The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.

For example, Spain’s parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.

Spain’s parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.

Parliament’s environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain’s penal code.

Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.

Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that “non-human hominids” like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.

Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.

Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.

In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause ‘adverse effects’ such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen’s eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently

To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.

It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.

While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.

[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.

[T]he ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)

Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.

This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.

Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.

(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)



  1. says

    Today’s topic on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” program is the Ivans case. Their guests are NPR’s David Kestenbaum and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), both of whom are highly skeptical about the government’s case. It may not be much, but the issue has not completely faded from the public eye.

  2. Cindy says

    Animals already have a substantial amount of legal rights. (Again, talking about lab animals, since livestock isn’t regulated in the same way. Though it’d probably double the cost of meat if they had to meet the same standards.) Any research using animals smarter than a mouse is heavily regulated, and inspected by federal law. The USDA does unannounced inspections of medical labs to check on the animals. All experiments are put through screenings by a board of vets, doctors, and a lay member of the community. (It’s called IACUC) The focus is to minimize animal suffering, and make sure that medical value is in line with the effect on the animal. These are obviously subjective judgements, but I’ve always been very comfortable working in this system. This is of course veterinary medicine, so having an animal suffer is considered far worse than euthanizing them.

    Labs that work with smarter animals (I know no one likes the term “higher”) are particularly tame. They’re populated by people who like taking care of cute furry animals. I’ve visited a cat lab where they let their experimental subjects run around the lab and hang out with the students. After the experiments, these animals are often able to be adopted out to good homes. Very little suffering on the animal’s part would be approved, nor should it be. I know two ex-PETA members (and several more ethical vegetarians) who work in labs, including a grad-student and an animal care tech. The grad student thinks it’s a big misunderstanding about what goes on in labs since the things she heard about were so different from the reality. I personally think it’s deliberate misinformation. Since professors who speak out about things like this are targeted by extremists (who use bombs) activists can make up whatever they want without consequence. Personally, it drives me crazy that I’m not supposed to talk about what I do (for safety reasons), with the ridiculous misconceptions that are flying around about it.

    As for stopping experiments without direct and urgent purpose, that’s like saying only professor’s over the age of 50 can do research, in that all research would stop in a matter of years. Tomorrow’s direct and urgent experiments came from yesterday’s pure science. My field was pure science up until a few years ago when it abruptly became potentially clinical. Now it’s starting to go into humans. I think it that would have been highly unethical if we had risked humans without seeing lots of healthy safe animals first. I’ve also worked at a medical company that was going full steam ahead on a treatment with real potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Early tests were very positive, and this would have easily passed the bar to test on human volunteers in an FDA free society. But then the later rounds of tests (the FDA mandates quite a few) uncovered a major side effect. Rats died instead of humans. Let’s also look at drug testing. No animal research means no new drugs. Even with hordes of suicidal volunteers, you can’t possible get the statistical power to know that something’s safe without testing on mice or rats. Even if you did, in most cases you’re not going to test it on nearly as many rodents as you’re going to give it to humans afterwards, so you’re really saying that human life is worth less than a mouse’s at that point. The vast majority of animal research is mandated by law by the FDA, and there’re very few groups lobbying them to loosen up their standards. The historical trend is still towards more animal testing and less early human testing.

    As for alternatives, just imagine what Physics would be like if the experimental labs shut down, and only the theorists remained. In neuroscience, one experimental lab can provide data for many theoretical labs. And since this allegedly non-animal using alternative research costs an order of magnitude less, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who can get away with not using animals is already doing so. You’re also likely to read in animals right’s literature that all this research isn’t actually helping us. It’s very similar to Young Earth people who look at Physics saying “Assuming I know 100% that the earth is 6000 years old, what then must be true” and then changing constants as they need to. Animal rights extremists have long contorted reasons for why various medical discoveries didn’t come from animal research. I take this pretty personally, because they then often accuse scientists of being sadistic, when nothing is farther from the truth.

    From an animal activist’s perspective, there is something inherently special about being alive, and it really has to be supernatural, because they won’t give this property to machines that are more intelligent. The nervous system of a bug or a fish is a bunch of small logic circuits. One common one is “if the left fin/leg just finished, move the right one”. Neurons have the same electricity running through them as a transistor. Computers have billions of transistors, and can simulate neural networks larger than the simplest nervous systems, but I somehow doubt that the AI labs will start attracting protestors any time soon.

  3. Mary says

    Regardless of how one feels about the ethical ramifications of this issue, the current level of meat consumption is unsustainable. There is a finite amount of resources on the planet and the human population is increasing, both in quantity and quality (standard of living). We no longer have the global resources to consume the current excess of meat consumption.
    80 percent of corn and 95 percent of oats grown in the US is used to feed animals raised for food. It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat (25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat). Not to mention the land both in the US and the world’s rainforests clearcut for livestock grazing and animal feed agriculture.
    I’m not advocating that the world become vegetarian. Yet we do need to at least reduce the amount of meat we consume, especially in the US. Otherwise we are perpetrating an indirect form of cannabolism, or more eloquently stated by Gandhi “Live simply so that others may simply live”.

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