reject animal experiments just as they do the consumption of meat in general.
One of the objections sometimes raised against the rights position is that rights as such only exist as a consequence of their mutual recognition (which animals are not capable of). Why should animals have rights if they lack insight into their significance and the possibility of acting accordingly? Animal rights supporters counter this objection with the "argument from marginal cases": nor do human beings have to be morally capable and rational in order to be the bearers of rights (e.g. infants, severely mentally handicapped persons or coma patients). In these instances the legal profession would ensure protection of their rights.
The call for human rights for anthropoid apes (see module Human Rights for Anthropoid Apes) is a form of minimal requirement for proponents of the animal rights position and animal interests position. Experiments on primates are generally considered to pose special ethical problems if they could result in an increase in the test animals' mental capacities (see module Neural Grafting). Special precautionary measures are therefore needed in this case.
2.1.3 Compassion for animals
As the most prominent representative of ethics of compassion, Arthur Schopenhauer, differing from representatives of the animal interests and animal rights position, sets aside the attribution of a moral status. By doing so, compassion ethicists attempt to bypass presuppositions concerning commonly shared values such as human dignity. This is due to the fact that these presuppositions are to constitute moral statuses while they are at the same time not being accepted or cannot be accepted by everyone.
Similar to Singer, for Schopenhauer the circle of such members of a moral community who are worthy of protection is constituted of those beings capable of suffering. By means of her compassion (see module Compassion) with other creatures, the human being recognizes the worthiness for protection of the vis-à-vis and the responsibility to protect this vis-à-vis from suffering. Living beings capable of suffering also include animals whose need for protection Schopenhauer nonetheless esteems to be lower than that of the human being. This owes to the fact that a living being’s ability to suffer is dependent upon its intelligence and that it is hence the human being who possesses the highest quality of suffering.
According to this, meat consumption and the keeping of farm animals are legitimate as long as a death free of pain is warranted and the consumption is essential for survival, and, in the second case, the keeping of the animals is not excessive. Schopenhauer generally objects animal experiments, which cause suffering for the animals. Analogously to the justification of meat consumption, he nonetheless allows for animal experiments if they cause almost no pain and are essential for the survival of the human being.
Based on Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory, Ursula Wolf developed the approach of a generalized compassion as an extension of the ethics of compassion. Apart from values and the assignment of status, this approach is characterized by its attempt to justify rights and obligations for the reduction of suffering. Schopenhauer had spared a justification of rights and obligations; for him, the basic rules of ethics are derived from compassion. Wolf, by contrast, derives from compassion duties to protect concerning all living beings capable of suffering; this does, however, only apply to human beings since only human beings have at their disposal the necessary means for reflection for moral action. In comparison to Regans animal rights position, Wolf’s obligations rest on the foundation of compassion, while Regan links rights and obligations to the living beings‘ inherent value.
Those people are members of a moral community who have at their disposal the ability to suffer (see module Ability to suffer). The higher dimension of protection of those living beings that have an, at least basal, self-conscience needs to be kept in mind. Overall, Wolf refuses a differentiation in status between humans and animals by not considering the empirical rationales (see module Empirical Justifications) as substantive and by generally regarding all living beings capable of suffering as equally worthy of protection.
Concerning the issue of the legitimacy of animal experiments, the following standpoint arises in Wolf’s argumentation: The higher value of the human being based on empirical facts such as an allegedly higher ability to suffer due to her intelligence is rejected by Wolf as morally irrelevant; according to Wolf, they do not justify a gradation in status and hence no animal experiments which cause suffering to animals.
Similar to proponents of the animal rights position, approaches to the ethics of commission are oftentimes being criticized by means of the argument that moral consideration is only sensible concerning those living beings that are capable of moral consideration; this means that due to their capability, only human beings should be included in the circle of those that are directly worthy of protection. Wolf replies to this point that the specific capability of human beings to moral action should also be applied toward animals exactly because human beings have such capability at their disposal.
Biocentrism asserts that all living organisms, i.e. not only those capable of having feeling and interests, are morally relevant and deserving of protection for their own sake. Yet the unlimited protection of all life (the life of not only animals and plants, but also bacteria and other single-cell organisms) appears impossible. This may explain why there is hardly any call for unambiguous and radical measures in the context of biocentrism. The most well-known proponent of a biocentric position is Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer himself did not categorically reject animal experiments, but sought to appeal for a generally more gentle treatment of animals (and plants).
A middle position can be identified between the two extreme positions of animals do not have a genuine moral status (cf. 1) and the moral status of animals and humans is the same (cf. 2.1).
2.2 The moral status of animals is subordinate to the moral status of humans
The theory that animals have their own moral status and that direct moral obligations therefore exist vis-à-vis animals, yet their moral status is as a matter of principle subordinate to the moral status of humans, is sometimes referred to as the double standard theory. The term "double standard" is intended to imply that while there are obligations towards both humans and animals, the respective obligations are different. Although the double standard is in some ways difficult to justify (it cannot, for example, escape the reproach of speciesism, see above), this model nevertheless probably approximates most closely the everyday understanding of an appropriate relationship between humans and animals. While animals would be deserving of protection for their own sake under this theory, their interests (in freedom from pain, survival etc.) would, however, - if they conflicted with human interests - be subordinate. All in all, this would give rise to an obligation to at least respect animals provided this did not infringe upon major human interests. At the same time, their use in scientific research (and also in the food industry) could be considered ethically acceptable overall. The Animal Protection Act, and in particular the requirement to demonstrate the indispensability and ethical acceptability of animal experiments, would appear to be roughly aligned with this understanding.
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas (see module Jürgen Habermas) submitted a suggestion of what the reasoning of such a position could be. He allows a genuine moral status to animals, which depends on the level of social interaction with humans. This seems to display well that the moral intuition of human behaviour is especially relevant towards more sophisticated animals.
Also the animal protection act, especially the obligation to produce proof of indispensability as well as the ethical tenability of the animal experiments, approximately confirms this understanding.