Monday, December 22, 2008

On Animal Rights

for an Ethics class

…and when the ass saw the angel standing, she fell under the feet of the rider: who being angry beat her sides more vehemently with a staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said: What have I done to thee? Why strikest thou me, lo, now this third time? Balaam answered: Because thou hast deserved it, and hast served me ill: I would I had a sword that I might kill thee. The ass said: Am not I thy beast, on which thou hast been always accustomed to ride until this present day? Tell me if I ever did the like thing to thee. But he said: Never.

Numbers 22:27-30

The idea of animal “rights” is fairly new on the ethical stage, though the story of Balaam’s ass has been around longer than Christianity. The story is instructive for three reasons: 1) It reminds us that there is a long-standing human hegemony over animals. While there may have been more of a conflict in the days of wooly mammoths and the like, humans have since held a clear advantage over beasts that has only grown over time. 2) Balaam’s ass questions Balaam and asks if the punishment it is receiving is just. The implication is that beating would be fine, if it were deserved, but it does not seem to be deserved in this case. 3) Balaam’s single-word acknowledgement of his asinine behavior would seem to indicate that he realizes his behavior is unjust. Now the use of this story from the Book of Numbers is not an attempt to use the Bible as an authority regarding the ethical question of “animal rights,” which is so often before us in the modern age. Rather, it is simply to set a stage for our discussion – a discussion which is limited to the question: “Is experimentation on animals moral if the end is legitimate scientific research?”

Pain as intrinsic physical evil

Those who argue for the complete abolition of animal experimentation argue that pain – which animals can feel – is an intrinsic evil and that any action that causes intentional pain to another creature is immoral. They would argue that the PDE (Principle of the Double Effect) is in play – harming an animal to obtain a good is not permissible. Scientists would argue that the PDE is indeed in play, and that what is intended is making scientific advances for the good of humans, and that unintentional harm comes to some animals as a result – but that the pain of the animals is not, in itself, the end of the testing.

Animal experimenters, in the same vein as the “pain as intrinsic evil” argument, argue for animals’ dignity. Animal testing is an affront to the dignity of an animal and it is “Speciest” (they use the terminology of racism) to consider human dignity of more importance than animal dignity. Those opposed to the “speciest” label would probably reply that “dignity,” along with the idea of “rights” is something that belongs in the moral order, and it is not clear that animals partake of the moral order. Certainly, Balaam’s ass reminded us that what Balaam was doing was wrong, yet it did not attack his actions per se, but rather the context of a particular action.  

The reductio ad absurdum for both of these arguments ends in two forks: 1) If it is immoral to cause pain to animals and an affront to their dignity, then how can domestication or slaughter of them for food ever be justified? 2) If animals are deserving of this right, what of other forms of life? Does not an amoeba have eyes? If I prick it, will it not bleed?


It would seem that the most obvious argument an ethicist would rely on in this argument is utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. If some cure for some disease or some way to reconstruct an organ can be obtained by experimentation – indeed, even some painful experimentation – on animals, the cost is not only worthwhile, but justified. Animal rights’ activists would argue, with some merit, that much of scientific testing is inane and serves no purpose whatsoever. Here are two particularly disturbing cases: “In one case, baby mice had their legs chopped off so that experimenters could observe whether they'd learn to groom themselves with their stumps. In another, polar bears were submerged in a tank of crude oil and salt water to see if they'd live” ( These two examples are not justified by the PDE or utilitarianism. What good is being obtained? Far from good, this seems to be animal cruelty.

Yet, is animal cruelty an evil? Yes, certainly in and of itself. While God appointed Adam as King over all the beasts, the implication was that Adam was to be a good king. Even for those who reject a Creation or Deistic narrative, the idea of human hegemony over animals betokens a “good” hegemony, for beasts, dumb though they may be, may still rise up if mistreated, if only out of a sense of self-preservation – a primitive rational self-interest. Thus, while the utilitarian argument is a solid one, it falters in the face of idle, Frankensteinian curiosity that besmirches the noble aims of scientific research with a leering beastliness.  

Rational Self-Interest

The reason why this issue is so little noticed is because it goes on in the periphery of our society. We all benefit from animal experimentation in some way – it might be a cosmetic that a woman wears that was tested on an animal, or an organ that is cloned that was first grown on the back of a lab rat – and so it is in our self-interest, as enjoyers of the benefits of modern society, to allow this experimentation to continue.

Yet, the arguments brought forth, and Balaam’s ass compel us to ask: “But, is it the right type of experimentation?” If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the most basic awareness should be the watchword of a civilized society. Animal experimentation is not permissible for reasons of mere curiosity. The panoply of life on this planet is meant to live in conflict and harmony. When examining whether a particular animal experimentation should take place, the question posed to a rational being, the only type of being that can act virtuously, by virtue of our intellect and reason, to date not with certainty discerned in non-human creatures, must always be: “Is this directly concerned with bringing about a good for humans?” If this cannot be answered in the positive, the experimentation is indeed negative and unworthy of us as guardians of life on this earth.

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