I just don’t care about animals that much!

Despite the protestations of those opposed to the use of animals in research, the fundamental differences between people over the treatment of animals seems to lie with the weight that we are prepared to give to animal suffering and death in the pursuit of human goods and interests. Very few, I would have thought, would give animal suffering no weight and similarly, very few would give animal suffering more weight than human suffering.

This weighting affects us through the whole range of our judgements about the treatment of animals. For instance, there has been some criticism of the (scientific) relevance of animal models to the human situation — it is suggested that the way in which animals respond to particular drugs is just too different from the human response to be useful. But how relevant to the human situation does the research have to be in order to justify animal suffering? If we thought that animal suffering and human suffering were to be equally valued then it might look as though no amount of relevance could justify the use of animals. Similarly, if we cared little about animal suffering then only the slightest relevance would suffice. In fact, I suspect that most people (and most regulation) take the importance of animal suffering as lying somewhere between these two positions. The same is true of the ‘3Rs’ — replacement, reduction and refinement. How far we pursue each of these goals and what we take to count as ‘an acceptable pursuit’ of them will depend on the weight that we give to animal suffering and death in our moral judgements. Again if we think that animal suffering and death is equivalent to human suffering and death, it is hard to see anything short of full replacement as being acceptable. If we cared little for animal welfare may be some cursory attention to refinement or reduction is warranted.

I’m not at all sure how to handle these diverging responses and attitudes to animal suffering and I certainly do not have an argument for one kind of response rather than another. My interest in this situation is with the limits of the force of argument and the role of response (as opposed to or as mediating) in moral considerations.

I suspect that those who are against the use of animals in research would want to resist this account of our disagreement (— as being ‘merely’ about how we weigh animal suffering, about our ‘mere’ responses to animal suffering) by claiming, in one way or another, that rational argument is on their side and that this argument shows up my lesser concern for animal suffering and death as being irrational, immoral or inconsistent.

There are a number of points to make about this claim. First, I’m not at all sure that the concept of what is rational (or irrational) is value (or response)-free. Given this, there is the worry that we are again trading on differing response or attitude strengths. Consistency is a case in point here. The value of consistency is not obviously static or overriding. Indeed it might be that I respond to a call for consistency in situations where the response being elicited is one that I share to the relevant degree. So those who are inclined to respond to calls for consistency in the animal suffering case are precisely those who were inclined to value animal suffering highly anyway. Either way it is unclear that consistency has the kind of ‘trumping’ force that it is sometimes taken to have.

Second, part of the point of depicting these issues in this way is to try to illuminate the role of response (or attitude) in morality. Both sides, I claim, rely on a particular response to the suffering and death of animals (as compared to humans) that is not shared by the other. We often rely on a particular kind of response to suffering but we also rely on other kinds of responses. Taking all suffering to be of the same kind and the same disvalue seems to require a similar kind of step to taking there to be different kinds of suffering and different disvalue attached to each kind. I suspect that either way this step importantly involves a particular kind of response.

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