This section contains the book Philosophy of Physiological Psychology, written by Dr. Refinetti in 1992.
Biological Research and Animal Rights

1. Description of the obstacle

A large part of research in physiological psychology is conducted in non-human species. This is done because of two main reasons: 1) our society feels that it is unethical to perform research with invasive procedures in human subjects, and 2) we have an intrinsic interest in the biology of animals (for veterinary reasons as well as for purely academic reasons). Exact figures for the proportions of each species used in research are very difficult to obtain, but estimates can be made. The National Library of Medicine of the United States produces a computerized database of publications in biomedical sciences around the world, which is called MEDLINE. Because medical publications include many case reports of patients undergoing treatment, MEDLINE inflates disproportionately the number of research reports using human subjects. With this bias, 68% of the 350,000 reports published in 1988 involved human subjects, whereas 16% involved rats and mice, 3% involved cats and dogs, and 3% involved sheep and swine. The American Psychological Association produces its own database, called PsycInfo. Because of the clinical orientation of this database, reports using human subjects are again overestimated. With this bias, 91% of the 37,000 reports published in 1988 involved human subjects, whereas 5% involved rats and mice, and 1% involved cats and dogs. Cambridge Scientific Abstracts (a company based in Bethesda, MD) produces the database called Life Sciences Collection, which is not as large as MEDLINE but is not biased by the medical emphasis. This database listed 100,000 publications in 1988, 24% of which involved humans as subjects. Rats and mice accounted for 22% of the publications, and cats and dogs accounted for 2%. Therefore, the proportion of studies using animal subjects in biobehavioral research is anywhere from 9% (PsycInfo) to 32% (MEDLINE) or 76% (Life Sciences Collection). Given the clinical bias in PsycInfo and MEDLINE, the estimate based on the Life Sciences Collection is probably closer to the actual figure. Therefore, it would seem that 3/4 of biobehavioral research is conducted in non-human animals.

Although plain observation of animal behavior in natural environments is feasible and can teach us a great deal about the animal, the majority of biological research requires some type of disturbance of the experimental subject. The study of biological phenomena by disturbance of the subject is called vivisection, as opposed to naturalistic observation. It should be noticed that dissection (i.e., the cutting into dead or anesthetized animals) is only a small subdivision of vivisection. The importance of vivisection for the biomedical sciences was stressed as early as 1865 by the great physiologist Claude Bernard. This is what he had to say about vivisection: "It cannot be gainsaid that this is the most delicate and difficult branch of biological investigation; but I deem it the most fruitful and perhaps the most immediately useful for the advancement of experimental medicine" (Bernard 1957 [p.14]). That vivisection is also of utmost importance specifically for physiological psychology will be obvious to anyone who browses through a textbook of physiological psychology. Consequently, antivivisectionism must be seen as an obstacle to physiological psychology.

Naturally, there are many ethical issues involved in the antivivisection controversy, and at least some of them will be discussed in this chapter. Emotional responses are evoked from the general public by the realization that some 20 million vertebrate animals are used in research each year (Bulger 1987). This is certainly an impressive figure, but we should not forget that about the same number of stray cats and dogs alone are put to death each year by humane societies (Nicoll & Russell 1989). More dramatically, well over 20 million chickens would have to be killed each day to feed the world population of several billion inhabitants. However, independently of the emotional and political issues involved, we should not fail to acknowldge that, from the strict viewpoint of philosophy of science, antivivisectionism is an extraneous movement aiming at the obstruction of progress in biological science. Antivivisectionism constitutes, therefore, an epistemological obstacle to the development of science.

2. Discussion of the obstacle

The manifesto of the modern antivivisection movement was Peter Singer's book, Animal liberation (Singer 1975). Although, as we will see in a moment, Singer himself was willing to defend his position with rational arguments, a number of activists took the path of terrorism, including depredation of laboratories and attempts at murder (Erickson 1990, Samuels 1990). Editors of biomedical journals felt the strength of the movement and wrote editorials about it (Korner 1984, Koshland 1989, White 1988). Embarrassed by being depicted as animal torturers by the activists, biomedical researchers overreacted by imposing on themselves strict rules for the use of animals in research (Bulger 1987, Dresser 1988, Johnson 1990). On one hand, this decision was very positive because it showed that researchers were willing to compromise and also because it actually improved the quality of biological research by forcing scientists with sloppy animal maintenance habits to shape up. On the other hand, it reinforced the wrong conception that antivivisectionism is a philosophy that merely opposes the mistreatment of research animals. Once the question of mistreatment had been settled, researchers thought they only needed to remind the public that animal research is intrinsically honorable because it leads to the improvement of medical procedures for the treatment of diseases that afflict millions of children and adults (Kaplan 1988, Nicoll & Russell 1989). This strategy fails to touch the core of the antivivisection controversy.

Antivivisectionism is not restricted to the issue of liberation of laboratory animals; it encompasses the whole issue of animal rights (Singer 1975). This means that the real issue in the antivivisection controversy is not the mistreatment of research animals, or the immediate usefulness of biomedical research. The real issue in the antivivisection controversy is a conflict of values, a conflict between those who believe in animal rights and those who do not (Refinetti 1990). Let's examine this in more detail.

Although the phrase "animal rights" could refer to any set of rights attributed to animals, Singer endorsed the opinion of most antivivisectionists that animal rights and human rights are equivalent (Singer 1990). The main argument is that there is no logical reason to attribute moral rights to humans but not to animals. To religious people and others who believe in natural moral laws, this may seem silly. For the rest of us, Singer's argument is very strong. Indeed, if morality is a relative matter, then there is no necessary distinction between the moral rights of different forms of life. In other words, the moral supremacy of humans is unjustified. More than that, we do have a moral rule that prohibits cruelty and abuse of other fellow human beings. That is, independently of the arbitrary nature of the rule, most of us believe in basic human rights. Now, this is all we need to make a storm. Indeed, if a) we believe we should not exploit or be cruel to other human beings, and b) there is no good reason to deny human rights to other animals, then c) animal exploitation is just as morally wrong as human exploitation.

Once we accept that animal exploitation is wrong, there is no way back. Some people would like to think that biological research is the only major form of animal exploitation. A little reflection about our world will show otherwise. Let's start with pets. We certainly love our pets and do not wish them any harm. We actually enjoy being nice to them. But one could certainly ask: Who gave us the right to purchase a pet and to keep it in our houses for as long as we want? Indeed, if your cat were a human being, you would certainly go to jail for treating the child like an animal. Clearly, we do not treat pet animals the way we treat human beings. This is even more clear in professional contexts. Farm animals are not loved by their owners and are dramatically exploited. We exploit animals as food, by eating their meat, drinking their milk, eating their eggs, and so on. We exploit them as clothing, by wearing fur coats, leather jackets, and wool sweaters. We exploit them as plain entertainment, by fishing, riding a horse, and visiting the zoo. We also exploit animals as work force (horses, donkeys, camels) and as tools (bird feather, camel hair). There is no doubt, therefore, that we constantly violate animal rights.

Let's now return to the beginning of the argument. We agreed that moral principles are arbitrary and that, therefore, there is no logical reason to deny moral rights to animals. What we did not say is that, if moral principles are arbitrary, there is no reason to deny or to attribute moral rights to anyone (animals and humans alike). That is, if morality is relative, then no moral right is absolute. Thus, it is up to us to choose who we will attribute moral rights to. The Declaration of Human Rights (Ramcharan 1979) is a clear indication that we want to attribute moral rights to humans. What about animals? Only public opinion surveys can enable us to answer this question. The amount of animal products that can be found in supermarkets and clothing stores seems to be a strong indicator that humans believe to be superior to the other animals and to have the right to exploit them. Regarding the specific use of animals in education and research, surveys show that, although a large proportion of the surveyed people may object to mandatory dissection in high school (Cassidy 1990), more than three-fourths of American adults reportedly believe that the use of animals in biomedical research is necessary (Anonymous 1989).

An emotional argument used by Singer might be able to overcome our reasoning. His argument is that animals are like children in that they cannot express themselves properly and are unable to fight for their own cause. Consequently, we need to fight for them (Singer 1975). However, biomedical researchers also have an emotional argument: our children cannot choose whether they want better health in the future or animal liberation now. Consequently, we need to choose for them (Goodwin 1990, Kaplan 1988). This means that those who fight vivisection are not simply defending their moral convictions; they are also denying to their own children the medical benefits of animal research.

The animal rights controversy clearly transcends the level of scientific investigation. For this reason, it is very easy to criticize the animal rights movement from the perspective of philosophy of science. Antivivisectionism is an obstacle to the advancement of physiological psychology because it explicitly advocates a radical reduction in experimental research. On the other hand, the fact that the controversy transcends the scientific sphere makes it very difficult to deal with the issue in a political perspective. Most of us honestly feel that animals are lesser moral beings than humans. But, as Singer (1975) pointed out, slave owners used to honestly feel that blacks were lesser moral beings than whites. How can we be sure that one day society will not regard vivisection in the same way that it regards slavery today? Unfortunately, we cannot be sure of that. As Sartre used to say, we are painfully free to choose our own destiny, and painfully responsible for each of our choices (Sartre 1970). We support the practice of vivisection today because we sincerely believe that we have the right to use animals in research and honestly feel that our children's welfare, as well as our own, is dependent on this research.

Table of Contents

© R. Refinetti  ·  www.circadian.org  ·  All rights reserved