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Animal Experimentation: Suffering on the Name of Science

InfoInfo TalkTalk

Part I: history and background

Animal Experimentation: Suffering on the Name of Science


The practice of vivisection and the use of animals in experimentation dates back to the second century B.C. Ancient Greek writings and Egyptian tomb paintings described how animals were dissected - particularly for the sake of understanding human physiology, anatomy, and diseases. Records of the first vivid use of vivisection can be traced to Galen of Pergamon who used animals as a way to investigate anatomical questions in humans. Another early vivisector is Alcmaeon of Croton who discovered the role of the optic nerve in vision after dissecting the nerve in various animals. He also corrected a misconception that it is the human heart, rather than the brain, whichis the 'organ of sense perception'; a view which Plato and Hippocrates adopted from him.

Galen is credited in the history of medicine with having made some important first steps by explaining many anatomical and physiological phenomenon of human bodies such as brain functions and the presence of blood in the arteries. On the other hand, it is also recognised that he introduced many false explanations that hindered medical progress for generations afterwards. Amongst many false assumptions he left to confuse others were ones concerning the place of the kidneys (his view was based on his experiments on pigs) and the assumption that humans had a network of blood vessels called rete mirabile similar to those that he had found in several species of animals with hoofs. Another significant error was his failure to identify the role of the heart in the blood circulation.

False assumptions and misconceptions such as these are now attributed to over-reliance on animal models.

Since the era of Galen, no major progress was remarked in medical knowledge and Galen’s writings and teachings remained dominant till the Middle Ages.

After the era of Galen, real progress and substantial discoveries using these techniques of not just animal experimentation but also human dissection only really started with the works of Andreas Vesalius in the sixteenth century. Vesalius challenged many of Galen’s discoveries and was able to falsify many of them. He was the first to uncover the true role of blood circulation, discoveries aided by vivisecting human corpses. Vesalius was succeeded by the British anatomist William Harvey who identified the true role of the heart in the blood circulation as a pumping machine to the blood throughout the body; this he demonstrated by using vivisection.

The seventeenth century was marked by a boom in animal experimentation for the purpose of explaining physiological and anatomical facts of human bodies. Other 'remarkable' work at that time started by the French physiologist Francois Magendie and the Scottish anatomist Charles Bell used animal vivisection to explain the different functions of the dorsal and ventral spinal nerve roots. It is worth noting though that Magendie’s work in this regard was considered to be more descriptive and accurate than Bell’s work. The reason for this is that Magendie was able to repeat experiments on animals multiple times while Bell did not due to his distaste to animal dissection. He stated later “I was deterred from repeating the experiment by the protracted cruelty of the dissection…I cannot perfectly convince myself that I am authorized in nature, or religion, to do these cruelties for anything else than a little egotism.” Though Bell’s statement shows a contradiction to his very act of using vivisection sometime during his work, it shows that significant medical knowledge does not necessarily follow the over reliance on animal experimentation.

Moral and Philosophical Accounts:

There are many philosophical accounts debating the ability of animals to suffer and our duties towards them. However there was no dedicated philosophical treatise that dealt specifically with animal experimentation until tthe 17th century.

One of the earliest and most influential assessments of our duties towards aimals is Aristotle’s natur Aristotle categorises the levels of beings based on capabilities. For example, plants, animals, and humans are all common in taking nutrition; however, only animals and humans are capable of conscious experience. Therefore, animals and humans are placed at a higher level than plants; in doing this, plants are considered inferior to both animals and humans and thus entailed to serve their interests. On the other hand,only humans are capable of reasoning so this places humans at a higher level. Thus, Aristotle argues, animals should serve the interests of humans.

Such classifications skew the interests of species for the sake of ones in the upper level of hierarchy based on capabilities. However, such a hierarchy can prove plausible in some situations. Consider the case of humans incapable of reasoning. Neurology tells us that some humans may have damage in the area of brain responsible for reasoning; some such people may be incapable of reasoning about their behaviors or actions. This could include children at early age in which the human brain still did not fully develop the capability of reasoning. Following Aristotle's methodology classification, it would seem that we can say that adults and brain healthy humans are of higher level than infants and people with brain damage. This same vivisectionists’ argument towards animals as inferior to humans allows us the right to neglect the interest of humans incapable of reasoning.

Following the same line of thought to Aristotle’s hierarchy, Aquinas argues that only rational being are capable of directing their actions and thus are the ones to whom we should give concern. To Aquinas, if a being is unable to direct its own actions based on rationality, this being becomes a mere instrument. It follows that an instrument is neglected any moral status but is merely a tool in the hand of those rational enough to act according to their interests.

Aquinas uses the same line of argument to exclude human infants and mad humans with brain or mental deficiency from certain rights. Vivisectionists adopting Aristotle’s or Aquinas’ view that animals are inferior or are mere instruments thus have to offer an additional argument to explain the protected status of humans. In this sense, we can argue that building a classification of interests on supposed moral status cannot rely on the faculty of reasoning only.

An extension to the same line of thought that seems to work around the rationality or reasoning requisite is classifying based on the food chain. If one being eats another; then, the eater is placed at a higher level. Since humans eat animals; then, humans are at a higher level and accordingly their interests shall be served on the account of animals. Another possible fix to the plausibility of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ theories when applied to vivisection is to claim the 'potentiality' factor to include those initially excluded.

This explains the moral status allowed to infants who are still not yet developed enough to reason in the full philosophical sense, as long as they still have the capability within themselves. Equally, humans with brain damage that prohibits them from reasoning could be said to have 'retained' the moral status of originally rational beings, disregarding the intervening condition. Such steps perhaps allow us to say, all humans are intrinsically rational beings. This could lead vivisectioniststo suppose a moral justifificaiton for the neglecting of animal interests in favour of those higher in 'moral' hierarchy - moral beings distinguished by their intrinsic rationality.

Other theories that add to the denial of moral status to animals, usually traced back to the 17th century, are built on the consciousness factor. Unlike Aristotle’s reasoning or Aquinas’ rationality, Cartesian theories maintain that animals are fundamentally not conscious and therefore can be denied any moral rights of their own and that humans need not, indeed should not consider animals’ interests in their actions. The most telling argument has been that of Rene Descartes who, reflecting the interests of the time, maintained that animals are literally automata. Accordingly, their acts are not based on consciousness but must be explained mechanistically.

For Descartes too, the brain and the mind are 'ontologically separate', that is to say, humans belong in the conceptual category of beings linked to the mind of God while animals belong in the category of complex automata incapable of conscious experience, without minds, reasoning, or the capacity to use language. Descartes even went further than this, of course, claiming that animals are not capable of feeling pain or witness suffering. This conception of animals was philosophically dominant well into the 20th century, leading inexorably to the conclusion that the use of animals in experimentation is morally unproblematic.

In the centuries following Descartes’ account on the moral standing of animals and the linked claim that animals are incapable of suffering either pain or pleasure, there was a remarkable series of accounts dealing with these issues. Though many still denied animals any moral standing; however, they advanced a bit further by prohibiting the deliberate harming of animals. This was argued on the grounds that such cruelties would affect the morals of humans.

An early argument challenging Descartes’ view of the non-sentience of animals is posed by John Locke in his book “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”. Here Locke says that animals are capable of feeling pain and pleasure as well as arguing, from an educational perspective, that humans should not act cruelly to animals, again not because animals have moral rights, but because being cruel to animals would harm the souls of humans. Specifically, he argued that letting children harming animals would produce them as tough and hard hearted humans which would grant them the possibility of being cruel to other humans.

Locke’s argument can be linked along the line to Kant’s argument that harming animals is only bad for its negative impact on humans and he confirms his denial to animals of any moral rights.

In an utilitarian argument often put by vivisectionists, Locke allows pain to be caused to animals as long as it is not performed haphazardly or 'for-fun', for example, similar to the pain caused to an animal by a child kicking a dog in the street, but it is objectively performed with the end of exploring cures to human illnesses and adding more medical discoveries necessary for enhancing humans’ health. In this sense, the argument adheres to the principle that animals are means to an end, that that end is the humans’ interest, and that humans practicing vivisection moral shall not be negatively impacted since the end is noble.

It was in contrast to these views as well as being a late response to Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ requisites of rationality and reasoning, that another English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, argued that judgements about the treatment of animals should not be based on rationality or reasoning. Opposing Descartes notion on animals’ non-sentience and unlike Locke’s and Kant’s indirect impact to humans, Bentham wrote that animals should not be put into pain and suffering simply because they are sentient and so are capable of suffering.

“The question is not: Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

Bentham’s position though did not resolve the moral dilemma of animals’ use for vivisection, however it did create a new basis for regarding animals; typically, by shifting the focus from distinctions between humans and non-humans based on notions such as rationality, reasoning, and autonomy, towards debates starting from recognition of the commonality between humans and non-humans, and the central fact that they are both capable of suffering and feeling pain.

Here comes the necessity of shedding light on the relationship of Rights versus Duties. While Rights do entail duties toward the being accorded those rights (which is why rights theories refrained from including animals in their scope), duties do not necessitate the attribution of rights. Animals do not have to be accorded equal moral status for humans to consider their interests when weighing up actions and humans may still feel that they have duties towards animals. A pet owner will certainly feel that! In Bentham’s approach, we can claim that these duties may be summarised as seeking to avoid causing sentient beings unnecessary pain or suffering.

The conventional claim of vivisectionists is that the suffering of animals is morally justifiable in favor of reducing human suffering. This is quintessentially the Vivisectionists’ Moral Justification. However, even animal rights advocates like Peter Singer allow that:

"If an experiment on a small number of animals can cure disease that affects tens of thousands, it could be justifiable."1


Part II: Singer and the Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests
Part III: Recent Medical and Scientific Accounts of Vivisection
Part IV: Are there Modern Alternatives to Animal Experimentation?

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