On the ethics of animal research

The second block of vet school is over, and another exam is finished. During this week’s intensive course on animal testing, we learned about why we use animals in research, and the work being done to preserve animal welfare while conducting experiments. We also learned a lot about Norwegian and European legislation, such as the use of research animals in cosmetics being outlawed in Europe, and what legal requirements the government had for the research facilities and breeders. Other than that, the curriculum spanned everything from euthanasia for rodents and rabbits, to using zebrafish as models in fish research. What I found most interesting though was the ethics of it all, and the distinction between inherent and intrinsic value in humans and in animals.

Photo by lculig/iStock / Getty Images

Because what gives an individual intrinsic value? If we look to philosophy, we see many perspectives, such as the deontological definition of being able to make your own intentional decisions. The famous utilitarian and animals rights proponent Peter Singer went as far as proclaiming that if consciousness and intentionality was the basis of intrinsic value, then many human beings wouldn’t be included in that category, while several non-human animals would. He even uses the term “speciesism” to describe the way we justify putting our own species pain and suffering over the pain and suffering we inflict onto research animals. A quote that I find particularly insightful is from philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which he states;

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

In the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” from 2012, several OxBridge researchers stated unequivocally that

“…Evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”

If we disregard the consciousness and pain aspects of the animal rights question, in the thesis I wrote for my university philosophy course last year, I argued that by merely being alive you already possessed an intrinsic value, which is similar to what scientist and humanist Albert Schweitzer wrote about in his “Reverence for Life”:

“Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”

A perfect example of a cute and fluffy animal.

A perfect example of a cute and fluffy animal.

In class, our lecturer mentioned what she had dubbed the “Bambi-factor”, where we humans are more likely to speak up about cases where “cute” and “fluffy” animals are being mistreated, such “Cecil the Lion”, or the more recent case with Harambe, the gorilla that was shot in the Cincinnati Zoo. While most animals used for research in Norway are fish (as much as 4,3 million to be exact), I believe that by having some animal rights cases blowing up in the media, that the ripple effect will be that more people educate themselves on animal rights and welfare. Even though I’m ashamed to admit how little I knew about the European research animal industry before this exam, it is never too late to make a difference. Therefore I’ve included some links below if you’re interested in reading more about this on your own:

http://www.worldwildlife.org/ - World Wildlife Fund

http://oie.int/ - Word Organisation for Animal Health

http://www.ifaw.org/ - International Fund for Animal Welfare

http://www.interniche.org/ - for vet students and med students. From their website: «We aim for high quality, fully humane education and training in medicine, veterinary medicine and biological science. We support progressive science teaching and the replacement of animal experiments by working with teachers to introduce alternatives and with students to support freedom of conscience.»

http://www.frame.org.uk/ - fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments

http://caat.jhsph.edu/ - Johns Hopkins center for alternatives to animal testing