Derbyshire on the Morality of Animal Research

 Posted by on 9 September 2008 at 6:03 am  Animals, Ethics, Science
Sep 092008

British scientist Stuart Derbyshire recently wrote the following essay defending the right of humans to use animals in scientific/medical research, and attacking the current UK scientific mainstream position against such research.

I thought it was especially noteworthy that he attempted to make his case on moral grounds. For instance, his article is entitled:

“Humans are more important than animals”

Also, the subheading is:

“When it comes to using animals in research, the only moral judgement should be: does it benefit humankind?”

In a related earlier essay from 2006 entitled, “The hard arguments about vivisection“, Derbyshire also arguee:

There is very good reason for believing that human beings are special. The sheer staggering scale and richness of human culture are unlike anything in any other species. The development of medicine, industry, transportation, communication, clean water, a stable food supply, and so on, are the discernible signs of culture and progress that are evidently absent from the non-human world. The absence of such cultural development in the animal world means that their experiences are also likely to be wholly dissimilar from ours, both as a cause and consequence of their limited progress.

Arguments in favour of animal research must include an acknowledgement that human beings are special…

Derbyshire is definitely moving in the right direction, although he does not quite make the full moral case. What he lacks is the explicit identification of reason as the source of human “specialness” (although it is implicit in his argument). It is man’s capacity for reason that gives rise to and explains the various unique features of human culture and behaviour Derbyshire describes. “Reason” is thus a fundamental characteristic of “man”, and is why one properly defines “man” as “a rational animal”.

Derbyshire also doesn’t quite make the argument that reason is the source of rights and that it is precisely man’s capacity for reason (and the volitional exercise thereof) that makes man’s special moral status both possible and necessary:

The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A — and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.

This is yet another example of where Objectivist philosophy can help place others’ good ideas on a more solid philosophical footing.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a scientist taking a man-centered view of his work, and using benefit to man as his standard of value. I hope we will see more discussion by scientists along these lines. And I also hope that Objectivists will be contributing to this debate.

* * *

I did submit a supportive letter to Spiked, but I’m not completely satisfied with the argument I used. If anyone has ideas for better formulations aimed at an active-minded member of the general public, please offer your suggestions in the comments section. In particular, I am interested in formulations that would fit within the usual LTE word limit of 150-250 words. I also welcome any criticism of what I actually did submit. If I botched my argument or should have taken a different tack, please don’t be shy in telling me!

Here is what I submitted:

Thank you for publishing Dr. Stuart Derbyshire’s essay, as well as linking to his 2006 piece, “The Hard Arguments About Vivisection”.

As a practicing physician, I am blessed to see daily the tremendous benefits that patients reap from scientific breakthroughs resulting from animal research — such as new “clot buster” drugs to stop brain strokes.

I wish more scientists defended the morality of animal research on precisely the same grounds that Dr. Derbyshire does — that it is good for people.

Dr. Derbyshire is quite right — humans are special relative to animals, because they possess the unique faculty of reason. It is this faculty that gives rise to and explains all the manifestations of human culture that he rightly praises in his 2006 essay, such as “medicine, industry, transportation, communication”. Animals exhibit none of this complex behaviour precisely because they lack the faculty of reason.

Furthermore it is man’s faculty of reason, not his capacity for suffering, that makes the concept of “rights” both possible and necessary. Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context — principles which presuppose both volition and reason. Animals have survival needs, but not rights — we don’t say that a lion violates an antelope’s “rights” when it stalks and kills the antelope. Nor does a human violate a cow’s “rights” when he eats a hamburger.

If humans can morally eat animals for food, we can also properly use them for other purposes that serve human interests, such as medical research.

Thank you,

Paul Hsieh, MD
Sedalia, CO
Co-founder, Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM)

Update: My letter (along with a few others) appears here.

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