Clinical Ethics in Anesthesiology. A Case-Based Textbook

4. Research and publication

28. Animal subjects research Part I: Do animals have rights?

Nancy S. Jecker

The Case of Laika

In 1957, a stray dog from Moscow named Laika, described by her keepers as “quiet and charming,” became the first animal to orbit the planet, and the first death in orbit. Training for her mission included subjection to confinement in progressively smaller cages for up to 20 consecutive days, during which she was whining and restless and would stop urinating or defecating for prolonged periods of time. She was placed in centrifuges simulating rocket acceleration and the noises of the spacecraft, causing extreme changes in her blood pressure and pulse. On the day before her mission, Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his children. He later said, “I wanted to do something nice for her: she had so little time left to live.”1

In the capsule, she was confined by a harness that allowed her only to sit, stand and lie down in one place. A launch pad malfunction kept her waiting for 3 days in freezing temperatures inside a capsule the size of a washing machine before she was launched into orbit. Although it was reported at the time that Laika lived for 7 days in space and was then was mercifully euthanized with a pre-programmed portion of poisoned food, in 2002 it was revealed that she had, in fact, died only a few hours into orbit as a result of broiling heat due to a thermo-regulator failure.2 In 1998, Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists involved, expressed his regret:“

Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us … The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”3

The case of Laika, and other cases involving the use of animals to serve human ends, raise moral questions such as the following. Is there something distinctive about humanity? Do humans have a special moral status that nonhumans lack? Is there a quality that human beings alone possess that qualifies them for higher moral standing? If not, should we broaden our conception of who is a member of our moral community? If it is sometimes acceptable to use animals in research, when it would not be acceptable to use human beings, and what accounts for this difference?

In this chapter we consider what it means to say that a being deserves moral consideration. We ask what it means to say that a being has a right to life. We then consider the claim that, even if a beinglacks a right to life, it deserves to have its interests taken into account. Finally, we consider the application of these ideas to research with animals.

Human beings, animals, and persons

Throughout this discussion the term, “person,” refers to any living being of any species whose characteristics entitle it to a right to life. Thus the term “person,” as defined here, is a moral or ethical term, not a biological one, and quite distinct from the term “human being.”

The term, “human being,” refers to anything that is biologically alive and belongs to the species, Homo sapiens. In this definition, the term “human being” obviously includes normal human children and adults, but also includes prenatal human life, human beings with physical or mental abnormalities, and humans in a persistent vegetative state who will never regain consciousness.

To assume that only instances of human life could count as persons in a moral sense, and so possess a right to life, would be a moral error analogous to claiming that only members of favored racial groups possess certain rights or are persons. The latter mistake is called racism; the former might thus be called speciesism. To avoid this mistake, we cannot assume membership in a species represents a necessary or sufficient condition for personhood, but must instead identify a quality independent of species that establishes personhood.

In many cases most agree about who is and is not a person. For example, normal adult human beings are considered to be the sort of beings of whom personhood can be predicated. Many will also agree that certain living things are not persons. For instance, there is not widespread belief that trees are persons. That is not to say that we ought not to take good care of trees. Saying that trees are not persons is merely saying that trees do not have a right to life, nor are trees entitled for their own sake to have their lives preserved.

In-between the cases of trees and normal human beings, is a spectrum of less obvious cases. Do permanently unconscious human beings, human fetuses, human beings who will live in the distant future, or intelligent life that we might encounter on other planets qualify as persons? What about members of other terrestrial species? Are nonhumans animals, such as dogs, chimpanzees, or dolphins, persons?

To focus on the specific question of whether personhood applies to nonhuman animals (henceforth referred to simply as “animals”) here on earth, let us consider three distinct views one might hold. First, what we shall call a conservative position claims that no animals are persons with a right to life. A second, moderate position asserts that at least some animals deserve moral consideration for their own sake, but no animals have a right to life. A third view, which we shall call a liberal view, holds that at least some animals are persons with a right to life.

Are animals “persons”?

The “conservative” view

Perhaps the best known proponent of the conservative position is Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that human beings alone qualify as persons by virtue of their rational capacities. He wrote:

… every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will…Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.4

For Kant, humanity had an intrinsic and unconditional value. By contrast, animals had only a relative or instrumental value. Elaborating this position in “Duties to Animals and Spirits,” Kant stated:

… if a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog,…but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind.”4

Kant understood our duties to human beings as direct duties, but regarded our duties to animals as indirect duties. Direct duties are duties we owe someone for their own sake. Indirect duties are duties we owe to someone for the sake of someone else. For instance, if a child is cruel to animals by pinching a cat’s tail, Kant’s worry was that the child may go on to develop a corresponding sentiment of cruelty to humans, and may treat humans cruelly too. The reason that it is wrong for a child to pinch the tail of an animal, according to Kant, is that doing so will ultimately harm human beings, who matter morally for their own sake. Thus, the child has a duty to the cat for the sake of her fellow human beings.

The philosophical basis for the above distinction is Kant’s idea that human beings, by virtue of their rational agency, are persons and possess intrinsic moral worth. Kant’s position is not speciesist, because the ultimate basis for the dignity of human beings is not species membership, per se, but rational nature. As Wood notes, “Kant thought it quite likely that there are rational beings on other planets; they would be ends in themselves every bit as much as human beings …”5

It follows from Kant’s philosophy that we should not cause suffering to animals, for example, by performing painful experiments “for the sake of mere speculation, when the end could also be achieved without these.”6 However, Kant thought that we do have a right to kill animals, provided we do not cause pain and suffering or kill merely for sport. Kant encouraged the humane treatment of animals who work for us, as well as gratitude. In his lectures, he told a story about the philosopher, Leibniz, who reportedly returns a worm to its leaf when done examining it.7 For Kant, this exemplified the attitude humans should cultivate toward animals.

Despite the fact that Kant’s philosophy encourages the humane treatment of animals, critics charge that it gives insufficient regard to animals. Allen Wood maintains that, by virtue of the fact that animals are not persons in Kant’s approach, we are permitted to treat animals solely as instruments or objects of human goals. To illustrate this, he asks us to imagine the following possibility:

If it happened to be a quirk of human psychology that torturing animals would make us that much kinder toward humans (perhaps by venting our aggressive impulses on helpless victims), then Kant’s argument would apparently make it a duty to inflict gratuitous cruelty on puppies and kittens so as to make us that much kinder to people.8

If Wood’s reasoning is correct, then even though Kant himself rejects cruelty to animals, his philosophy still allows this possibility.

In response, defenders of Kant’s approach can argue that it is inconsistent with Kantian ethics to treat animals as mere things for our use or enjoyment. Kantian philosophy, as they interpret it, emphasizes our positive duties with regard to animals, even if we have no duties toward them. O’Neill, for example, argues that the fact that Kant’s allowance for indirect duties to animals is not trivial, because “Kant endorses more or less the range of ethical concern for non-human animals that more traditional utilitarians allowed: welfare, but not rights.”9

Contemporary Kantian scholars further develop Kant’s conservative position in a variety of ways. Christine Korsgaard proposes that what distinguishes humans is their capacity for a special sort of rationality. Humans alone use reason to reflect about morality, to be what Korsgaard calls “sources of normativity.”10 Humans alone face the problem of normativity: the problem of considering the morality of their reasons for acting and deciding what they ought to do. According to Korsgaard,

We human animals turn our attention on to our perceptions and desires themselves, on to our own mental activities, and we are conscious of them. That is why we can think about them … And this sets us a problem that no other animal has. It is the problem of the normative… The reflective mind cannot settle for perception and desire, not just as such. It needs a reason.7

While some animals act on reasons, Korsgaard insists that only humans act on normative reasons. Korsgaard believes a capacity to consider the moral basis for action is a necessary feature of moral personhood that humans have and that animals lack. She concludes that animals on earth are not the kind of beings for whom personhood is possible.

The “liberal” view

In contrast to conservatives, both moderates and liberals argue that animals deserve moral consideration in their own right. They claim that many morally important qualities, such as rationality, exist in some intelligent animals. Singer and Cavaileri hold that apes display many fragments of the forms of rationality that we find in humans.11 Moreover, some human beings lack rationality and the corresponding ability to morally evaluate their reasons for acting. Human infants are potentially, but not actually, rational; permanently unconscious human beings lack rationality altogether; and humans with certain forms of dementia or mental retardation may possess only fragments of rationality. In all of these cases, human beings cannot be what Korsgaard calls “sources of normativity.” Many moderates and liberals conclude that, if rationality in some form is a necessary and sufficient condition for personhood, then at least some humans are not persons, and at least some animals are persons.

If personhood and humanity are not coextensive, this creates an opportunity to explore the possibility that animals possess a right to life – the position favored by liberals. One way this position is defended is to underscore the idea that there is no criterion that all humans possess and all animals lack that is a necessary requirement for personhood. Tom Regan, for example, states the general argument in support of a conservative stance looks like this:

The conservative argument

(1) For X to be a person, X must have A.

(2) Humans have A.

(3) Animals do not have A.

(4) Therefore, humans are persons and animals are not.12

Regan rebuts the conservative argument by showing that there is no quality, A, that can be used in the premises of this argument to establish the argument’s conclusion. For example, suppose the conservative proposes that the quality most essential for personhood is sentience. Regan’s reply would be that some humans, such as those in a persistent vegetative state, lack sentience, while many animals have it. Or, suppose a conservative proposes instead that possessing a concept of self is essential for personhood. Regan’s reply would be to call attention to the fact that this quality is inadequate, since some human beings, such as infants and those with profound mental retardation, lack a concept of self. Likewise, if the quality considered fundamental to personhood is possession of positive interests, such as desires, goals, hopes, and preferences, Regan would point out that there are humans who lack these qualities and animals who have them.

Regan concludes that at least some animals satisfy whatever criterion one might advance as a necessary condition for personhood, and at least some human beings fail to satisfy it. In other words, there is no A which is non-arbitrary and such that all humans possess A and no animals possess A. Therefore, it is inconsistent to believe that all and only humans possess a right to life. Regan says we must therefore choose between two options:

(1) Deny a right to life to both animals and defective humans, or

(2) Grant a right to life to both animals and defective humans.

Regan himself endorses the latter option, granting a right to life to both animals and impaired human beings. However, it would seem that to ethically justify current practices, such as using animals in biomedical research or consuming meat, we would be forced to choose the former option: deny both animals and impaired human beings a right to life. Yet, if we choose this option, we are left with the question of how we can ethically justify a requirement to treat impaired humans better than animals. The conclusion Regan and other liberals draw is that, to avoid this consequence, we should predicate personhood of impaired human beings, and also acknowledge that at least some animals are persons as well.

Both the conservative and liberal positions represent a “deontological” approach to ethics. Deontological approaches hold that there are certain overriding moral principles or duties that apply irrespective of whether fulfilling their requirements is burdensome or produces the best consequences overall. If the basis of our duties to humans or animals is rights, then we must discharge our duties regardless of whether doing so is convenient or promotes the general happiness. According to a rights-based liberal view, any practice that fails to respect the rights of those animals who possess them is wrong. So if we eat, hunt, experiment on, or use animals for entertainment, this is wrong if the animals in question have a right to life, even if it produces a tremendous amount of benefit for others. Likewise, if all human beings are persons with a right to life, as conservatives claim, then there is no condition where we would be justified in sacrificing a human life in order to bring about the greater good for society at large.

The “moderate” view

Let us set aside the question of whether animals are persons with a right to life, and turn to consider a different question, namely: is it wrong to cause animals to suffer? Peter Singer thinks that, regardless of where one comes down on the question of whether animals have rights, they have interests,13 specifically, an interest in avoiding suffering. According to Singer, it is wrong to eat meat given modern methods of meat production or to use animals in scientific research for trivial purposes, because of the interest animals have in avoiding suffering. Thus, according to Singer, the moderate position is sufficient to establish that we must bring animals into our sphere of moral concern. Even if it is sometimes acceptable to use animals or to end their lives painlessly, many of our current practices would have to change if the moderate position is correct.

In support of this approach, Singer advances the following Principle of Equal Consideration:

The interests of every being must be given equal consideration, in proportion to their degree of seriousness for the being in question.

This principle begins with the idea of having an interest. According to Singer, the capacity for suffering or enjoyment is sufficient to establish that a being has an interest. A cat or dog, for example, suffers terribly if it is picked up by its tail and thrown across the room, and so it has a clear interest in avoiding this. Similarly, some experiments subject animals to pain, stress, anxiety, illness, and other forms of suffering. Without a doubt, animals have an interest in avoiding suffering produced in this way.

But there is a difference between equal consideration and equal treatment. In fact, equal consideration for the interests of humans and animals might require very different treatment. Consideration for the interests of a pig might require no more than that we leave a pig with other pigs in a place where there is adequate food and room to run freely, whereas concern for the interests of a child growing up in America might require that we teach the child to read.

In some cases, the greater mental power of normal adults will mean that they will suffer more. They will anticipate suffering, remember it, and have a fuller idea of their predicament. In other cases, the greater mental powers of normal adults will mean that they suffer less. As Singer notes, prisoners during wartime are able to understand that:

although they must submit to capture, search, and confinement, they will not otherwise be harmed and will be set free at the conclusion of hostilities. If we capture wild animals, however, we cannot explain that we are not threatening their lives.10

Singer draws on these ideas to develop the following argument against certain forms of animal experimentation.

(1) The interests of every being must be given equal consideration, in proportion to their degree of seriousness for the being in question.

(2) Animals have a very serious interest in avoiding suffering and in being able to live in a way that allows their instinctive desires and drives to be satisfied.

(3) Animal research causes serious suffering and does not permit animals to satisfy instinctive desires and drives.

(4) A great deal of animal research satisfies no direct or urgent purpose, or satisfies only relatively minor human interests.

(5) Therefore, continuing with a great deal of animal research involves weighting relatively minor human interests above very serious interests of the animals in question, and hence is morally unacceptable.

(6) In many cases, it is not possible to conduct these experiments without using the sorts of methods which are objectionable.

(7) Therefore, in many cases, we should end current animal research.

Note that Singer’s argument does not conclude with an absolute probation against inflicting pain and suffering on animals. Nor does it ban experiments that result in the painless death of animals. Singer is not saying that all experimenting on animals ought to stop immediately. Instead, the argument establishes that the suffering of animals must be taken seriously and justified by the positive benefits it helps to bring about. It is consistent with this argument to allow experimenting on animals in situations where the trade-offs justify the pain and suffering inflicted. As Singer notes, “We have still not answered the question of when an experiment might be justifiable. It will not do to say ‘Never!’ Putting morality in such black and white terms is appealing, because it eliminates the need to think about particular cases; but in extreme circumstances, such absolutist answers always break down.” Singer proposes that a good test of whether an experiment is ethically justified is to consider whether or not we would consider conducting it on humans who are impaired and have a mental life similar to the animal we are proposing to use. For Singer, the ethically crucial requirement is that our actions produce as much pleasure and happiness and as little pain and misery as possible for all beings that have the capacity to experience happiness and misery.

The general structure of Singer’s argument can be applied in many other areas. For example, Singer advances a similar argument in support of taking seriously the suffering of animals used in modern methods of meat production. As in the argument about using animals in experiments, Singer is not putting forth an absolutist conclusion. Rather than supporting strict vegetarianism, he allows for the possibility that eating meat is sometimes morally acceptable. For example, it is permissible to consume meat when a wild animal that is painlessly killed is eaten by people who would otherwise suffer hunger.

Opponents of Singer’s moderate position argue that the position entails consequences we are not willing to accept. One such consequence is that, just as we are sometimes ethically allowed to eat animals, or to end the lives of animals painlessly in a medical experiment, so too we would sometimes be ethically allowed to eat humans for meat or to end their lives painlessly in a medical experiment. This objection to Singer holds that by failing to recognize the inviolability of the moral claims of all morally considerable beings, “utilitarianism cannot accommodate one of our most basic prima facie principles, namely that killing a morally considerable being is wrong.”14

In contrast to a conservative or liberal position, a moderate position is vulnerable to such an objection precisely because it does not ascribe a right to life to humans or animals. Thus, for a moderate, such as Singer, our duties to other beings, whether human beings or animals, depend on what competing interests happen to be at stake in any given situation.

In contrast to the deontological approaches of Kant and Regan, Singer’s approach is an example of a consequentialist view. Consequentialist arguments hold that the moral worth of our actions is measured solely by the consequences they produce, not by their conformity to an overarching principle or duty. For this reason, Singer can say, for example, that:

Torturing a human being is almost always wrong, but it is not absolutely wrong. If torture were the only way in which we could discover the location of a nuclear bomb hidden in a New York City basement and timed to go off within the hour, then torture would be justifiable.13

Likewise, experimenting on brain-damaged human beings will almost never be justified, but under rare circumstances could be.

Key points

• There are three distinct answers one might give to the question, is there anything morally distinctive about humanity?

• The “conservative” answer: humans alone have moral standing and a right to life.

• The “liberal” approach: some animals possess qualities that conservatives equate with moral standing and “personhood,” and some human beings lack those qualities.

• The “moderate” view: what is morally important about humans and animals is their capacity to suffer; both humans and animals have an interest in avoiding suffering.

• For moderates, the moral acceptability of animal research depends on the balance of the suffering produced weighed against the importance of the interests the research serves: when animal research serves relatively minor, indirect, or nonurgent interests, but causes serious suffering, it is morally unacceptable.

• Both liberals and conservatives hold that there are absolute prohibitions against harming “persons” or treating them as a means only; these apply regardless of whether abiding by such prohibitions produces the best consequences overall.

• For both liberals and conservatives the moral acceptability of research with animals or human beings depends on whether or not the subjects of research are persons with a right to life.


1 Isachenkov, V. Space Dog Monument Opens in Russia. AP Moscow. Friday April 11, 2008

2 Whitehouse, D. First Dog in Space Died Within Hours. BBC News, World Edition. Monday 28 October 2002, 10:34 GMT.

3 Oleg Gazenko, speaking at a Moscow news conference in 1998.

4 Kant, I. (1998). The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of MoralsMary J. Gregor (trans.), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 428

5 Wood, A. (1998). Kant on duties regarding nonrational nature I. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Suppl72, 189–210 at 189.

6 Kant, I. (1996). Metaphysics of MoralsGregor, M., ed., transl. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 193.

7* Kant, I. (1997). Lectures on Ethics, transl. by P. HealthHealth, P. and Schneewind, J., eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 212–13.

8 Wood, A. (1998). Kant on duties regarding nonrational nature I. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Suppl72 (sup plement), 189–210 at 194–5.

9 O’Neill and Kant O. on duties regarding nonrational nature II. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Suppl72, 211–228, at 223.

10* Korsgaard, C. (2005). Fellow creatures: Kantian ethics and our duties to animals. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values25, 77–110.

11 Singer, P. and Cavalieri, P. (1993). The Great Ape Project. Fourth Estate, London, discussed in O’Neill O. Kant on Duties Regarding Nonrational Nature II. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society72 (suppl), 211–228 at 224.

12* Regan, T. (1976). Do animals have a right to life? In Animal Rights and Human ObligationsRegan, T. and Singer, P., eds. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, pp. 197–204.

13* Singer, P. (2009). Animal Liberation, updated edition. New York: Harper Collins.

14 The moral status of animals. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed (Accessed March 8, 2009).

Further reading

Kant, I. (1963) Duties to animals and spirits. In Kant I, Lectures on Ehics, transl. by L. Infield. New York: Hackett Publishing Company, p. 240.