The human animal engages in six main ways with the other animals with which (whom?) we share the planet. These ways are: as assistants in human enterprises; in competitive sport; as spectacles; as companions; as subjects in scientific research; as food. I shall discuss the last on my list in a future essay. It raises the issue of vegetarianism and veganism. In this essay, I shall discuss the other five.
Animals such as horses, donkeys or bullocks are no longer used very much if at all in assisting heavy labour, at least in the UK – they have been replaced by mechanical assistance. But dogs, for example, can provide invaluable assistance as guide dogs or in sniffing out drugs or explosives. Indeed, I believe they can assist in medicine by sniffing out cancers and approaching epileptic fits.
In poorer countries, the use of certain animals in heavy labour continues and the question this raises concerns how they are treated. I fear that the answer in many cases is that often they are not treated humanely. I don't think it is controversial to say that, no matter how they are employed by human beings, animals ought to be treated humanely.
Ethical issues over the use of animals in competitive sport depend entirely on what the sport is. Horse-racing seems acceptable; it is the nature of a horse to enjoy running. But again something will turn on how horses are trained. Similarly dogs seem to enjoy the complicated tasks they are set at Crufts and similar – perhaps because they are domesticated and anxious to please. But there can be few defenders of cock-fighting or dog-fighting. These practices are illegal, although they continue in certain parts of the UK. No doubt the spectacle of the cruelty involved is attractive to some spectators, and money is also involved.
The animals involved in the spectacle of circus acts raise two ethical issues. The first is the possible cruelty involved in the training of the animals. Circus-owners and trainers deny that there is cruelty in the training for the acts so I will not comment further. The second issue is more subtle. Whereas horses seem to gallop for sheer joy – it is an expression of their equine nature – it seems contrary to the nature of other large animals to perform tricks. This side of the circus spectacle is being phased out. Personally, I am a bit squeamish about the tricks, such as a kind of dancing performed by horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
The use of animals as companions has greatly increased during Covid. Indeed, sometimes people prefer animal to human companionship. I remember reading of a well-known couple who had for years wanted to divorce. The problem was that neither wanted custody of the children but both wanted custody of the dog. The ethical issue of companion animals, especially those animals acquired during Covid, is that as normality returns, the owners of the animals begin to neglect them.
When the use of animals in scientific research is raised, the issues are highly contentious. Animals have been used in research to test cosmetics. This is widely condemned (although no doubt it still goes on) so I will not discuss it.
In medical research, animals are used for four main purposes: the testing of new drugs; the study of basic mechanisms of body function in health or disease; the testing of hypotheses about physiological or pathological processes; the transplant of animal organs or other tissues into human beings (xenotransplantation). Can these uses be justified?
It can be argued against the use of animals that they are living, sentient beings and, since they have no say in the matter, they should not be used for experimental purposes. In support of this, we can imagine a piece of science fiction. We can be invited to imagine that the human race is invaded by hostile aliens from outer space. They discover that a medical problem common in aliens can be cured by removing organs from human beings. The aliens decide to do so. They have the power to do so, and they are acting from the highest motives: to benefit the suffering of fellow aliens and to cause minimum suffering to the human race. Have the aliens a case? If they have, it is similar to the one used to justify research on animals to benefit human subjects.
The plain truth is that we carry out research on animals for our benefit because we have the power to do so. In this context at least, it seems to be assumed that might is right. For those readers who prefer something less fanciful than examples from science fiction, a direct moral judgment can be made: that it is wrong to inflict pain on any living creature even for good motives, such as the search for cures for human health problems.
In opposition to this position, that it is morally wrong to use animals in medical research, it can be argued that we must balance the suffering caused to animals with the benefits to humans, and sometimes to animals themselves. Moreover, it can be pointed out that those who do use animals in experimental work follow clear guidelines laid down by the Home Office (in the UK). These include the use of as few animals as possible; the use of animals for specific purposes only; avoidance of pain or discomfort; proper safeguards for their use. While there are safeguards in place, it is very doubtful if there are sufficient inspectors to ensure that the rules are being followed.
Apart from the ethical considerations, there are also scientific arguments against the use of animals for research purposes. For example, it can be argued that it is because animals are not human that results obtained from them are not reliable. What seems to be successful in a mouse population might have serious side-effects in the human population.
There is ongoing research into the possibility of using animal organs for transplant into humans (xenotransplantation). Disturbing methods are required in the processes involved in obtaining animal organs, such as those from pigs, for transplant. In the attempt to avoid rejection by the human body, pigs are injected with human genes. This creates a new species of transgenic pig. Processes of this kind can stir up a deep-rooted human fear, like the Ancient Greek fear of hubris. Or it can be a reminder of the original temptation in the Garden of Eden: Ye shall be as gods.
There are two very general cultural movements which are beginning a social resistance against using animals for experimental purposes, or otherwise interfering with their natural lives. One is the fear of plagues, of the creation of new viruses which may jump from animal to human. The mechanisms of this are not fully understood, but the fear exists. It is increased by speculation – which may or may not be justified – about the causes of recent plagues, including COVID-19. For the Ancient Greeks, hubris – trespassing over natural boundaries – leads to nemesis or catastrophe.
The second cultural movement is a more positive celebration of the environment, and a growing recognition that we are one animal species among others with whom we must share the planet. The likelihood is that, in the post-pandemic era, the use of animals for human purposes will decline, partly for the two reasons I have just suggested, but also because science will find more accurate, less controversial, and cheaper ways of serving the purposes for which animals have hitherto been used.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow