Under what circumstances are we justified in using animals for scientific experimentation and for food?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, October 1997





This paper raises the question whether under some circumstances it is justified to use animals for scientific experiments or for our own satisfaction as food. Different views of humans and animals rights is discussed to explain why we as human beings might have the right to decide over other species lives. This paper shall argue that animals are assets to human beings, and that we can justify the use of them in experiments and for food. This must of course not be mismanaged, but we do not have to feel responsible to anyone for our beliefs.



Scientific experiments, animal rights





Imagine you are spending a weekend in the outback with some friends. As darkness approaches, so do the mosquitoes. You hastily pick up the repellent to limit the amount of mosquitoes in and around your tent by poisoning them to death with the spray - only to satisfy yourself and not for other reasons.

Now imagine yourself standing in a research station watching the same amount of puppies getting killed for scientific reasons. Is one of these killings more justifiable than the other? Are there excuses or reasons for accepting the killing of some animals, and if so, can these be defined? Would it not be more right to kill the puppies instead of the mosquitoes in the examples above, as that might lead to some kind of profit, but killing the mosquitoes only seems to be a cruel, selfish act?

The discussions about animal rights have been in focus for quite a long time and whether it is right or not to kill animals is a big question lacking satisfying answers. This paper raises the question whether under some circumstances it is justified to use animals for scientific experiments or for our own satisfaction as food. Different views of humans and animals rights is discussed to explain why we as human beings might have the right to decide over other species lives. However, it will not come up with a conclusion about what is right and wrong as there are no correct answers to this question. What is important, is to find out how species differ from each other, bringing us information to be able to make up our own opinions about using animals for food or scientific experiments. Thoughts and information is gathered from known philosophers as Peter Singer, Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, Jane Smith and Kenneth Boyd.


Firstly, the distinction between animals and humans must be defined in order to better understand some of the presented views. What makes humans so special that they might have the right to be in charge over other creatures? We often believe that we have the rights to use some animals for food or experiments, but on the other hand agree upon that they count morally. Although their interests matter, they can be traded off for benefits to humans or other animals, as in scientific experiments. This is the ”double standard” that we invoke in our thinkings about humans and other animals and looks very speciesistic, as it covers these actions giving special weight to the interests of our own specie. (Townsend, p. 30, p. 39)

Immanuel Kant’s definition of what matters morally, is the respect for persons, defining person as a self-conscious being, a being with a conception of itself as someone with a past and a future. This view will lead to the double standard as most animals apparently do not have the self-consciousness that prevents them from the right of not being used in, for example, experiments (Townsend, pp. 40-41).

But Peter Singer expands this view, adopting Jeremy Bentham thoughts that we have to take into account the interests of all those affected when dealing with humans as well as other living creatures. Singer explains this with that anyone who has the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness, has the prerequisites for having some rights not to be used or killed (Singer, 1994b, pp. 21-23, pp. 55-62). Singer agrees with Kant about that some animals can be denominated as persons, and with sentience and self-consciousness as the two characteristics for moral consideration, he concludes that a great deal of killing of non-human animals must be condemned as these characteristics can be found in different species alongside the human race (Singer, 1994b, pp. 117-119).

The belief that some animals have the qualifications to be denominated as persons, and sentience being a moral consideration, puts a new outlook on the issue of killing animals. It is as if some species become just as important as humans in terms of how to be treated. They become equivalent to human beings, making any killing of them very hard to defend. But Singer also mentions the replaceability argument, arguing that it sometimes can be justified to kill non-self-conscious animals regarding them as interchangeable with each other in a way that self-conscious beings are not (Singer, 1994b, pp. 132-133). Singer focuses many of his arguments on the suffering of animals, and by no doubts it can be said that many animals more or less do suffer and feel pain. Should we then avoid all killings of animals, or can we justify some killings?



A common opinion is that the use of animals in medical research has proved worthwhile for human purposes, with consequent benefits to human and animal health, helping to develop new medicines and curing diseases to make our lives longer and more worthy (Smith/Boyd, p. 48). However, people who have studied trends in human health from a historical point of view, points out that it is not always because of these experiments that human longevity has increased. Improved sanitation, diet, and living conditions are some reasons for that result (Singer, 1994a, p.59). It must be quite obvious though, looking impartially at the results gained throughout the decades, that without these experiments medical research would never have come as far as it has today. Certainly, the use of animals has contributed to increased health and length of life among humans and animals.

As has been shown, Singer is against the most experimental killings of self-conscious animals, but what if experiments are necessary for saving a big population of animals or even a whole specie? This can be regarded as ”the ethics of emergency”, and Smith/Boyd discusses this in their article. Their conclusion is that this can be justified in cases where epidemics could be prevented, species could be saved or if the result of the experiments leads to the development of a new vaccine. They even state that researches on human beings could be justified, if that really is needed (Smith/Boyd p. 50). This is close to a utilitarian view which interest is in always bringing out the best possible outcome. Smith/Boyd also discusses the use of other animals for experiments when there is no certainty that the result will be a success. In short, they believe this could be justified as long as the scientific community consider the welfare of the animals, and that it is possible to predict some benefit accruing from the researches to the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of disease, ill health or abnormality in humans or animals (Smith/Boyd,
pp. 50-53).

But Singer seems to be stuck with the question how we ever can justify the suffering of animals. He is not fully buying Smith/Boyd’s arguments, but means that the use of animals in experiments has to be examined on a case by case basis. His attitude is apparent in his conclusion of his article about animals and experimentation:

            ”It follows that, in respect of experiments that may cause pain, distress,
or suffering of any kind, we ought to apply to non-human animals the same standard of protection that we apply to human beings who are not
and never will be capable of giving consent to experimentations” (Singer, 1994a, pp. 59-62).

Sentience is important to Singer who seems to refuse to accept that pain is a part of this world, and not the most important aspect when it comes to situations, as experiments, where researchers actually often try to limit the pain of humans or animals by using animals. If we believe dear old Darwin’s theories about that the strongest always has survived and will survive, it should not come to a surprise for humans and animals that suffering is something we can not avoid, and sometimes good will come out of it, as in experiments with animals.



As for the question of using animals for food, the answer at first seems to be a little clearer in the case of accepting the idea of some animals being persons, and therefore as important as humans. Singer concludes this, saying:

”In any case, at any level of practical moral principles, it would be better to reject altogether the killing of animals for food, unless one must do so to survive. Killing animals for food makes us think of them as objects that we can use as we please.” (Singer, 1994b, p.134)

Of course there are other ways of approaching this issue. A utilitarian view could agree with Singer, meaning that it is normally wrong to kill animals for food as the amount of happiness (the animal’s wishes to be alive and experience good things) decreases by killing them. But another utilitarian view is to see animals as replaceable, and killing them for food would decrease the amount of happiness, yes, but also create new animals since if no one ate meat there would be no more animals bred for fattening (Singer, 1994b, p.121). Singer agree on that sometimes it could be possible to use this replacement theory in, for example, raising chicken for their meat (Singer, 1994b, p.133), but in another paragraph argues that the replaceability argument holds little appeal if we think of living creatures as self-conscious individuals who wants to go on living (Singer, 1994b, p. 125).

On the other hand, do animals not eat each other? How can we go against Mother Nature if we do not justify the use of animals for food? It could be argued that we do not need to eat animals to go on living, but it appears to me that this is a gift to us, and what would life be without fried chicken breast with rice and lemon sauce?



Conclusively, there are many different thoughts about using animals for scientific experiments or for food. This paper has shown that this can be justified, if one only is willing to do so. Arguments for and against the use will always end up with a no win situation, as it all depends on our different moral beliefs and attitudes. Peter Singer seems to be against most use of animals for whatever reason, but on the other hand do not deny that sometimes it could be permissible. Examples of this is if it is necessary to use animals in experiments or applying the replaceability argument in using non-human animals for food. Facing the fact that scientific experiments have gained positive results for humanity is for me a strong argument for using animals in research, and so I adopt the double standard. There might be a strong case for not using animals for food, as this is more a luxury than a need for us humans. But my belief is that animals are an asset to us humans in our mission on planet Tellus, and that we can justify the use of them in experiments and for food. This must of course not be mismanaged, but we do not have to feel responsible to anyone for our actions.


Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.



Singer, P., ”Animals, Ethics and Experimentation”, Study Guide, 1994a, p.59-62 in: Johnston, N.E. (ed), Proceedings of the Animal Welfare Conference, Monash University, may-93

Singer, P., Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1994b, pp.21-23, 55-62, 117-121, 125, 132-134

Smith, J.A., Boyd, K.M., ”Benefits of biomedical research involving animal subjects”, Study Guide, 1994, pp. 48-53 in:  Lives in the Balance: The Ethics of Using Animals in Biomedical Research, The report of a Working Party of the Institute of Medical Ethics, Oxford University Press, 1991, chapter 3

Townsend A., Notes on ”Other animals”, Study Guide, 1994, pp. 30, 39-41