Strong animal rights theories are intended to protect animals, at least in theory, against vivisection. This is a goal that I support. I have already commented (see entry for Jan. 27/09) on how the various rights theories contain frameworks that do not logically entail strong rights. The logic of these views could also, honestly speaking, lead to utilitarianism. That alone makes past rights frameworks unprotective of animals, since utilitarian logic is the #1 way of rationalizing vivisection. The utilitarians admit that animals are harmed in, say, medical vivisection, but assert that this harm is outweighed by the harm that is eliminated by developing cures for humans (and perhaps other animals, but we know what the usual priorities are) using medical vivisection research results, and therapies and treatments that are allegedly based on such practices. This is trying to help patients using “models” that are harmful for the nonhuman victims.
Another point already made, another crisis if you will, is the intuitionist crisis in animal ethics (see entry for January 26/09). Since ALL of the main rights theories thus far are based on “intuitions,” as I have shown, this also creates problems for being firm about anti-vivisection. For the moment you admit intuitions, you must admit the possibility of utilitarian intuitions too, for example. This criticism is related to but different from the previous one, and it applies to all of the rights theories, only some of which are openly intuitionist. Most of them are crypto-intuitionist, or rely on rock-bottom opinions or assumptions that are not rationally justified—although not openly realizing or confessing this fact.
However, the failure to rule out vivisection becomes even deeper when we look at rather logically embarrassing individual efforts of theorists to address the vivisection issue in particular. I will focus on medical vivisection since, although I utterly oppose the practice, it stands the best chance of being justifiable, because it addresses a human need (albeit other animals’ needs are at stake too), unlike vivisection for curiosity or to test new lines of makeup. We can get rid of meat-eating without much sacrifice, it seems to me, and eliminating that harm to animals does not lead to any other harms that cannot be compensated (animal agriculture jobs can be replaced with plant agriculture or other jobs; people can find nutritious and tasty meals from within the plant kingdom). Medical vivisection, unlike meat-eating, is often interpreted to pose a dilemma between either harm to animals if vivisection is done or harm to humans if the research is not done. It is purportedly a conflict between life and health needs and/or vital interests of humans and other animals.
Tom Regan is often called the intellectual leader of the animal rights movement. He favors a ban on all vivisection. (Regan 1983, 393) This conclusion is based on Regan’s argument that animals, alongside humans, have equal inherent value. From the fact that we have equal inherent value, Regan derives “the respect principle.” And from the respect principle, in turn, he derives “the harm principle.” The latter would less confusingly be labeled “the nonharming principle” since that is Regan’s intent. In any cases, these intuitively based principles are taken to rule out the harm of vivisection.
One problem with Regan’s claiming he has formulated a case against medical vivisection though is that in The Case for Animal Rights, he presents various principles for overriding rights. First, he favors overriding the minimum number of rights of the innocent when other innocents will be harmed in a comparable way if one does not override the rights. (Ibid., 305) Stated more simply, the foregoing means: I can sacrifice some innocents to save others if comparable harms are at stake in making the sacrifice, so long as the minimum number of rights are overridden. Furthermore, he tells us that in prevention of harm cases, Martha’s right can override Nora’s right if Martha faces greater harm. (Ibid., 309)
What implications do Regan’s principles for overriding of rights have for medical vivisection? Animal experimenters will claim that sick humans are innocent and have a right to life. Sacrificing a finite number of animals can allegedly result in cures for endless humans. This means a greater number of rights of humans will supposedly be respected than there will be animals’ rights that are violated. Since Regan favors overriding the lesser number of rights, this may imply advocacy of vivisection.
Also, the extent of harm done to animals in experiments is generally comparable to the egregious human disease effects that the experiments are meant to replicate. However, it can be additionally argued that greater harm is done to the human if the experiments are not done, using the criteria that Regan himself invokes to resolve lifeboat cases. If a lifeboat is sinking that contains four humans and a dog, and only four of the creatures can be successfully floated, then Regan says we should toss the dog overboard. That is because, Regan assures us, killing each individual (normal) human in the boat would foreclose more “opportunities for satisfaction” than killing the dog. (Ibid., 324)
So one can argue that there is a lesser harm in experimenting on animals both quantitatively, because of the number of lives saved (using an optimistic picture of medical vivisection, recited above, that I do not myself subscribe to), and also because the amount of harm suffered by humans is supposedly qualitatively greater than harm suffered by animals who are subjected to similar physical or psychological conditions. Unfortunately, the lesser harm figures into Regan’s principles for overriding rights in a way that might make medical vivisection “necessary” to defend using his principles.
Regan claims that such rights-overriding reasoning is exceptional, not routine like animal experiments. (Ibid., 325) However, the most logical and straightforward way to deploy principles is simply to apply them in all cases in which they are applicable. The last statement must also be true of principles for overriding rights. Regan cannot arbitrarily pick and choose how to apply his principles depending on his favorite conclusions that he wishes to reach. Moreover, medical vivisection can indeed be argued to be “exceptional” among animal usages because it supposedly confers benefits that are allegedly difficult to replace unlike meat-eating, fur-wearing, using animal ingredients, animals being enslaved for entertainment, and any number of other uses.
Regan claims that experimenting on animals reduces animals’ value to their utility to others and thus treats them as renewable resources. (Ibid., 397) However, it could be argued that animals are not used as a “mere” means (to adapt Kant’s phrasing here) if the animals are deemed to have inherent value, only their right to life is overridden in favor of others’ rights to life using Regan’s own principles. Such a view grants animals strong rights, in most cases, and does not treat them as mere resources. Certainly we cannot merely stipulate that animal rights means abolishing vivisection. This needs to follow if at all, as a logical implication of a well-reasoned ethical theory, presumably some form of animal rights view.
Regan offers other unconvincing anti-vivisection ideas. He writes, in the Preface of the 2004 second edition of The Case for Animal Rights, p. xxx-xxxi, that it violates animals’ rights to be in the laboratory in the first place. However, vivisectors might not wrongly override animals’ rights if they accord with Regan’s own principles for overriding rights. In general, it is perilous to pit rights against principles for overriding rights, since the latter will tend to trump.
Regan also rejects utilitarian-style aggregation and its minimizing of overall harm, but we can treat medical vivisection as a conflict of rights to life without relying at all on utilitarianism. Also, even Regan uses aggregation (though not admittedly) in saving fifty miners instead of one. (Regan 1983, 301) You see, all that aggregation means is “adding together,” and overriding the minimum number of rights adds potential rights violations together and is therefore a form of aggregation. He claims that aggregate consequences do not matter but respect for the equality of individuals does. (Ibid., 307) However, “equality” in this context partly amounts to counting each individual once, not more or less, when seeking to preserve the most number of rights. He still aggregates consequences in terms of rights-violations/fulfillments in saving the fifty miners instead of the one.
In another book, Empty Cages, Regan claims that medical researchers appeal to benefits from medical vivisection is question-begging because such arguments assume those benefits are morally legitimate. (Regan 2004, 174) However, Regan also begs the question by merely assuming that these benefits are morally illegitimate (especially given his intuitionist assumptions on which his theory rests, and the way his own principles justify harming someone to secure the benefit of a lesser harm for someone else).
Regan also points out (Ibid., 174-176) that animal researchers (1) do not take steps to minimize harm to animals; (2) overestimate benefits of such research; and (3) underestimate harm to humans (because drugs tested safe and effective on animals can harm humans, or those substances tested unsafe or ineffective on animals may help humans). Fair enough. Yet these last three points, however true they may be, do not require abolishing medical vivisection, some of which may both minimize harm to animals and promise benefits but not harms for humans.
So Regan expends much intellectual vigor opposing medical vivisection, but he is even more energetically rebuffed by the logical implications of his own reasoning which seem to favour the practice.
Does Gary Francione do any better in protecting animals from vivisection, as he claims his theory does? He challenges audiences around the world during his talks: Would you use a severely retarded human for cancer research if it was thought to yield valuable data? He reports that no one has ever raised a hand in favor. (Francione 2000, 91) Not surprisingly for a lawyer, Francione notes that the 1947 Nuremberg Code, drafted after the horrors of the Nazi doctors who vivisected Jews and others, forbids research on unconsenting research subjects, and also, the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki by the World Medical Association prohibits using humans without full information and consent. (Ibid., 92) However, Francione is here committing the fallacy of appeal to popular opinion. I say this because some thinkers do openly advocate using mentally disabled humans as well as animals for medical vivisection, such as utilitarian R. G. Frey. (Frey 1987, 89) Francione’s reasoning has no bearing on Frey, although that is precisely the position that needs to be refuted.
We have already seen how Francione’s principle of equal consideration does not rule out utilitarianism, and so begs the question against that theory when he insists on a neo-Kantian framework that no one should be treated as property. David Langlois has clarified to me that not being considered property means more than the idea that no one should be treated as owned. Francione thinks that not being property also means not being treated as a resource, slave, etc. although this idea, very similar to Regan’s notion of inherent value, again is merely intuitive and thoroughly begs the question against alternative philosophies such as utilitarianism or ethical egoism (a view I will not elaborate here), for example. By Francione’s own admission, the principle of equal consideration just means treating like cases alike unless there is a “good reason” not to. (Francione 2000, 82) However, both of the just-mentioned moral philosophies treat like cases alike, unless there is a “good reason” not to according to each theorist’s analysis of “good reasons.” In turn, each philosophy claims to have a “good reason” to treat animals differently from normal humans in the case of medical vivisection. Francione simply begs the question against such theories’ versions of “good reasons” at his own logical peril.
Also, Francione admits that we can prefer to rescue humans over other animals in cases of emergency. (Ibid., xxxvi) If this is allowed in dilemmas, why not also more generally, thus pushing animals into the vivisection lab? Why should not animals be treated as property, suffering forcible harm, rather than humans suffering involuntarily and helplessly from diseases? After all, emergencies can result in rights not being respected, as in the old school case Francione often gives of only being able to pull one being from a burning building. Why not disregard the rights of animals while instead affirming the rights of humans? He does not refute the idea that medical vivisection itself constitutes a moral dilemma.
He further asserts that his view rests “comfortably” on two assertions: (1) that we can prefer humans in cases of necessity; and (2) it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. (Ibid., xxxvi) However, vivisectionists will say that life or death matters are indeed cases of necessity, and so vivisection does not involve inflicting any “unnecessary suffering” on animals, since they favor humans in a contest between human needs and animal needs. Francione has nothing to say in response to this criticism, only his earlier impotent reliance on the fallacy of popular opinion.
Evelyn Pluhar, like Regan or Francione, does not present a convincing refutation of utilitarian defences of animal experimentation; her attempts to refute utilitarianism try to point out how it leads to the killing of innocents, although this strategy rather begs the question, (Pluhar 1995, ch. 4) simply assuming (however plausibly to rights advocates) that we should not tolerate such outcomes.
Steve Sapontzis seeks to integrate animal rights and utilitarianism, (Sapontzis 1987, xii) and so he does not object to utilitarianism per se, although he opposes animal experiments because he holds that animals can never be consenting. (Ibid., 209-216) However, consider (in the way a utilitarian might) the comforts of having one’s consent respected and also the suffering of being forced. Can the values of these utilities be outweighed by the supposedly huge and perpetual benefits of medical vivisection? A lot of vivisectionists would say “yes.” Sapontzis then does not provide secure grounds against vivisection either.
Mark Rowlands tries to refute medical vivisection’s supposed acceptability by his adaptation of John Rawls’ theory of justice. I’ve described this theory earlier in my blog, but it entails that people who negotiate principles of justice in the original or impartial position would not vote in favor of social rules that would permit themselves to be vivisected. That would go against their self-interest. (Rowlands 2002, 151) After all, who, in an impartial position, would vote in favor of a principle where they end up being vivisected—given that they do not know what life circumstances they will end up in behind the so-called “veil of ignorance” (a condition attached to the impartial position). This is actually one of the more plausible ways of criticizing medical vivisection among the various animal rights theories.
However, Rawls’ view is too full of holes. Rawls’ “original position” takes it for granted that one must never (or hardly ever) act contrary to one’s own self-interest. However, Peter Singer and other utilitarians take it for granted that their own very different “original position” equally considers all equivalent interests, and is open to others’ interests overriding one’s own self-interest. Which one is right? Merely taking any one theory for granted does not answer this question. In other words, Rawls and Rowlands profoundly beg the question against utilitarian arguments for vivisection. Rowlands, in his animal rights version, in effect merely stipulates that we should not vivisect in that he contrives an original position that happens to carry his sought-after implication.
Julian Franklin (2005) purely takes it for granted that his framework is anti-vivisectionist, but he does not offer a way to refute the contention that vivisection resolves a dilemma between animal rights and human rights. Joan Dunayer (2004) and Bernard Rollin (1992) also do not offer such a much-needed way out. Even if we agree with their rejection of utilitarianism, they (like Regan and others) do not show how vivisection is to be ruled out in terms of their favored approach of rights.
What about Peter Singer? A lot of people mistakenly think that he totally opposes vivisection. Others say he advocates the practice. The truth is unclear, because he declares things consistent with both positions and is actually badly inconsistent overall, as I will now demonstrate. In his essay, “The Value of Animal Life,” Singer states that we can defend medical vivisection:
The knowledge gained from some experiments on animals does save lives and reduce suffering. Hence, the benefits of animal experimentation exceed the benefits of eating animals and the former stands a better chance of being justifiable than the latter; but this applies only when an experiment on an animal fulfils strict conditions relating to the significance of the knowledge to be gained, the unavailability of alternative techniques not involving animals, and the care taken to avoid pain. Under these conditions the death of an animal in an experiment can be defended. (Singer 1980, 254)
He adds that we can defend such research also on humans who have lesser mental capacities, like animals. (Ibid.)
In Animal Liberation, Singer’s signal contribution to animal ethics, he clearly implies that we do not need to advocate a wholesale abolition of animal experimentation:
All we need to say is that experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, whenever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods that do not. (Singer 1990, 40)
This last statement says we need only call for reducing, not eliminating animal research, and that it may not even be “possible” to replace some experiments. Similarly, Singer was once challenged as to whether a particular animal experiment conducted by a Professor Azzis may be justified. (Singer 2006) Singer said he needed to evaluate the particulars of the experiment, with which he was unfamiliar. Finally, in another important Singer book, Practical Ethics, he makes his utilitarian pro-vivisection logic finally clear for all to see:
In the past, argument about animal experimentation has often…been put in absolutist terms: would the opponent of experimentation be prepared to let thousands die from a terrible disease that could be cured by experimenting on one animal?...I think the question should be answered affirmatively—in other words, if one, or even a dozen animals had to suffer experiments in order to save thousands, I would think it right and in accordance with equal consideration of interests that they should do so. This, at any rate, is the answer a utilitarian must give. Those who believe in absolute rights might hold that it is always wrong to sacrifice one being, whether human or animal, for the benefit of another. (Singer 1993, 67)
In the above quotation Singer shows his sympathy for utilitarian logic. He adds (p. 68) that if we eliminate speciesist bias and also use humans who are mentally equivalent to animals, then “…the number of experiments performed on animals would be greatly reduced.” Again, we see the theme of reducing rather than eliminating animal (and, it is implied, human) experiments which is also documented from Animal Liberation above.
Thus Singer talks out of one side of his mouth like a supporter of some few animal experiments in which the costs are supposedly outweighed by the benefits.
At other times, Singer talks the opposite. In another part of Animal Liberation, Singer writes:
…the ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge. We always accept many restrictions on scientific enterprise. We do not believe that scientists have a general right to perform painful or lethal experiments on human beings without their consent, although there are many cases in which such experiments would advance knowledge far more rapidly than any other method. Now, we need to broaden the scope of this existing restriction on scientific research. (Singer 1990, 92)
This sounds like an abolitionist argument against animal experiments. However, perhaps we need to think like a lawyer here, looking for “escape clauses,” given Singer’s advocacy of vivisection elsewhere. Sure enough. He states in the quote that “some means” of obtaining knowledge are to be ruled out (not necessarily all means). Scientists lack a “general right” (although that leaves rooms for exceptional rights). Also, he advocated that society “broaden the scope” of a restriction, but this does not require that we do so to the degree of 100%. In any event, Singer’s consent argument is highly similar to Sapontzis’ argument, noted above (which was actually expressed long after Singer’s version), which also invokes animals’ systematic lack of consent. Like Sapontzis’ view, Singer’s is quite vulnerable to the utilities associated with consent being outweighed by the benefits of vivisection, a view that we have seen Singer elsewhere seems to hold such as in passages quoted above.
We need to appreciate just how contradictory this is. In the last quote reprinted, Singer is saying that the benefits to humans do not vindicate animal research because it violates the need for consent, a principle which we need to extend to animals. However, in the pro-vivisection passages, he does not even consider consent, and instead cites the benefits of the research as justifying the practice. These are totally incompatible claims. On Singer’s Frequently Asked Questions section of his website, he suggests that although individual animal experiments might be justified, he does not favor the institutional practice of vivisection since few experiments would be of benefit, and resources would be better spent otherwise. (Singer 2009) However, Azzis’ experiment which he hesitates over in the above citation (and which Singer also mentions in that very same FAQ passage, warning that people surprised by this reaction have not read him carefully in the past as not ruling out all vivisection), IS an instance of institutionalized animal experimentation. So once again we have a contradiction. Are institutional animal experiments unjustified like Singer says? If they are not justified, as he plainly states, then why hesitate over Dr. Azzis’ institutional vivisection practices?
So what to believe about Singer? His plea for abolishing (or somewhat restricting?) vivisection on the basis of animals not consenting is an isolated although important statement. He does not raise the issue of consent elsewhere regarding animal experiments. In any event his consent-based "anti-vivisection" statement is not absolute, as I have analyzed, and his FAQ's condemnation of institutional vivisection is tarnished with hesitations over Azzis' experiments conducted in his particular institution. Whatever Singer’s opinion may happen to be, the fact is that his framework, utilitarianism, cannot rule out vivisection and is the #1 framework used to defend the practice in the way he himself usually does (judging by the number of relevant passages that I can find, at any rate).
That said, animal rights theories are the #1 means used to rule out vivisection ethically, although the ethics of care theory also sometimes carries that anti-vivisectionist conclusion (they also face this dilemma: is it more “caring” to offset harm to humans or to animals? No ethics of care theorist such as Carol Adams or Josephine Donovan—see Donovan and Adams 1996—has adequately, if at all, addressed this problem). But we have seen that animal rights views such as Regan’s either unwittingly conduce towards justifying medical vivisection, or else fail to stave off a seeming “animal rights” justification of vivisection: judging between a supposed dilemma between animal rights and human rights.
Anyone who cares about vivisection—or even just logic—should be quite concerned by these findings from our brief survey of anti-vivisection ethics. Is there a way out of this theoretical miasma, that left by itself, altogether fails the poor animals targeted for this hideously hellish practice? I say: yes. I have already published on these issues to some extent (Sztybel 2006a, 2006b) and will address this crisis of anti-vivisection theory much more thoroughly in my forthcoming book on animal rights ethics.
Donovan, Josephine, and Carol J. Adams (eds.). 1996. Beyond Animal Rights: a Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals. New York: Continuum. [See also Adams’ essay on vivisection featured in her anthology of her own essays entitled Neither Man Nor Beast.]
Dunayer, Joan. Speciesism. Derwood: Ryce Publishing.
Francione, Gary L. 2000. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Franklin, Julian. Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.
Frey, R. G. 1987. “Animal Parts, Human Wholes.” Biomedical Ethics Reviews—1987, eds. James M. Humber and Robert F. Almeder. Clifton, NJ: Humana Press.
Pluhar, Evelyn B. 1995. Beyond Prejudice: the Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals. Durham: Duke University Press.
Regan, Tom. 2004. Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.
Regan, Tom. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Rollin, Bernard. 1992. Animal Rights and Human Morality: Revised Edition. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. First edition published in 1981.
Rowlands, Mark. 2002. Animals Like Us. London: Verso.
Singer, Peter. 2009. Princeton University website. http://www.princeton.edu/~psinger. Retrieved July 6, 2009.
Singer, Peter. 2006. The Sunday Times, December 3.
Singer, Peter. 1993. Practical Ethics. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Singer, Peter. 1990. Animal Liberation. Second Edition. New York: Avon Books.
Singer, Peter. 1980. “Animals and the Value of Life.” In Matters of Life and Death, ed. Tom Regan. New York: Random House.
Sztybel, David. 2006a. “A Living Will Clause for Supporters of Animal Experimentation.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 23 (May 2006): 173-189.
Sztybel, David. 2006b. “The Rights of Animal Persons.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 4 (1): 1-37.