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The Humane and the Ethical in Animal Research

A recent article by Marc Bekoff, written for the website The Dodo, asks whether it might be true that researchers who currently test on animals are less humane than their predecessors. Bekoff thinks it is. His reasons for that belief seem to be something like the following: We know considerably more about the cognitive and emotional faculties of animals now than we did in the past. That is, we know that even smaller mammals and birds can be quite cognitively sophisticated and emotionally developed. In the face of this knowledge, our continued use of those animals for the purpose of conducting research is less humane than it was at a time when we believed animals to not possess any such faculties. Bekoff uses this belief to cast doubt on the ethical status of continued research on animals. If we are being less humane in our research now than we used to be, then we are also being less ethical. It’s not clear to me that this inference is correct.

 Here are two definitions of ‘humane’:

 Humane |hjʊˈmeɪn|


1 Characterized by such behaviour or disposition towards others as benefits man; civil, courteous, obliging -1784; kind, benevolent -1603. b. Applied to certain implements, etc. which inflict less pain than others of the same kind- 1904…

– Shorter OED, 1947

1. Having or showing compassion or benevolence: regulations ensuring the humane treatment of animals.

• inflicting the minimum of pain: humane methods of killing.

– New Oxford American Dictionary

Both of these definitions (but the first especially) seem to offer two conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for an action’s being humane: a minimal harm condition, and a compassion condition.

According to the harm condition, an action is humane only if it caused the least amount of harm (or indeed conferred a perceived benefit) to the subject being acted upon possible. Now, in many (though certainly not all) cases, contemporary research on animals will be more humane from the point of view of this condition. Research ethics committees proscribe and require certain actions, and can recommend that animal handling licenses be revoked if researchers fail to comply. Many of the guidelines set by such committees are concerned with the reduction of unnecessary harm to the animals. In this sense, I believe, research is on the whole more humane. But this isn’t condition for humane action that Bekoff invoked. He was implicitly invoking the compassion condition for humane treatment. Let’s turn to that now.

According to the compassion condition, an action is humane only if it demonstrates compassion for the subject being acted upon. It’s important here that compassion is consistent with harm. We feel compassion when we sympathize with the harm being caused to another. In the case of animal testing, we may think that an action is humane, according to the compassion condition, only if it is sufficiently attentive to the possible or actual suffering of the animal. Harm may be caused, but the researcher must have a particular attitude to that harm; namely, one in which the effect on the animal is considered sympathetically.

I’m inclined to believe that satisfaction of the compassion condition for humane action depends on one’s sensitivity to the known facts of the subject being acted upon. So, if the best data available suggests that, for example, animals aren’t cognitively or emotionally developed, then the bar for satisfaction of the compassion condition is significantly lower. This explains how researchers may now be less humane than their predecessors. Given the advances made in our knowledge of animal cognition, the bar for compassion has risen. This makes humane action more difficult. However, if researchers are failing to be sufficiently compassionate with respect to the effects their actions have on the animals they use, then they have not satisfied a necessary condition for humane action.

But, does the failure to be sufficiently compassionate alter the ethical status of the research? I think not. What matters ethically is that the harm condition is satisfied. Researchers may harbor malice towards the animals they work on, but that research will still be ethically permissible just so long as the malice doesn’t lead to an action that causes more harm than is necessary. (Of course, what counts as permissible harm in animal research is a difficult question—one that I’m not interested in here). If the rough analysis of humane action above is even somewhat viable, then it may turn out that most researchers aren’t humane as they fail to satisfy the compassion condition. But, they might still be acting in ethically permissible ways. So, Bekoff may be right to say that researchers are less humane than their predecessors. That doesn’t make their action less ethical.

By Luke Davies. I have a Twitter account; you can follow me here!

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