Animal Experiments: Benefits, Ethics, and Defenders


The use of animals for biological and medical research has advanced knowledge in related subjects, saved human lives, and alleviated suffering. In similar fashion, the use of animals for testing cosmetics and other consumer items has prevented the distribution and use of harmful products. But these benefits have been accompanied by the suffering and death of many of the animals involved. For this basis, animal testing has been an extremely contentious issue.

The use of animals for research has a long history; many scientific discoveries have been based on animal experiments. Aristotle studied the development of chick embryos by opening eggs and examining the embryos at successive stages of development. Experiments with animal nutrition led to the discovery of vitamins. The first artificial kidneys were hooked up to animals, and animals were the recipients of the first organ transplants. Research that led to the first polio vaccine used monkeys that had been infected with the disease. In recent years, research with monkeys led to the isolation of the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. (DeGrazia, 2002: 77).

In recent decades animals also have been widely used for the testing of consumer products. The chemical, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical industries use animal tests to determine if a substance, for example, causes eye or skin irritations, has toxic effects on the neural system, causes cancer, or affects genetic materials.

Opponents of animal research and testing argue that there are alternative means of performing research and conducting tests. The development of computer modeling has allowed some researchers to reduce the need for animals in research or to eliminate animals altogether. In other cases, it may be possible to dispense with animals by doing research with non-mammalian vertebrates, invertebrates, microorganisms, and cell and tissue cultures. In some cases, the need for animal testing has been made unnecessary by techniques that use bacterial cultures, chick embryos, and other animal substitutes. (Karen, 2006: 133) Where animals have to be used, it is sometimes possible to devise tests that use doses of low toxicity to reduce pain and prevent death. Sophisticated mathematical procedures also may be used to reduce the number of animals needed to maintain statistical reliability.

Unfortunately, these procedures have not had a major impact on the number of animals used for research and testing. Most researchers believe that for certain kinds of research, there is no substitute for experimentation with animals. Under these circumstances, the best that can be hoped for is the development of more techniques that allow for the substitution of non-mammalian for mammalian species, a reduction in the number of animals needed, and the development of procedures that reduce the pain experienced by research animals.

Concern over animal research and testing has resulted in the passage of laws and regulations intended to improve treatment of laboratory animals. Governmental involvement in the care of animals is not an altogether new development. The legislation also required the dissemination of information that might prevent the needless duplication of animal experiments. A major provision of the act is a requirement that every research facility establish an animal care committee. These committees, which have to include a veterinarian and someone not affiliated with the research facility, have the task of reviewing the care and treatment of animals in their facility on a biannual basis.

Animals used for testing purposes are not covered by the same laws that apply to research animals. However, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have enacted a code of laboratory practices that requires adequate levels of sanitation and the proper care of test animals. The humane treatment of animals also is addressed by a number of scientific and professional societies, which require that their members be in compliance with existing laws regarding the treatment of laboratory animals. Some journals require adherence to the policies of their sponsoring societies as a prerequisite for the publication of research findings. (Gary, 2007: 124).

A particularly contentious issue in animal research is the use of dogs and cats obtained from animal shelters. These animals are not widely used for research, but some important research has been done using dogs, notably the development of surgical techniques for the treatment of heart and kidney disorders. Some people prefer that specially bred dogs and cats be used for research purposes, but this practice would result in the deaths of even more animals, at a time when 10 million dogs and cats 90 percent of the pound population are destroyed every year in the United States for purposes other than research. (Karen, 2006: 136).

Objections to Current Animal Experimentation

Critics of the current practice of experimenting on animals tend to fall into two groups: abolitionists and reformers. Abolitionists usually rely on the principle that the end does not justify the means. To inflict pain and death on an innocent being is, they maintain, always wrong. They point out that people do not think that the possibility of advancing scientific knowledge justifies taking healthy human beings and inflicting painful deaths on them; similarly, they say, the infliction of suffering on animals cannot be justified by reference to future benefits either for humans or for other animals (Karen, 2006: 138).

A weakness of the abolitionist position is that when the end is sufficiently important, most people think that otherwise unacceptable means are justifiable if there is no other way of achieving the end. People do not approve of telling lies, but most people accept the idea that politicians should tell lies to mislead the enemy when their country is fighting a war that they believe is right. Similarly, if the prospects of finding a cure for cancer depended on a single experiment, most people probably would think that the experiment should be carried out.

In response to objections along these lines, some abolitionists argue that although a single experiment, taken in isolation, may appear justifiable, the benefits of such experiments do not outweigh the suffering inflicted by the institution of animal experimentation as a whole. One also must take into account, these abolitionists would say, two other factors: First, a large (if uncertain) proportion of experiments are worthless; second, even if no pain or distress is caused by the experiments, experimental animals typically have been raised in conditions that constitute severe deprivation for beings of their species. (Gary, 2007: 126) The common laboratory rat, for instance, is a highly intelligent animal with a strong urge to explore new surroundings. Rats also like to get into small, dark spaces, yet in most laboratories they are kept in bare plastic buckets with a bit of sawdust at the bottom. Such treatment indicates the lack of consideration for the interests of animals that prevails in the world of animal experimentation, and abolitionists doubt that this will ever change as long as people continue to regard laboratory animals primarily as tools for research.

Reformers believe that a changed practice of experimenting on animals could be defensible. They demand that any benefits that are believed to be likely to arise from the experimentation should be sufficiently probable and sufficiently great to offset the costs to the animal subjects; they urge that every experiment should come under close and impartial scrutiny to determine whether this is the case.

Reformers point out that although during the 1980s and 1990s several countries (for example, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) developed legally obligatory systems of review based on an institutional ethics committee’s review of proposals to carry out experiments on animals, experimenters usually are well represented on such committees, whereas animal welfare advocates either are not represented or are heavily outnumbered by experimenters. (Karen, 2006: 138) An impartial committee that weighed the cost to the animal in the same way that people would weigh a comparable cost to a human would, the reformers maintain, approve at most a small fraction of the experiments now performed. In other countries, such as the United States, institutional ethics committees exist but are not legally required for corporations or other institutions that do not receive federal funds, and their coverage of animal experimentation is incomplete. Moreover, in the United States these committees do not always have the authority to prevent experimenters from going ahead with painful experiments if the experimenters assert that alleviating the animals’ pain would interfere with the purpose of the experiment. (Gary, 2007: 128).

Among opponents of current practices of animal experimentation the line between reformers and abolitionists is not clear-cut because questions of long-term goals and short-term strategy intervene. A threefold division might be more appropriate: In the first category one could place those whose long-term goals do not extend beyond better regulation and control of animal experiments to eliminate the most painful and trivial experiments. (Paul, 2001: 51) In the next category would be those who have the long-term goal of abolishing all or virtually all animal experiments but who consider this an ideal rather than a realistic objective for the immediate future. This group therefore seeks reforms in the interim period, and its short-term goals do not differ significantly from those of members of the first category. The third category consists of those who aim at abolition and are not interested in advocating anything less.

Although members of these three categories disagree sharply among themselves, they all agree that the current situation is indefensible. They also agree on promoting the use of alternatives to animal experimentation. The use of such alternatives by cosmetic companies to replace the Draize eye test was mentioned above. Opponents of animal experimentation suggest that alternative methods would be developed more rapidly if they received more substantial government support (Regan, 2004: 98).

The ethical stance of those in the first category, who seek only limited reforms, is often of a relatively conventional type: They can be thought of as following an “animal welfare” line rather than accepting an ethic of “animal rights” or “animal liberation.” They accept the idea that animals may be used for human purposes but want safeguards to ensure that the purposes are serious ones and that no more suffering occurs than is necessary for the purpose to be realized. Those who take an animal rights or animal liberation stance want to narrow the ethical gulf that separates humans from other animals in regard to conventional morality. They thus raise a philosophically deep question with implications that go beyond experimentation, extending to the treatment of animals in general.

The Moral Status of Animals

In examining the case for current practices, this entry examined some attempts to justify in ethical terms the sharp distinction that is made currently between the treatment of members of the human species and the treatment of members of other species. The problems noted in this entry bedevil all attempts to make the boundary of the human species coincide with the boundary of human moral obligations. Although it is said frequently that humans are superior to other animals in such respects as rationality, self-awareness, the ability to communicate with others, and a sense of justice, human infants and humans with severe intellectual disabilities fall below many nonhuman animals on any objective test of abilities that could mark humans as superior to other animals. Yet surely these less capable human beings are also “ends in themselves,” and it would not be legitimate to experiment on them in the ways in which people experiment on animals. For a contrary view that accepts the moral possibility of harmful experimentation on both nonhuman animals and humans at a similar mental level see Frey.

Ryder, Singer, Regan, and other critics of current practices claim that respect for the interests of those humans and comparative neglect of the interests of members of other species with equal or superior capacities constitutes speciesism, a prejudice in favor of “our own kind” that is analogous to and no more justifiable than racism. (Singer, 2005: 117; Regan, 2004: 101) This argument has been seen by many people as the most difficult for defenders of animal experimentation to counter, so much so that a leading philosopher has referred to it as a “won argument” (DeGrazia, 2002, 78).

Undoubtedly the view that class is in itself a reason for giving more weight to the welfare of one being than to the benefit of another is more often assumed than clearly defended. Some writers who have claimed to be defending speciesism have in fact been defending a very different position: that the morally relevant differences between species such as differences in mental capacities entitle people to give more weight to the interests of members of the species with the superior mental capacities (Hester, 2006: 62). If this argument were successful, it would not justify speciesism because the claim would not be that species in itself is a reason for giving more weight to the interests of one being than to those of another. The real reason would be the difference in mental capacities, which happens to coincide with the difference in species. However, in view of the overlap in mental capacities between some members of the species Homo sapiens and some members of other species, it is difficult to see how this argument can be used to defend current practices. In other contexts people insist on treating beings as moral individuals rather than lumping them together as members of a group; it is precisely those who practice racism and sexism who treat all members of a group in the same way (for instance, assuming that women cannot perform heavy physical labor as well as men can) without recognizing individual variation.


Defenders of animal experimentation sometimes have portrayed the animal rights position in an extreme form, for example, as implying that it is as wrong to kill a mosquito as it is to kill a normal human adult. This is, however, a caricature. Animal advocates do not claim that all animals have the same interests only that interests are not to be given less consideration solely on the grounds of species. Thus, it is compatible with the animal liberation view to say that the interests of beings with different mental capacities vary and that these variations are morally significant. If people are forced to choose between saving the life of a being who understands the meaning of death and wants to go on living and saving the life of a being who is not capable of having desires for the future because that being’s mental capacities do not enable it to grasp that it is a “self,” a mental entity existing over time, it is entirely justifiable to choose in favor of the being who wants to go on living. This is a choice that is based on mental capacity and not on species membership, as one can see by considering that the former being may be a chimpanzee and the latter being a human with profound brain damage. It may be difficult to compare the suffering of a human and that of, say, a rabbit, but sometimes rough comparisons can be made. It seems undeniable that to put into the eye of a rabbit a chemical that causes the eye to blister or become ulcerated is to do more harm to the rabbit than people would do to any number of human beings by denying them the possibility of using a new type of shampoo that could be marketed only if the chemical was tested in this way. When such uneven comparisons can be made, the simple fact that rabbits are “lower animals” is no cause to give less weight to their pain.

Seen in this light, the argument that restricting experiments on animals interferes with scientific freedom and medical progress appears less conclusive. People do not grant scientists the freedom to experiment at will on humans, although such experiments would do more to advance knowledge of human physiology and be more likely to find cures for diseases such as AIDS than would animal experiments. It would seem, therefore, to be incumbent on the defenders of experiments on animals to show that there is a relevant difference between all humans and other animals that justifies experiments on the latter but not on the former. Success at this task, however, still eludes defenders of animal experimentation.


DeGrazia, David. 2002. Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 77-79.

Gary Kowalski, Tom Regan, John Robbins. (2007) The Souls of Animals. New World Library. p, 124-128.

Hester, R. E. and Harrison, R. M. (2006) Alternatives to Animal Testing (Issues in Environmental Science and Technology) Royal Society of Chemistry. p, 62.

Karen, Judson. (2006) Animal Testing (Open for Debate). Benchmark Books. p, 133-38.

Paul, Ellen Frankel, and Jeffrey Paul. (2001). Why Animal Experimentation Matters: The Use of Animals in Medical Research. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p, 51.

Regan, Tom. (2004). The Case for Animal Rights, 2nd edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 98-103.

Singer, Peter. (2005) In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave. Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell. p, 117.

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