August 07, 2008
The ethics of food-7: Increasing the rights of animals
(For other posts in this series, see here.)
In addition to the morality of treating all animals humanely, the arguments of the animal rights philosophers and activists that animals should have more legal rights are slowly gaining ground. It is clear that over time, humans are slowly expanding our circle of consideration to be more inclusive of other species.
For example, Spain's parliament on June 25, 2008 gave rights to Great Apes, the family of animals that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans.
Spain's parliament voiced its support on Wednesday for the rights of great apes to life and freedom in what will apparently be the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans.
Parliament's environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.
. . .
Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will also be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain's penal code.
Keeping an estimated 315 apes in Spanish zoos will not be illegal, but supporters of the bill say conditions will need to improve drastically in 70 percent of establishments to comply with the new law.
Philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, arguing that "non-human hominids" like chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.
Of course, the idea that we extend our protections to just those that are close to us on the evolutionary tree can still be criticized as just an extended form of speciesism.
Broader protections have been extended to vertebrates in Britain due to legislation passed in 1986.
In Britain, such considerations have already led to legislation that restricts the use of animals in education. Scientific procedures that cause 'adverse effects' such as pain and stress to living vertebrates are regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and are allowed only at undergraduate level and above. The act specifically prohibits such procedures in primary and secondary schools. The restrictions extend to fetuses, including hen's eggs, from halfway through gestation or incubation, and larval forms such as tadpoles from the time they become capable of feeding independently
To reduce or refrain from eating meat is not asking a lot from people. Restricting the use of animals in research is much more problematic because the cost/benefit balance swings much more to the benefits side.
It is true that in the past we have been too cavalier in the way that animals have been used, sometimes allowing animal experimentation merely to develop commercial products such as cosmetics and perfumes, or simply to give students dissection experience that may not have been necessary or could be obtained other ways. While those kinds of abuses are now becoming less common, the question of where to draw the line is not easy.
While few are arguing for a total ban on animal experimentation, there is an increasing awareness that for such experiments to be allowed, a strong case must be made that the benefits are considerable and important and cannot be obtained in any other way.
[I]t is not necessary to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately. 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. (p. 48) . . . [W]henever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a mental level similar to that of the animals they are planning to use. (p. 52) . . . Since a speciesist bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a brain-damaged human would also be justifiable. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)
Singer argues that the pursuit of knowledge, however beneficial we might claim it to be, is not an unfettered right.
[T]he 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. There is nothing sacred about the right to pursue knowledge. We already 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. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 56.)
Singer is saying that such experiments are not allowable unless they are crucial enough that we would be as willing to do the experiment on a severely brain damaged human (who also has no friends and relatives) instead of a chimpanzee.
This is quite a high bar and it is on this point that Singer is likely to lose people, even those who otherwise support his views about the way we should treat animals. While we do allow human experimentation currently in the form of clinical trials and other forms of experimental treatment, it is only after the case has been made that there is only a small risk of harm. As far as I am aware, the standard is lower for experimentation on animals.
Finding a common standard that would meet the needs of scientific researchers and animal rights activists is likely to be the biggest obstacle.
(Note: One of the commenters to the previous post (Cindy) actually does some of this kind of medical research and her thoughts on this topic carry the weight of actual knowledge.)
POST SCRIPT: CSI-Stone Age