When does science become violence?

With roots stemming from the days of Aristotle and Erasistratus, animal testing has been a controversial subject that has become increasingly prevalent within scientific research and medicinal development. This prevalence has played a crucial role in virtually every medical breakthrough of the last century.

Imagine you are a scientist at the University of Sheffield (UoS) deliberating whether to conduct tests on animals to help develop a potentially lifesaving drug. Would it be ethically acceptable to inflict suffering on animals to improve the quality of human life?

“No, it is never acceptable to exploit animals for human benefit”

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Animal rights activists, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have long fought to stop the use of animals in scientific experimentation. They believe that the use of animals during testing to benefit humans is not only cruel, but purports the unjustified notion that the value of a human life is greater than that of an animal. The University of Sheffield (UoS) plays a crucial role in conducting research and animal testing to develop novel biotherapeutics. After the UoS revealed their animal testing figures in 2015, a wave of protest sparked. Despite meeting governmental standards and abiding to an internal ethical policy, these statistics revealed that 2447 animals that were used as test subjects fell under either the ‘severe’ or ‘non-recovery’ categories, which describe the degree of suffering an animal has been subject to. Should you as the scientist make animals endure such thresholds of pain, given that cannot consent or object? When contacted regarding this matter, a representative from PETA stated “These animals are much more than that, they can feel pain and suffer just like us. No animal deserves to spend their life in a laboratory.”

So long as there is animal testing, there will be some level of suffering

All research conducted at the UoS involving animal experimentation is underpinned by the guiding principles of the three R’s – reduction in the number of animals used, refinement of the experiments to minimise animal suffering and the replacement of animals for testing through alternative techniques. Whilst the UoS ensures that animals are only used for experimentation when there are no reasonable alternatives currently available, there was a massive 22.7% rise in the number of animals used for testing between 2014 and 2015. To counteract this rise, more stringent government regulations could result in a reduction in the total number of animals tested, accelerating the development of alternative techniques.

Are the scientists at the UoS conducting animal experimentation doing so ethically?

From a preference utilitarian perspective, where maximising interests of those affected is of utmost importance, testing on animals cannot be justified as pain should be avoided wherever possible. Peter Singer, an act utilitarian, believes that by subscribing to concepts arising from speciesism, humans have failed to consider the adverse effects arising from their actions on the welfare of animals – they intrinsically seek pleasure and avoid pain. From a Kantian perspective, it is argued that doing what is right is not related to the consequences of the action, but is about having the proper intention in performing the action. Hence, as the scientist performing animal experimentation, YOU are responsible for the animal suffering caused by YOUR actions, regardless of the results of those actions. Thus, if alternative techniques were to completely eradicate the need for animal testing, both ethical perspectives would be fulfilled as animals would no longer be suffering.

“Yes, millions of lives could be saved”

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It is the responsibility of scientists to be effective and efficient, to pursue technological advancement and to protect the welfare of the people and the surrounding environment. Years of research in this field has made scientists aware that animal testing is crucial in investigating the development and consequent prevention of diseases and their associated side-effects. This is supported by the fact that 39 of the last 40 Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine were granted to research involving animal experimentation. In addition, human trials without appropriate animal testing have shown evidence of being catastrophic.

What is the moral status of animals?

It has long been debated that humans are superior compared to animals. Humans have a sense of morality, complex communication skills and the capacity for inventing social constructs such as religions, nations and currency. Immanuel Kant argued that humans are self-aware and are on opposing sides of the intellectual spectrum when compared to sentient beings. Hence, the betterment of mankind should be prioritised above the welfare of animals. This is supported by John Stuart Mill’s statement, “better be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Humans have a higher moral status, making animal experimentation ethically justifiable.

Balancing of the scales

Experiments conducted at the UoS implementing animal experimentation have led to major breakthroughs in the development of cures for asthma, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. Without such advancements, humans affected by such conditions would have suffered significantly more. In addition, great care has been taken to ensure that the welfare of the animals is preserved: the UoS is subject to the Ethical Review Process implemented by the government for research institutions. The UoS only use animals when there are no other alternatives available. The UoS mainly use zebrafish as they have the lowest neurophysiological sensitivity in comparison to other animals commonly used for testing. Thus, from a utilitarian perspective, it can be argued that the overall benefits gained for human health from animal testing are far more significant than the suffering of the animals involved.

Animal testing harms fewer animals per year than those killed by household cats every week

The arguments above highlight the clear benefits of animal testing and the measures taken in order to ensure minimal pain is inflicted on the animals. In addition, alternatives to animal testing are not fully developed and their premature implementation could put humans at very high risk. For these reasons, YOU as the scientist are abiding by YOUR active and passive responsibilities of foreseeability, maintaining freedom of action and minimising the occurrence of wrong doing. You are within the ethical and legal bounds to conduct animal testing. If anything, we must ensure that the exaggerated marketing of ill effects of animal testing must be minimised to protect the researchers trying to work towards the betterment of the human race.

In light of what you have read, would you proceed to conduct animal testing?

Group 33: Amish Patel, William Busbt, Ayan Ahmed, Thomas Alexander Wallenius Johansen

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13 thoughts on “When does science become violence?

  1. Insightful article! Despite society of late teaching us that animal testing is wrong and we should therefore oppose it, research shows that I and most other consumers won’t make purchase decisions which match the ethics in relation to animal testing that we claim to hold. Further, despite the rise in CSR practice, it can be argued that this is another short term marketing ploy or ‘greenwashing’ used by ‘no animal testing’ firms such as the body shop which is then not carried out in practice. Given that firms have shown a lack of commitment to this issue in larger scales (e.g when body shop went international) and consumers often having asymmetrical information on companies animal testing practicr, will capitalist power ever allow scientists to switch from animal testing if it involves higher costs and overhauling current operations which are seen as efficent?

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  2. Good arguments.

    The asinine ‘speciesism’ arguments based on utilitarianism are refuted by simply pointing out that from the same utilitarian perspective, animal testing is highly justifiable.

    Due to a number of factors:

    First of all, it’s effective. Nice citation with the Nobel Prizes there

    Second of all, the needs of humans outweigh those of animals due to our status as significantly more complex beings.

    Thirdly, less animals are harmed in a year than killed by household cats in a week.

    On a side note, I can’t help but comment on PETA’s hypocrisy. Do they avoid everything with animal products? Shoes, belts, medicine?

    With regards to the act utilitarianism claim that all harm against animals is unjustified, I do wonder if he’d regard the killing of a shark as unjustified, especially if the shark were attacking him and trying to kill him.

    If he does, then some harm is justified as his need for self preservation outweighs his need to stay intellectually consistent. This refutes his argument because if some harm is justified, even to save a life, then his absolute position of ‘no harm justified’ falls flat immediately

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  3. I believe that animal testing is fully justified. I will stand mostly on your last point that cats kill more animals in a week than laboratories do in a whole year. This is because cats are predators, and so are dogs, not to mention more aggressive mammals such as lions. Humans are also predators by their nature, they hunt and rely on survival of the fittest to sustain life.

    If all the arguments of stopping or minimising animal experiments seen in the first part of the article were to be valid, then we may as well put in infrastructure to prevent cats from killing other animals. Why do we not do this? Because then we would cause an imbalance in nature, which has been doing very well in preserving what is needed over millions of years.

    Don’t mistake me, I am not saying that humans should always act carelessly and assume that nature will fix everything (see oil overuse..) but the benefits that occur from animal testing would be unheard of without it.

    Lastly, one has to think about not just humans vs animals but categorise animals. For example it is proven that dogs don’t actually have emotions, they only have a very long memory and that is why they feel happy when they see their owners because they expect food, this could be used as a reason to not hurt dogs. Even further, elephants or monkeys hold funerals for lost members of their communities and they exhibit emotions (proven). But mice, which is the vast majority of animals used in laboratories, are basically lumps of meat with limited intelligence that should be used to better humanity.

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  4. I am a biochemistry technician working at Bio Products laboratory and we make plasma based medicine which are mainly injected into patients with rare immunodeficiences. In the process animal testing has been conducted to ensure the safety of the medicine and today many people are surviving using this medication. Although animal testing is cruel to animals, I can see the other side to this argument as well and if doing animal testing with minimal pain infliction can produce medicine and save human lives then yes, I would proceed to animal testing.

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  5. This was a very interesting read. As a non-science and more humanities person I think the philosophical aspects of your argument interest me the most. I think you guys correctly identified that the answer to this question depends on the moral status of animals. Are we really more important than a mouse because we are “more complex beings”? (If that is the case, it is justified for any higher species than us to come along and bugspray the Earth and kill us all.) Jokes apart, animals are often given borderline considerations when we think about our ethics and moral concepts… sometimes we give them a huge status (eg. India and cows) and sometimes we give them no status at all. But usually, when we talk about harming animals, we say we shouldn’t do it not because it harms the animal’s morality but because it would reflect poorly on a higher, wiser human being’s morality that have self-consciousness and empathy.

    The utilitarian question is another interesting one. Does killing only 4 million animals a year compared to household cats killing 100 million justify killing the 4 million? It sounds like the trolley cart problem. If a train (or killer trolley?) is hurtling towards 4 people tied on a track and one fat man tied to a different track, and if YOU can pull a lever from standing directly above the tracks and save the 4 people but kill the one fat man. Would you do it?

    People usually have different answers to the trolley cart problem depending on how utilitarian they are. Peter Singer, (who is an asshole by the way, his love for cute animals doesn’t change that), also has an interesting argument: If we say animals are more dispensable or less useful because they have a less intellectual capacity to feel/care for or engage with the agency of other people and animals then animals have the same mental capacity as babies, or disabled human beings… if we were to believe that special properties of being human such as rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness accord higher consideration to the interests of human beings. How else do we say we’re allowed to kill another species (mice, pigeons, monkeys elephants whatever) unless we’ve decided on our own that our kind is just inherently better? We should say that like it is, rather than use flimsy philosophical or utilitarian arguments.

    I tend to fall along the spectrum where I don’t believe we are justified in experimenting on animals. Yes, we still do it. But we are unjustified in doing so. I also am aware that most of the products I own and eat have come from testing on animals. I’m also usually not vegetarian and eat unethically produced meat, fish and poultry. Its a question I think about from time to time, but I don’t choose to delude myself into thinking that its okay that I do it. Its easy to make those arguments but I don’t think its true. We can convince ourselves on either side if we try, though.
    Its great that people think we should not be not testing on animals, people should still be aware of the many ways in which animals continue to die so that they can go about living a normal life. And start thinking about their other life choices too in an honest way.

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  6. In my mind it used to be a straight forward no. Like most things it seems like when you look further into it there is no definite black or white answer. On an emotional level I hate the idea of any creature suffering but then i probably use lots of products/medicines that have ingredients that have been tested. I still think we probably do too much testing on animals and it could be reduced further.

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  7. It’s a good article with strong ethical viewpoints. However, for sake of argument, I’d like to present a simpler flip-side – Human beings have long killed and consumed animals for their own benefits. At what point is consumption for the short term benefits more acceptable than experimentation for scientific research for the advancement humanity as a whole? Why do the ethics exclusively force the adaptation of either a short term or long term solution?

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  8. I think people will always struggle with animals being used for scientific purposes as they can associate with them in a better way than animals that they may be used in farming. Overall I am in favour of animals being used as I see the benefits outlined above outweigh worries for me.

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  9. Interesting article! Unfortunately, there are a couple of points that the post does not addressed which may critically undermine some of the arguments you advance.

    For instance, Saisha’s comment below is very effective in raising concerns around utilitarian justifications, and, as someone who also has a background in the humanities and has academically examined scientific practices from philosophical and sociological analytical frameworks, I would like to add a few extra considerations around what she has already pointed out and, more broadly, to what said in the post (I’ll do it as a list, so that this comment doesn’t turn into an essay.

    #1) UTILITARIANISM HAS QUITE A FEW PROBLEMS:

    You conclude that: “From a utilitarian perspective, it can be argued that the overall benefits gained for human health from animal testing are far more significant than the suffering of the animals involved”.

    Well, utilitarianism as a moral framework, has famously been accused of sacrificing the unfortunate few the powerful many – with the “unfortunate” often being those who lay at the bottom of society (or, in this case, the animal realm). For example, slavery could be morally justified under a purely utilitarian calculation – all you would need to do following utilitarian logic is to show that the economic benefits of slavery for the overall happiness of the nation are vast enough to outweighed the unhappiness of the slaves. But surely, even given the utilitarian equation, we don’t believe slavery is (or, better, CAN ever) morally justified.

    The reason why we don’t think it can be ever morally justified is because it is a abhorrent way to treat a fellow human being… which brings me to my next point.

    #2 ANIMAL IDENTITIES ARE CONSTRUCTED IN A WAY THAT SUITS (and numbs) HUMANS

    In a very interesting essay, anthropologist Tracy Smith-Harris highlights: “Nonhuman animals are often conceptualized only in terms of human benefit. Nonhuman animals used in scientific research are numbered and not named, and with the new technologies for genetic manipulation and cloning they are viewed as being created by humans, not born They are most often constructed for our benefit, not for the sake of their own lives, communities, and ecosystems”.

    Focus on the “numbered and not named”: this is done with the purpose of removing any possible emotional attachment, or emotional element (empathy especially) to the animals.
    A practice that does make a lot of sense in the context of testing, and a practice that necessarily follows from a rationalist and sentiency-centred (masculinist too, according to feminist critics) discourse which is keen to remark the intellectual differences between humans and animals, but overlook emotional similarities in the way humans and animals feel.

    The fact that science has historically been concerned with maintaining the separation between humans and nonhumans, consistently denying for years that other species have minds or consciousness (although recent research is denying these previous claims), should not also appear as a concidence in light of the points above.

    #3 ANIMAL TESTING, not just the absence of it, CAN ALSO BE DANGEROUS FOR HUMANS

    You argue: “human trials without appropriate animal testing have shown evidence of being catastrophic”.

    This is true, but it also true that many drugs that appear safe and effective in animals fail in humans, or cause significant harm, and even death.
    A quick Google search tells me that according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 92% of drugs entering clinical trials following animal testing fail to be approved, and of those approved, half are withdrawn or relabeled due to severe or lethal adverse effects not detected during animal tests.

    And even beyond these data, applicability still remains a key issue within this discussion and it is widely accepted in the scientific community that the results of tests done on other species often cannot always be reliably extrapolated to human. In fact, even when you say the genes of humans and mice are identical at 99% , you conveniently forget to mention that, whilst, yes, the protein-coding regions of the mouse and human genomes are 85% identical; only SOME genes are 99 % identical while others are ONLY 60 % identical – and that’s where applicability matters.

    Fortunately, as technology moves forward, there will be less and less need for animal experimentation than there is now. My stance is that animal testing is fully unjustified where it is not needed besides building credibility for a scientific paper through conventional means (and thankfully that is not the case at UoS), but that it may be the only option in some cases – and I leave this to the discretion of scientists which I hope will strive to be compassionate rather than blindly opting in a conveniently absolving utilitarian and specisist dialectic.

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  10. Interesting article! I am little shocked to learn the number of animals used for scientific purposes. Kantian perspective was simple but powerful. Overall, I oppose the animal testing, as I don’t have an exact answer to convince me why the life of human being always come to a priority.

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  11. Thoughtful article – ultimately I do believe that animal testing is morally wrong as they do not have any agency whatsoever over their lives. However, at the same time, if animal testing can help develop medicine and if there are no alternative routes of aquiring the same results – then perhaps it can be justified. I do oppose animal testing when it comes to developing any beauty products – that is just cruel.

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  12. But what is the alternative when developing a demanded drug for a serious disease? To use patients in the drug development to be able to evaluate efficacy and safety? To accept experimental medical treatment to every patients when bringing a new drug to the market? To accept late access of new drugs because uncertainty concerning efficacy and safety? Without animal testing until new alternative methods are available, means that patients suffering from serious diseases without access to meaningful medicines today, will have to wait longer for new medicines proven effective and safe.

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  13. Many interesing points! Thanks to the animal testing in the early development of new medications we can offer our patients good and safe drugs for serious diseases.

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