Animal experimentation: morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?

Following the announcement last week that Oxford University’s controversial Biomedical Sciences building is now complete and will be open for business in mid-2009, the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals for scientific experimentation have been revisited in the media—see, for example, here , here, and here.

The number of animals used per year in scientific experiments worldwide has been estimated at 200 million—well in excess of the population of Brazil and over three times that of the United Kingdom. If we take the importance of an ethical issue to depend in part on how many subjects it affects, then, the ethics of animal experimentation at the very least warrants consideration alongside some of the most important issues in this country today, and arguably exceeds them in importance. So, what is being done to address this issue?

In the media, much effort seems to be devoted to discrediting concerns about animal suffering and reassuring people that animals used in science are well cared for, and relatively little effort is spent engaging with the ethical issues. However, it seems likely that no amount of reassurance about primate play areas and germ-controlled environments in Oxford’s new research lab will allay existing concerns about the acceptability of, for example, inducing heart failure in mice or inducing Parkinson’s disease in monkeys—particularly since scientists are not currently required to report exactly how much suffering their experiments cause to animals. Given the suffering involved, are we really sure that experimenting on animals is ethically justifiable?

In attempting to answer this question, it is disturbing to note some inconsistencies in popular views of science. Consider, for example, that by far the most common argument in favour of animal experimentation is that it is an essential part of scientific progress. As Oxford’s oft-quoted Professor Alastair Buchan reminds us, ‘You can’t make a head injury in a dish, you can’t create a stroke in a test tube, you can’t create a heart attack on a chip: it just doesn’t work’. Using animals, we are told, is essential if science is to progress. Since many people are apparently convinced by this argument, they must therefore believe that scientific progress is something worthwhile—that, at the very least, its value outweighs the suffering of experimental animals. And yet, at the same time, we are regularly confronted with the conflicting realisation that, far from viewing science as a highly valuable and worthwhile pursuit, the public is often disillusioned and exasperated with science. Recently, for example, people have expressed bafflement that scientists have spent time and money on seemingly trifling projects—such as working out the best way to swat a fly and discovering why knots form—and on telling us things that we already know: that getting rid of credit cards helps us spend less money, and that listening to very loud music can damage hearing. Why, when the public often seems to despair of science, do so many people appear to be convinced that scientific progress is so important that it justifies the suffering of millions of animals?

A pervasive view is that experiments on animals are necessary in order to find cures for diseases, and that it is better that animals suffer than that humans suffer. This view is somewhat confused: there are doubts about how relevant the results of animal experiments are to humans (see, for example, here and here), and many animal experiments do not attempt to save lives, nor even to discover something worthwhile—for example, a recent experiment in Japan involved applying electric currents to the nerves of conscious, temporarily paralysed cats in order to observe the extent to which the cats’ pupils dilated in response. Even ignoring these worries, is it acceptable to use animals to find cures for diseases in order to avoid human suffering?

For many, the answer to this question is likely to be a confident ‘yes’. However, the view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on animals in order to spare humans is a particular application of the more general view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on one type of being in order to spare another type. This more general view is widely reviled in modern times, and when applied within the human species, is associated with uncivilised and morally corrupt cultures: consider the subjection of Blacks to Whites in Apartheid South Africa, and the more recent subjection of Whites to Blacks in Zimbabwe. Is there good reason to suppose that discrimination on grounds of species is morally acceptable in a way that  discrimination on grounds of race is not?  Well, in fifteen years of studying philosophy, I have never encountered a good argument for the conclusion that so-called speciesism is morally acceptable. Animals may be different from humans in many respects, but it is their similarity to humans in a particular respect—their capacity to suffer—that grounds the ethical debate surrounding animal experimentation.

If it really is unjustifiable to cause suffering to animals in the name of science, why are relatively few people concerned with trying to stop it? Why do so many people believe that it is acceptable, and even essential? The answer is no doubt due in large part to the fact that humans have always exploited animals, and that it can be difficult to feel moral outrage in response to a familiar, ingrained practice. In essence, it is likely that many believe that animal experiments are justified because they are currently permitted, and because many apparently respectable people believe that they are justified. Possibly, even, many people recognise that such experiments are horrific, but convince themselves that they must be morally acceptable because it is too disturbing to confront the possibility that they are both unacceptable and permitted.  Similar factors can induce people to accept all sorts of peculiar, often unjustifiable, things: consider that, during Apartheid South Africa, many white people who had grown up with the regime viewed it as acceptable.  There is, moreover, psychological evidence for the fact that people are far more likely to accept a state of affairs if it has always been the case than if it is presented as a change from the current way, even if there is no independent reason to prefer the current situation (for an overview of this evidence, and a strategy for avoiding such status quo bias, see here). In addition to such bias, it also seems likely that many people are unwilling to entertain the possibility that animal experiments are unethical because they do not wish to associate themselves with activists who campaign for an end to animal experiments, whom they view as mostly disruptive and unreasonable. Whilst this is largely an unfair stereotype, a few such activists are undeniably disruptive and unreasonable.  Even so, we should take care not to allow our dislike of disruptive and unreasonable people to obscure our view of the important ethical issue to which they call attention. Recall that, ten years ago, those who campaigned to raise awareness of climate change were also regularly dismissed as disruptive and unreasonable. Today, however, climate change is recognised as one of the most important ethical and scientific issues of our age. Could the issue of animal experimentation receive similar recognition in years to come?

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  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Ugh. Good article, except for the dodge about the value derived from animal experiments. And when I say dodge, I mean this:

    “Since many people are apparently convinced by this argument, they must therefore believe that scientific progress is something worthwhile—that, at the very least, its value outweighs the suffering of experimental animals. And yet, at the same time, we are regularly confronted with the conflicting realisation that, far from viewing science as a highly valuable and worthwhile pursuit, the public is often disillusioned and exasperated with science.”

    Research on animals that aims to cure cancer or Parkinson’s disease can hardly be compared with research into the forming of knots and the swatting of flies. These two have nothing to do with each other, which leaves you with one leg short of a well-supported argument. You address the easy issues – moral equivalence, yes, blah blah blah – but you do not address the difficult question: do animal experiments, infact, help us, or could we obtain the same benefits in some other way?

    I do not know the answer to this, but if the answer is that animal experiments are indeed crucial to progress in important areas – if they are crucial to research that will improve human health and longevity in a matter of decades – then you will not gain sufficient support for your argument, because no matter the moral equivalence:

    (1) animals don’t look like people, they don’t talk, don’t get organized against oppression,

    (2) most people believe in God and that there’s a chasm between humans and animals,

    (3) cynical people who know there’s no difference don’t give a rat’s tail, because they know that they aren’t going to be subject to such experimentation, but it may benefit them.

    This is a case of strong vs. weak, and as long as half the human population are lying cynical sociopaths, which they are, you aren’t going to get anywhere with it. The world can only be accurately imagined as beautiful when it has only “beautiful” inhabitants. Our world does not. In a world populated with selfish creatures fighting for their own benefit and devil take the rest… that’s what takes place. This is us.

  • http://goodmorningeconomics.wordpress.com jsalvati

    The fact that scientific research is regarded as indispensable even as some scientists are criticized for focusing on “silly” things does not strike me as particularly contradictory.

    The rest of your point is well received.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    That said, the animals are no better. They’re built to kill each other all day. The cats that suffer would have hunted mice and birds and would have played with them before maiming and eating. That’s how things work in nature. We can separate ourselves from it, say that we are morally above it, and we could be. But it will still take place.

  • http://billmill.org Bill Mill

    @denis

    Your point about research is well made, and I agree with it.

    You don’t, however, address the fundamental point: is it Right to allow ourselves to torture and kill animals in the name of science?

    You address whether animals would be similarly kind, and whether the argument will ever be successful among humans, but not the fundamental question at hand.

  • Cameron Taylor

    “morally acceptable, or just the way things always have been?”

    Not sure where the ‘just’ comes from. “The way things always have been” comes close behind “what those with the most entrenched power want” in making things “morally acceptable”. That isn’t “biassed morality”. That is morality itself. The question makes no sense to me.

  • Cameron Taylor

    (Bill) You don’t, however, address the fundamental point: is it Right to allow ourselves to torture and kill animals in the name of science?

    A far better question. I’m going with ‘yes’, but I feel bad while saying it. That’s an answer of sorts.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Bill Mill: There is no ought, people who want will do, and people who don’t want will avoid.

    Should we strenthen legal, society-wide animal treatment standards? First and foremost, what for? We cooperate because we gain from it, we nurture peace among humans because we’re better off this way instead of fighting. But there doesn’t need to be peace and tolerance where someone is clearly and absolutely winning. With animals, we’re clearly winning. So why handicap ourselves?

    The only reason we might do so is if idealists prevail, and enforce their preference for not abusing animals on people who want to abuse animals. But people who abuse animals are just another animal themselves. Preventing people from abusing animals is much like going out into the sea and preventing bigger fish from eating smaller fish. Hello big tuna fish, why don’t you try our processed soy extract instead.

    For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind the idealists winning this one. I don’t like animal abuse. If there’s a way to get to the same medical discoveries in a similar timeframe without torturing creatures, I’d prefer that. If we could all decide we’re not going to eat meat, I’d stop. Then we could all walk around with our noses held high above the uncultured, uncivilized creatures around us, who kill each other instead of cooperating like we do.

    But that is all a matter of preference, of personal comfort, not a matter of moral necessity. The moral fact of the matter is, humans abusing animals are just another animal abusing another animal, and it’s nothing new in the animal world.

  • http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~rwash Rick Wash

    It is important to remember that very few things are discrete and binary. We are very quick to lump things into categories to make them easier to understand. Take for example your dismissal of “seemingly trifling” research. Often the popular press will report research as if it were answering a yes/no question: “Do people spend more when using credit cards than cash?” In reality, good research rarely answers yes/no questions; it answers “how much” questions. “How much more do people spend when using credit cards than cash?” The answers to ‘how much’ questions are usually very not obvious and useful. Knowing how much more people are likely to spend when using credit cards allows us to compare credit cards to gift cards, cash, travelers checks, debit cards, bank transfers, foreign currencies, and other forms of monetary exchange. This will tell us if credit cards are significantly worse than these other forms, or if they are pretty much the same as cash. It tells us how much we might save by moving to cash. These questions are non-obvious.

    In a very similar way, the morality of animal research is not a yes/no question either. There is a continuum. Is research on primates OK? Canines? Squid? Trees? Algae? Bacteria? Is behavioral research OK? Non-deadly medical research? Non-pain-inducing medical research? Claiming to have a single answer that covers all of these is what leads to the extremist “animal rights activists” being looked down upon.

    The morality of experimenting on humans is also not a clear-cut yes/no question. Human subjects research is permitted, but limited. Right now the US at least has an infrastructure to deal with the morality of human subjects research known as “Institutional Review Boards (IRB)”. IRBs try to ensure the ethical conducting of research by balancing the harms and suffering done to human subjects and the potential benefits to humanity of the research. Highly beneficial research (curing cancer for example) is allowed to involve more risk to subjects. Research that causes lots of suffering or has high risk of death is not allowed.

    Personally, I am in favor of extending our existing ethical research infrastructure to include experiments on animals. It would be possible to have an IRB for animal research that tries to make these case-by-case tradeoffs. I know at some universities, there is an IRB or IRB-like ethical oversight of animal research already in place.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    Rick, do you think that the overwhelming majority of people are “extremists” because they deny that it is every permissible to experiment with nonconsenting human animals? And do you think people who look down upon “extremist” animal rights activists would answer ‘yes’ to that question?

  • http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~rwash Rick Wash

    Pablo, we currently conduct research with non-consenting humans all of the time. At least, we conduct human behavioral research (which is what I do) without full consent frequently. Any research study that involves “deception” (quite common in psychology at least) is a research study where at best the subjects are not consenting to the study, or are consenting to a different study than they one they are participating in. I have also seen a number of studies where no consent was ever obtained because such consent was either almost impossible to obtain (some field studies) or would strongly bias the results and mess up the study. Such studies are more difficult to get permission to do from the IRB, but are not uncommon. The IRB would never let you do a study with serious personal harm risks without consent, but research studies that are low-risk happen all of the time without consent.

    To answer your questions, I don’t think that an “overwhelming majority” of people would agree that all human subjects experimentation with nonconsenting humans is bad, since it happens every day and there is very little uproar about it — much less than the uproar over animal experimentation.

    There are different types of animal research. It is quite possible to do behavioral research experiments on indigenous animal populations that most people would probably think are quite ethical. It is equally possible to give apes cancer, kill them, and dissect them. Those two types of research should not be lumped into the same “ethical” bin — one treats the animal much worse than the other. Of course, the knowledge it generates might also be more beneficial to both humans and animals in the future. I think there are tradeoffs that always need to be made, and trying to talk about it as an all-or-nothing ethical dilemma is misleading at best.

  • http://billmill.org Bill Mill

    @denis

    > There is no ought, people who want will do, and people who don’t want will avoid.

    If you’re going to posit complete relativism, why post in a thread about morals at all? Morals are the “ought”, no?

  • Purple

    In an infinite amount of time, science will learn everything there is to know, with or without animal experimentation.

    The only thing animal experimentation does is to accelerate our learning and bring future knowledge into the present sooner. Likewise, doing human experimentation on retarded and near comatose people would also accelerate our learning — in fact, it would radically improve on whatever we could learn via animal experimentation.

    The question then is what wrongs (since most of us think torturing monkeys, dogs, cats, etc. is generally wrong) we are permitted to commit in order to save time (and thus save some human lives).

  • http://billmill.org Bill Mill

    @Rick Wash

    > there is very little uproar about [human behavioral experimentation] — much less than the uproar over animal experimentation.

    I think that people, intuitively, draw a thick line between behavioral research and “physical” research. The morality of running rats through mazes and examining the results is not the same as that of opening up their brains while they’re still alive and popping them with electricity to see what happens.

    The line between the two types of research is, granted, extremely fuzzy, but I think that “an overwhelming majority” of humans do, in fact, feel that nonconsenting humans should not be experimented on *physically*.

    I agree with you that it’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing argument. However, I don’t think the base of your argument stands. I see you as arguing “we allow nonconsenting research on humans, and animals are below humans, and therefore we should allow at least some nonconsenting research on them”.

    If you seperate behavioral research from invasive physical experimentation, though, we consider it immoral in all circumstances that I am aware of to perform nonconsenting invasive physical research on humans, so we can’t make a similar argument for it.

  • Ben

    This … this would have failed in my junior year ethics class.

    False dichotomies. Strawman arguments. Red herring rhetorical questions.

    This might have failed my first year writing class. Please either extrapolate from a premise, or build to a conclusion. You ask an opening question, and then don’t answer it. Then you ask more vague, rhetorical questions with assumed answers. And, frankly, the truth tends to be completely opposite or irrelevant to your leading questions.

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    The most cost efficient way to reduce the amount of harm humans inflict on animals would probably involve ignoring the fate of research animals but instead improving the living conditions of the pigs, chickens and cows we will eventually eat.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    Rick,

    The kinds of experiments that animal rights activists object to are not the experiments that you claim routinely take place in humans. It is experiments in the former category that raise the most serious ethical issues, and it is these experiments that Rebecca’s post was referring to. Assimilating the experiments that take place with human beings to the highly morally problematic ones that are only permissible in nonhuman animals by exploiting the nuances of human language strikes me as an attempt to dodge the issue, and divert attention towards trivial verbal disputes. You may as well insist that people don’t really oppose slavery since many of them condone “wage slavery”. This is really a silly reply, even if it turns out that the term ‘slavery’, in some of its senses, can be extended to cover capitalist acts between consenting adults.

    Still, if you insist in taking that line, you may simply substitute ‘do the kinds of experiments on human beings that animal rights activists typically object to when done on nonhuman animals’ for ‘experiment with nonconsenting human animals’ in my question above.

  • talisman

    The crux:

    > Animals may be different from humans in many respects, but it is their similarity to humans in a particular respect—their capacity to suffer—that grounds the ethical debate surrounding animal experimentation.

    What constitutes suffering? Is it the same across all species—does the word “suffering” mean the same thing when applied to a fruit fly, a fish, a bird, a mouse, a monkey, a human? Should we care about the analogue of suffering in all these species equally? Does higher mental faculty affect the character of suffering or the degree to which a human should care about it?

    It feels like you haven’t explored any of the real questions in this post, just presented a polemic.

    As to the analogy between “racism” and “speciesism,” it’s ironic that this appears just a few posts after Eliezer’s (most recent) attack on reasoning by surface similarity. What are the deep similarities, and what’s surface? Do we only care about racism because humans can suffer? Break all this out carefully in six well-reasoned posts and we might get somewhere.

  • kevin

    There is absolutely nothing hypocritical about people’s attitudes toward nonhuman animal experimentation. Almost nobody claims to care about “preventing all suffering” they care about “preventing human suffering” and especially “preventing my friends and family members’ suffering”(for the obvious evolutionary psych. reasons). People don’t care very much about nonhuman animals, and would rather 100,000 mice die than one cute little boy.

    And just because people think some research is pointless does NOT mean that people are “exasperated” at science (and people are especially positive about biomedical research).

  • Matt

    Is it ethical for a starving human to kill an animal in order to survive and feed his family? I would say yes.

    If we could have a regulation agency, like an FDA for animal testing that forces scientists to prove that their experimentation would lead to helping humans, wouldn’t it then be ethical to use animals? It would just be like the starving man who needs to feed him family.

  • http://www.infoaxe.com Vijay Krishnan

    I have always been perplexed by argument like this that talk about “cruelty to animals.”
    I have a simple question. What carries a higher sentence, murder or torture of a human? When we are clear that murder is a strictly worse offense, I find it perplexing that the same ordering should not extend to animals. This article lists that about 200 million animals are used a year in scientific tests. The number of animals killed an eaten a year would easily be 2-3 orders of magnitude higher!

    As a society we seem to take little issue with the fact that probably 100 billion animals are slain every year for food, when it is the case that meat eating only erodes the world’s grain supply (the grains consumed by animals if fed to people could probably feed 10 times as many people), and obviously inefficient from an energy perspective. And to top it all, the marginal benefit is merely the fact that humans have more variety in their food options, as opposed to scientific experiements where the bang for the buck in killing each animal is way greater.

    So if we want to reduce discrimination on the basis of species, the first place to start would be to wean away humans from meat eating.

    Once we have achieved that goal, it might make sense to debate whether the value attained for humans is worth the suffering that animals have to undergo in scientific tests.

    It perplexes me no end that I have heard few others make this argument.

  • Ian C.

    I think it’s not ok to simply waste an animal’s life for sport or sadism, but it is ok for something worthwhile like food or scientific research.

    We must remember that animals (with the possible exception of higher primates) do not have the ability to perform the same kind of conceptual abstraction we do. This means that while they can think (the wordless equivalent of) “I am in pain” or “I am happy” or “I am hungry,” they can’t take all of those moments and abstract out the common “I” and become self aware.

    If they can’t conceive of “I” (as apart from what they’re doing or feeling at a given moment), then while they can feel physical pain, they can’t feel the kind of deep mental anguish a human would in the same situation. That doesn’t make it right, it just means that if you care about their pain, the main thing you should focus on is physical pain.

  • luzr

    @Ian C.

    Thanks, that is exactly what I think.

    I am afraid we have to draw a line somewhere – think about all those small insects and bacteria we accidentally kill and torture all the time.

  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    Link styles got mixed by this post, changing colors on the whole front page. Section “Style Definitions” in the post source needs to be removed or commented out.

  • emmi

    Ian C. :

    How can you say that animals don’t have the ability to perform conceptual abstraction? Can you read their minds? The fact that animals can’t talk (in a way we understand, at least) does not give as the right to conclude that their thought processes are somehow below those of humans.

    Second point: what is the “deep mental anguish” of a human anyway if not a derivative of pain, stress, frustration, fear etc.? Are you seriously suggesting that animals do not feel those emotions in addition to physical pain? It doesn’t make any sense to suggest that animal suffering is somehow “less” than human suffering because allegedly the mental processes of animals are somehow below ours.

  • http://eucalculia.blogspot.com John Fabe

    Vijay: I always think the same thing. How can it be acceptable to kill and eat animals and unacceptable to stick needles into them? Is everyone on this thread who is anti-animal experimentation also a vegan?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rebeccaroache/ Rebecca Roache

    Thanks to everyone here for reading and commenting. I respond to the objections below. In the interests of brevity, I’ll ignore exchanges between commenters that don’t appear to be directly addressed to me.

    Denis Bider: ‘Ugh. Good article, except for the dodge about the value derived from animal experiments.’ (Jsalvati makes a similar point about the public attitudes paragraph.)
    I disagree that the paragraph about the public’s views of science is a ‘dodge’. No part of my argument depends on it, and it could be omitted from the post without interrupting the flow. It was, rather, an aside that aimed to highlight something I’ve observed about disparities in popular views of scientific research: that a public who often seems to despair at the sort of things that scientists spend their time is often nevertheless happy to believe that animal experiments are worthwhile. Of course, I’m generalising here: the sort of people who despair at science may not the the same people who believe that animal experiments are worthwhile, but it’s still surprising that we don’t encounter more comparisons between the two in the form of comments like, ‘Well, as we can see from research projects X, Y, and Z, what scientists believe to be worthwhile projects may differ markedly from what the rest of us believe to be worthwhile, so why should we believe them when they insist that their animal experiments are worthwhile?’
    You also say, ‘You address the easy issues – moral equivalence, yes, blah blah blah – but you do not address the difficult question: do animal experiments, infact, help us, or could we obtain the same benefits in some other way?’. You seem to think the moral equivalence issue is not worth addressing. In fact, it’s crucial to the relevance of the question, ‘do animal experiments help us?’ If experimenting on animals is no more justifiable than experimenting on humans, then—assuming we don’t believe it to be acceptable to experiment on humans—we should not be experimenting on animals regardless of the benefits.
    And: ‘In a world populated with selfish creatures fighting for their own benefit and devil take the rest… that’s what takes place. This is us.’ (And in a later comment ‘There is no ought, people who want will do, and people who don’t want will avoid.’) That there are so many selfish creatures in the world is exactly why it’s important to work out what is right and wrong, and in many cases, to legislate to discourage or prevent people from doing what is wrong! Having said that, I’m sure (I hope!) that people who knowingly act unethically are in a small minority. It seems to be the case that many people who act unethically do so because they are able to convince themselves that they are acting ethically. Debating the ethical issues at stake, and exposing bad ethical justifications as such, makes it more difficult for them to do this. As such, I’m optimistic that having this sort of debate is worthwhile in that it encourages people to question their behaviour and do the right thing.
    In your next comment, you say, ‘the animals are no better. They’re built to kill each other all day. The cats that suffer would have hunted mice and birds and would have played with them before maiming and eating’. (And in your later comment, ‘The moral fact of the matter is, humans abusing animals are just another animal abusing another animal, and it’s nothing new in the animal world.’) The argument that, since animals often treat each other cruelly, we are justified in treating them cruelly is a popular but nevertheless very bad argument. Nobody would endorse it when applied to other humans rather than to animals. Consider that, very often, young children go out of their way to try to hurt one another—and yet nobody seriously entertains the possibility that it is therefore acceptable to try to hurt them. Rather, we view them as incapable of forming and acting on the sort of ethical judgments that adults form and act on. We don’t take ethical guidance from watching how young children behave, and neither should we take it from watching how animals behave—the issue is how we, as adults capable of forming and acting on moral judgments, should behave.

    Cameron Taylor: ‘”The way things always have been” comes close behind “what those with the most entrenched power want” in making things “morally acceptable”. That isn’t “biassed morality”. That is morality itself. The question makes no sense to me.’
    ‘Biased morality’ is often what people are talking about when they talk about ‘morality’, but it isn’t true that there is no distinction between what is moral and what people think is moral. People can believe that something is moral for all sorts of reasons, which very often have little to do what what is in fact moral.

    Rick Wash: ‘It is important to remember that very few things are discrete and binary. We are very quick to lump things into categories to make them easier to understand. Take for example your dismissal of “seemingly trifling” research. Often the popular press will report research as if it were answering a yes/no question: “Do people spend more when using credit cards than cash?” In reality, good research rarely answers yes/no questions; it answers “how much” questions.’
    I agree! I wasn’t dismissing (or trying to simplify) the scientific research in question, I was merely observing that others often do so. It was the perceptions of science that interested me, regardless of how accurate those perceptions were. As you say, this is largely thanks to the media.
    ‘In a very similar way, the morality of animal research is not a yes/no question either. There is a continuum. Is research on primates OK? Canines? Squid? Trees? Algae? Bacteria? Is behavioral research OK? Non-deadly medical research? Non-pain-inducing medical research? Claiming to have a single answer that covers all of these is what leads to the extremist “animal rights activists” being looked down upon.’
    Again, I agree with you. But I don’t think we can find satisfactory answers to these questions without first addressing the question of what the moral status of various animals is. As for extremist ‘animal rights activists’: often, it seems that what is frowned upon is not merely that the actions of a small minority of such people are as morally reprehensible as the actions of those whom they protest against, but that they are perceived as being ‘too emotional’ about the issue. We are constantly reminded of the importance of being peaceful and reasonable. But, whilst being peaceful and reasonable can often be the most productive strategy for making others listen to our views, it’s important to remember that reacting with strong emotion to morally repugnant acts is very much a part of having a strong moral sense. For example, I think that most people would have misgivings about the moral character of anyone able to read about the appalling Baby P case, which has recently dominated news reports in the UK, without responding with strong emotion. But for some reason, those who respond with similar emotion to learning of animal abuse are often dismissed as sentimental.

    Purple: ‘The only thing animal experimentation does is to accelerate our learning and bring future knowledge into the present sooner. … The question then is what wrongs (since most of us think torturing monkeys, dogs, cats, etc. is generally wrong) we are permitted to commit in order to save time (and thus save some human lives).’
    Yes, focusing on timescales is one way of framing the issue. But your claim that animal experimentation accelerates our learning is controversial: quite aside from the ethical issues, many argue that it hinders our learning and that we would progress faster if we pursued other methods. I’m not qualified to assess the extent to which that is correct, but there are some links in my post (in the paragraph beginning, ‘A pervasive view …’) to information about why animal experiments are unreliable.

    Ben: ‘This … this would have failed in my junior year ethics class. False dichotomies. Strawman arguments. Red herring rhetorical questions. This might have failed my first year writing class. Please either extrapolate from a premise, or build to a conclusion. You ask an opening question, and then don’t answer it. Then you ask more vague, rhetorical questions with assumed answers. And, frankly, the truth tends to be completely opposite or irrelevant to your leading questions.’
    I concede that a good essay on this topic would contain a level of detail that, in the interests of remaining engaging, a blog post must omit. I would be happy to provide such detail here in the comments, but you have not attempted to specify the points at which you have found it wanting.

    James D. Miller: ‘The most cost efficient way to reduce the amount of harm humans inflict on animals would probably involve ignoring the fate of research animals but instead improving the living conditions of the pigs, chickens and cows we will eventually eat.’
    I’m all for improving the living conditions of those animals too, but I wonder whether the most cost efficient method might involve addressing both issues together: by examining our attitudes to animals in general, and by introducing appropriate measures to improve their treatment however they are used.

    Talisman: ‘What constitutes suffering? Is it the same across all species—does the word “suffering” mean the same thing when applied to a fruit fly, a fish, a bird, a mouse, a monkey, a human? Should we care about the analogue of suffering in all these species equally? Does higher mental faculty affect the character of suffering or the degree to which a human should care about it? It feels like you haven’t explored any of the real questions in this post, just presented a polemic. As to the analogy between “racism” and “speciesism,” it’s ironic that this appears just a few posts after Eliezer’s (most recent) attack on reasoning by surface similarity. What are the deep similarities, and what’s surface? Do we only care about racism because humans can suffer? Break all this out carefully in six well-reasoned posts and we might get somewhere.’
    I am under no illusions about the fact that, in seven paragraphs, I can succeed only in weakly scratching the surface of this issue—even ‘six well-reasoned posts’ would barely get us started. Perhaps some background is appropriate here: despite the fact that the new animal lab is now completed in Oxford, and that it forms part of the University, staggeringly few Oxford University academics are publicly addressing the ethical issues. The lab is running a couple of ‘briefing sessions’ which seem to be directed at reassurance rather than engagement with the ethics. The impression one is left with is that the ethical issues are best left to the protesters, and ignored by serious academics. I wrote my post in a modest attempt to start the debate, not in an attempt to wrap it up.
    I accept your point about different kinds of suffering: humans are capable of suffering in certain ways that other animals are not, and as a result some ways of treating humans are unacceptable whilst comparable ways of treating animals are acceptable. I think that even most people who make efforts to treat animals very well recognise this, at least implicitly: for example, my 13-year-old cats are confined to my flat, and their amusements are restricted to chasing toys, scratching the carpet, eating, and sleeping—plus the occasional instance of laptop-smashing and toilet-roll unravelling. It would hardly be appropriate to restrict the movements and behaviour of a normal, 13-year-old human in this way, since such a human would be likely to experience psychological problems that do not occur in my cats. Having said that, the suffering of animals who undergo the sorts of experiments I’m concerned with in this post (some of which I mention or link to information about) is undoubtedly real, and in many experiments—such as those that aim to investigate pain—the assumption that the animals suffer provides the very motivation for the experiment. It seems to me that the issue of different kinds of suffering is likely to be most relevant in the case of experiments that we might call ‘borderline cruel’: for example, those that have rats spend most of their lives running around in mazes or pressing levers. The suggestion that rats don’t suffer (in whatever sense of ‘suffering’ we take to be morally significant’) when they spend their lives running around mazes is likely to have more mileage than the suggestion that primates don’t suffer when they undergo surgery to create brain lesions, or that cats don’t suffer when they have electric currents applied to their nerves.
    Despite my limited coverage of it here, there are relevant similarities between racism and speciesism. One of those centres around the capacity to suffer (or, in recognition of your other point, the capacity to suffer in certain ways). Some (notably Bernard Williams, in a posthumously published paper) have argued that racism and speciesism are importantly different, but that view is controversial—Julian Savulescu critiques it in a paper in a soon-to-be-published book about human nature, edited by him and Nick Bostrom.

    Kevin: ‘There is absolutely nothing hypocritical about people’s attitudes toward nonhuman animal experimentation. Almost nobody claims to care about “preventing all suffering” they care about “preventing human suffering” and especially “preventing my friends and family members’ suffering”(for the obvious evolutionary psych. reasons). People don’t care very much about nonhuman animals, and would rather 100,000 mice die than one cute little boy.’
    True, but the question is whether dismissing animal suffering is any less morally reprehensible than dismissing the suffering of, say, Jews. Most people are disgusted by the latter type of discrimination—as attitudes to the Holocaust demonstrate—and unless there is good reason not to view the former type in a similar way, it would indeed be hypocritical to claim that one type is acceptable whilst the other is not.
    You are right that people in general care less about animals than people, but that is a description of the way things in fact are—I’m concerned here with examining how things ought to be.

    Matt: ‘Is it ethical for a starving human to kill an animal in order to survive and feed his family? I would say yes. If we could have a regulation agency, like an FDA for animal testing that forces scientists to prove that their experimentation would lead to helping humans, wouldn’t it then be ethical to use animals? It would just be like the starving man who needs to feed him family.’
    I’m glad you raise this, because it’s an issue I have often thought about. I’ll respond with two points. First, if it is indeed ethical for a starving human to kill and eat an animal in order to survive—and to make the ‘starving’ part relevant, let’s assume that it’s not acceptable to do so under normal, well-fed circumstances—then its being ethical seems to depend on the human in question having no other option (because, to paraphrase Kant, ‘ought to have done otherwise’ implies ‘could have done otherwise’). But that doesn’t tell us much about how the treatment of animals compares to the treatment of humans. Consider the question of whether a starving human is ethically justified in killing and eating a fellow human. Comparing the two cases just pushes questions about animal vs human treatment back one step: it invites us to consider how we should treat humans/animals in desperate situations rather than in normal situations.
    Second, if testing on animals to find cures for diseases is comparable to killing an animal to avoid starvation, then it needs to be the case that we have no other option but to test on animals. Now, I don’t know whether or not we have other options, but if a society is to endorse testing on animals on this basis, then it really ought to be making a lot of effort to investigate alternative methods. Continuing to test on animals whilst making insufficient effort to explore alternative methods strikes me as comparable to killing and eating a human in the living room without first going into the kitchen to check whether there’s a loaf of bread available.

    Vijay Krishnan: ‘I have always been perplexed by argument like this that talk about “cruelty to animals.” I have a simple question. What carries a higher sentence, murder or torture of a human? When we are clear that murder is a strictly worse offense, I find it perplexing that the same ordering should not extend to animals. This article lists that about 200 million animals are used a year in scientific tests. The number of animals killed an eaten a year would easily be 2-3 orders of magnitude higher! … So if we want to reduce discrimination on the basis of species, the first place to start would be to wean away humans from meat eating.’
    This is a really interesting point! I have to admit that I have never thought about it—but I’m going to do so. Intuitively, I would prefer to see an animal raised and killed humanely than to see an animal tortured and allowed to survive (at least, in cases where the torture is of a certain severity or duration), but I will think further about this. One initial thought: I’m not sure that in all cases we view killing as worse than suffering—consider the case for euthanasia, which embodies the belief that it’s better to die than to endure certain levels of suffering. But perhaps murder is relevantly different …

    Ian C.: ‘I think it’s not ok to simply waste an animal’s life for sport or sadism, but it is ok for something worthwhile like food or scientific research. We must remember that animals (with the possible exception of higher primates) do not have the ability to perform the same kind of conceptual abstraction we do. This means that while they can think (the wordless equivalent of) “I am in pain” or “I am happy” or “I am hungry,” they can’t take all of those moments and abstract out the common “I” and become self aware. If they can’t conceive of “I” (as apart from what they’re doing or feeling at a given moment), then while they can feel physical pain, they can’t feel the kind of deep mental anguish a human would in the same situation. That doesn’t make it right, it just means that if you care about their pain, the main thing you should focus on is physical pain.’
    You are making some wild claims about the relevance of conceptual abstraction! As others (such as Peter Singer) have pointed out, the sort of things you say here about animals also apply to human babies—and I take it that nobody would find it acceptable to experiment on babies. As for your point about different types of pain, I addressed this point in my response to Talisman, above.

    Luzr: ‘I am afraid we have to draw a line somewhere – think about all those small insects and bacteria we accidentally kill and torture all the time.’
    There are some things that we do that we stand little chance of being able to avoid. That doesn’t entail that we ought not to try to stop doing unethical things when it is in our power.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I’ll bit the consequentialist bullet; it is acceptable to experiment on people when learning benefits are large enough. Of course in such cases it will usually be best to achieve this situation via paying those people to voluntarily accept becoming experimental subjects.

  • luzr

    Rebecca:

    It is certainly in our power to stop killing bacteria and small insects. The only thing it requires is to remove humans from the planet – and it is certainly in our power to do so.

    IMO, either we are allowed to exist and affect the universe around us or not. When we are, we have to draw the line about what is acceptable and what is not. And not that without humans, all the suffering of animals will stop ever. The universe has all the power to torture and kill beings in inovative ways above all our imagination and wildest dreams. Just think about those global extinction events in the past.

    I believe that there is some basic inherent bio-genetical ‘moral principle’ that drives us to survive as species (because simply those species that do not follow that moral principle no longer exist). On the very basic level, anything else is irrelevant.

    And now one politically incorrect comment: I wonder how much of our “animal rights” tendency is caused by our preprogrammed instict to protect babies. I guess that any ‘animal advocate’ had rather started with feelings induced by this image:

    http://www.voicespread.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/cute-little-cat.jpg

    rather than this:

    http://www.adamlyon.com/gallery/v/Vacations/maui2005/exploring/wIMG_0641.jpg.html

    (but in reality, both creatures are alive, so if you are about “not doing unethical things”, they should be protected equally).

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    I’ll bit the consequentialist bullet; it is acceptable to experiment on people when learning benefits are large enough. Of course in such cases it will usually be best to achieve this situation via paying those people to voluntarily accept becoming experimental subjects.

    That’s interesting. As many people would be willing to take part in at least some of the experiments that are currently conducted on nonhuman animals provided sufficient money is paid to them, your way of biting the bullet in fact provides an indirect partial argument against animal experimentation.

  • luzr

    To Rebecca w.r.t Ian C reply:

    But human babies

    a) are humans, the same species

    b) have highly promising prospect of becoming fully sentient adults.

  • Tom

    Are there any animal rights organisations that encourage calm and rational debate? I would be interested to hear what they have to say. Unfortuneately, popular organisations like PETA have a reputation for insanity.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rebeccaroache/ Rebecca Roache

    Robin: Well, that would at least give experimental subjects a choice, and in that sense is preferable to animal experiments. Ideally, though, it would be good to find experimental methods that don’t require humans or other sorts of animals, since even in the scenario you suggest there would be a risk of unfair exploitation—it would, for example, raise similar issues to those raised by the purchase of organs for transplant from living donors.

    Luzr: ‘I believe that there is some basic inherent bio-genetical ‘moral principle’ that drives us to survive as species (because simply those species that do not follow that moral principle no longer exist).’ What evidence do you have for this belief?! agree that we are biologically programmed to want to survive, but the idea that this biological programming is somehow moral is incredible.
    I don’t think that your suggestion that the desire to protect animals may stem from the desire to protect babies is politically incorrect, and as a biological explanation, it may well be true.
    In response to your second comment: why is it relevant that human babies are human? Whether that is indeed relevant is exactly the issue at stake. As for your point that they have the potential to become fully sentient adults, it’s far from clear that, if X has the potential to become a Y, then X has the same moral status as a Y: consider Peter Singer’s observation that most people would judge it unethical to drop a live chicken into a pan of boiling water, but not unethical to drop an egg into a pan of boiling water, even if the egg is fertilised and has the potential to develop into a live chicken. If you’re still not convinced, substitute my reference to human babies in my reply to Ian C. with reference to human babies who are retarded such that they will never progress beyond their current level of mental sophistication. I would expect most people to deem it unethical to experiment on such babies (although some have argued that it would be acceptable).

    Tom: ‘Are there any animal rights organisations that encourage calm and rational debate? I would be interested to hear what they have to say. Unfortuneately, popular organisations like PETA have a reputation for insanity’.
    Very many do so, it’s just that the less calm and rational ones get the coverage. For example, there’s an organisation here in Oxford that campaigns perfectly reasonably for ethical research. As for the PETA site that you link to, I don’t find that insane—in fact, if you can get past the initial incredulity, it’s rather clever! It’s making the point that, despite the fact that we don’t find certain animals cute and cuddly, they may nevertheless be worthy of consideration. That certainly seems to be a point worth making.

  • Cameron Taylor

    (luzr) And now one politically incorrect comment: I wonder how much of our “animal rights” tendency is caused by our preprogrammed instict to protect babies.

    Interesting. I had assumed (with little thought) that our moral propensity to protect cute animals was an instinctive hack to preserve the future food supply. It discourages us from killing bambi just for the heck of it so we can eat her when we’re really hungry.

  • Boris

    Rebecca, others have already pointed out the logical fallacy of your fourth paragraph. So I will restrict myself to other things.

    You say “However, the view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on animals in order to spare humans is a particular application of the more general view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on one type of being in order to spare another type.” The thing is, that latter view is indeed perfectly acceptable in a large range of circumstances. I don’t see anyone having moral qualms about prescribing or taking antibiotics on the basis that this kills off billions of bacteria to spare a single human. Similar for remedies that kill plasmodia, intestinal worms, etc (note that intestinal worms are in fact “animals” in a taxonomical sense). Similar for keeping down mosquito populations to prevent the spread of malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases. Of course in all of these cases there is a direct benefit to humans from killing these creatures, and we view this as worthwhile. So I wouldn’t say the general principle is widely reviled. Certainly not outside very narrow academic circles, and I’m not sure it is even there.

    It seems to me that the broader principle is in practice one that’s considered acceptable within some areas of application by any reasonable person. The problems come, as usual, with defining the limits of applicability.

    My gut feeling is that you’re defining “animal” in the colloquial “cute and fuzzy mammal” sense. You say:

    but it is their similarity to humans in a particular respect—their
    capacity to suffer—that grounds the ethical debate surrounding
    animal experimentation

    This seems to imply that one important question to answer should be how to define suffering and determine whether a creature is capable of feeling it. Can an amoeba feel suffering? A bee? An earthworm? A mouse? Where is the boundary? The real answer is that suffering isn’t a binary thing but rather a reflex response of varying complexity (until you get into self-awareness and hence awareness of the suffering and of the possibility that it could be absent). No clear-cut boundary exists here.

    In practice, I think the principle that you describe as “widely reviled” is a good (and further, necessary) one, if applied carefully and with a careful weighting of benefits to costs. Unfortunately, people are not very good at being careful, leading to the excesses you describe. But heck, why go so far afield? There are similar applications closer to home. Athletes are cut from teams (inflicting suffering on them) so that the teams will have a lower chance of losing (and hence suffering the shame of loss). Plenty of other examples like that around. We apply this principle all the time, usually unconsciously, and I doubt that a human society is possible without such application. Most people realize that the world is not black and white.

  • Cameron Taylor

    (Ian C) We must remember that animals (with the possible exception of higher primates) do not have the ability to perform the same kind of conceptual abstraction we do.

    I love that reasoning. Will the judge accept it after we go ahead and apply it to our fellow humans? That would solve all sorts of problems!

  • luzr

    Rebecca:

    Well, I guess maybe my moral system is different from yours:)

    Personally, I believe that one posible moral system emerges from nature and natural laws. Hence my indea that the basis of human moral system might be derived from ‘survival of genom’ instincts. Or at least be compatible with them. (Well, now thinking about it more, this is not exactly what I think, but I guess it is a good start).

    Anyway, reading your reply, my only resulting feeling is that by discussing it, we only make all these things more and more relative. In such case, is not it just better to accept the ‘status quo’ that your are so angry about? If nothing else, it has worked well for much longer time (by magnitude) than there was even thought that animals have some rights…

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    denis bider: “There is no ought, people who want will do, and people who don’t want will avoid.”
    Bill Mill: “If you’re going to posit complete relativism, why post in a thread about morals at all? Morals are the ‘ought’, no?”

    I’m posting in a thread about morals to get the point across that there are no objective morals. It’s a power play. Morals are damage-minimizing rules among entities who have power to hurt each other. Animals don’t have power to hurt us. QED.

    Rebecca: “If experimenting on animals is no more justifiable than experimenting on humans, then — assuming we don’t believe it to be acceptable to experiment on humans — we should not be experimenting on animals regardless of the benefits.”

    The very supposition that there is such a thing as objectively “justifiable” or “acceptable” is the core fault of your logic. So far as we know, there is no authority that will come down from heavens to admonish us for our cruelty to other animals. The animals likewise will not revolt to hurt us. Even the people who do believe that there’s a heavenly authority, believe that this authority allows people to exert a degree of cruelty on animals – killing them for food, at minimum.

    You are mistaking a concept (morality) at which we have arrived for pragmatic reasons (minimizing conflict amongst humans) and misplacing that concept by applying it universally. There is no universal application for it. It’s just feel-good mental masturbation.

    You are ignoring what actually happens in nature, which is that no authority comes down from above to smite a tuna fish for eating mackarel, or a fox for maiming a rabbit.

    Your counter-argument is this:

    Rebecca: “The argument that, since animals often treat each other cruelly, we are justified in treating them cruelly is a popular but nevertheless very bad argument. Nobody would endorse it when applied to other humans rather than to animals.”

    Again, this objective “justified”. There is no objective need to justify.

    Any human can imagine themselves falling victim to human-on-human violence, so it is obviously in our interest to discourage this, starting with children like you described. This does not change the fact that there is no objective “should” behind it; it’s just our pragmatic preference. It is a wise preference, as it minimizes our suffering.

    But the only way it makes sense to extend this to animals is if you think we’re all likely to reincarnate as laboratory dogs in our next lives. Otherwise, you’re missing the point of why we developed “ethics”. The point of ethics is pragmatic, we have ethics because they help us. We don’t have them for the purposes of some confused idealism.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the swift reply, Rebecca.

    Can I ask for a clarification? Are we supposing that animals have certain inviolable rights, making it naturally a crime for humans to harm animals, or are we seeing this from a consequentialist perspective – that reducing harm to animals reduces suffering in general (which is good)?

    Both points of view run into problems when we think about animals harming other animals, because both points of view imply that it is wrong for a fox to kill a rabbit (for example). You can argue that the fox has diminished responsibility because it doesn’t understand what it is doing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the rabbit is being harmed/its rights violated. By comparison, if a mentally-ill human harms other humans, we allow that the mentally-ill human has diminshed responsibility, but we do not allow that person to retain their freedom. Consider all the rabbits that a fox kills in its lifetime, and the suffering they experience as they are eaten, and how much good could be done in the world by taking simple, ethical preventative measures against allowing foxes to continue these behaviours. If we are honest, carnivores are a major factor in Earth’s status as a big green torture chamber, but probably less important than parasites and non-biological sources of suffering (the weather, starvation and so on). This line of reasoning seems to imply that we should be reducing the suffering and protecting the rights of herbivores (who outnumber carnivores) by killing or imprisoning every carnivore on the planet.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    I think everyone’s concerns about animal welfare would be ameliorated if we simply passed a law saying that fuzzy cute animals, and animals having IQs that are too close to ours for comfort, have certain rights which prevent them from being experimented upon. There is no objective need to pass such a law, but it appears that most of us, aside from a few who utterly lack compassion, are sickened by the thought of suffering kitties and bunnies. If the suffering is inflicted only on chicken and worms and roaches and fish and other types of creatures for which we have no compassion, the animal rights issue would be pretty much forgotten. I mean, is anyone in favor of outlawing the suffering and extermination of, say, home-invading fireants and roaches? I somehow doubt that, if Rebecca had a vermin infestation in her place, she would spend a lot of time contemplating animal rights before reaching for the poison.

    It’s the cute and fuzzy animals that give us headaches, and it’s not because of anything objective; it’s because they are similar enough to us to cause our compassion circuits to fire, and this causes unease which wants to be alleviated.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Tom: “This line of reasoning seems to imply that we should be reducing the suffering and protecting the rights of herbivores (who outnumber carnivores) by killing or imprisoning every carnivore on the planet.”

    It does seem so, doesn’t it. But don’t forget that, once we do so, we also have to continuously neuter most of the herbivores remaining, so they don’t overmultiply, crowd each other out, and suffer massively from starvation. Then we have to monitor evolution of new species over millennia to prevent new carnivores from evolving.

    Then, once we have done so, what are we going to do about all the other ecosystems, on other planets? If PETA has their say, I guess there is no choice but to develop an AI that will go into space and spread across the universe to eliminate herbivore suffering on each and every planet.

    But, gosh, what about planets that are already out of our light-cone? How are we ever going to reach those? Even the strongest AI cannot violate physics… Oh, Dear God Almighty, we have failed! We cannot fix it! Suffering will remain in the universe…

    😉

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    Denis,

    It doesn’t make sense to say that ‘we have ethics because they help us’ if you don’t believe in objective morality. Morality concerns itself with right/wrong, good/bad. As Sidgwick said, ethics is the study of what one has most reason to do or want. If you don’t think there’s an objective fact about what one has the most reason to do or want, that’s inconsistent with thinking that anything will ‘help us’.

  • Boris

    To follow up on my earlier comment, I think my main point is that the fundamental question here is badly posed. The correct question is not “Is animal experimentation morally acceptable?” but, for each experiment to be performed, “Is this particular experiment on this particular kind of animal morally acceptable given these possible pieces of knowledge that could be derived from it?”

    Note that the second question is in fact asked for animal experiments. Animal experimentation typically requires review by some sort of oversight committee before being allowed to proceed, at least in the U.S.

  • John

    Hi Rebecca,

    I think you argument has the same basic weakness that all of Singer’s do, namely you start with some unexamined assumptions about what is not OK to do to humans, and then try to defeat distinctions. But you have no underlying argument about why, taking your example, it is wrong to kill Jews. You just say, whatever the reason, it applies to animals too. If I want to test whether that reason does apply to animals, it helps to know what the reason is.

    I think the reason you do this is because it is easier to go negative attacking others’ moral arguments than to make your own. At least, that’s the way it was in high school debating. But that trick doesn’t convince me to drop my support of animal testing, or stop eating them.

    I personally follow the teaching that God created all humans in the divine image, and commanded us not to murder them. I can’t prove this contention, I have assumed it on the consequentialist ground that societies that have assumed it have been far more successful than those that haven’t.

    What is your reason why we shouldn’t kill people? If you can articulate a decent one then I will consider adopting it. If you can’t explain why we shouldn’t kill people then I don’t think I’ll bother with your thoughts about why we shouldn’t kill animals.

    best, John

  • Purple

    Rebecca: Yes, focusing on timescales is one way of framing the issue. But your claim that animal experimentation accelerates our learning is controversial: quite aside from the ethical issues, many argue that it hinders our learning and that we would progress faster if we pursued other methods. I’m not qualified to assess the extent to which that is correct, but there are some links in my post (in the paragraph beginning, ‘A pervasive view …’) to information about why animal experiments are unreliable.

    What I meant is not that all animal experiments as currently practiced are a net benefit, but there are at least some animal experiments that have greatly accelerated our learning. I don’t think this claim is controversial, since even if most animal experimentation is unnecessary, and such experiments were eliminated, there would still be some few questions that could most quickly be answered by studying animals with near identical physiologies in the relevant respect.

    From your first link regarding unreliability, the crux of the scientific objection is:

    The scientific objections to animal experiments are based on the problem of species differences and the artificiality of the diseases induced in them, meaning that results from animal experiments may be of dubious value to humans.

    Note the word may. The objection is not that they are always of dubious value or that we never learn anything of value, only that this is sometimes (or perhaps usually) the case. Animal experimentation advocates could concede this point, and as long as we are able to identify when experimentation is likely to be of value, they could restrict animal experimentation to that 0.001% of current experiments in which a disease occurs naturally in the other organism and is nearly identical to the same disease in humans and results are very likely to transfer to humans. In this regard, as reprehensible as I would find it, experiments might only be done on certain primates, since they have physiologies that are similar to and sometimes nearly identical to our own.

    What I am trying to say is that if we grant that animal experiments can at times (even if only in 0.001% of current experiments) save us time and accelerate learning in a way that will save human lives (and animal experiment advocates will probably never concede this point), it gains us little, as we are still stuck with having to decide what sorts of things that are wrong in general suddenly become not wrong when they save time in some way that will result in some lives being saved. What is the general criterion that says animal experimentation becomes not wrong but experimentation on comatose people or severely retarded people or human beings genetically engineered to be perfect subjects remains wrong?

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    @Purple

    >>What is the general criterion that says animal experimentation becomes not wrong
    >>but experimentation on comatose people or severely retarded people or human
    >>beings genetically engineered to be perfect subjects remains wrong?

    As long as you go by an ethical theory, it’s a fairly easy question.

    For a Kantian, you just need to show that humans are ‘morally considerable’ and other animals are not. Kant granted this because (according to his metaphysics) he believed humans are unique (on Earth) in having free will, and that’s the basis of moral considerability. You can then just apply the categorical imperative.

    For Utilitarians, this question is pretty much unsolvable. You need to draw some lines for moral considerability, without any underlying metaphysics to guide you. You either set the bar for utility at ‘pleasure for humans’ or ‘pleasure for thinking things’ or ‘pleasure for life forms’ or whatever, and then anyone who disagrees is simply making different assumptions and there’s no way to disagree without getting into a dispute about metaphysics. In the case of Christians (most Westerners), the distinction is usually pretty simple. There’s an underlying metaphysics that tends to say that only humans are morally considerable.

    For virtue ethicists (like myself) the morally relevant consideration is what impact an action has on my own character. This clearly makes torturing things that look human far worse than torturing things that don’t, regardless of what the things actually are/feel/think. Torturing a cat would probably make me into a bad person (promote bad habits in myself), while torturing an earthworm (assuming torture means anything for an earthworm) would probably have relatively little impact on my character.

  • http://www.infoaxe.com Vijay Krishnan

    I am additionally curious about one point, given that I am a vegetarian. What stance would do you think is most common among meat eaters?
    1. We consider animals as no more than resources and don’t consider beheading an animal any more “wrong” than cutting down a plant. Given that we don’t talk about “cruelty to plants”, no point talking about “cruelty to animals”.

    2. Somehow fantasize that most animals killed for meat are killed humanely (whatever that means; I assume it means that the animal is given an anasthetic so that it loses consciousness before being killed). Simultaneously hold the view that whipping an animal is wrong, scientific experiments on them are potentially wrong but however that murder of animals for food is okay.

    It is much easier for me to to understand people having a view that looks like (1). That seems pretty internally consistent. A good deal of my friends as well as some folks here seem to have views that look more like (2) which perplexes me no end. How on earth could one stay with the contradictions in (2) for long. I would imagine that they would soon move either to (1) or turn vegetarian, but I don’t see that happen much in practice.

  • Purple

    @Thom

    The Kantian idea that humans and only humans have free will just doesn’t hold up in the modern world. I realize that traditionally some philosophers thought all non-human animals were essentially mindless automatons that just appear to experience pain, make choices, etc., which makes it easy to consider them as being as morally considerable as a rock, but do any philosophers still hold such a belief given what we know now of the neural underpinnings of experience and choice in human beings and other higher mammals? I also specified severely retarded people and genetically engineered people for a reason, since severely retarded individual people exhibit less free will (etc.) than healthy higher (non-human) primate individuals, and the class of genetically engineered (to not have free will or whatever) people exhibits less free will (etc.) than the class of healthy higher (non-human) primates.

    For the virtue ethicist, are you saying that if one has an aberrant psychology such that torturing people would improve one’s character, then it is permitted for that individual? Suppose you torture 10 people in order to learn about torture and about yourself. It turns out that the net result of torturing them with respect to your character is improvement, since you have much greater empathy for the pain of other people, you have had to overcome terrible psychological obstacles in order to do the torturing, you are motivated to become a campaigner against torture and other horrific human rights abuses, you absolutely will never torture anybody again, and you come to be a much more ethical person in general. Does this make it right? You might answer that you not wired this way and would never have your character improved in this way, but there are lots of aberrant minds, and it is plausible that at least one of them might be so improved. Does that make it right for that person? (Let us hypothesize too that there is some way of determining beforehand whether one is such a person or not.)

  • ben881

    Hi Rebecca,
    Can you justify how suffering in non-sentient beings is comparable to the kind of suffering we refer to in humans? If an animal is not aware of its suffering, then i am tempted to consider it as merely the unconscious executer of a particular evolutionary strategy according to the stimuli it is given. Can you still characterise this as suffering? I would say the awareness of suffering is the important consideration, which would then mean the argument you have made is only applicable to certain animals, amongst them the higher primates that Purple refers to.

    As for the comparison of our treatment of the mentally retarded vs higher primates, the best argument i can think of is that treatment of people according to their mental capacities would desensitise us in our treatment of humans in general, and expose us to fallacious “the ends justify the means” kind of logic. With that said, some of our treatment of higher mammals is probably down to species discrimination and indicates we haven’t outgrown our evolutionary origins

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Thom Blake: “It doesn’t make sense to say that ‘we have ethics because they help us’ if you don’t believe in objective morality. Morality concerns itself with right/wrong, good/bad. As Sidgwick said, ethics is the study of what one has most reason to do or want. If you don’t think there’s an objective fact about what one has the most reason to do or want, that’s inconsistent with thinking that anything will ‘help us’.”

    Given how people usually use the word, my impression is that morality implies some greater good or bad which exceeds mere benefit or cost to the decision-making subject. If this is what you mean by morality, then yes, in some sense morality does exist as a loose, deficiently defined set of guiding principles which we have found useful in drafting laws in our search to maximize the outcome for members of our group.

    By saying ‘loose and deficiently defined’, I mean that this set of principles is nowhere near as absolute, as beneficial or as universal as some who swear by it would have people believe. Basically the “moral principles” are heuristics that kinda work fine much of the time – such as, say, “do not kill” – but they also tend to cause a lot of trouble when people misunderstand these guiding principles as absolute and divine, rather than mere heuristics that often fail.

    This leads to suggestions that “do not kill” should be applied also to all animals, not merely humans (long live the roach!); it leads to censorship of any part of a female breast that might appear on TV. In even more boneheaded societies, it leads to oppressive female dress codes, to stoning of raped girls because rape is considered “adultery”, and so on.

    If more people realized that what they think is divine morality is actually just a set of error-prone heuristics, then we might all be a bit better off for it.

    But being aware of morality as error-prone heuristics does make this rather ill-suited as a foundation for an argument against abusing animals, doesn’t it?

  • luzr

    Vijay:

    As meateater, I vote for (1). That of course does not mean that you have to treat animals with cruelty etc…

    I also believe that “killing plants” is important point too.

    The final point is – we humans are not able to sustain just on sunlight and soil. We have to destroy life to survive. The only question is where you are going to draw the line. You can limit yourself to kill only plants, but that does not seem to remove the issue.

    On the positive side (if there is any), domesticated animals are the most successful species on earth 🙂 In fact, I would go to the point that there is some sort of symbiosis, at least at evolutionary level. They need us to prosper and breed, we need them (well, that is relative 🙂 to get meat.

    In fact, it surprises me that vegetarians do not quite consider simple fact – more vegetarians means less animals…

    That said, we need to draw the line between ‘resources’ and ‘beings’.

    I suggest using self-awarness as the line. To my knowledge, that would make monkeys, elephants, dolphins and magpies out of limit… Why not.

    Other possible ‘line’: sophonts are able to understand rules we have created for treating THEM and they are able and willing to apply these rules back to US.

    Maybe, you could use the first line to identify animals that are not ‘resources’ and cannot be used for food. Use the second one for sophonts whose killing is regarded as murder.

    Of course, I am not aware about any animal satisfying this second criterion, so we can reserve it for E.T.s and AIs 🙂

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Vijay Krishnan: “What stance would do you think is most common among meat eaters?”

    Great question. I can’t comment about what’s most common, but I can say what my stance is.

    I eat meat because it’s a convenient and abundant source of protein. I need protein to maintain a shape that is comparatively attractive as a sexual partner. If everyone declared that no one is going to eat meat, I would gladly stop, because then everyone would be similarly disadvantaged with regards to their source of protein. Alternative, though less abundant sources would develop, and I would gladly use them. In fact, I would much prefer that situation, compared to the suffering we inflict on animals now.

    But I don’t prefer it so much as to sacrifice either my physical appearance, or the significant inconvenience of trying to get the resources I need another way.

    Sadly, a poll I conducted on an unrelated site indicated that 95% of 200 or so voters would be against prohibiting the eating of meat. Strikingly, some 5-10% were vegetarians, and 50% of vegetarians voted against prohibiting the eating of meat.

    That people overwhelmingly vote like that reviles me. Perhaps many voted this way because someone convinced them that eating meat is required for health, and they are shortsighted enough not to consider that alternative solutions would develop if eating meat were simply banned. It could be also that a large proportion of people are rather selfish, cynical, and evil. However, stupidity, misinformation and short-sightedness seem somewhat more likely, and also more hope-inspiring factors.

  • Ian C.

    To those who commented on my post, thank you but please note I was making a very narrow point about certain kinds of pain being impossible without concepts (e.g. You can’t feel the pain of being a prisoner if you can’t grasp the idea “prisoner”). I was not saying that this makes anything ok or not.

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    @Purple

    Regarding virtue ethics: Yes, I would argue that it’s unlikely for torturing folks to be good for me (though that’s an empirical question). Yes, I could imagine there are beings for whom torturing people would be good. Should they do it? Yes. Should I stop them from doing it? Yes. This is not a contradiction, but rather statements about what different beings should do.

  • Raoul Duke

    @”I suggest using self-awarness as the line. To my knowledge, that would make monkeys, elephants, dolphins and magpies out of limit… Why not.”

    food for thought.

  • http://anglosphereunionnow.blogspot.com Stephen Houghton

    This is an e mail to a professor with whom I was discussing animal rights maybe it will be of interest.

    Dear Professor X

    I am writing you to continue our conversation the other day. I felt like I had not been very clear about my thoughts regarding the idea of animal rights and the ethical treatment of animals. I wanted to make my position as clear as possible.

    I should perhaps begin by making what I believe is a critical distinction, that is the difference in my mind between ethics and rights. By ethics I mean what should humans do, that is how should they act. This does not mean how should a person act in society, but how should he or she act in general. By contract I understand the idea of individual rights to be about securing the social needs of humans. (by the way when I say human, I mean rational creatures including those that aren‘t human)

    As far as the question of ethics go I am a rational egoist. I hold that values, things one acts for the sake of obtaining, have no meaning out side of the context of living organisms. If a living thing dies, its constituent atoms and molecules continue to exist, but its life, the process of self sustaining – self generating action, goes out of existence. That is to say that living organisms are conditionally existent. It is only from this prospective that one can say something is good or bad. A lack of air, water, or food, is bad for a living entity, their presence is good for it. Thus I hold that life is the standard of moral value and that for every living thing, its own life is it moral purpose.

    Thus for every living thing, plant, animal, or human the pursuit of life is the end all a be all of ethical behavior. Now of course one can’t judge plants which after all only act vegetatively without conscious intent. They are only successful or unsuccessful. Like wise with the lower animals. It is only with the higher primates, cetaceans, and pachyderms that it is permissible to talk about moral and immoral acts or at least right and wrong ones. In fact from what we understand of the level of intelligence of other animals thus far, I would be unwilling to call any species other than humans capable of morality or immorality. That is to say only humans can know what is right for them, but do something else. ( a suicide bomber is all else being equal is acting in a profoundly immoral fashion even setting aside the question of murder, because he knows perfectly well that his actions are not good for him) The other higher animals as far as I understand are really operating properly or not, but not morally or immorally.

    Regarding the ethical treatment of plants and animals, I hold that since life is the standard of value, that someone who killed plants or animals for the sake of their death and who drew enjoyment from the fact of their non existence itself, would profoundly morally disordered. However one must be very careful to draw distinctions. I think a gardener who is happy to kill weeds and slugs because they are bad for his flower garden is acting morally to preserve the value he derives from the garden. He is not killing for the sake of death but for the sake of the life and beauty of the garden. Likewise a hunter who enjoys venison or enjoys getting in touch with the primal hunter gather part of himself is not acting immorally. He is pursing the legitimate pleasure of eating food he enjoys which from my perspective is a profoundly moral act or he is reveling in a part of his nature which seems understandable.

    A person in contrast who reveled in the infliction of pain on animals for its own sake would be a sick person to say the least. The pleasure pain mechanism is a powerful tool which helps animals to act morally, that is to pursue their life. To pervert it into a system for the infliction of gratuitous suffering for the sake of suffering is profoundly immoral . However again I would make careful distinctions, a person inflicting pain on lab animals for a legitimate purpose such as finding ways to save or even just to improve human life would be acting morally.

    Likewise it is perfectly moral for us to commit genocide against living organisms whose sole form of prey is us. I have no compunction about wiping out small pox or other viruses that prey exclusively on humans. Individual predators that take to preying on humans and out pets and live stock should be shot in self defense. I am perfectly willing to grant that from their “point of view” they are acting morally in preying upon us, or they would be if we didn’t have long memories and the intelligence to deal with them, but we are equally justified in trying to kill them to preserve our life and wellbeing.

    Now on the question of rights, as I mentioned earlier, I look on individual rights as principals that secure the social needs of humans. Since man is a social animal he has much to gain by interacting with his fellows. However this can’t be on any terms. If people could go around killing people on whim, then society would not serve to advance and promote the life and wellbeing of its members. The right to life is the principal that for social life to be fruitful, we must not kill one another. However these principals are only contextually absolute. That is to say as long as a person acts as though he and others have a right to life, then so does he. However if he chooses not to respect the right to life of others, then we are not required to respect his.

    Now the right to life is only the most basic principal of human social interaction. From it other rights such as the liberty of thought and action, the right to property, etc. are derived. It should be noted that a basic principal of rights based analysis is that rightly understood interests of human do not conflict. That is to say that while it might be in my interests to have part of Bill Gates’ wealth, it is more in my interest to have my much smaller property protected and he to have his protected, than to live in a society where there is no protection for wealth at all. It might be in some instance to my interest to kill someone, but it is more in my interest to live in a society where I am not constantly worried about people trying to kill me.

    It is this reciprocal nature of rights and its basis in the harmonious interests of people that makes me highly skeptical of the idea of animal rights. If we respected the right to life of rhinos would they respect ours. What would it even mean to say that both cheetahs and gazelles have a right to life. Their interests in the matter are directly opposed to one another. They are both acting morally, the gazelle to escape and live and the cheetah to kill its food and live, but they cannot both succeed. If the gazelle has a right life then the cheetah must die and vice versa.

    That is only to look at the right to life. Most of the derivative rights, free thought, free speech, free press, are even less applicable to animals and are derivative of a right to life that does not make sense in the context of the lower animals. I admit that in the case of the higher animals that we should be careful not to write them wholly out of the community of the potentially rights bearing, but I would want evidence before I would concede that they have rights.

    In close, while I agree that is wrong to kill animals for the purpose of enjoying their death, or torturing them for the sake seeing them suffer, I do not agree that they have rights.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Stephen W. Houghton II

    PS I look forward to your reply and would be interested in discussing such topics as laws to ban the deliberate torture of animals as a form of malum prohibitum, the behaviour of the higher primates, cetaceans, and pachyderms and if and how we could discover that they are or are not rights bearing creatures, the question of artificial life and rights, etc.

  • http://www.infoaxe.com Vijay Krishnan

    luzr:

    It is of course clear that more vegetarians means less animals since there would be less of a domestication industry. But that’s hardly the point.

    On paper I don’t think overpopulation of humans is bad either from a pure numbers game. Without contraceptives, I am pretty sure humans too could have the natural method of birth control working for them aka. starvation. I am quite certain that all of us prefer a world where the population is stable by way of contraceptives than one where it is stable by way of widespread starvation, though both are probably identical from a numbers/evolutionary perspective.

    Likewise it could be argued that it is more humane to let animals breed/survive at their natural rate, than enable them to breed much faster and then kill them for meat.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rebeccaroache Rebecca Roache

    I stand little chance of being able to keep up with all these comments, so I’ll respond to a couple of the earlier ones, which I saw before I left the office yesterday, and have had time to think about – sorry to those who have directed a question to me to which I don’t have time to respond.

    Boris: In response to my claim that the view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on one type of being in order to spare another type is widely reviled, you said, ‘The thing is, that latter view is indeed perfectly acceptable in a large range of circumstances’, followed by some examples. With some qualification, you are quite right: my point was lazily expressed. I should have said something along the lines of, ‘The view that it is acceptable to inflict suffering on one type of being in order to spare another type, when there is no morally relevant reason to distinguish the members of one group from the members of the other, is widely reviled’. The qualification is this: it is far from clear that the examples you gave are cases in which suffering is inflicted. I addressed the issue (which you also mention) of different types of being experiencing different types of suffering in an earlier comment, and what exactly a full account of suffering might look like is a big issue to which I can’t do justice here, but as a place-holder I suggest that suffering might count as physical pain and/or psychological distress (and if anyone else has a better suggestion, please feel free to mention it!). I’m not sure that any of the examples you gave involve suffering based on that account: possibly the mosquitos and earthworms example, but I’m not qualified to assess how likely it is that those animals feel pain.
    Of course, there are instances where the decision to inflict suffering on one type of being for the sake of another type is made on a case-by-case basis, as your example of the athlete cut from the team demonstrates. In that case, there is an ethically relevant reason to distinguish between the athlete and the rest of the team (i.e. presumably all members of the team recognise that the benefits of the team as a whole are important, and must accept when they join that their membership depends on their abilities being beneficial to the team). Your later comment, in which you say ‘The correct question is not “Is animal experimentation morally acceptable?” but, for each experiment to be performed, “Is this particular experiment on this particular kind of animal morally acceptable given these possible pieces of knowledge that could be derived from it?”’ suggests to me that we are probably in agreement on this point – I just ought to have made the initial distinction clearer.
    You also said, ‘My gut feeling is that you’re defining “animal” in the colloquial “cute and fuzzy mammal” sense’. Absolutely not: I made it clear in my previous comment that the ‘cuteness’ of an animal is hardly relevant to its moral status.

    Tom: ‘Can I ask for a clarification? Are we supposing that animals have certain inviolable rights, making it naturally a crime for humans to harm animals, or are we seeing this from a consequentialist perspective – that reducing harm to animals reduces suffering in general (which is good)?’
    This is a really good question, and your follow-up is very interesting. I’ve already given these questions some thought, but I’m not yet entirely clear what I think about them, which is the main reason why I avoided mentioning rights in my post. I think it’s certainly true to say that animals have interests, but whether the language of rights is more likely to help than hinder the debate, I’m not sure at the moment. I will continue to think about this issue – thanks for raising it and for exploring some of the consequences.
    On a related note, I did see a paper by someone that addressed the question of, if we assume that wild animals (i.e. ones that don’t have any contact with humans, and so who aren’t pets, etc) inflict certain harms on each other, whether we should be trying to prevent those harms. I can’t remember who wrote it now …

    John: ‘I think you argument has the same basic weakness that all of Singer’s do, namely you start with some unexamined assumptions about what is not OK to do to humans, and then try to defeat distinctions. But you have no underlying argument about why, taking your example, it is wrong to kill Jews. You just say, whatever the reason, it applies to animals too. … What is your reason why we shouldn’t kill people? If you can articulate a decent one then I will consider adopting it. If you can’t explain why we shouldn’t kill people then I don’t think I’ll bother with your thoughts about why we shouldn’t kill animals.’
    You are quite right that I haven’t provided an argument about why we shouldn’t kill/torture/oppress humans, and also right that I appeal to the assumption that we shouldn’t do so in my argument. I’m a little confused as to how strong a point you are trying to make. If you are suggesting that it is bad philosophy to appeal to any unargued assumptions when constructing an argument? That would make it impossible to do any philosophy at all. And, in ethics, it’s simply not possible to construct an ethical argument in a vacuum of values: unless we start out with some deeply-held value, there is no reason for us to adopt any other value. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t question that deeply-held value – just that if we had to do so before we argued for anything else, we’d never get on to the ‘anything else’ (plenty of philosophers spend their entire careers questioning deeply-held values, and still don’t finish answering all the important questions)! A famous quotation from Neurath is relevant here: ‘we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom’.
    In this case, I haven’t taken my own assumptions about what is acceptable treatment of humans as the starting point. I’ve tried to appeal only to assumptions that I think the vast majority of people would accept (or rather, the vast majority of people who have beliefs that they are willing to analyse, justify, and argue for).

  • Anon

    The instincts and habits that are the basis of our morals were developed many thousand years ago: Killing insects is good, many of them spread diseases. Killing cows is bad, except when it is time to process the cow. One who tortures animals is a suspicious person, maybe he would just as willingly torture humans, too. For the same reason, killing mammal infants is bad, as they resemble (surface analogy) human babies (a.k.a cute).

    Such banal facts are not much more than accidental byproducts of human interaction with a very complex environment. But if you take these away, you do not have much left to build your ethics on. You have two options: 1. You embrace these, being aware that your ethics depends on such ad hoc, self-contradicting and obsolete stuff. 2. You try to build your ethics from “more basic” notions, such as suffering and reciprocity, and then it will not resemble anything an average human could find intuitive. (And you may even realize that these so called more basic notions are inherently intertwined with the ad hoc stuff.)

  • jb

    Bummer, I wrote a nice long response yesterday, and I must have failed to post it properly. Alas.

    I submit that Humans are the only species on this planet that, as of this date, has the potential capacity to save all the other species from certain annihilation (from asteroid, the Sun’s red giant expansion phase, failure of the magnetic field, etc). We do not have the technology yet to do this, but we will at some point in the future.

    If you agree with this statement, then we have a simple base principle to look at:
    a) If humans did not exist, animals would not suffer at human hands, but they would all go extinct at some point, many rather violently.

    b) Once humans have the technology to deflect asteroids, colonize space, etc, then the Earth’s animals are effectively as immortal as we are.

    c) To some extent, experimentation on animals is important to further the progress of human technology and knowledge, getting us closer to (b).

    to my mind, this is why it is ethically ok to allow animals to suffer – because if we don’t get off this planet in time, it won’t matter how eden-like the planet is – everything on it will be dead. If they were capable of abstract reasoning, I suggest that the animals would recognize the importance of technological advance as a form of species-level self-preservation.

    Or put into sci-fi parable form: let’s say we discover a black hole on a collision course with the Sun, in 5 years. We have no means of deflecting this black hole. Humanity is doomed. An alien shows up in his space craft and says “I can save you… well, half of you. I have technology that can eliminate this black hole. Alas, it requires approximately 3 billion human brains to be fed into my V23 Space Modulator machine in order to properly work… It’s highly advanced, but something about the brains of higher creatures capable of abstract reasoning just makes it work… There will be some suffering…

    While there would be significant wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes, sackcloth and ashes, etc, the suffering of 3 billion humans is not as bad, ethnically and morally, as the complete destruction of the Earth and all the creatures on it. Those 3 billion can be replaced. The Earth, as of yet, cannot.

    Thus, my belief that it is ethically sound to experiment on animals. Anything that gets us off this planet and colonizing space faster is morally good, because the alternative – that we fail to get off the planet in time – is so very, very, very double-plus ungood, both for humans and animals.

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog Richard Hollerith

    Although they adhere more often than I would prefer to the reigning world orthodoxy on matters moral and political, Eliezer and Robin’s writing contain much of great value. In contrast this post by Rebecca offers nothing of value except that it’s tone is moderate and reasonable and that it is a perfectly orthodox example out of millions of examples of the reigning world ideology: political correctness or progressivism.

    The opinions and arguments of this post would be considered bizarre and extreme by most of the current residents of, say, mainland China. (Of course among mainland Chinese who decide to learn English and either to talk to Westerners or to travel to the West it would seem less bizarre.) It would likewise be considered bizarre and weird by most people of 17th-Century England, where the ideology originated (among Dissenting Protestant Christians) and by practically everyone living everywhere else in the world at the time.

    Since I do not have time to explain more fully, I place those wanting more information in the competent hands of asked for opinions on what he and Robin should do with this blog after he and Robin reduce their posting rate. I wish they’d close the blog to new posts if the alternative is posts like this one. I’d like to be able to continue to recommend the blog without complicated instructions about posters or time periods to ignore.

    P.S. I endorse the comment by jb right above mine.

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog Richard Hollerith

    Uh oh, there’s a problem with my markup, namely a missing double quote after blogspot.com/

  • Mariya

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    Maria
    http://www.mysex-blog.com

  • Orange

    @Richard Hollerith

    You seem to believe that saying arguments would “look weird” to certain people (17th century English people and mainland Chinese) is evidence that Rebecca’s arguments have little value and are simply ideological dogma.

    If I could show that your argument would look weird to New Guinea aborigines and that 7th century denizens of inner Mongolia would find it unbelievable, does that refute you?

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog Richard Hollerith

    No, Orange, it is not a refutation of the moral beliefs of progressives (or modern-day Whigs or crypto-Christians in the English low-church tradition as Mencius Moldbug sometimes calls them) but it might cause someone to question them who accepted them only because they are implied by the majority of moral messages he receives from educated people. It is an attempt to set the process of questioning into motion; it is expecting too much of me to expect me to refute the reigning world ideology in a series of blog comments.

    I should explain that my objection is to the position that causing an animal to suffer is intrinsically evil. (That avoiding doing so is morally good for its own sake.) I expressly leave open the possibility that it is evil for instrumental reasons. Experimenting on animals for example might harden the hearts of the experimenters with the result that they show less empathy for their fellow humans, which produces negative effects that outweigh the positive effects of the experimentation. Here the words “negative” and “positive” refer to some system of terminal values, which again I suggest should not contain a categorical ban on causing an animal to suffer.

    Rebecca makes the argument that if it is evil to cause a human to suffer then it must also be evil to cause a non-human animal to suffer. I agree! Specifically, I agree that if it were intrinsically evil to cause a human to suffer, it would also be intrinsically evil to cause a non-human animal to suffer. So, logic dictates that I do not believe that it is intrinsically evil to cause a human to suffer. I admit that that is an unusual belief. And I must stress that there are almost always excellent instrumental reasons to avoid causing a human to suffer.

    Most authors are much too ready to add to their set or list of intrinsic values. Although this readiness might not cause significant harm in ordinary life, it will lead to severe error when singularitarians and leaders of other projects to develop ultratechnologies indulge in it. It is them that I ask to question the reigning world ideology of progressivism.

    If the reader has the ability to edit comments, won’t you please insert a double-quote character after blogspot.com/ in my previous post? I promise to exercise more care in the future to avoid that sort of mistake.

  • Dr. Commonsense

    As a scientist and a vegetarian, let me just say that I kill fewer animals per year than most of you, and the ones I do kill I put to far better use than most of you, and that includes the inconclusive experiments that had to be redone.

    Now then, moral equivalence. Moral equivalence to whom? To me? Not morally equivalent. Problem solved. The paradoxical Polyanna bias of this otherwise rational blog notwithstanding, there IS no such thing as universal morality. There are only game-theoretical equilibria. Can animals sign a contract with you and be trusted to hold to it? Can an animal give informed consent? Will they ever mount an organized rebellion against you? Can you mate with an animal and have viable offspring?

    Exactly. That’s why most of you eat them, why we wear them, and why I kill them in my experiments. We don’t mistreat them unnecessarily because it usually detracts from the benefit the animal provides to us, just like we respect each other’s rights because doing otherwise detracts from the benefit we can provide each other.

    Oh, and the senile/retarded/brain-damaged? It’s a gray area, and society seems to have decided to give lip-service to their rights while simultaneously abridging them ‘for their own protection’. I’m sure this is the practical thing to do, but the line between human the human species and everything else is a lot less ambiguous than any such lines we are forced by necessity to draw within our species.

  • Alan J. Braganza

    After much thought and observation, it is clear that animal research is cruel and unethical to the wellbeing of animals which is not morally good for all involved. The collective rewards from animal research do not provide long lasting direct benefits for humans and knowing that together with the age old knowledge that regular physical exercise of at least 20 minutes or more daily with portioned, balanced meals will benefit human health and prevent obesity and chronicity of major diseases will guide all research choices and influence human overpopulation and ethical treatment of all animals.