Are animal experiments useful?
Are animal experiments useful?
Animal experiments only benefit human beings if their results are valid and can be applied to human beings.
Not all scientists are convinced that these tests are valid and useful.
The moral status of the experimenters
Animal rights extremists often portray those who experiment on animals as being so cruel as to have forfeited any own moral standing.
But the argument is about whether the experiments are morally right or wrong. The general moral character of the experimenter is irrelevant.
What is relevant is the ethical approach of the experimenter to each experiment. John P Gluck has suggested that this is often lacking:
Gluck offers this advice for people who may need to experiment on animals:
Animal experiments and animal rights
The issue of animal experiments is straightforward if we accept that animals have rights: if an experiment violates the rights of an animal, then it is morally wrong, because it is wrong to violate rights.
The possible benefits to humanity of performing the experiment are completely irrelevant to the morality of the case, because rights should never be violated (except in obvious cases like self-defence).
And as one philosopher has written, if this means that there are some things that humanity will never be able to learn, so be it.
This bleak result of deciding the morality of experimenting on animals on the basis of rights is probably why people always justify animal experiments on consequentialist grounds; by showing that the benefits to humanity justify the suffering of the animals involved.
Justifying animal experiments
Those in favour of animal experiments say that the good done to human beings outweighs the harm done to animals.
This is a consequentialist argument, because it looks at the consequences of the actions under consideration.
It can't be used to defend all forms of experimentation since there are some forms of suffering that are probably impossible to justify even if the benefits are exceptionally valuable to humanity.
Animal experiments and ethical arithmetic
The consequentialist justification of animal experimentation can be demonstrated by comparing the moral consequences of doing or not doing an experiment.
This process can't be used in a mathematical way to help people decide ethical questions in practice, but it does demonstrate the issues very clearly.
The basic arithmetic
If performing an experiment would cause more harm than not performing it, then it is ethically wrong to perform that experiment.
The harm that will result from not doing the experiment is the result of multiplying three things together:
- the moral value of a human being
- the number of human beings who would have benefited
- the value of the benefit that each human being won't get
The harm that the experiment will cause is the result of multiplying together:
- the moral value of an experimental animal
- the number of animals suffering in the experiment
- the negative value of the harm done to each animal
But it isn't that simple because:
- it's virtually impossible to assign a moral value to a being
- it's virtually impossible to assign a value to the harm done to each individual
- the harm that will be done by the experiment is known beforehand, but the benefit is unknown
- the harm done by the experiment is caused by an action, while the harm resulting from not doing it is caused by an omission
Certain versus potential harm
In the theoretical sum above, the harm the experiment will do to animals is weighed against the harm done to humans by not doing the experiment.
But these are two conceptually different things.
- The harm that will be done to the animals is certain to happen if the experiment is carried out
- The harm done to human beings by not doing the experiment is unknown because no-one knows how likely the experiment is to succeed or what benefits it might produce if it did succeed
So the equation is completely useless as a way of deciding whether it is ethically acceptable to perform an experiment, because until the experiment is carried out, no-one can know the value of the benefit that it produces.
And there's another factor missing from the equation, which is discussed in the next section.
Acts and omissions
The equation doesn't deal with the moral difference between acts and omissions.
Most ethicists think that we have a greater moral responsibility for the things we do than for the things we fail to do; i.e. that it is morally worse to do harm by doing something than to do harm by not doing something.
For example: we think that the person who deliberately drowns a child has done something much more wrong than the person who refuses to wade into a shallow pool to rescue a drowning child.
In the animal experiment context, if the experiment takes place, the experimenter will carry out actions that harm the animals involved.
If the experiment does not take place the experimenter will not do anything. This may cause harm to human beings because they won't benefit from a cure for their disease because the cure won't be developed.
So the acts and omissions argument could lead us to say that
- it is morally worse for the experimenter to harm the animals by experimenting on them
- than it is to (potentially) harm some human beings by not doing an experiment that might find a cure for their disease.
And so if we want to continue with the arithmetic that we started in the section above, we need to put an additional, and different, factor on each side of the equation to deal with the different moral values of acts and omissions.