Author Reverses Views On Animal Rights

In their reviews of my book The Case for Animal Experimentation (THE SCIENTIST, October 20, 1986, p. 19, 20, 22), Robert E. Burke and Jerrold Tannenbaum agree that it succeeds in explaining the nature of scientific research involving animals and in elucidating the requirements of humaneness. Tannenbaum, however, expresses the opinion that the philosophical argument of the book is "superficial, dogmatic and unconvincing" (p. 19). He concludes that I "offer a curmudgeonly philosophy that begrudges

By | December 15, 1986

In their reviews of my book The Case for Animal Experimentation (THE SCIENTIST, October 20, 1986, p. 19, 20, 22), Robert E. Burke and Jerrold Tannenbaum agree that it succeeds in explaining the nature of scientific research involving animals and in elucidating the requirements of humaneness. Tannenbaum, however, expresses the opinion that the philosophical argument of the book is "superficial, dogmatic and unconvincing" (p. 19). He concludes that I "offer a curmudgeonly philosophy that begrudges in principle the humane and decent sentiments [I] would apply in practice" (p. 22).

I have to agree with Tannenbaum. Since I wrote the book, I have come to be profoundly dissatisfied with the approach I took, based on rights possession and a narrow definition of the moral community. I have come to believe that attempts to justify the use of animals for experimentation convince no one except for the already-converted. This is because they rest on a hierarchical conception of ethics and of the relationship between humans and nature which I assumed in the book and which many, now including myself, see reason to reject. There is no nonarbitrary ground on which to argue that the differences between humans and animals, morally relevant though some of them may be, make humans morally superior and animals inferior or valueless forms of life.

I now think that because humans are the dominant species on the planet, they have decided to use animals in certain ways and will not yield the advantages thereby gained. But with the power to control nature goes the responsibility to exercise wisdom and humaneness at all times, and to be especially concerned and caring toward sensitive beings of whatever species that are at our mercy. It is impossible for humans to escape fully from their anthropocentric standpoint. Evaluations of things and of features of the world will always be made, and will always reflect their human origin.

This, among other reasons, is why I still have trouble accepting the notion that animals have moral rights. But I now see no difficulty with the view that we have moral obligations toward them because of the characteristics we recognize in them (i.e., there can be obligations even in the absence of correlative rights).

So I find myself, nine months after my book's publication, in radical disagreement with some of its major theses. Arriving at this point has been both painful and exhilarating. Nevertheless, I think the book contains some merits, not the least of which is that it will further debate and reveal a few directions not worth pursuing.

-Michael Allen Fox
Department of Philosophy
Queen's University
Kingston, Ont., Canada K7L 3N6
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