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Necessary Conditions for Morally Responsible Animal Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2015


In this article, we present three necessary conditions for morally responsible animal research that we believe people on both sides of this debate can accept. Specifically, we argue that, even if human beings have higher moral status than nonhuman animals, animal research is morally permissible only if it satisfies (1) an expectation of sufficient net benefit, (2) a worthwhile-life condition, and (3) a no-unnecessary-harm/qualified-basic-needs condition. We then claim that, whether or not these necessary conditions are jointly sufficient for justified animal research, they are relatively demanding, with the consequence that many animal experiments may fail to satisfy them.

Special Section: Moving Forward in Animal Research Ethics
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015. Parts of this are a work of the U.S. Government and are not subject to copyright protection in the United States. 

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1. We understand sentience as the capacity to experience (consciously) at least some feelings: sensations, emotional states, or moods. An animal is sentient if he or she can experience any feelings at all, even if simply pleasure and pain. We take it as beyond serious dispute that at least mammals and birds—and therefore most animal research subjects—are sentient. For arguments that many animals are sentient, see DeGrazia, D. What is suffering and what kinds of being can suffer? In Green, R and Palpant, N, eds. Suffering in Bioethics. New York: Oxford University Press; 2014:134–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2. For present purposes, we understand persons as beings with the capacity for relatively complex forms of consciousness such as those associated with language use, introspective awareness, and planning for the future. Obviously, not all humans are persons in this sense. Thus the view that persons have higher moral status than sentient nonpersons provokes the problem of nonparadigm humans: the problem of accounting coherently and plausibly for the moral status of those human beings who lack whatever traits are thought to distinguish humans from nonhuman animals for purposes of assigning moral status. This problem, which concerns both infants and certain severely disabled human beings, lies outside the scope of this article.

3. Cf. Nozick, R. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic; 1974:3542.Google Scholar

4. See, e.g., Brody, B. Defending animal research: An international perspective. In: Garrett, J, ed. The Ethics of Animal Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2012:5366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5. See, e.g., Regan, T. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1983.Google Scholar

6. See, e.g., Carruthers, P. The Animals Issue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7. By “proponents of animal research,” we refer to individuals who support a considerable amount of animal research, not individuals who support some, but very little, animal research. By “morally serious,” we mean the disposition to care significantly about what morality demands of us.

8. Even if the broader institution is not justified, some types of animal research might be justified. Relatively uncontroversial examples include therapeutic veterinary research, animal research posing no more than minimal risk to subjects, and research involving nonsentient animals. For the most part, in the present discussion we set aside such atypical instances of animal research.

9. See also note 8.

10. LaFollette, H. Animal experimentation in biomedical research. In: Beauchamp, TB, Frey, RG, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press; 2011:796825.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11. Rowan, A. Debating the value of animal research. In: Garrett, J, ed. The Ethics of Animal Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2012:197214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12. Bass, R. Lives in the balance: Utilitarianism and animal research. In: Garrett, J, ed. The Ethics of Animal Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2012:81105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13. Akhtar, A. The flaws and human harms of animal experimentation. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2015;24:407419.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

14. For a helpful discussion of alternatives, see Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The Ethics of Research Involving Animals. London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics; 2005:chap. 11.

15. Greek, CR, Greek, J. Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experimenting on Animals. New York: Continuum; 2000.Google Scholar

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17. Akhtar, A. Animals and Public Health. New York: Palgrave; 2012:chap. 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18. Quoted in McManus, R. Ex-director Zerhouni surveys value of NIH research. NIH Record 2013;65(13):12, at 2.Google Scholar

19. Collins, F. Reengineering translational science: The time is right. Science Translational Medicine 2011 July 6:16, at 3; available at (last accessed 3 July 2015).Google Scholar

20. See note 19, Collins 2011, at 3.

21. See note 19, Collins 2011, at 3.

22. Godlee F. How predictive and productive is animal research? BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) 2014;348:g3719. Godlee’s editorial was in response to an article published in the same issue—see note 23, Pound, Bracken 2014.

23. Pound P, Bracken M. Is animal research sufficiently evidence-based to be a cornerstone of biomedical research? BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) 2014;348:g3387.

24. Cf. Palmer, P. Animal Ethics in Context. New York: Columbia University Press; 2010.Google Scholar

25. The qualification “avoidable” is meant to characterize diseases, injuries, or disabilities that result from insufficient attention to the animals’ needs as opposed to bad luck.

26. By “premature” here, we have in mind “while it is still in the animal’s interest (assuming she is well treated) to continue living.”

27. See note 14, Nuffield Council on Bioethics 2005, at 211.

28. If they doubt that animals are harmed by premature death on the grounds that they are not persons—roughly, beings with the capacity for relatively complex forms of consciousness—then they should also doubt that human newborns are harmed by premature death. We find it more plausible to judge that human newborns, and other sentient nonpersons (in the preceding sense of “person”), are harmed by premature death even if persons are harmed to a greater extent by premature death. See DeGrazia, D. The harm of death, time-relative interests, and abortion. Philosophical Forum 2007;38:5780Google Scholar.