Advanced Ethics Tutorial

Nell Kriesberg
Division of Multidisciplinary Studies
North Carolina State University

In this section we will pick up the discussion about the ethics of using animals as research subjects as it continued from 1990 to the present, a conversation that has become increasingly complicated. As scientific knowledge evolves, the questions change. Technological expertise has increased the availability of alternatives. In general, society has become increasingly concerned about both the environment and animals and better educated and articulate about scientific matters. Both scientists and the public have also become increasingly involved in the philosophic debate that has become, like cloning and genetically modified organisms in food, a complicated and public scientific controversy.

Debates in Public Forums

In 1990, The Hastings Center, a non-profit educational organization traditionally focusing on issues in medical bioethics, published a report of a two-year study group, “Animals, Science and Ethics (Special Supplement, May/June 1990). They began with a discussion of “the troubled middle,” a term increasingly used to signify those at neither extreme of the spectrum we noted in the beginning of Tutorial Two of this Section. “In truth, we saw ourselves as “troubled middlers,” variously in between these two extremes, wanting to serve judiciously both human and animal interests (which often directly conflict with each other) and to respond to the many ethical responsibilities that have a claim on us.” ( Hastings Center Report, May/June 1990, p. 2)

Another national organization, The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics usually devotes one breakout session in their annual meeting to the topic of animals. At the 2001 meeting, for example, Albert Mosley used the context of Singer’s discussion of speciesism for a talk entitled, “Expanding the Moral Circle; from Racism to Specism. Also at the 2001 annual meeting of The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, two of the speakers emphasized the relationship between animals and ourselves as central. Alan Beck, a veterinarian, discussed pet therapy programs. In his talk, entitled “Ethical Considerations for the Therapeutic Use of Animals,” he asked how they benefited the animals used, asking if this sort of “use” of animals for human psychological needs was morally acceptable. Todd Freeberg argued for an increase in the sort of research that would directly benefit animals in a talk entitled, “The Necessity of Behavioral Research on Animals for Questions of Animal Welfare and Rights.

As another indication of increased interest, both lay and professional, see the Internet encyclopedia of philosophy: ethics and animals for a set of chapters discussing many of the points in the Tutorials for Part One of this module.

There has also been increasing dialogue between the scientists and the philosophers. After several decades of intense argument and polarization over the basic question--do we have the moral right to use animals as experimental subjects--there have been discussions attempting to reach, if not consensus, at least some level of collegiality on agreeing to disagree. Because of the sophistication of technology, the question is not just either yes to research or no, although that is still much debated, but the issues of how much and what limits should be imposed are now part of the discussion. Building on our discussion in the Introductory Ethics Tutorial, we can now expand on some of the finer points of the dilemmas.

In a recent publication, The Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice, (Oxford University Press, 1998) Barbara Orlans makes the point that even with a clear grasp of the philosophic issues, deciding what to do, is not an easy question.

These theories are powerful tools for thinking about the issues in the cases and about one’s moral commitments. Those who master this theoretical material should find that it helps significantly in the quality and precision of moral thinking. At the same time, it is important to appreciate the limits of the theories. They require thoughtful specification of their principles and cannot be mechanically applied to achieve resolution in the cases. As we have seen, the values defended in these theories can be and have been turned into very different directions in the attempt to grasp the moral dimensions of the human-non-human relation. (Orlans, p. 30)

Philosophers Continue the Discussion, Clarifying and Defining Terms

In 1990, the philosopher James Rachels continued his discussion about the moral standing of animals in terms of the human community in the context of Darwin’s contributions. In Created From Animals: the Moral Implications of Darwinism, (Oxford, 1990) Rachels argues for a new way of looking at the problem of making distinctions between human and non-human capacity, what he labels “moral individualism.” Recalling Frey’s point, as well as Singer’s, that there are some mammals that have higher cognitive capacities than some severely handicapped human beings, Rachels proposes that we change how we set the dividing line separating human from non-human animals.

We need a morality that will recognize both the similarities and the differences between humans and other animals, and that will be ‘man-centered’ only ‘up to a point’. But what exactly is that point? How ‘severely modified’ must our anthropocentricism be? …I will describe a view I call moral individualism, and I will argue that it is the natural view for a Darwinian to adopt. Moral individualism is a thesis about the justification of judgments concerning how individuals may be treated. The basic idea is that how an individual may be treated is to be determined, not by considering his group memberships, but by considering his own particular characteristics. (Rachels, p. 173) …If we think it is wrong to treat a human in a certain way, because the human has certain characteristics, and a particular non-human animal also has those characteristics, then consistency requires that we also object to treating the non-human in that way. (Rachels, p. 175)

Rachels is refining the discussion of equal consideration that we discussed previously in the Introductory Ethics Tutorial of this Section, the question of how to make moral decisions concerning the different interests of all affected parties. Given the challenge of how to include different characteristics and capacities among different sorts of living creatures in our moral reckoning, Rachels argues for a Darwinian based interpretation of equal consideration. (You can read about Evolutionary Ethics, an approach to ethics by combining the ideas of Darwin and philosophy in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Contemporary bioethicists ask how we should think about human beings with massive handicaps, such as infants born without adequate brain function, or people in irreversible comas. In terms of equal consideration, the question that the philosophers are asking is this: if we give human beings who lack the capacity for the cognitive life we recognize as “human,” a moral status such that we cannot use them as objects, then how can we logically refuse to recognize a similar moral status for non-human animals who have a much greater capacity for cognitive life than these unfortunate humans? Even if Rachels, Frey, Singer, Regan and others in the field of philosophy and bioethics disagree about the best way to make ethical decisions about people with this level of handicap, there is consensus that it is necessary to expand our moral consideration for animals that seem to have a greater capacity for an unfolding life than such unfortunate human beings.

R. G. Frey asks, if we are to do a Utilitarian calculus, what keeps us choosing to use animals but prevents us from choosing human beings in our research? In a recent essay published as part of a collection in the 2002 Applied Ethics in Animal Research: Philosophy, Regulation, and Laboratory Applications, (Purdue University Press), Frey advances the view first articulated by Bentham (1748-1832) when the latter proposed the ability to feel pain as the ticket into the moral community. Like Rachels, Frey uses the Darwinian analysis of seeing the difference between human and non-human steps along a continuum. But what Frey is emphasizing, rather than the ‘equal consideration’ due to feeling pain is the ‘equal consideration’ in having a life of inherent value, separate from that of the world of human beings. In this, he is closer to the deontological stance of Regan.

A justification simply must be given for why it is that humans but not animals attain the preferred class of nonuse, whatever their condition or quality of life. …With a welfare and a quality of life, it follows that animal life has value, where the value of a life is a function of its quality. All experiential creatures, not just humans, have a welfare and a quality of life that our actions can affect positively or negatively. Quality of life therefore determines the value not only of human but also of animal lives, and quality of life, I think, is a function of the scope and capacities of a creature for different experiences. It may be true that a normal adult humans outstrip animals in this regards, but it is also true that some perfectly healthy animals outstrip humans in these regards. …The attempt to justify the use of animals in scientific inquiry must therefore begin by accepting what Western religious traditions have on the whole denied, that animals are members of the moral community, that they have lives of value, and that they on occasion can have lives of higher value than some human lives. (Frey, p. 23-24)

Frey, like Singer and Regan is seriously questioning the very concept of animal use. For these philosophers, the overall cost and benefit must include animals in the equation, with the understanding that we need to ask if human beings could be utilized, as well as animals. 

Another recent book, The Animal Rights Debate, (Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) also illustrates the increasing degree of public discussion between scientists and philosophers. Aside from reviewing their disagreement over the basic question, is it moral to use animals as research subjects, Cohen and Regan spend time clarifying the difference between interests, rights and obligations. Regan says that if animals have their own unfolding lives they have moral standing.

These animals are our psychological kin. Like us, they bring to their life the mystery of a unified psychological presence. Like us, they are somebodies, not somethings. [original italics] In these fundamental ways they resemble us, and we, them. In this fundamental sense, all subjects-of-a-life are equal because all equally share the same moral status. (Regan, p. 210)

Cohen says, whether or not animals have unfolding lives, or are subjects-of-a-life, they are not human beings. Yes, we have strong obligations to treat animals humanely he says, but this is not a reciprocal action. Because we have an obligation does not imply that animals have rights, nor a right to our being obliged to them. He says.

In contrast to Regan’s absolutism, I hold that our obligations to animals, of which there are many, are often overridden by our obligations to human beings. Our obligations to animals arise not from their rights, I believe, but from the fact that they can feel pain and from the fact that we, as moral agents, have a general obligation to avoid imposing needless pain or death….This critical distinction must be borne in mind throughout: rights and obligations are not fully reciprocal. …Although the capacity of rats and chickens to feel and suffer does not give them rights, it remains the case that we are not free to do anything we please to them. Out of respect for our own moral principles, the sentience of some animals results in some restrictions on our conduct. In dealing even with creatures like rats and chickens, which have no rights, we have the obligation to act humanely, to act in accord with our dignity as moral agents. (Cohen, p. 226)

Cohen makes a further distinction; interests, he says, are not the same as rights or obligations. He notes that veterinarian Bernard Rollin and philosopher Steve Sapontzis both argue strongly for animals having rights from a position of animals having interests. Rollin (following in the Aristotelian tradition) uses the word “telos” for the intrinsic nature of a living creature to live in a particular way--an interest in achieving that “telos.” Sapontzis argues that since animals have interests they deserve moral respect; this moral respect then precludes them being considered objects for use. Cohen argues with both, saying that having interests is separate from having rights and that you cannot assume the latter as a result of the former; neither obligations nor interests imply rights. A right is an entirely separate moral leap says Cohen. Having an interest is not an entitlement to a right. (Cohen, p. 46)

This distinction between interests, obligations, and rights is an important one. It relates to the distinction between rights and welfare. (See the Introductory Ethics Tutorial for information on this distinction.) Jerrold Tannenbaum, a lawyer specializing in animal issues and law was one of the first to begin to explore the relationship between ethics and law as it relates to veterinary medicine. He notes,

Not every interest translates into a moral right. A right reflects an interest that is so strong that it generally must be respected even though others’ interests or the promotion of utility would suffer by respecting it. A “right” which can be overriden as a matter of course is not properly spoken of as a right at all. Thus, I would be inclined to say the laboratory dog may have an interest in having toys for amusement and that this interest is sometimes sufficiently strong to require that such toys be provided. However, it is quite another thing to assert that such animals have the right to these things, because there are many other considerations that can often argue against respecting the interest. (Jerrold Tannenbaum, Veterinary Ethics: Animal Welfare, Client Relations, Competition and Collegiality, NY: Mosby, 1998 p. 145)

Again, as we saw in Turorial Two of this Section, the language itself can become part of the discussion. Different people have different interpretations words such as “interests” “obligations or “rights.”

The Agent Centered View

Nikola Biller-Andorno, a physician, uses the experience of empathy as her starting point, instead of intellectual analysis. Her question is not what animals might or might not be capable of, what sort of moral standing we give them, but what we might choose to do to the animal.  She thus proposes that the focus in animal ethics should move away from the question, “Who is worthy of protection?” to “Who is in need of protection?” (Gluck, p.25)

I want to shift the question from the passive “Can they be harmed?” further to “Can we harm them?” thus reconnecting moral reflections on the “moral patient” with the situation of the moral agent.” In general, the identity of the moral agent today is shaped by three features. First, Kantians and non-Kantians alike would probably agree that the ability to impose limits on ourselves, to act autonomously, is one of the central features of human moral agency. However, the fact that nonhuman animals are not autonomous beings does not imply that they exist only as means for human purposes. (U. Wolf 1990). The imperative to use a being “as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant [1785] 1994, 429) does not need to be limited to persons unless reason is considered the only absolute value. (Biller-Adorno, Applied Ethics in Animal Research: Philosophy, Regulation, and Laboratory Applications, Gluck et. al, Purdue University Press, 2002, p.35)

Biller-Andorno takes from several traditions to find new answers to historic dilemmas. Her approach relates to efforts to define and implement a state of well being in animal research subjects, to go beyond simple maintenance. This recent development, thinking about the harm we might do to an animal, rather than trying to clarify issues such as standing, rights, and obligations is similar to Midgley’s approach to the questions. Both Midgley and Biller-Adorno reflect the Care Ethics point of view, seeing the relationship between animals and people as the central focal point to consider, rather than intellectual analysis.

Following the idea of being a moral agent, considering "what harm might we do?" changes how we might look at our responsibilities toward animal research subjects, both when they undergo a specific protocol and in terms of their husbandry. In this context, Russell and Burch's The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique or the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) as they have come to be called, can be seen as an example of an agent centered view in considering animal subjects. (see the first Tutorial in this series, Animals, Science and Society for a fuller discussion of the 3Rs, or the Alternatives Section as well.) Refinement also indicates a shift in the husbandry and housing standards and the complicated discussions about laboratory animals’ well being are part of this.

Animals have a right to be housed in appropriate conditions and to be cared for by appropriately trained individuals. For example, a veterinarian may be required to be onhand to look after the animals being used. Some objectors to the use of animal research subjects have observed that the procedures to which animals are subjected to are not as great a harm to the animals as the living conditions that some animals endure while being housed as potential research subjects. One recent law, for example, states that healthy dogs should not be tethered outdoors while being used as research subjects. Tethering reduces the quality of life for dogs. Questions of quality of life, such as the kinds of enclosures that house dogs and cats, are important ones that affect the animals and are rightly under the purview of IACUC’s. (Barnbaum and Byron, p. 196)

Animal Subjects in Research as Vulnerable Populations

Suppose you were to do a Utilitarian calculation and choose to go forward with a particular protocol, deciding that the overall benefit exceeds the cost to the particular animal subjects. But at the same time, your moral sense impels you to take seriously the quality of the arguments that Regan, Singer and Frey are proposing. Are you at an impasse? Some have resolved this by saying that the researchers have a moral imperative to provide the best quality of life possible. (To be 100% clear, Abolitionists, such as Regan, do not believe it is possible to compromise on the issue of animal use: either you are using an animal as an object or you are not. Singer and Frey would ask if you had considered using marginal humans in your protocol and if not, would also argue that your moral calculus is wanting.) As we noted at the end of the first Tutorial, the idea that animals are populations at risk by virtue of our actions exhorts us to greater efforts on their behalf.

David Morton, a laboratory animal veterinarian, has collected data on pain and distress assessment, and argues for increased sensitivity to the welfare of the animal subjects while undergoing a research protocol. His article, “The Importance of Non-Statistical Experimental Design,” (John Gluck, et al., 2001) argues for increased training of technicians monitoring the animals, the use of “Score Sheets” to better assess adverse effects, for greater limits on procedures and setting humane ending points earlier in a protocol. His detailed attention to the individual animal is both in the interest of humane treatment and rigorous science.
There is a philosophical debate about whether it is better to cause more suffering to fewer animals or less suffering for many to achieve the scientific end. That situation is not common in practice, but the U.K. law takes the view that the level of individual suffering is what matters and thus harms should always be minimized. If an animal is used for scientific purposes more than once (e.g. raising antibodies, removing blood, multiple surgery), then it may not adapt to the procedures. For example, animals do not habituate to a daily intraperitoneal injection of saline after five days. (Wadham, 1996), and the experience may cause greater fear and anxiety in those animals then if using naïve animals. Higher levels of suffering have to be justified on scientific grounds and not on the saving of other animal lives. In one sense one can see greater overall harm caused by inflicting severe pain than by killing animals (i.e. quality as opposed to quantity of life). It is interesting that a similar debate is going on in considering euthanasia for humans. (Morton, p. 175)           

If one thinks of animal research subjects as vulnerable populations it follows that greater efforts in terms of both daily husbandry needs and pain and distress monitoring would be in order. There would also be greater sensitivity on our part to attempting to achieve a situation where their well-being could be assured, given that they are still research subjects and not in their natural environment. The discussion over how to define "well-being" and how to accomplish such a state has been a focus of research and attention. 

The Scientists’ Center for Animal Welfare is one of several national organizations that does research on animal research itself, in efforts to set out perimeters for higher standards of care. Another national group, The American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine (ACLAM) was established in 1957. A recent publication from ACLAM, Bioethics and the Use of Laboratory Animals - Ethics in Theory and Practice, edited by A. Lanny Kraus and David Renquist, contains eighteen chapters from plenary speakers (Beauchamp, Tannenbaum, DeGrazia, Singer and Rollin, among others) from ACLAM's 1998 Forum. This meeting is an example of the combined interest and effort by both scientists and philosophers that is currently taking place.

The Idea of Moral Remainders

In an article appearing in 1992, the bioethicist Tom Beauchamp noted the difficulty of reaching consensus about “the animal question,” saying,

In a post-Darwinian period, the fact that we have the same ancestors as the apes provides a powerful reason for holding that we are very much like our evolutionary kin, whatever the differences might be. Evolutionary theory promotes the ideas of continuity and continua, not sharp breaks. If it did not, much research with animals would be pointless. Coming to grips with this fact is a big part of our struggle with the problem of moral standing. (Tom L. Beauchamp, “The Moral Standing of Animals in Medical Research,” Law, Medicine and Health Care, Spring-Summer 1992, p. 15)    

A helpful contribution to this complex dilemma of animal subjects in research might be the concept of the “moral remainder.” As implied by the metaphor, this is what is left over, unresolved, not complete, left open. This is what we cannot account for, even if we have done the procedure properly. A moral remainder has been defined as regret over what we have undertaken, for example, the sacrificing of one person for many. It is a term that acknowledges the lack of of completely resolving an exceedingly difficult moral problem.

Writing in The Journal of Animal Science in 1999, Keith K. Schillo comments,

Rarely do judgments result in a complete resolution of a policy issue. There are usually so-called moral remainders, which are side issues that remain un-resolved. For example, the construction of a reservoir might protect water rights of farmers while contributing to the general welfare of the community, but questions regarding where it should be constructed and who should finance construction persist (Thompson, 1996). When possible, it is beneficial for students to identify these residual disagreements. Such a process permits closure yet outlines future work. There is a risk that those who deal with issues will become frustrated by the failure to attain consensus. As a result of their frustration, they resort to a mindless relativism, in which the idea that policy can only be arbitrary, based on whatever view is most popular within a group. Failure to reach consensus does not mean that there are no right or best answers. It may be that more time and more discussion are required to work out an appropriate solution. Alternatively, there may be more than one right answer and that the focus of future efforts should be on preserving the views and the groups that hold them. The failure to reach consensus in the classroom does not necessarily mean that we have failed. Indeed, it might mean that we have developed a sophisticated view of the issue; one that is respectful of diverse viewpoints. Implications Courses dealing with contemporary issues offer an opportunity to enhance the ethical development of students. By portraying public policy issues as moral dilemmas, and teaching students to identify, understand, and critically analyze the morally relevant features of issues, students can begin to develop a practical moral wisdom that will help them deal with issues in a responsible manner. Although such an approach does not automatically prioritize the values supported by the animal agriculture community, it can make students more aware of and respectful of diversity. (Schillo,An Appropriate Role for Ethics in Teaching Contemporary Issues)

It is the nature of complicated mathematical problems to be in continual state of evolution, with experts constantly attempting "new solutions." A complicated ethical problem such as the use of animals as research subjects is no different.

Study Questions

  1. It is common to place an exercise wheel in the cages of rodents—commonly the mouse or rat will “run the treadmill” for hours at a time. How would you assess this, “from the rat’s point of view?” Is the time spent in the wheel an indication of stereotypical behavior due to boredom or psychological stress, a displaced escape mechanism, or a simple enjoyment of activity? Is it possible to know for sure? Does the rodent have an interest in exercise, or a right to it?
  1. The increase in transgenic animals brings up many moral quandaries.
For example, in Responsible Conduct of Research, (2003) Shamoo and Resnik note,

Moreover, because animal species may differ with respect to their moral worth, an experiment can be morally acceptable on one species but not be morally acceptable in a different species. For example, it may be morally acceptable to create a transgenic mouse that is prone to various forms of cancer (i.e. an oncomouse), but it may not be morally acceptable to create an “oncochimp” or an “oncomonkey“ because chimpanzees and monkeys have more moral value than do mice by virtue of their higher degree of similarity to human beings. (p. 225)

In the Human Use of Animals: Case Studies in Ethical Choice, (1998) Orlans et al. discuss the Harvard oncomouse as well.
Some objections to the uses of the oncomouse involve concerns about experimenting on genetically altered multicellular organisms. These concerns are independent of whether we are morally obliged to recognize a threshold of pain, suffering, anxiety, fear or distress for animals that cannot be exceeded, irrespective of human benefits….The production and use of transgenic animals raise several novel issues. Some of the animals created to serve as biomedical research tools are, as one reporter put it, “genetically programmed to suffer.” Half of the female oncomice, for example, develop breast cancer before they are a year old. Other transgenic mice are predisposed to develop AIDS, leukemia, and a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease. (p. 95)

a. Would you agree with Shamoo and Resnik that it may be morally acceptable to create an oncomouse but not an oncochimp? Why or why not?

b. Differentiate between rights, interests and obligations that a mouse living in the wild might have; what about a mouse living in your laboratory; what about an oncomouse? Would the amount of pain and/or distress you would find acceptable be different for each? Why or why not?