It’s ironic that scientific research on animals has ended up becoming an important source of evidence against animal research. After all, it’s only because we sacrifice chimps that we understand the deep connections between the chimp brain and the human brain. If we didn’t experiment on rats, or dogs, or monkeys, then we wouldn’t know about our shared biological architecture. As I noted a few months ago:
One of the great themes of post-Darwinian science is the inter-relatedness of life. From the perspective of our cells, there is little difference between a human and a rat, or even a sea slug. All animals use the same neurons and the same neurotransmitters. Pain receptors in different species share a similar design. Blood and flesh and skin are always constructed of the same elemental stuff. We share 98 percent of our genome with chimps.
The distinctions are just as murky from the perspective of behavior. Ants exhibit altruism. Parrots use symbolic logic. Gorillas mourn the death of a family member. Humans exhibit all sorts of animal instincts. Most neuroscientists who study consciousness believe that it exists in a gradient, and that chimps are not unconscious, but simply less conscious.
But I still don’t think that the inter-relatedness of life is enough to justify a ban on animal, or even primate, research. Call me a blatant speciest, but I think the utility of animal research outweighs the moral transgression. One of the reasons I appreciate Singer, and am always interested in his philosophical opinions, is that he’s one of the last remaining utilitarians. That said, I make a different utility calculation than Singer does when it comes to the worth of animal research. At this point, I think the benefits of research far outweigh the moral transgression of killing animals. The suffering of chimps has alleviated the suffering of millions of humans. That’s an uncomfortable, and even tragic fact, but it’s true.
Of course, grounding animal research in utilitarian calculations has serious implications. For one thing, it suggests that animal research, especially on primates, is not an incontrovertible right. At some point in the future, the suffering of animals might outweigh the medical benefits. But we haven’t reached that point yet. That’s why I find Singer’s subtle shift on animal research so revealing. Hopefully, he’s also come to the reasonable conclusion that some types of animal research are ethically valid, at least in utilitarian terms.
But I still agree with Singer that there is absolutely no way to defend our current animal farming practices. The utility we get from a cheap egg, or a cheap pound of ground beef, in no way justifies the insanely cruel way we raise our chickens and cows. Unlike Singer, I believe people are entitled to eat meat. I just don’t believe they are entitled to eat meat that’s raised in an inhumane fashion.
P.S Thanks for all the great comments on the last post. Let’s keep this discussion going. . .