Mixing Memory

Animal Rights and Animal Research

So there’s a Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper in press on the cognitive differences between human and nonhuman animals that is related, in some ways, to my own work (it even cites me twice… yay, the citation count for that paper just jumped to, like, 4). The paper is sure to be controversial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the title, but I’m fairly convinced by its arguments. But I’m not really writing this post to talk about the article. When it’s published, with all its peer commentaries (BBS publishes target articles and then a bunch of peer commentaries, along with a response from the authors of the target article), maybe we can have a discussion about it. For now, I just want to use it as a launching point for another discussion: animal rights. In thinking about the article, because I’m writing a peer commentary on it with another psychologist (and crossing my fingers that it’ll be published — I don’t have a good track record of getting peer commentaries published), has gotten me thinking about the implications of theoretical work on cognitive/behavioral differences between human and nonhuman animals, and the moral implications of those theories.

The truth is, I don’t really know where moral status comes from. Having gotten rid of supernatural beings in my life, it’s become difficult for me to believe that moral status is something inherent, in a metaphysical sense, in beings of a certain type, so I’m left looking elsewhere for the source of moral status. It’s even difficult to determine where moral status comes from, epistemologically, these days, as research on moral cognition has made it more and more clear that reason — the best candidate — plays less of a role in determining our moral judgments than we’d like to believe. Despite all this uncertainty, however, I can’t escape the intuition that there is something unique about humans, morally, and so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this uniqueness is, and what, exactly, it means for the moral status of nonhuman animals.

But before I get too deep into that, let me make a few things clear. The first is that whatever the moral status of nonhuman animals, I think terrorism in their name is despicable (this, for example, disgusts me). Whatever I may end up thinking about animal rights, I abhor violence, and recognize that even when it’s used in the service of a just cause (which is not to say that groups like the ALF are serving a just cause), it tends to do little more than beget more violence. Even if it doesn’t foster more violence, it always stifles discourse, and where important and difficult issues like morality are concerned, discourse is of the utmost importance. The second thing I want to make clear is that I fully recognize the importance of animal research to science, particularly the medical sciences. We’re all better off because of research that’s been done on animals. And finally, because it’s an inevitable question when these topics arise, I’m not a vegetarian. I don’t see anything wrong with vegetarianism (though I admit I find veganism a bit odd), I just haven’t gotten to the point where I think it’s the only moral path.

I should also note that I’ve done animal research. When I was an undergrad, I worked in and among a few different animal labs, working with Japanese quail, rats, mice, and indirectly, with pigeons (by indirectly, I mean, I was always the one who had to chase the little buggers down when they escaped, and they always escaped, proving perhaps that pigeons are smarter than pigeon researchers, which should have been clear anyway, since they’re all closet Skinnerians). Some of it was quite gruesome, and I was deeply uncomfortable with what I was doing on more than one occasion. So I know a bit about what’s going on out there.

Having said all that, I hope it’s clear that animals are at least on my “moral radar,” as the SEP calls it. I understand that animals are beings that can suffer, and as such, their moral status should at least be carefully considered. And it’s not enough to simply say, as some defenders of animal research do, that animal research has been immensely beneficial to humans. That’s undoubtedly true, but that just begs the important question of whether the benefit to humans justifies the suffering of research animals, and why? In fact, that reply misses the point entirely when we’re talking about basic research, in which the potential benefits to humans are far from clear. In fact, much of that research will never lead to benefits to humans, aside from increased knowledge of course, so a related question arises: at what point, if ever, does the potential benefit to humans become great enough to justify the suffering of nonhuman animals?

Notice that I’m assuming, at this point, that the suffering of nonhuman animals is something that needs to be justified. There are plenty of people who don’t think this is the case, and to them I have nothing to say, really. I have a deep intuition, that as of yet no amount of reasoning has been able to rid me of, that suffering is bad, and that if it is possible, it should be avoided. That is, if suffering is unjustified, it is morally wrong. This is, in fact, my deepest moral intuition, guiding all others. So I’m starting from that position, and if you disagree with it, then this discussion will have nothing for you in it.

Of course, I’m not the only one who believes that animal suffering needs to be justified. As far as I know, every civilized nation within which animal research is conducted has a set of rules specifying under what circumstances animal research is justified, and how, even when it is justified, everything possible should be done to minimize the suffering of animal subjects. In many cases, these rules are more strict than those governing human research, because humans can provide informed consent (a potential clue, I might add, in the investigation of moral status). Granted, sometimes these rules can be comical, as in the rules for euthanizing research animals. They’re quite strict so long as the animal is still captive, but if the animal escapes and is running loose outside of the lab, you can kill the little bastards pretty much any way you want. But the very existence of these rules makes it clear that the intuition that animal suffering needs to be justified is pretty widely shared.

What, then, is it that makes humans more important, morally, than nonhuman animals? How is it that benefits to humans, even in the very abstract sense of potential benefits, as in basic research, can justify the suffering of nonhuman animals? The answer, I’m convinced, must lie in the origin of moral intuitions in humans. Something about why we think moral considerations are important must also specify why they’re more important when applied to humans. In fact, I think, though I’m not wedded to this answer, that it is just the fact that we have moral considerations in the first place that makes our moral claims greater than those of nonhuman animals. In other words, because we are moral animals, our moral claims have a higher status. We are animals who can act morally, and as moral beings who live in concord with other beings, moral and amoral, it is incumbent upon us to act morally. Put different, the best choice is always the most moral one.

The upshot of this is that anytime the claims of a moral and amoral being compete, the moral being’s claim should be honored. This is because in honoring the claim of a moral being, we increase that beings ability to act morally. In the case of animal research, this means that by causing suffering to nonhuman animals in order to benefit humans — through making their lives longer, increasing the quality of their lives, etc. — we increase the capacity of humans to act morally. This is, therefore, the most moral path.

This isn’t a very satisfying answer, I know, and it leaves us with more questions than it answers. At what point does the immorality of causing suffering to animals — and if suffering is wrong, then causing suffering to animals is always wrong — outstrip the (potential) increase in moral action by humans? How would we recognize this point? Even if we can figure out about where this point lies, what do we do with border cases about which we’re uncertain? In which direction should we prefer to err? Where do we set our decision bound? I can’t really answer these questions, but I hope that putting this post out there will spark a discussion, because I think that answering these questions is very important, and it’s pretty clear that most people on either side of these issues (the animal rights absolutists and the defenders of animal research) are all that interested in answering them. So I’ll cut this post off here, leaving pretty much everyone feeling unsatisfied, I’m sure, in the hopes that you’ll start talking where my abilities have left off.


  1. #1 Chris Clarke
    November 4, 2007

    I don’t know that I think dogs don’t have a moral sense. Any argument against dogs having a moral sense that I can think of applies equally well to me.

  2. #2 Richard
    November 4, 2007

    CC – Here’s an argument against dogs being moral agents: a moral agent must be capable of practical reasoning which involves the consideration of moral reasons as such. Hence, they must possess moral concepts. Dogs don’t.

    Chris – interesting post. Note, though, that it doesn’t seem that moral action is intrinsically (i.e. non-instrumentally) valuable. If I promise to do what I already intend (“I promise to breathe in… I promise to breathe out…”) then I can easily increase the number of fulfilled obligations in the world. But there is no value in this; it doesn’t make the world a better place.

    So we should consider morality to be of merely instrumental value. It is merely a means to promoting other values (e.g. well-being). So not only is it dubious to treat “increas[ing] the capacity of humans to act morally” as overriding all other values (suffering, etc.), but it’s arguably not a fundamental value at all. We should only “increase the capacity of humans to act morally” insofar as this would have run-on benefits, say by causing those improved humans to relieve more suffering, or to otherwise make the world a better place.

    A more promising defense of animal research, to my mind, would be to appeal to non-hedonistic values. Sure, pain is bad. But pleasure and pain are not the only (or even the most) important things in the world. There is also value in the pursuit of knowledge, advancing human understanding, etc. It’s not obvious how to weigh these conflicting values, though.

  3. #3 Richard
    November 4, 2007

    Incidentally, on the general question why humans matter more than other animals, I don’t think our moral agency is the answer. Arguably, psychopaths are not genuinely moral agents. (I do not mean merely that they behave immorally. Rather, they do not know what morality is. They appear unable to distinguish moral from merely conventional norms — something even young children usually have no trouble with.) But they are still people, with personal goals and interests that are intrinsically no less important than anyone else’s.

    Instead, I’d argue that the key differences are that (1) we can appreciate “higher pleasures“; and (2) since we can conceive of our lives as extending over time, this enables us to have interests of a fundamentally different (and deeper) kind than creatures that merely live in the moment.

    These two points mean that the well-being of people may factually outweigh (i.e. be greater in quantity) that of animals. All matter equally in principle, but just as you can’t do much that hurts a rock, similarly an impact on animal lives often can’t compare with impacts on human lives.

  4. #4 Neil
    November 4, 2007

    Well, here is how things look to a philosopher. I’m struck that both Chris and Richard (in his comment) thought there was some close connection between being a moral agent and having moral status. No philosopher I can think of as thought this. Instead, they think that having moral status depends on something like the ability to suffer, or have interests or a welfare. In fact, I suspect that Chris really thinks this too (and his comments on whether reason plays much of a role in moral cognition are just irrelevant. I can’t resist adding that they’re probably wrong, too: reason may not play a large direct role in moral cognition, but it sure plays a huge indirect role; moral responses are automated, but they nevertheless gradually change under rational pressure).

    So have interests, or somethings, get you in the game. This had better be the case, or we confront what’s often called ‘the problem of marginal cases’: many human beings are not moral agents. Now, it is probably the case that if you are a moral agent, you have more complex interests (because the kind of cognitive machinery that underlies agency also ensures this: eg, you have future-oriented desires you wouldn’t otherwise have). So there is a link between moral agency and the weight of your interests. The link is indirect, though: the same set of cognitive machinery underlies both.

    Interesting question: given two beings of comparable cognitive complexity only of whom is human (eg a rat and an intellectually disabled infant) why do we favor the human? There are a variety of answers. I suspect that the fact that moral responses evolved via kin selection has a lot to do with it, though.

    Chris, you should be a vegetarian. There are good moral grounds for it, but there are better environmental grounds.

  5. #5 Richard
    November 4, 2007

    Oh, I don’t think there’s any “close connection between being a moral agent and having moral status.” (I actually had a second comment clarifying this, but it seems to have been caught in the spam filter.)

  6. #6 Brandon
    November 4, 2007

    The claim that there is a close connection between being a moral agent and having moral status seems to me to be a fairly common one in philosophy, actually; although there are a great many different views about what such a connection would be, of course. Mary Anne Warren, to give just one example, suggests something along the lines of what Chris suggests for the third, and perhaps central, factor (out of seven) that she thinks plays a role in establishing moral status. And Kantians are usually tempted by the view. Something like it is also suggested, although not required, by the broadly Lockean line that we shouldn’t make animals suffer because it makes us less sensitive to suffering of any sort, and thus morally worse agents in general because it interferes with our ability to act morally when human suffering is involved.

    I’m not convinced by Richard’s promising argument. After all, there are good reasons not to take the fulfilling of promises as in itself morally significant; and there is at least some reason to take frivolous promising as immoral if it’s morally significant at all. I suspect that this will generally be the case: any example that is proposed showing that moral action is not intrinsically valuable can also be interpreted as an example showing that the action in the example is not actually an example of a moral action.

  7. #7 Neil
    November 4, 2007

    Brandon, actually you’re right. I was limiting my search field to contemporaries who have written on animal rights (and I don’t know Warren’s work), so I missed this kind of view. Notice, though, that the Lockeans and Kantians you mention *don’t* attribute moral status to non-human animals – they think we shouldn’t harm them despite their lack of status.

    Revised claim: no sane philosopher holds a view that closely connects moral agency and moral status.

  8. #8 Mikko
    November 5, 2007

    Neil, I believe a sane philosopher can easily hold a view that connects moral agency and moral status. Just possibly not the way you think they would.

    I believe that moral agency can act as an inclusive way of attaching moral status, though possibly not exlusive. In other words, Chris rightly attaches moral value to humans based on their ability to reason about morality and to hold moral values. Either one must provide a reason why a moral agent should not be given moral status, or accept the reasoning.

    But there is nothing in the reasoning that says “We should not give moral status to those that are not moral agents”. The implication, and thus, the test, only works one way. There may be other reasons to attach moral status to beings not moral agents, but that does not take away the reasoning about humans as moral agents and their moral status. [Unless you show the inclusive reasoning to be wrong].

  9. #9 Chris Clarke
    November 5, 2007

    Here’s an argument against dogs being moral agents: a moral agent must be capable of practical reasoning which involves the consideration of moral reasons as such. Hence, they must possess moral concepts. Dogs don’t.

    I would have agreed with you before I met my dog. Not sure I do now.

  10. #10 Neil
    November 5, 2007

    Mikko, the insane view I had in mind – the one Brandon reminded me of – was that being a moral agent is a necessary condition of being a moral patient. Your view is not insane (in that way).

  11. #11 Chris
    November 5, 2007

    First, I should note that I meant this argument more as a starting point than a conclusion. I’m far from wedded to it. As I hinted in the post, these are issue that leave me confused more than certain on virtually every point. Second, I don’t mean to claim that having a moral sense is a necessary condition for being a moral patient. I think the capacity for suffering, even if that suffering is not conscious (I don’t think consciousness is all that important for much of anything, to be honest), is the necessary condition.

    Rather, my thinking, confused as it is, goes something like this. The moral claims of all beings with the capacity for suffering should be heard, but the claims of beings with a moral sense should be privileged. That is not to say that they should win out all of the time, just that they have more weight. The basic reason for this, as I see it, is that by honoring the claims of beings with a moral sense over those that do not have one, we increase the capacity to act morally. The extreme case best illustrates why I think this: if we always went in the other direction, and honored the claims of beings without a moral sense, we would seriously reduce the number of beings who could act morally at all.

    Put succinctly, I think that any being who suffers is a moral patient, with claims that must be considered by any moral agent, but that moral agents (beings with a moral sense), by virtue of being so, deserve greater consideration. In essence, I’m arguing that the moral status of individuals is graded, starting at suffering and reaching the pinnacle at a moral sense.

    I’d also argue that at the top — beings with a moral sense — it is impossible to make fine distinctions between greater and lesser moral senses, short of, say, sociopathy on one end or higher brain death on the other. In other words, I think having a moral sense is, itself, not a graded distinction, but a categorical one — you either do or you don’t.

    Chris C: I haven’t seen any empirical evidence to indicate that dogs have a moral sense, at least of the sort that we would recognize, but I’m certainly open to the possibility that they do.

    Also, on vegetarianism. You’re right, there are good environmental reasons for being one, though I’m not convinced either that one can be a vegetarian and be less conscientious about one’s eating habits, for environmental reasons, or that being a conscientious meat eater is any more harmful to the environment than being a conscientious vegetarian. But again, I’m open to evidence to the contrary.

  12. #12 Joe
    November 7, 2007

    “it even cites me twice”

    Here’s a fun game: How many authors in the refs, appearing exactly twice, have a “C.” as a first initial?

  13. #13 Alberto
    November 7, 2007

    two thoughts:

    1. From a consequentialist point of view, animal research can be easily justified if we take into account the possibility of animal enhancement, usually referred to as “uplifting”. It’s a famous sci-fi theme, and I know it could sound just crazy, but starting from a welfarist position (taking account suffering, well-being and interests of animals)one ends up with the idea that it is the interested of the animal to be enhanced. The idea that animals like their natural condition does not stand scrutiny, sure, animals like conditions of life their physiology and psychology make them enjoy and some aspects of wild life fulfil this conditions. But animals certainly do not like being sick, injured, eaten and slaughtered. An enhanced animal would enjoy a long and healthy life, while retaining species-typical wildlife-like “hobbies” and preferences. So the rationale of animal research could be that it is in the interest of both man and animal to be enhanced with the results of the research.
    If I was ninety and well I would try some new and risky life-extension therapy, but what gives us the right to experiment with young and healthy animal? I think the answer is they have far less to lose: a natural life of a rat is short and terrible.

    2.I think that the null hypothesis method where you need super arguments to attack common sense positions (the null hypothesis) has stymied philosophical progress for decades. If a relativist moral anti-realism had not been artificially held to such difficult dialectical standards it would have been commonly accepted decades ago. I think that the only moral-reason-giving property for a subject is the mere fact that he finds that property moral-reason-giving at the right and deep psychological level. So you should care about animal well-being because…we actually care about animal well-being (if it is the case). The interesting question is just the evolution of our moral values. I think there are strong trends toward caring more and more about every being capable of suffering. Still, animal research is necessary for animal and human well-being on consequentialist grounds, but we should get rid of it as soon as cost-benefit analysis let us do.

  14. #14 GNZ
    November 10, 2007

    I am inclined to think that dogs have moral concepts and that it’s a very big call to say that they don’t -unless some has a pretty gerrymandered definition of a moral concept. I think people are generally very eager to say “humans can do X I havenít seen absolute proof that animals can’t do x therefore they obviously can’t.” As such there are constant papers being written proving little things much to the amazement of the public.

    It would seem to me morals, despite how they might be treasured, are one of the most simple structures – although others might have a more complex view of them.

    also of interest is the psychopath point Richard made where one can say there is a subset of humans that lack almost any given trait – a test of your intuitions (if that matters) would of course be to take that set and decide if you really think they lack moral significance.

    I think it is easy to say “animals have some rights it is just less than humans.” it is generally a pretty safe call to say things like it also positions you in a way that will be very difficult to attack because it includes 0.00001 and 99.99999%, one of which either side will probably be ambivalent towards and will result in the same moral actions as their current position. The valuable question is then – WHERE in that range should they be placed?

  15. #15 Dan
    November 15, 2007

    Here is my take. Causing suffering on other living things is surely something most people do not like to do. If as a species we are to ascend to something more than what we are, why do we not simply stop making this a choice? Are we humans ever going to move along while we continue to act in ways that we find morally questionable?

  16. #16 Shelley
    November 18, 2007

    The moral claims of all beings with the capacity for suffering should be heard, but the claims of beings with a moral sense should be privileged. That is not to say that they should win out all of the time, just that they have more weight. The basic reason for this, as I see it, is that by honoring the claims of beings with a moral sense over those that do not have one, we increase the capacity to act morally.

    Suffering is not mitigated by a creature’s ability or inability to engage in discussions on topics like morality (which, in the modern ex-deist era loses all meaning to me). Why should people have privledge over a mouse? My brain and the brain of the mouse I experiment on shares the same neurotransmitters, the same pain receptors and ligands, the same general physical reactions to pain. The reason that our gut feeling is disgust in the face of suffering is not, in my opinion, some cognitive leap that we have made that the ‘lesser beasts’ have not. It is because continually participating in violence desensitizes us to it, which in turn is bad for altruism and a negative selector for reproduction. The closer an animal looks to human, the most disturbing the display of pain. I haven’t heard a lot of uproar about C. elegans, but they have nerves too. Its not just humans either; other primates will go to great lengths to avoid causing harm to a compatriot, even denying themselves food. Is that because they are moral?

    There are good reasons to do animal testing, as Chris and others on SB have pointed out. There are also good reasons to do this testing in a humane way, such as the possible repercussions on the experimenter and the general public. We have an innate need to assure ourselves that suffering is not occuring, if we can help it. I don’t think it has anything to do with morality, I think it has to do with innate preferences which, at one time, positively impacted our survival.

    Consider it this way: if a mouse was stuck in a trap that was laid out and suffered a while before it died, but no one ever knew about it, would that suffering be inherantly “bad”? If that mouse found a nice piece of cheese instead of dying, and no one knew, would that be inherantly “good”? I don’t think so–I think it is merely the presence or absence of people, who ascribe contentless qualities like “morality,” that incidences like these take on any pallor at all. By humanely treating animals during testing, we are actually catering to the need of the human psyche—the painfree experience for the mouse is just a side effect.