Animal Ethics Theory and Philosophy

The philosophy of ethics is generally concerned with extracting the ethical principles that we use to make moral decisions and judgments, examining and extending them to see how well they hold, and proposing alternative ones when flaws are inevitably found.


The ethical principles that are usually used to justify the way we interact with animals often don’t hold up under scrutiny. When they are carefully examined, they usually simply place humans at a higher importance than animals, based solely on the fact that they are human. Richard D. Ryder coined the term ‘speciesism’ as an analog to racism, sexism, etc.1 In his essay ‘Experiments on Animals’ he wrote:

In as much as both “race” and “species” are vague terms used in the classification of living creatures according, largely, to physical appearance, an analogy can be made between them. Discrimination on grounds of race, although most universally condoned two centuries ago, is now widely condemned. Similarly, it may come to pass that enlightened minds may one day abhor “speciesism” as much as they now detest “racism.” The illogicality in both forms of prejudice is of an identical sort. If it is accepted as morally wrong to deliberately inflict suffering upon innocent human creatures, then it is only logical to also regard it as wrong to inflict suffering on innocent individuals of other species. … The time has come to act upon this logic.2

Most justifications for the human use and abuse of animals are some variation of the argument that humans possess more and better cognitive capabilities than other animals, and therefore are given greater moral value. This claim by itself is debatable, but let’s assume it is true. Under that criterion, a severely mentally disabled human’s welfare should be given lesser value than a mentally healthy human’s. This is clearly not the case in the ethical code of modern society. It is not ethically permissible to run painful scientific experiments on severely mentally disabled people, to own them, to keep them confined in spaces so small that they cannot move, to eat them, to wear their skin, to watch them from behind glass, or to kill them when there is not enough space to house them. Furthermore, most humans would strongly object to a hyper-intelligent alien species doing these things to us. Yet all of them are done to animals on a regular basis. In fact, animals are bred and raised for these very purposes. Therefore it is not mental capacity that justifies what we do to other animals.

I have tried to find an argument that pure speciesism is not the reason for our treatment of animals, but all of them seem to agree that speciesism is present, but that it is morally acceptable for various reasons.1

Speciesism can also be manifested in our differential treatment of different kinds of animals.  An orangutan is considered more valuable than an antelope, which is considered more valuable than a salamander, which is considered more valuable than a dung beetle. Again, differences in cognitive abilities are usually cited for these distinctions, but the judgments are generally based on how the species is perceived by humans. If they exhibit signs of intelligence similar to our own, they are seen as more valuable. But things like whether we find them beautiful or cute as opposed to ugly or scary, and how often we are exposed to them come into the picture also. And in building this hierarchy of moral value, humans are implicitly placed at the top, which would be the case, since we are the only ones who get a say in the matter.

One possible problem with this concept is that it itself can be extended. Why do animals have more moral value than plants, fungi, or bacteria? Just because an organism moves, obtains energy, and reproduces in similar ways to ours, and has a body with a nervous system that works like our own, does that make it worth protecting over others? We could say that giving animals more value than other organisms is a kind of ‘kingdomism.’ Because of this, I think that notions of sentience are relevant to the conversation. However, to my knowledge there is not enough data on the inner lives of plants and other organisms to continue this line of reasoning at this time.

The following theories recognize the problem of speciesism and propose ways to improve our relationships with animals without solely invoking a form of prejudice:


Peter Singer is the major proponent of this theory, which says that the morally right choice is always the one that minimizes suffering. He says that any being that can feel pain and pleasure has an interest in living and not suffering, and therefore has an experience that is morally relevant. He recognizes that our world is not one where suffering can be eliminated entirely, so he advocates always making the choice that causes the least amount of suffering to the least number of beings. A choice that causes the suffering of a few in order to prevent the suffering of many is ethical, under this view.3

There is certainly a lot that is appealing about this theory. It recognizes the suffering and preferences of non-human animals and gives them equal weight to those of humans. It allows for cases where inflicting suffering is morally justified. It takes into account the many conflicts between human and animal interests, where one group’s gain is the other’s loss. The attempt to turn these difficult ethical dilemmas into a numbers game makes sense, because it seems to simplify the problem.

However, numerous problems arise if we fully commit to this theory. Perhaps the biggest one is how to quantify suffering. Even with human suffering, it seems impossible to compare one person’s experience with another’s. To add to the problem, we don’t know what animals’ experiences are like, or how exactly our actions affect them. In addition, it’s not always clear whether a decision will in fact reduce suffering, and by how much. Singer wants us to just add up the net suffering that would result from either choice and choose the one with the smallest number. That isn’t really possible in practice.

Even if we could somehow assign a value to an internal experience, this theory would force us into some tricky situations. If we talk simply in terms of how many lives are ended versus preserved, the utilitarian view says that we should wipe out the human race. The US food industry alone kills about 10 billion land animals every year!4 And there are only about 7 billion of us. Clearly, if this is a numbers game, we have no ethical right to exist. This is an extreme example, but there are endlessly many cases where the utilitarian answer does not always feel like the ethical choice. Any ethical theory or justification that uses a “for the greater good” argument throws a red flag for me for these kinds of reasons.

Animal Rights Theory:

Possibly a more intuitive view is Tom Regan’s animal rights. He argues that every being with sense-perceptions, beliefs, motives, and desires has inherent value. Harming that being, causing it suffering, or taking its life violates that value and is therefore morally wrong. These beings should be treated with the respect with which their inherent value endows them, and cannot be harmed by other beings for their own gain.5

I like this theory because it comes from the intuitive idea that hurting another living thing is wrong. Instead of talking about huge incomprehensible numbers that may or may not accurately represent the situation, this theory deals with individuals. When talking about human ethics, this is usually the approach we take. Individual humans have the right to a life free from suffering, just because of their inherent value. If we reject speciesism, it follows that this should be true of animals as well.

There are clearly problems with this theory as well. Regan seems to make the distinction between actively causing harm and allowing harm to happen. He argues that we cannot inflict suffering on a living thing with inherent value, even if that action would have prevented the otherwise inevitable suffering of others. This gets tricky. If a child is dying because there is a ringworm living inside of it, an animal rights theorist would have to let this happen. The ringworm has sense-perceptions certainly, motives, desires, and beliefs debatably. Assuming it does, tt therefore has a right to life, which unfortunately involves taking the life of the child. Just as with utilitarianism, there are a million ways this theory can be applied and feel wrong.


An extension of animal rights theory, advocated for by Gary Francione, is animal abolitionism. The idea is that since animals cannot choose whether or not to participate in our society, we should not use them for anything. Any use of animals, from eating their meat to keeping them as pets, is exploitative and morally reprehensible. This is clearly an extreme view, even by the animal activist standard. Francione argues that small steps like encouraging vegetarianism are actually counter-productive because they make people feel better about living in an exploitative system.6 For him it’s all or nothing. I see why he would think this way, but the view seems alienating and not very productive, so I won’t spend much time on it.


None of these theories is particularly satisfying to me (this is why I don’t like studying philosophy). I suppose my own ethical instincts are a blend of utilitarianism and animal rights theory. I do think that causing suffering to an animal is morally wrong, because that individual life should be respected. But I don’t think there is much of a moral difference between inflicting harm and knowingly allowing harm to happen. The difficult questions are difficult because there is no way to eliminate suffering altogether. In these cases, I think you are forced to take a utilitarian stance and just try to minimize suffering. I suppose this view is something like ‘animal rights until forced into utilitarianism’ but that’s not very rigorous or well-defined.

I would like to point out that none of these theories ethically justify raising animals in factory farm conditions, keeping wild animals in zoos, or testing cosmetic products on animals. These are not the difficult questions I am referring to. Where these theories disagree is on issues like whether we can keep animals as pets, perform certain medical research on animals, or infringe on their habitats. Even though the jury is still out on these more complex issues, our actions are far from ethical when it comes to animals, and this should change.

1 Wikipedia on Speciesism
2 Ryder, Richard D. (1971). “Experiments on Animals,” in Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (eds.), Animals, Men and Morals, Victor Gollanz, pp. 41–82.
3 Wikipedia on Peter Singer, Wikipedia on Utilitarianism
4 Organic Consumers Association
5 Wikipedia on Tom Regan
6 Wikipedia on Gary Francione, Wikipedia on Abolitionism

The Language of Reporting on Factory Farms

In the last few weeks, the chicken and turkey farms in the American midwest have been infected with a highly dangerous strain of bird flu. This means that millions of chickens were killed, leaving their meat inedible. This story is an issue for public health, but it also points out the dangers of keeping millions of animals together in such close quarters.

There have been many articles about the outbreak from multiple news sources, but most of them have a couple things in common which speak to the way these animals are perceived.

Firstly, when referring to the mass slaughter of millions of birds, the most common wordings are that birds “were lost” or “had to be destroyed”. Some articles use the word “euthanized”, but even that is rare. This language takes away the blame and agency from the farms themselves, and presents the event as an inevitability, an uncontrollable natural disaster. The actions taken are presented as the natural course of action, or as motivated by mercy (euthanization is for the benefit of the animal).

Perhaps less subtle, but just as telling, is the description of the aftermath. Articles describe the financial loss, the measures taken to quarantine and disinfect the facilities, and reassurances that public health is not going to be affected. There is no mention of the unnecessary loss of life that came about because of the poor practices of the industry. The fact that literally millions of animals were killed is not part of the story.

When these stories are presented this way, the factory farm system is perpetuated. This should have sparked discussions about the problems with how these animals are kept, and all the negative consequences of factory farming practices. Most do not mention that wild relatives of the farm chicken do not get this disease. Instead, it’s a minor news story about some lost profits.

Read some of the articles I’m talking about here:

CNBC’s coverage

CBS San Francisco’s coverage

Minneapolis Star Tribune’s coverage

Eating Animals


The Situation:

The animal product industry is huge in the US and other developed countries, and there are so many problems with it that it’s difficult to know where to start. In the US alone, 9 billion land animals are put through the torturous life of a factory farm animal.1 Worldwide, this number may be as high as 70 billion.2 Over 99% of all animal products consumed in the US come from factory farms.3 The fact is that we depend heavily on a system that treats sentient individuals as profit-producing objects.

The life of an animal on a factory farm is horrible from beginning to end. In the interest of maximizing efficiency and profits, animals are kept in spaces so small they often cannot move, their bodies are mutilated (debeaking, tail clipping, etc.) without anesthetic to prevent animals from attacking each other or themselves out of frustration and anger. An animal is raised to its maximum utility and then killed, usually decades before the end of it’s natural lifespan. In egg and dairy industries, this means that male animals are often killed as soon as they are born. The slaughter process is rushed, so even if there are practices in place to make the slaughter better for the animals, they often cannot be adhered to. This means that many animals are fully conscious when they are skinned, boiled, or gassed to death.4

Although minimal legislation exists to regulate the slaughter of animals, the Humane Slaughter Act does not apply to chickens or turkeys, which make up a huge portion of factory farmed animals.5 Even animals covered by the act are often not slaughtered according to these minimal standards, because of poor regulation and cutting corners in the interest of efficiency.

In addition to being incredibly harmful to the animals, factory farms are notorious for abusing their workers. Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately employed by the industry, which means that they are unlikely to speak up about poor labor practices. The whole industry is set up to operate in secret, in the interest of profits. Workers are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals and dangerous conditions, so on-the-job injuries are the norm. If that isn’t enough, the work is extremely psychologically damaging. Factory farm workers have extremely high rates of mental illness, domestic abuse, and other violent offenses.6 This is hardly surprising given the nature and conditions of the work they do. The plight of these people is not well known, and support for them is minimal.

As if all that is not enough, the environmental impact of the factory farm industry is huge. Factory farms use huge amounts of water and energy, and they produce incredible amounts of waste that pollute the air and water.4 A single pound of beef takes about 1,500 gallons of water to produce, the equivalent of about 100 showers. 7 The industry’s contribution to climate change is estimated to be greater than all emissions from cars and planes.8

I could keep going, and talk about the overuse of antibiotics, the effects on communities, the low nutrition of the food produced. The factory farm system is simply indefensible. It is staggeringly inefficient, cruel, exploitative, and environmentally destructive. The fact is that we do not need to be producing animal products on such a large scale, and if we don’t stop, there could be serious consequences. Reliance on meat and other animal products simply is not sustainable, and not ethical.

The Psychology:

Although the industry has done everything it could to keep its practices a secret, these facts are starting to become better known. Many people are fully aware of some of the problems with factory farms, yet continue to support them by buying their products.

Dr. Melanie Joy talks about a concept called carnism, a kind of prejudice against animals used for food. People will object more to harm inflicted on a dog than to the same treatment of a pig, even though the two animals have comparable intelligence. This carnism is widespread, and certainly contributes to people’s acceptance of the problem. It’s a way to combat the cognitive dissonance people feel when they learn that the hamburger they are enjoying was produced in such a problematic way.9

However, this is clearly not the whole problem. The system is perpetuated primarily by separating the product from the process. The way animal products are talked about, marketed, and consumed completely removes the animals and workers from the picture. The products at the grocery store often do not look like the animals they come from. Marketing stays away from showing pictures of the animals at all, especially not in the real conditions in which they were living (the dairy industry is an exception, but that’s a separate issue). Even words like ‘beef’, ‘pork’, and others separate the living animal from the edible flesh. All of these factors contribute very sneakily to the fact that you simply don’t think of a factory farm when you buy a block of cheese or order a hamburger. It takes a great deal of effort to stop thinking of the thing on your plate as a piece of meat and start thinking of it as a dead animal.


There really isn’t much to discuss, nor any ethical questions to ask. The factory farming practices we employ are clearly wrong, on so many levels. Anyone who defends them is putting profits above public health, environmental protection, worker safety, and endless animal suffering. Change is clearly necessary here, and there is no sustainable, cruelty-free way to keep consuming animal products at the rate we are today. It’s simply inevitable that people are going to have to give up at least a large portion of the meat, eggs, and dairy that they are used to. Even those who advocate humane farming practices acknowledge that these practices cannot produce anywhere close to the volume produced by factory farms.

We need to stop treating living, feeling animals as commodities. They are not machines for turning huge amounts of water and energy into meat (even so, they would be incredibly inefficient). This fundamental shift in how we think of animals is not an easy one to accomplish, but it’s necessary if we want to move forward.

1 A Well-Fed World on factory farming
2 Factory Farming Facts
3 ASPCA on factory farming
4 Wikipedia on intensive animal farming
5 Wikipedia on the Humane Slaughter Act
6 VegNews, Inside the Life of a Factory Farm worker
7 Farm Sanctuary on factory farming and the environment
8 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine on factory farms
9 Dr. Melanie Joy on carnism

Animals in Zoos


The Situation:

The history of zoos is not exactly a pretty one. The idea of zoos has been around for a long time, as a way for wealthy people to display the exotic animals they or their friends had seen around the world. Having a menagerie was a symbol of status, a display of wealth, and a demonstration of power. Eventually, they became more popular and widely available. It became a normal occurrence to pay money to look at an animal (or person in some cases) that you would otherwise not get to see. Until recently, zoos were explicitly for the benefit of the owner, and the animals were treated entirely as commodities that generate profit. Living conditions were horrible.

Only in the last few decades has this idea gone through major changes. Zoos now claim to exist for the benefit of the animals. The idea is that if people can see the animals, they will be more likely to support the ones in the wild. Furthermore, breeding and research programs claim to help the entire animal kingdom. These claims are questionable at best, and the fact that these animals are clearly not living naturalistic lives makes the situation even worse.

There is no good evidence for the claim that going to a zoo makes a person more likely to contribute to conservation efforts.1 In fact, some critics say that zoos promote a false idea of the state of the animal kingdom, by focusing on a few appealing animals, giving a sanitized account of the problems facing those species, and not even mentioning thousands of species going extinct each year. People who come to see an animal in a cage surrounded by concrete and factory-farmed meat-filled restaurants, are simply not getting a very accurate picture of actual animals and the problems facing them.

Zoos also claim to be important scientifically. Research is conducted on the captive animals, and breeding programs ensure the survival of many species. The actual benefits of these, however, is not clear. The problem with doing research on captive animals is that they are likely to differ in many ways from their wild counterparts. Their diet, social interactions, environment, and physical and mental health are all directly impacted by being raised in captivity. This means that many results from scientific studies on zoo animals have to come with an asterisk, indicating that the results may not apply to the animals’ wild counterparts.

That said, I don’t think all of this research is useless. But there is another problem with this. Zoos exist to make profit, despite the image that they like to display to the public. I personally have looked into research internships and jobs with zoo animals, and they all seem to require interaction with the guests. This is not an environment where the animals will ever come first. Everything is designed to be appealing to the visitor. That does not mean that the zookeepers, researchers, and other zoo employees do not care about the animals, but it does mean that the system will never allow the animals to be the first priority.

There are several species which have gone extinct in the wild, and now exist only in zoos, and there are likely to be many more in the near future.2 Although at first glance this seems preferable to extinction, it’s important to consider the quality of life of these animals. Zoo animals have a whole host of physical and mental problems as a result of living in an environment that is so different from the one they evolved into. Strange, repetitive behaviors like pacing, swaying, and self-mutilation are common among captive animals.3 Often, social groups and families are separated, and enrichment for intelligent animals is minimal compared to the challenges of living in the wild. The question then is, should we continue breeding animals, knowing that their offspring will likely only experience this kind of life? For some species, reintroduction into the wild is possible, but this takes rehabilitation and therapy that is not possible in a zoo environment.

The Ethical Questions:

What is the true purpose of zoos?

Do zoos actually help individual animals? Animals in general?

Does helping a species justify keeping a few individuals in a cage?

Do human beings have the right to look at animals?

Is it ethical to train animals to perform for humans?


I claim that the purpose of zoos has not really changed much in the last century. They still exist primarily as a system that exploits animals for profits, but now pretends to be a force for good. But based on the actual experience as a zoo visitor, it’s hard to deny that zoos are a form of entertainment. This means that we are keeping sentient animals in small confined spaces, inflicting physical and mental harm on them, all for the sake of our own enjoyment. Furthermore, we are doing so under the pretense of helping them. Real efforts to reintroduce endangered species into the wild require distance from humans and a similar environment to the one the animals will need to learn to live in. Research on animals’ natural behavior requires the same things. I think these are good causes to pursue, but zoos are simply not contributing to them.

The underlying problem here seems to come from a person feeling entitled to see an animal that belongs on the other side of the world. We simply crave interaction with wild animals. It is a demonstration of power and lack of respect that we think it’s normal and even beneficial to take an animal away from its home and social group, put it in a concrete box, and charge people money to watch it simply exist. For a long time, this was done with humans as well. European circuses would have freak shows, menageries, and displays of ‘savages’ from colonized areas of the world. These displays of humans are now seen as reprehensible acts of prejudice and oppression, yet we continue to display animals in the same way. Whatever label we want to put on it, zoo animals are there for our entertainment, not for their own good. Once we get past that delusion, it becomes clear that the institution is not an ethical one, but is instead a manifestation of a system of oppression.

1 The Reality of Zoos

2 Animals only found in zoos

3 Zoos Drive Animals Crazy

Preserving Animal Habitats


The Situation:

It’s clear that human beings have had a devastating impact on the natural habitats of most other species on the planet. By some estimations, at least 10,000 species go extinct every year, largely due to habitat loss, overexploitation of resources, and other forms of environmental destruction. This is somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural (not caused by human activity) extinction rate.1 Obviously, the rate at which we are depleting resources and life on this planet is not sustainable, so things need to change for everyone’s sake. The question is how to go about doing that.

This post isn’t about environmental issues, that’s a whole other conversation that needs to be had. However, in the meantime, where and how should we put our resources in the effort to save endangered animal species. There is a trend toward focusing on species that are most interesting or appealing to people, which generally means cute or smart mammals. In some ways this makes sense, because conservation efforts rely on public support, and these are the animals that make people want to donate their money. On the other hand, there’s a prejudice here. Cute animals like the panda are getting huge amounts of attention, while thousands of other species are going extinct without notice all the time. Unfortunately, those human beings attempting to lessen the damage caused by their species are forced to choose which species get a chance to live and which don’t.

I mentioned that public appeal is a major factor in this choice. However, there are certainly other ones that can lead to some ethically questionable actions. Conservationists tend to favor biodiversity, which can mean essentially killing off an invasive species that is affecting the habitat around it. But is this an ethical preference or simply an aesthetic one? Efforts like the one in California’s channel islands can involve mass slaughter of animals introduced decades before by humans, with the intent of saving another species that is judged to be more important and more deserving of the habitat. In this particular example, it’s probably not a coincidence that the species being saved was a particularly cute kind of fox, and the success of the campaign depended on killing the much less marketable wild pigs and donkeys.2

The rate at which natural ecosystems are declining is much faster than all the efforts to restore them, however successful or ethically sound they may be. There needs to be a way to focus limited resources in this area to causes that will prevent the most future damage.

The Psychology:

I think most people who work on invasive species problems or other environmental issues that may have some ethical issues are coming from the right place. The usual justification for these is that because we caused huge changes to an ecosystem that we judge to be damaging, it is our responsibility to fix it. This would make sense if we could foresee the consequences of our decisions, but most of the environmental disasters happening now are happening because that is clearly not the case. But conveniently, this approach serves ourselves in a very significant way. It helps alleviate guilt. Many people (justifiably) feel extreme guilt for the negative affect that the human species has had on the other life on this planet. Putting time and effort into reversing those changes makes that feel a little less awful. I would guess that this is the reason that many people justify some pretty horrible actions for the cause.

Power is also a factor in this situation. It is undeniable that the human species has huge amounts of power over the environment. In almost all cases, exercising this power has lead to damage to natural ecosystems. Even so, I think that it is very difficult for people to accept or even consider that the best solution would be to relinquish that power. That’s a very hard thing to do for people, and this kind of thinking is often unstated.

The need to alleviate guilt and the desire to maintain a sense of power are both very strong psychological motivators. In this case, both seem to be at play in clouding people’s perceptions of right and wrong when it comes to how we should combat the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems.

The Ethical Questions:

How should we decide which species to try to save?

Should we have the power to remove invasive species at all costs?

Are biodiversity and preventing ecosystems from changing ethically relevant issues? Are we approaching them the right way?

How far should we go in preventing invasive species from taking over?

Where should conservation efforts focus their resources?


There does seem to be some value to keeping a level of biodiversity and preventing invasive species from destroying ecosystems. But there is also something to be said for not meddling more than we already have. Most invasive species are invasive because we brought them there (aren’t we the ultimate invasive species??), and trying to correct our own mistakes at sometimes great costs feels a bit like playing God. I would argue that we should focus our efforts on not affecting the natural habitats that remain any more than necessary. This may mean that ecosystems change, but ecosystems have been changing for billions of years. We seem to have an intense desire to control this process, but maybe things would be better if we just let them be.

From this standpoint, the conservation efforts that do make ethical sense are those like anti-poaching and anti-deforestation campaigns. The driving factor here is to reduce human impact on the environment, instead of trying to fix problems we’ve already caused. To me, this seems like a much better use of our considerable power.This is the approach that has the best chance of working, because we are minimizing unintended consequences. The ecosystems on this planet have gotten pretty good at taking care of themselves, much better than we are at maintaining them.

1 WWF stats
2 criticism of Channel Islands invasive species programs

Animals as Subjects of Research

Note: This post discusses experiments that study human problems using animal bodies as models for the human body. I have a separate post on research that aims to understand animal behavior, biology, etc.


The Situation:

When we do scientific experiments on humans, they need to give informed consent. This means that the participant knows what he/she will be asked to do, whether there are any potential risks or benefits, the purpose of the experiment, and that his/her well-being and safety is given highest priority. In contemporary science, anything else is considered unethical and cannot legally be performed.1

Of course, this is not always so clear cut. What if the experiment depends on the participant not knowing what is being tested? This is the case in many psychological experiments. In this case, the participant is given as much information as possible before the study, always including potential risks, and then debriefed after the experiment is completed. What if the participant is unable to understand the relevant information? If the participant is too young, or mentally incapacitated, then another person who has the participants’ interest in mind can give consent under certain circumstances.

Many scientific experiments with very real benefits simply cannot be performed under these restrictions. Animals are used as experimental subjects in these studies. The logic behind this assumes that 1) animals have less cognitive capacity than humans, and 2) this makes it permissible to experiment on them in ways that would be unethical with humans. It is estimated that 115 million animals are used in research per year worldwide,2 everything from chimpanzees and other primates to dogs and cats to reptiles, rodents, and insects. Nearly all of them are killed upon completion of the experiment.2

Animals cannot give informed consent, for obvious reasons. You cannot explain to an animal why an experiment is being performed, what benefits or risks might be involved, and what will be expected of that animal. The animal cannot make the decision whether it wants to participate. Just as infants or mentally incapacitated humans rely on others to make this decision for them, animals’ interests are represented by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which evaluates proposed experiments based on the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act.3 The committee decides whether an experiment’s use of animals is justified, whether the animals will be kept in acceptable conditions, and if suffering will be minimized under the limitations of the experiment.

Scientists who use animals are guided by the Three Rs: Replacement, meaning that other methods should be used if possible, Reduction, meaning that as few animals as possible should be used, and Refinement, meaning that procedure should minimize suffering and enhance welfare for the animals.4

I would like to point out the difference between this approach and the one described at the beginning of this article. With human subjects, the study is of secondary importance to the participants’ well-being. However, when evaluating animal experiments, there is an implicit assumption that there are experimental results that justify animal suffering. The IACUCs are only there to ensure that the experiment fits this description. The problem is that the legal standards for justifiable use of animals are surprisingly minimal. Just as with meat, leather, and other animal industries, the truth about these animals’ lives are not well known to the public, suggesting that there is incentive to keep these facts secret.

The Animal Welfare Act is the legislation that guides these decisions and experimental designs. It requires that a veterinarian be consulted for anything involving more that momentary pain, that the use of animals is justified in a written report, and that anesthetic be used whenever possible. There are also minimal requirements on how the animals are housed and obtained. These regulations only apply to vertebrates, and exclude birds, rats, and mice explicitly bred for experimentation. The vast majority of animals used in testing fall into this category, so they receive virtually no protection. This exclusion should be a red flag that the laws are not really designed to protect the animals. There is no difference between a rat bred for testing and one captured from the wild, yet one is given some legal protection and the other is not. Even so, over 1 million animals per year are covered under these laws in the US.5

The situation then is that nearly all animals used as experimental subjects can be subjected to anything, and the rest of them can be subjected to psychologically and physically damaging studies in the name of science. In practice the committee members on the IACUCs are not experts in veterinary medicine, zoology, or even the area of science that the studies they are evaluating fall into. This means that they are not particularly qualified to determine the effect on the animals involved or the scientific value of the study.3 This means that the committees are extremely lenient. They operate on a majority-rules basis, and the committees are usually small, so two or three people often make the decision.

The result of all of this is that animals are still used extensively in scientific research. An estimated 57% of those animals are subjected to more than momentary pain or discomfort.4 Many alternatives to animal testing are in development, such as computer models, synthetically grown tissues, and improved noninvasive scanning and imaging techniques. However, scientists can usually still make the case that animal use is justified based on the limitations of these alternatives.

On the other hand, modern medicine certainly would not be what it is today without these experiments. They certainly yield useful and life-saving results that go on to make people’s lives better.

The Psychology:

I’ve only talked to a few people who do this kind of research. One person treated the whole thing as a joke and didn’t seem to care, but everyone else I have talked to says that performing these experiments does take a psychological toll. It’s not easy to inflict suffering and end lives every day. But people do it. Some writers have brought up Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, where human participants were told by an authority to deliver increasingly painful levels of shock to another person. The shocks were not actually administered, which is lucky because many of the participants delivered lethal doses. These results were used to show that authority figures can greatly influence people’s behavior. (Sidenote: This experiment would be considered unethical and could not be performed today because it causes distress to the human participants.) Although this kind of dynamic may be a factor in researchers and their experiments, I think the pressure comes more from the culture and their peers. These people get through the day by telling themselves that the research will reduce suffering in humans in the future, that it’s a necessary evil. They also comfort themselves by saying that alternatives are being developed, and in the future these kinds of experiments will not be necessary. These kinds of justifications come from the fact that this is the way medical research has traditionally been done (which is not an ethically sound justification). It’s seen as inevitable, despite the obvious ethical questions involved.

When medical researchers doubt the ethicality of their experiments, it is due to feelings of shock or disgust at their own actions. However, if these feelings are mediated by the justifications above, the researchers will continue with their work. With repeated exposure, these feelings become less and less intense and will probably disappear completely. Then, when those researchers start to train the next generation, they are so desensitized to the violent nature of their work, that they pass on the status quo as a given. It becomes a cultural norm, which makes it very difficult, psychologically, to question and change.

What I found hardest to understand is how a researcher can inflict great pain and suffering on a beagle in his/her lab, and then go home and love his/her pet dog. Such an extreme case shows the psychological power of the situation. Either the test animals are completely separated from the pet animals in the researcher’s mind, or else there would be a huge cognitive dissonance felt between the conflicting set of feeling and actions. Studies have shown that when people feel cognitive dissonance between their thoughts and their actions, they tend to modify or justify their thoughts, and keep their actions the same. I would guess that this effect is very powerful in these cases.

The Ethical Questions:

Does reducing the suffering of humans justify the suffering of animals? Why not the opposite?

Why do we have different standards for different animals? Are these reasons justified?

Are there any research subjects that justify the suffering of animals? If so, how can we distinguish them from those that don’t?

What is the best way to move toward more humane alternatives?


The utilitarian view is that if the research will prevent more suffering than it causes, then it it justified. Peter Singer says that the suffering of an animal is given equal weight to that of a human, so by his view this is a numbers game. Does the research save more people than it does kill animals? The biggest problem with this is that it is usually impossible to tell how many people a study will end up saving. The whole idea of quantifying suffering is not easy to implement.

An animal rights theorist like Tom Regan would say that we cannot use animals in tests at all. They cannot give informed consent, and we have no right to inflict suffering on them because of their intrinsic value. In the scientific realm, this would be how we approach the problem if we raise animal suffering to the current moral level of human suffering. Scientific studies cannot be performed on humans without informed consent. By this logic, animals are not eligible to be test subjects.

Most people don’t think about in either of these ways. Most people do think human suffering is worse than animal suffering because humans are perceived to have more developed cognitive capabilities (according to humans). Indeed, it does seem that most, if not all, nonhuman animals cannot comprehend that they are being used, that they might have had a better life under different circumstances, or other abstract conceptualizations of their own situations. I do think this is relevant to the discussion. But it also brings up more problems. If we are justified in using animals because we are somehow cognitively superior, then it follow that if a hyper-intelligent alien species were to come to Earth, they would have the right to perform experiments on us, based on the fact that they can comprehend things that we cannot, and on the assumption that experiments on us will save alien lives. Harold Herzog calls this the E.T. Dilemma.6 I think most people would have a problem if hyper-intelligent aliens came and started doing painful experiments on us, but based on our own actions, we can’t really blame them for it.

A possible response to that argument is that there is a certain level of intelligence where suffering matters outside of any utilitarian argument, but that line is arbitrary. Of course we would draw it just below our own intelligence, which justifies our use of animals but not any other species’ use of us. That kind of arbitrary line does not hold up under logical scrutiny. It becomes pure speciesism.

As always, there is no easy answer. I believe that in lose-lose situations like this, and many other human-animal relationships, we have to choose the least terrible option. In some cases, that probably does mean using animals as models for humans in medical research. I don’t have a good answer as to how to tell these specific cases from the rest, but I do think that our current system is not working. It seems like there is a great deal of needless, unjustified suffering inflicted on animals by scientists. I think that cosmetics and other commercial products should never be tested on animals. Medical researchers should have to justify their use of animals to independent, federally-funded experts in the research field and in animal welfare. It should be very difficult to get approval to conduct a study that harms an animal. The process and specific cases should be transparent and available to the public and the press. Under these conditions, there is much more push to develop viable alternatives and improve the lives of animals who are giving their lives for ours. As it stands now, the system will only perpetuate itself.

1 McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychology Research Ethics. Retrieved from
2 Humane Society International’s page on animal testing
3 Wikipedia on IACUCs
4 Wikipedia on Animal Testing
5 Wikipedia on Animal Welfare Act
6 Harold Herzog’s essay on the morality of animal research

Animal Intelligence

Alex the Parrot

Alex the Parrot performs a numeracy task

Many of the arguments against the abuse of animals draw on conclusions or anecdotes from the field of animal cognition studies. The idea is that evidence that animals have inner lives of thoughts, desires, emotions, and beliefs is also evidence for animals having moral value. This kind of argument makes sense because not only does it provide a reason to respect animals as individuals, but it also makes it easier for the average person to empathize with animals. The problem is that it’s really hard to figure out what an animal is thinking.

The Situation:

Because humans are creating the experiments, there is always some level of anthropomorphism, or assuming that a nonhuman animal thinks in a similar way to humans. This is a problem all the way from defining intelligence to designing the experiment to interpreting the results. The field has gotten pretty good at removing human interpretation and bias from the picture, but it’s impossible to get away from it completely. And there are cases where it is useful to make comparisons, since we all evolved on the same planet from the same ancestors by the same process. It makes sense that there would be similarities between the mental states of humans and other animals. Anthropomorphism can go both ways, but it’s an important thing to be aware of in this context.

It’s still true that humans are the gold standard when you’re talking about intelligence. When we find something that humans can do but other animals can’t, the animals are labelled unintelligent, and we get a little ego boost. But if we find something that an animal can do that we cannot (usually a perceptual ability), our own level of intelligence is not questioned. There’s certainly a double standard, where humans are assumed to be an intelligent species (according to humans) but other animals have to prove their intelligence or lack thereof on human-set tasks. We are essentially judging an animal’s intelligence on our ability to understand their motivations and behaviors.

Clearly, all animals do not have the same cognitive abilities. Each species has a unique evolutionary history that shapes not only its physical characteristics but its mental capacities as well. Therefore we could see just as much diversity in cognition as we do diversity in physical traits. We’re not at the stage where science can really evaluate this claim. Currently we are only trying to catalogue and compare different species. Unfortunately, this is in the context of studying intelligence, where almost universally, more human-like means more intelligent. I don’t think this is the best way to approach the problem, but that’s what the field does.

With that disclaimer, animals do not perform very well on tasks that are designed to test overall indications of intelligence, such as conceptualization, applying specific learned knowledge to general novel situations, planning ahead, episodic memory, theory of mind, or self-control. Many of these have been tested on humans using the same experiments, and humans, even very young children, greatly outperform animals. Of course, there could be biases implicit in the tasks that favor human cognition, but these results occur over and over in different studies. They also tend to be correlated with larger and more complex brains. When reading the actual results, it’s hard not to think of these abstract abilities as indicators of rationality. It really does seem to be the case that humans understand the world and their place in it at a level that animals simply don’t.

This is a very new field, and there is an incredible amount that we do not know (and may never know) about an animal’s inner life. Questions about animal emotions and inner experiences are much more difficult to study behaviorally. Studies that use neuroscience methods to study these problems are starting to be performed, but again, the results are compared to what we know about human brains and experiences, which is not a whole lot. However, there are certainly pertinent results on animal experiences that are quite convincing. For example, contrary to the popular belief that fish do not feel pain, the same chemical receptors thought to be responsible for the human experience of pain are present in fish bodies, and fish respond to painkillers in similar ways to humans. To varying degrees, the same results have been found in everything from lobsters to fruit flies to octopi.1 This still does not mean we know anything about what pain feels like to each of these animals, but the evidence is there that it does feel like something. This should already be enough to question our practices, but studies and anecdotal evidence on emotion and relationships between animals provide a great deal more.

The Ethical Questions:

What should define intelligence?

Should human cognition be considered the highest level of intelligence?

Is cognitive ability a good reason to treat some species differently than others?

What are the morally relevant aspects of cognition?


There are certainly problems with the way we study animal cognition and label some species as intelligent and others as not. However, I think we are not able to approach the problem any other way at this point. Perhaps in the far future, we will be able to come up with a less-biased definition of intelligence and more effective ways of measuring it. In the meantime, I strongly believe that we should continue studying animal cognition, as long as we keep these limitations in mind.

An underlying principle in the field is Morgan’s Canon, a variant of Occam’s Razor. It states that any behavior should be attributed to the simplest possible explanation. So if something could be caused by a low-level function like associative learning/conditioning, then we cannot attribute it to higher level cognitive processing. This means that many behaviors that could be attributed to conceptualization, planning ahead, or other sophisticated cognitive abilities end up being attributed to less complex processes. I actually think this is a good way to approach the problem. It leads to a great deal of care in designing experiments and a very critical eye when evaluating them. These are good scientific practices. In fact, I think the human psychology field could learn a lot from this principle. It seems that human behavior is automatically attributed to higher level processes, probably because those are the processes that are consciously available to us. I think if scientists studied human cognition in the same way that they study animal cognition, we would find that we have much more in common than people might think, and animals would be the main beneficiaries of this paradigm shift.

As I’ve hinted at above, rationality does not seem like a good rationale for our use and abuse of animals. It leads to contradictions and ends up as simple speciesism. This is where the idea of sentience comes in. As often happens in discussions of mental phenomena, the definition of sentience has not been entirely agreed upon, but it generally refers to a being’s ability to experience, feel, and perceive the external world. Scientific study has a long way to go before it can clearly draw lines between what is sentient and what isn’t, but there is evidence for sentience in mammals, birds, reptiles, certain fish, and certain invertebrates. The example I described above about fish and pain receptors is an example of scientific study on an aspect of sentience. Contrast this with plants or bacteria, studies of which have revealed very little evidence toward calling them sentient.

The other candidates for morally relevant cognitive faculties might be things like ability to suffer, strength of inter-animal relationships, or capacity for mental illness and its possible effects. These are unfortunately not as studied as typical measures of rationality, but I would argue that this is where the field of animal cognition should focus its resources in the interest of improving the lives of animals. That is a lot easier said than done, because these are very difficult to measure in an experimental setting, or even observationally and anecdotally.

Based on what we know, there is plenty of reason to change the way we deal with animals. Just as in the philosophical situation, there are fuzzy edges to all of these claims, but even if you stick to the middle cases, what we do is not justifiable using this evidence. There is every reason to believe that animals do feel some form of  pain, boredom, hopelessness (read up on learned helplessness), grief, joy, and other complex and morally relevant emotions. To assume otherwise doesn’t make any sense, not only because of the evidence, but because the moral ramifications of being wrong are huge. As we understand animals more and more, we generally find that these mental faculties of animals are more similar to us than what we previously assumed. So it makes sense to air on the side of attributing complex, morally relevant mental lives to non-human animals.

1 Wikipedia on animal pain