Vivisection, Part Two: The Moral Justification of Vivisection

In Vivisection, Part One: The “Necessity” of Vivisection, I discussed the problems surrounding the claim that the use of nonhumans in biomedical experiments is, as a factual matter, “necessary” to get data needed for purposes of human health. In this essay, I want to explore briefly the argument that even if animal use is necessary in the sense that we need to use nonhumans to get vital data, we cannot justify using nonhumans for this purpose.

Humans and nonhumans alike have an interest in not being used in biomedical experiments. We accord all humans a right not to be used as non-consenting subjects in such experiments even though it would be more efficient to use humans as this would obviate the difficulties that I discussed in the earlier essay about extrapolating results from nonhumans to humans and the other problems that make animal research problematic and unreliable from a scientific perspective.

When we say that humans have a “right” not to be used for these purposes, this means simply that the interest of humans in not being used as non-consenting subjects in experiments will be protected even if the consequences of using them would be very beneficial for the rest of us. The question, then, is why do we think that it is morally acceptable to use nonhumans in experiments but not to use humans?

As a historical matter, there are three primary reasons that have been advanced for claiming that it is morally acceptable to use nonhumans in situations in which we would not regard it as permissible to use any humans.

The first reason is that animals are not sentient. For example, French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) maintained that animals are nothing more than automatons, or robots, created by God. According to Descartes, animals do not possess souls, which are required for consciousness, and, therefore, they cannot experience pain, pleasure, or any other sensation or emotion. Descartes also pointed to the fact that animals do not use verbal or sign language as an indication of their lack of consciousness. If Descartes were correct, then we could no more speak sensibly about animals having interests than we could about clocks having interests, and it would be absurd to talk about our having any moral or legal obligations to animals.

I do not think that anyone, with the exception of a few philosophers who enjoy academic controversy for its own sake, maintains any longer that animals are not sentient. Indeed, the entire foundation of anticruelty laws and statutes like the Animal Welfare Act is that animals are sentient and, therefore, do have interests in not suffering.

The second reason is that, although animals are sentient and have an interest in not suffering, they lack “souls” or are otherwise the “spiritual inferiors” of humans and God has granted us permission to use them for our purposes. This belief has not only served historically as an important part of our justification for exploiting nonhumans, but it is of contemporary relevance in a world that increasingly embraces fundamentalist religious ideologies. Although I certainly think that the morality of animal use can be examined even within such ideologies, I also think that such a discussion is tangential to the topic at hand because most scientists and researchers who defend animal experiments do not rely on religious justifications, at least not explicitly.

The third and primary reason is that, although animals are sentient and have an interest in not suffering, we can ignore that interest when it benefits us to do so because animals lack some characteristic supposedly unique to humans—most usually a cognitive characteristic—and are thereby the “natural inferiors” of humans. That is, there is some qualitative cognitive distinction between humans and nonhumans that supposedly justifies our treating animals exclusively as means to our ends. The list of characteristics that are supposedly possessed only by humans includes self-consciousness, reason, abstract thought, emotion, the ability to communicate with symbolic language, and the capacity for moral behavior.

The notion that humans have mental characteristics that have no equivalents in nonhumans is arguably inconsistent with the theory of evolution. Darwin maintained that there are no uniquely human characteristics: ”[T]he difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind.” Animals are able to think and possess many of the same emotional responses as do humans: ”[T]he senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, &c., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.” Darwin noted that “associated animals have a feeling of love for each other” and that animals “certainly sympathise with each other’s distress or danger.” (C. Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981): at 105, 76, 77.)

Cognitive ethologists and others have confirmed that animals, including mammals, birds, and fish, have at least the equivalent of the cognitive characteristics once thought to be uniquely human. Nonhumans are intelligent and are able to process information in sophisticated and complex ways. They are able to communicate with other members of their own species as well as with humans. The similarities between humans and animals are not limited to cognitive or emotional attributes alone. Some argue that animals exhibit what is clearly moral behavior as well. There are numerous instances in which animals act in altruistic ways toward unrelated members of their own species and toward other species, including humans.

Although it certainly appears that animals other than humans possess characteristics purported to be unique to humans, I recognize that there is debate on this point and that there are, in any event, differences between human minds and the minds of nonhumans in that the latter do not use symbolic communication. However, as a matter of logic and sound reasoning, we cannot justify our exploitation of nonhuman animals by pointing to their supposed lack of humanlike varieties of particular cognitive characteristics, or, indeed, of any characteristic beyond sentience, or subjective awareness.

Any attempt to justify treating animals as resources based on their lack of cognitive characteristics claimed to be uniquely human begs the question from the outset by assuming that certain human characteristics are “special” and justify differential treatment. Although there are things that only humans can do (although not all humans may be able to do them), there are things that only nonhumans can do. Humans alone may be able to write symphonies, do calculus, or recognize themselves in mirrors, but only nonhumans can fly or breathe underwater without assistance. What makes our characteristics special is, of course, that we say so. But apart from this obviously self-interested position, there is no reason to conclude that characteristics thought to be uniquely human can serve as a nonarbitrary justification for treating animals as our laboratory tools. These characteristics can serve this role only after we have assumed their moral relevance.

Moreover, even if all animals other than humans lack a particular characteristic beyond sentience, or possess it to a different degree or in a different way than do humans, there is no logically defensible relationship between the lack or lesser degree of that characteristic and our treatment of animals as resources. Differences between humans and other animals may be relevant for other purposes. No one argues that we ought to let nonhuman animals drive cars or vote or attend universities. These differences, however, have no bearing on whether it is morally justifiable to treat animals as human property and use them as non-consenting subjects in experiments. This is clear when we consider the moral status of humans. Whatever characteristic we identify as uniquely human will be seen to a lesser degree in some humans and not at all in others. Some humans will have the exact same deficiency that we attribute to animals, and although the deficiency may be relevant for some purposes, most of us would reject this deficiency as providing a moral justification for using humans in biomedical experiments.

Consider, for instance, the characteristic of self-consciousness, which many have regarded as the most important of the supposed uniquely human traits. Philosopher Peter Carruthers defines self-consciousness as the ability to have a “conscious experience . . . whose existence and content are available to be consciously thought about (that is, available for description in acts of thinking that are themselves made available to further acts of thinking).” (P. Carruthers, The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): at 181.)

But many humans, such as the severely mentally disabled, do not have self-consciousness in that sense. We do not, however, regard it as permissible to use them as we do laboratory animals. The fact that the mentally disabled human may not have a particular sort of self-consciousness may justify differential treatment in some respects. It may, for instance, be relevant to whether we give her a job teaching in a university, or allow her to drive a car. But it has no relevance to whether we treat her exclusively as a resource and use her in painful experiments or as a forced organ donor if it benefits us to do so.

Reliance on cognitive characteristics beyond sentience to justify the use of nonhumans in experiments requires either that we assume that these characteristics are morally relevant or that we ignore the fact that we do not regard the lack of such characteristics as morally relevant where humans are concerned. We are left with one and only one reason to explain our differential treatment of animals: We are human and they are not, and species difference alone justifies differential treatment. But this criterion is entirely arbitrary and no different from maintaining that, although there is no special characteristic possessed only by whites, or no defect possessed by blacks that is not also possessed by whites, we may treat blacks as inferior to whites merely on the basis of race. It is also no different from saying that, although there is no special characteristic possessed only by men or no defect possessed only by women, we may treat women as inferior to men based merely on the basis of sex.

The vast majority of our uses of nonhuman animals—for food, entertainment, hunting, clothing, etc.—cannot be characterized as “necessary” in any coherent sense of that word. The use of nonhumans in biomedical research may involve a plausible claim of necessity although, as I argued in the earlier essay, any such claim is problematic in a number of respects. But such a claim, even if justified, cannot serve to provide a satisfactory moral basis for this use of animals.

This concludes my discussion of vivisection from the perspective of empirical necessity and moral justification. It is my hope that these essays are sufficiently brief and accessible, and will be of use to animal advocates when they find themselves having to discuss this issue with others.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione