Chapter  7: Human Experimentation

Section 4. Reading


The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research

Author:  Carl Cohen  

Title:       The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research

Publication Information:  New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 315,

No. 14 (1986) pp. 865-870


Summary by Nancy Weitzman (QCC, 2004)



Using animals as research subjects in medical investigations is widely condemned on two grounds:  first, because it wrongly violates the rights of animals and second, because it wrongly imposes on sentient creatures much avoidable suffering.  Neither of these arguments is sound.  The first relies on a mistaken understanding of rights; the second relies on a mistaken calculation of consequences.


Carl Cohen rejects arguments by those who favor severely curbing or eliminating animal experimentation, then defends the position that we have a strong duty to conduct such experiments to alleviate human suffering and extend human lives.


Cohen argues that animals have no rights – a right properly understood is a claim or potential claim, that one party may exercise against another.  The differing targets, contents and sources of rights and their inevitable conflict together weave a tangled web.  Notwithstanding all such complications, rights are in every case, claims, or potential claims, within a community of moral agents.  Rights arise and can be defended only among beings who actually do or can make moral claims against one another.  Therefore, rights are necessarily human and their possessors are persons, human beings.  Most influential has been Immanual Kant’s emphasis on the universal human possession of a uniquely moral will and the autonomy its use entails.  Humans confront choices that are purely moral; humans, not dogs or cats, lay down moral laws for others and for themselves.  Human beings are self-legislative, morally autonomous.


Animals cannot possess rights.  In conducting research on animal subjects, therefore, we do not violate their rights because they have none to violate.  We must not infer, therefore, that a live being has, simply in being alive, a “right” to its life.  The assertion that all animals only because they are alive and have interests, also possess the “right to life” is an abuse of that phrase and wholly without warrant.  However, we are not morally free to do anything we please to animals.  We do have obligations that do not arise from claims against us based on rights.  Rights entail obligations but many of the obligations we ought to have do not involve the other’s entitlement.  Teachers have obligations to their students, shepherds  to their sheep and cowboys to their horses.  Your dog has no right to daily exercise and veterinary care, but you do have the obligation to provide these things for him.  Obligations may arise also from special relationships or kindnesses done.  One might feel obliged to put their animal out of its misery in view of a terminal health condition.  None of these obligations, however, involve a claim of right.


The grounds of our obligations to humans and to animals are complicated.  Some hold that there is a general obligation to do no gratuitous harm to sentient creatures; some hold that there is a general obligation to do good to sentient creatures when it is reasonably within our power to do so.  In dealing with animals, most people will agree that we are at least obliged to act humanely and treat them with decency and concern because they are sentient creatures.  To treat animals humanely, however, is not to treat them as humans or as the holders of rights.


Animals lack the capacity for free moral judgment.  They are not beings of a kind capable of exercising or responding to moral claims.   Animals, therefore, have no rights, and they can have none.  This is the core of the argument about the alleged rights of animals.  The holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty, governing all including themselves.  In applying such rules, the holders of rights must recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just.  Humans have such moral capabilities.  They are in this sense, self-legislative, and are members of communities governed by moral rules and do possess rights.  Animals do not have such moral capacities.  They are not morally self-legislative, cannot possibly be members of a truly moral community, and therefore, cannot possess rights.  In conducting research on animal subjects, we do not violate their rights, because they have none to violate.  To animate life, even in its simplest forms, we give a certain natural reverence.  However, the possession of rights presupposes a moral status not attained by the vast majority of living things.  We must not infer, therefore, that a live being has, simply in being alive, a “right” to its life.  The assertion that all animals, only because they are alive and have interests, also possess the “right to life” is an abuse of that phrase and wholly without warrant. 


The capacity for moral judgment that distinguishes humans from animals is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one.  Persons who are unable , because of some disability, to perform the full moral functions natural to human beings are certainly not ejected from the moral community.  Humans are of such a kind that they may be the subject of experiments only with their voluntary consent.  The choices they make freely must be respected.  Animals are of such a kind that it is impossible for them to give or withhold voluntary consent or to make a moral choice.  What humans retain when disabled, animals have never had.  Human beings can act immorally, but only they, never wolves or monkeys, can discern, by applying some moral rule to the facts of a case that a given act ought or ought not to be performed.   Communal behavior among animals, even when most intelligent and most endearing, does not approach autonomous morality in this sense.


Animals can certainly suffer and surely ought not to be made to suffer needlessly.  However, in inferring from these premises that biomedical research causing animals distress is largely wrong, the critic commits two serious errors.

The first error is the assumption, often explicitly defended, that all sentient animals have equal moral standing.  Between a dog and human being, there is no moral difference; hence the pains suffered by a dog must be weighed  no differently from the pains suffered by humans.  To deny such equality, is to give unjust preference to one species over another – it is speciesism.  The most influencial statement of this moral equality of species was made by Peter Singer.  A racist  violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race.  A sexist violates the interest of his own sex.  The speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species.  In each case, the pattern is identical.  This argument is not a sound one.  It draws an offensive moral conclusion from a deliberately devised verbal parallel that is disingenuous.


In defense of speciesism, abandoning reliance on animal rights, some critics resort instead to animal sentience – their feelings of pain and distress.  We should desist from this imposition of pain as much as we can.  Since all or nearly all experimentation on animals does impose pain and, according to critics should not have to be the case, it should be stopped.  The ends sought may be worthy, but those ends do not justify imposing agonies on humans, and by animals the agonies are felt no less.  The laboratory use of animals must be ended or at least sharply curtailed.


When balancing the pleasure and pains resulting from the use of animals in research, we must not fail to place on the scales the terrible pains that would have resulted, would be suffered now, and would long continue had animals not been used.  Every disease eliminated, every vaccine developed, every method of pain relief devised, every surgical procedure invented, every prosthetic device implanted – virtually every modern medical therapy is due, in part or in whole, to experimentation using animals.  Nor can we ignore in the balancing process the predictable gains in human and animal well-being that are probably achievable in the future but will not be achieved were the decision made to desist from using animal subjects for research. 


Opposition to the use of animals in research is based on arguments of two different kinds – those relying on the alleged rights of animals and those relying on the consequences for animals.  Both arguments will fail.  We do have obligations to animals, but they have no rights against us on which research can infringe.  In calculating the consequences of animal research, we must weigh all the long-term benefits of the results achieved, to animals and to humans, and in that calculation we must not assume the moral equality of all animate species.

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