One of the papers referenced in the IASP curriculum is “Moral community and the responsibility of scientists” (Arthur Caplan, Acta Physiologia Scandinavia Suppl 1986, 128:(554)78-90). Here are my thoughts while reading this paper.
Do animals have moral rights? This is important because if so, we should treat them as human, giving them the option of not participating in an experiment. In humans this is done with “informed consent” and if you thought animal research was thoroughly regulated, human research involves even more oversights and paperwork. Of course you can’t get a signed consent form from an animal but it is feasible to set up an experiment which rewards an animal for participating in a painful experiment.
My answer to the question is, Animals have moral rights only if they have moral responsibilities. What is a moral responsibility? I’m not a philosopher, but I’ll assert it is only a moral responsibility when it goes against our nature, and when this unnatural action is for a greater-than-individual good, such as the good of our community or family. So it is unnatural to restrict our food intake but we’re probably doing that for our own benefit primarily so that doesn’t make dieting “moral” (however holier than thou we feel). But to deny ourself food so that there is enough for the children, that is moral.
Would you expect an animal to do such a thing? No. If an animal does a thing that seems moral (like starve to feed the babies) it is instinctual. (Or are we being instinctual when we think we are being moral? My opinion is no.)
Since animals don’t have moral responsibilities they don’t have moral rights.
That doesn’t mean we have carte blanche with animal experimentation. It just means that “moral rights” isn’t a valid argument against it.
Some have argued for individual value. That it doesn’t work to claim that animal experimentation benefits humans, because in the process a lot of animals are harmed. (My daughter takes this point of view, in fact.) What good is it to save 10 human lives if 100 rats die? Well, most of us, particularly if we are the human whose life is being saved, would think that is a pretty fair price. But then what is the ratio? How much of a human life is a rat life worth? Is it 100 rats per human? 1000? How do you quantify something like that?
Some research isn’t going to save lives, it will improve quality of life. You could make use years of life affected, 100 lost years of rat life is worth 100 human years of improved quality of life.
Food animals are far more “wasteful” of life in this regard. Cattle live 15 years but we eat them when they are half that age. One cow serves 350 meals. (I got all these numbers from places like answers.com, so take them for what that’s worth.) At 1 meal per day, 7.5 years of cow life buys 1 year of human life.
On the other hand, that cow would never have existed if we hadn’t bred it, so maybe the 7.5 years it got to live cancel out the 7.5 years we took from it.
Back to the point, even if you are vegetarian you can’t deny that no animal would consider that a waste. Any animal that had pangs of conscience about eating another would fall to natural selection. Viruses have used billions of rats to infect millions of humans just to make more copies of their DNA. Our experiments allow other humans to make more copies of their DNA for a little while longer.
“The most convincing arguments against allowing researchers to conduct experiments involving animals have nothing to do with talk of ‘animal rights’ or photographs of gruesome animal experiments. The argument that the public is likely to find most persuasive against animal research is the argument that researchers are so morally arrogant that they will not deign to take their critics seriously.”
Caplan says that we refrain from experiment on fetuses and farming the comatose for organs more out of respect for their friends and families than from the inherent value of the individual. Is this true? How would we feel about farming a comatose individual who has no friends or family? I find it objectionable; why is that? Is it because we identify with the friendless person as a person who, although friendless, COULD have been our friend or relative. “That woman could have been my mother,” we think. “That child could have been my son.” I refuse to keep a rat as a pet, because my research uses rats. If we go back to the concept that X rats = X years of human life (or quality of life), then can we calculate that X years of comatose life of a friendless human = X years of happy quality human life? “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one,” as Spock says, or is it “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many”?