The Ethics of Animal Experimentation

"To cure disease and prevent death is to promote the fundamental conditions of social welfare."

Different moralists give different reasons as to why cruelty to animals is wrong. But about the fact of its immorality there is no question, and hence no need for argument. Whether the reason is some inherent right of the animal, or a reflex bad effect upon the character of the human being, or whatever it be, cruelty, the wanton and needless infliction of suffering upon any sentient creature, is unquestionably wrong. There is, however, no ethical justification for the assumption that experimentation upon animals, even when it involves some pain or entails, as is more common, death without pain,—since the animals are still under the influence of anæsthetics,—is a species of cruelty. Nor is there moral justification for the statement that the relations of scientific men to animals should be under any laws or restrictions save those general ones which regulate the behavior of all men so as to protect animals from cruelty. Neither of these propositions conveys, however, the full truth, for they are couched negatively, while the truth is positive. Stated positively, the moral principles relating to animal experimentation would read as follows:—

1. Scientific men are under definite obligation to experiment upon animals so far as that is the alternative to random and possibly harmful experimentation upon human beings, and so far as such experimentation is a means of saving human life and of increasing human vigor and efficiency.

2. The community at large is under definite obligations to see to it that physicians and scientific men are not needlessly hampered in carrying on the inquiries necessary for an adequate performance of their important social office of sustaining human life and vigor.

Let us consider these propositions separately.


When we speak of the moral right of competent persons to experiment upon animals in order to get the knowledge and the resources necessary to eliminate useless and harmful experimentation upon human beings and to take better care of their health, we understate the case. Such experimentation is more than a right; it is a duty. When men have devoted themselves to the promotion of human health and vigor, they are under an obligation, no less binding because tacit, to avail themselves of all the resources which will secure a more effective performance of their high office. This office is other than the mere lessening of the physical pain endured by human beings when ill. Important as this is, there is something much worse than physical pain, just as there are better things than physical pleasures.

The person who is ill not merely suffers pain but is rendered unfit to meet his ordinary social responsibilities; he is incapacitated for service to those about him, some of whom may be directly dependent upon him. Moreover, his removal from the sphere of social relations does not merely leave a blank where he was; it involves a wrench upon the sympathies and affections of others. The moral suffering thus caused is something that has no counterpart anywhere in the life of animals, whose joys and sufferings remain upon a physical plane. To cure disease, to prevent needless death, is thus a totally different matter, occupying an infinitely higher plane, from the mere palliation of physical pain. To cure disease and prevent death is to promote the fundamental conditions of social welfare; is to secure the conditions requisite to an effective performance of all social activities; is to preserve human affections from the frightful waste and drain occasioned by the needless suffering and death of others with whom one is bound up.

These things are so obvious that it almost seems necessary to apologize for mentioning them. But anyone who reads the literature or who hears the speeches directed against animal experimentation will recognize that the ethical basis of the agitation against it is due to ignoring these considerations. It is constantly assumed that the object of animal experimentation is a selfish willingness to inflict physical pain upon others simply to save physical pain to ourselves.

On the moral side, the whole question is argued as if it were merely a balancing of physical pain to human beings and to animals over against each other. If it were such a question, the majority would probably decide that the claims of human suffering take precedence over that of animals; but a minority would doubtless voice the opposite view, and the issue would be, so far, inconclusive. But this is not the question. Instead of being the question of animal physical pain against human physical pain, it is the question of a certain amount of physical suffering to animals—reduced in extent to a minimum by the precautions of anæsthesia, asepsis, and skill—against the bonds and relations which hold people together in society, against the conditions of social vigor and vitality, against the deepest of shocks and interferences to human love and service.

No one who has faced this issue can be in doubt as to where the moral right and wrong lie. To prefer the claims of the physical sensations of animals to the prevention of death and the cure of disease—probably the greatest sources of poverty, distress, and inefficiency, and certainly the greatest sources of moral suffering—does not rise even to the level of sentimentalism.

It is accordingly the duty of scientific men to use animal experimentation as an instrument in the promotion of social well-being; and it is the duty of the general public to protect these men from attacks that hamper their work. It is the duty of the general public to sustain them in their endeavors. For physicians and scientific men, though having their individual failings and fallibilities like the rest of us, are in this matter acting as ministers and ambassadors of the public good.


This brings us to the second point: What is the duty of the community regarding legislation that imposes special restrictions upon the persons engaged in scientific experimentation with animals? That it is the duty of the State to pass general laws against cruelty to animals is a fact recognized by well-nigh all civilized States. But opponents of animal experimentation are not content with such general legislation; they demand what is in effect, if not legally, class legislation, putting scientific men under peculiar surveillance and limitation. Men in slaughterhouses, truck drivers, hostlers, cattle and horse owners, farmers and stable keepers, may be taken care of by general legislation; but educated men, devoted to scientific research, and physicians, devoted to the relief of suffering humanity, need some special supervision and regulation!

Unprejudiced people naturally inquire after the right and the wrong of this matter. Hearing accusations of wantonly cruel deeds—actuated by no higher motive than passing curiosity—brought against workers in laboratories and teachers in classrooms, at first they may be moved to believe that additional special legislation is required. Further thought leads, however, to a further question: If these charges of cruelty are justified, why are not those guilty of it brought up for trial in accordance with the laws already provided against cruelty to animals? Consideration of the fact that the remedies and punishments already provided are not resorted to by those so vehement in their charges against scientific workers leads the unprejudiced inquirer to a further conclusion.

Agitation for new laws is not so much intended to prevent specific instances of cruelty to animals as to subject scientific inquiry to hampering restrictions. The moral issue changes to this question: What ought to be the moral attitude of the public toward the proposal to put scientific inquiry under restrictive conditions? No one who really asks himself this question—without mixing it up with the other question of cruelty to animals that is taken care of by already existing laws—can, I imagine, be in doubt as to its answer. Nevertheless, one consideration should be emphasized. Scientific inquiry has been the chief instrumentality in bringing man from barbarism to civilization, from darkness to light, while it has incurred, at every step, determined opposition from the powers of ignorance, misunderstanding, and jealousy.

It is not so long ago, as years are reckoned, that a scientist in a physical or chemical laboratory was popularly regarded as a magician engaged in unlawful pursuits, or as in impious converse with evil spirits, about whom all sorts of detrimental stories were circulated and believed. Those days have gone; generally speaking, the value of free scientific inquiry as an instrumentality of social progress and enlightenment is acknowledged. At the same time, it is possible, by making irrelevant emotional appeals and obscuring the real issues, to galvanize into life something of the old spirit of misunderstanding, envy, and dread of science. The point at issue in the subjection of animal experimenters to special supervision and legislation is thus deeper than at first sight appears. In principle it involves the revival of that animosity to discovery and to the application to life of the fruits of discovery which, upon the whole, has been the chief foe of human progress. It behooves every thoughtful individual to be constantly on the alert against every revival of this spirit, in whatever guise it presents itself.


It would be agreeable to close with these positive statements of general principles; but it is hardly possible to avoid saying a few words regarding the ethics of the way in which the campaign against animal experimentation is often waged. Exaggerated statements, repetitions of allegations of cruelty which have never been proved or even examined, use of sporadic cases of cruelty to animals in Europe a generation or two ago as if they were typical of the practice in the United States today, refusal to accept the testimony of reputable scientific men regarding either their own procedure or the benefits that have accrued to humanity and to the brute kingdom itself from animal experimentation, uncharitable judgment varying from vague insinuation to downright aspersion—these things certainly have an ethical aspect which must be taken into account by unbiased men and women desirous that right and justice shall prevail.

It is also a fair requirement that some kind of perspective and proportion shall be maintained in moral judgments. Doubtless more suffering is inflicted upon animals in a single day in a single abattoir in some one city of our country than in a year, or years, in all the scientific and medical laboratories of all the United States. Do they come into court with clean hands who complacently, without protest and without effort to remedy or to alleviate existing evils, daily satisfy their own physical appetites at the cost of the death of animals after suffering, in order then to turn around and cry out against a relatively insignificant number of deaths occurring, after skilled precautions against suffering, in the cause of advancement of knowledge for the sake of the relief of humanity? Surely, until it is finally decided that the taking of animal life for human food is wrong, there is something morally unsound in any agitation which questions the right to take animal life in the interests of the life and health of men, women, and children, especially when infinitely more precautions are used to avoid suffering in the later case than in the former.