The Ethics of Animal Research: Two Views

THE CASE FOR ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective. Michael Allen Fox. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986. 276 pp. $18.95. BURKE Many readers are probably aware of the current resurgence of vocal opposition to the use of animals in scientific research. Though nothing fundamental has changed in the arguments and counter-arguments used by antivivisectionists and scientists, the new wave of anti-research propaganda and fund raising has set into motion legislat

Oct 20, 1986
Robert Burke

An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective.
Michael Allen Fox.
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986. 276 pp.


Many readers are probably aware of the current resurgence of vocal opposition to the use of animals in scientific research. Though nothing fundamental has changed in the arguments and counter-arguments used by antivivisectionists and scientists, the new wave of anti-research propaganda and fund raising has set into motion legislative and regulatory "reforms" that are starting to have a profound impact on the ways in which biomedical and behavioral research will be done (or not done) in North America and in Europe.

When confronted with the antivivisectionist charge that animal research is inherently immoral, the defenders of research usually counter that animal use is essential for continued progress in knowledge and, consequently, in health care for humans and animals alike. Although there is an abundance of evidence backing this defense, it does not speak to the charge. To argue simply that animal use is necessary leaves individual scientists in the uncomfortable position of appearing to defend their work with animals as a necessary evil. Although quite unintended, the use by the scientific community of the famous "three R's" of WM.S. Russell and R.L. Burch-reduction, replacement and refinement-as goals for the future of animal research can give the same unfortunate impression.

In the book under review Michael Allen Fox (not to be confused with Michael W. Fox, a well-known critic of animal research) provides a thoughtful discussion of the moral issues raised by the exploitation of non-human animals by human beings for human purposes, with specific reference to scientific work. Fox, who is professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, concludes that the use of animals in research, as a general category of human action, is ethically sound because it is morally neutral. At the same time, he is emphatic that in specific cases such use is fraught with ethical problems and dilemmas.

Through roughly the first third of the book, Fox develops the case that Homo sapiens possess a collection of mental capacities that so far transcend those known for any other species as to make humans unique in nature as we know it. The capacities for self-awareness, reflection, planning, choice and acceptance of responsibility for action characterize "autonomous beings" and confer membership in a "moral community" that does not embrace creatures lacking the full set of such capacities. As far as we can judge, animals lack the ability to recognize and take responsibility for the moral consequences of their actions. How can an animal be "guilty" in any moral sense, when deliberation, choice and responsibility are acknowledged to be essential to the notion of moral consequences?

In Fox's view, moral rights and commensurate moral obligations apply only to interactions between "beings" within the moral community. He uses the term "beings" to leave open the possibility that the universe may contain other species with capacities equaling or even transcending our own and explores the ways in which the respective moral communities might interact (including what he calls the "Planet of the Apes Problem," the argument that if humans are justified in using lower sentient beings for their own purposes then species superior in capacities to Homo sapiens should be justified in using humans for their own purposes).

Fox also deals with the complex problem posed by immature or defective humans, opting to include them within the moral community on the principle of "benefit-of-the-doubt." He concludes that human beings may use other species for their own purposes "for the simple reason that they have no obligation not to do so" (p. 88).

Fox contrasts his views with those of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, who argue that the "capacity to suffer" is sufficient to confer inherent moral rights on sentient creatures-i.e., animals. This belief is used to sup-port the contention that any exploitation of animals for human purposes is inescapably immoral.

Fox notes some of the serious paradoxes introduced by the utilitarian viewpoint and discusses a variety of possible counter-arguments, although he quite honestly admits that "the debate over the justification of animal experimentation . . . is in the final analysis over conflicting moral intuitions, neither of which is demonstrably preferable to the other" (p. 7). The treatment of competing beliefs about the moral status of animals is clear and rigorous enough (and there are 44 pages devoted to references and notes) for the non-specialists to whom the book is ad dressed, but it will probably not satisfy professional philosophers.
Having developed the case that the use of animals in research (or for any other human purposes) is at a minimum morally neutral, Fox goes on to show that this does not mean that "anything goes." Far from it! For him, it is indisputable that acts of intentional cruelty to animals are plainly wrong, irrespective of rationalization, even though he notes that it is "a more difficult task than we might at first think" to provide a logical justification for the view that cruelty to animals is wrong, even though this statement "seems patently true and indisputable."

Fox devotes considerable space in the second two-thirds of his book to examples of how animals are used in laboratory research and to his ethical assessment of these uses. He discusses how science is done and what the call for "alternatives" to animal use really entails. His intended audience seems to be those members of the public who are concerned by antivivisection propaganda but who retain some measure of open-mindedness. The professional scientist may become a bit impatient here, but Fox's efforts deserve attention because they illustrate how a concerned but basically sympathetic non-scientist views specific animal research projects, including some highly controversial examples.

Fox makes a determined attempt to define "unnecessary suffering" in experimental animals but ultimately fails to get beyond synonyms. This is a terribly difficult and divisive issue for scientists and non-scientists alike, precisely because judgments about what is "necessary" depend on the observer's basic assumptions and on the specific, often minute, details of ex-perimental design and conduct. Fox properly points out that distress and discomfort in animal subjects can also result from unintentional actions or omissions-the outcome for the animal is the same.

The book concludes with a plea for increased awareness among scientists of their responsibility for all aspects of humane treatment for animal subjects. Scientists may not be enthusiastic about Fox's conclusion that this is probably best accomplished by legislation and regulation. Fox appeals to both the science and animal welfare communities to recognize and deal honestly with their respective positions rather than to continue activities that are likely (and are sometimes calculated) to prevent understanding and effective progress.

In the end, I think Fox is successful in showing that there is no fundamental antithesis between the conclusion that it is morally legitimate for humans to exploit animals for human purposes and the absolute requirement for humane treatment in such use.
In recommending this book to a scientific audience, I would stress its particular importance to students contemplating or just beginning a career in biomedical or behavioral research. Those disquieted by the ethical controversy may find some reassurance, while others, less mindful of the ethical issues, may well need some thoughtful counsel on their responsibility to ensure humane treatment of animal subjects. Fox's answers to some of the more egregious distortions in antivivisection pro-paganda provide useful perspectives for those who may be called upon to respond to such attacks.

Finally, the concerned non-professional will find here considerable food for thought in trying to put the current uproar into a rational context. Fox's book is certainly not the last word on the emotional issue of animal use for research, but it does provide an honest and forthright statement of views that are well worth careful consideration.

Robert E. Burke is chief of the Laboratory of Neural Control,
NINCDS, NIH, Bethesda, MD 20892.
He is a neurophysiologist who uses animals in his own research work.
The views he expresses are his own.


The Case for Animal Experimentation is really two different books.

One attempts to establish general philosophical and ethical principles concerning animals. The other focuses upon the realities of animal experimentation; it argues for humane animal research by appealing to actual experiments and scientific principles.

The second argument is elegant and powerful. Fox's refutations of some of the favorite allegations of antivivisectionists about the motives and results of animal research are unequaled. His middle-of-the-road recommendations, which permit animal research but demand due regard for the animals, are persuasive and practicable. In contrast, Fox's philosophical argument is superficial, dogmatic and unconvincing.

Among his major theoretical contentions are 1) that animals have no value of their own and have moral value only in relation to the benefits derived from their use by humans; 2) that animals have no moral rights and humans therefore have no moral duties to them; and 3) that humans nevertheless should not mistreat animals-because we empathize with animals that suffer, because we are related evolutionarily to animals, because we would demean our own moral characters by being cruel to animals and because it is in an individual's self-interest not to harm animals.

Fox provides virtually no argument for these assertions. In fact, most people believe that they have a moral duty not to cause animals unnecessary pain and that when they do such things they are committing a wrong not just to their moral character or self-interest but also to the animals themselves.

Fox maintains that people can have moral duties to treat animals in certain ways only if animals have moral rights to such treatment. But the only beings that can have moral rights are autonomous agents, those that are "capable of free (self-determining, voluntary), deliberative, responsible action and have the sort of awareness necessary to see this kind of action as essential to their. nature, well-being, and development as indi-viduals" (p. 56).

Fox's restriction of moral rights to autonomous beings-and his consequent denial of such rights to animals-is bald assertion. It is contradicted by our practice of ascribing certain basic moral rights to infants, children and deficient or incompetent humans who are not autonomous. Fox's response to this objection is to allow deficient and potentially autonomous humans something he calls "protection . . . of the [human] moral community" because we "feel some especially close kin-ship" to those less fortunate and be-cause it is "a matter of prudence" (pp. 60-61). However, virtually everyone believes that infants and deficient adults have the right not to be abused in certain ways, whether or not it would be imprudent.

As I have argued here, the belief that some animals have moral rights-that there are limits to what we can do with them by virtue of what they are and can experience and do-is part of the value system of most in our society, including most animal researchers. It is not a radical belief, and it does not pre dude the kind of middle-of-the-road approach Fox endorses. Fox refuses to recognize this. What he offers is a curmudgeonly philosophy that begrudges in principle the humane and decent sentiments he would apply in practice.

Jerrold Tannenbaum, a philosopher, is clinical assistant professor of environmental studies,
Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Boston, MA 02111.