From a purely biological perspective, no creature inherently has rights beyond that which it has the power to impose. What is able to survive does, what cannot does not. But our world is not just biology. It is ethics as well. “Might makes right” cannot be the operating paradigm in a world where freedom, compassion, humanity, and love are desired. Nor are we removed from consideration of the rights of other creatures just because we are paying somebody else to create drugs, scent a deodorant, or raise our food.
Humans with the ability to use their technology to affect and control the world so widely and deeply are constantly faced with ethical choices. Modern life is not a matter of mere survival as it was when we were in the wild. It is an opportunity to develop and grow as introspective, sensitive, and ethical people. For example, walking in the woods requires no rules, but driving in traffic does. Drinking from a stream is not a problem, but damming the stream and flooding thousands of acres is. Breaking down brush with our hands to make a lean-to for shelter is one thing, but denuding the planet with machines is quite another. Hunting animals in the wild for food using only ingenuity, strength, and speed is a matter totally unlike wiping out whole populations with rifles (for ‘sport’) or with our urban encroachment. Farming animals to feed a swelling population is necessary, but denying them any form of natural or decent life, or subjecting them to abuse or cruelty is not a right we can claim.
Living in the wild would present few ethical choices. Causes and philosophy have a way of taking a back seat when life is consumed with day-to-day survival. But an advanced society with almost limitless technological capabilities is another matter. Our ability now to practically cage and control every creature on the planet and virtually destroy the Earth’s life-supporting environment on an Earth-wide scale requires choices and ethical responsibility.
The first choice to be made, it would seem, is whether we wish to survive here long term or not. Assuming the answer is yes, we must take fiduciary responsibility for the planet and its web of life. But it does not end there, as some humane and green movements would seem to argue. In order to survive we must also take the lives of the plant and animal food we consume. That is a reality we face, and, assuming we wish to survive, it is not a matter of ethics. On the other hand, our management and behavior toward other living things-including our food-do present moral choices. It also creates a mood, if you will, setting the tone for how we treat one another. If we find it easy to treat life with insensitivity, it is a small step to treat one another the same way. If we extend care, compassion, and decency out toward the rest of the world, we are far more likely to treat fellow humans similarly.
Killing animals or plants for fun or just because we have the power to do so is neither rational nor ethical. It is a form of psychopathic behavior that threatens the web of life upon which we depend and desensitizes us to the value of all life.
People who take joy in the pain, suffering, and death of other creatures, or justify it because of dollars to be made, threaten civilization itself. It is not that great a leap for those who behave in this way to extend similar insensitivity to humans. Would we rather live next door to someone who creates habitat for wild creatures in their yard and live-captures house mice to set them free outdoors, or someone who stomps on any bug they see, chains their dog to a stake in the yard, yahoos about shooting songbirds from their window with a pellet gun, and hunts for trophies leaving carcasses to rot? It is not a coincidence that serial killers often have a history of torturing and killing animals (1).
Creatures raised for food should not be treated as nothing more than production units, confined so as to never see the light of day, and then be handled and slaughtered inhumanely. They should be raised kindly in a free and open environment where they might enjoy the life they have. Arguably hunting should be reserved for the singular purpose of obtaining food, not for the pleasure of killing. If there is opportunity to show compassion, why not take it rather than abuse and exploit just because we have the power to do so?
Scientists and much of the public justify animal experimentation as necessary in order to find disease cures, test toxins, check mascara safety, and so on. I am reminded of an experience in a toxicology class. The lesson for the day was to show how topical products could be screened for safety. For a demonstration, the professor held a rabbit by the nap and put some drops of a chemical in the rabbit’s eye. The rabbit squealed and struggled in pain. It was a miserable thing to see. As days went by we were shown the progression of the caustic chemical on the rabbit’s cornea. The extreme ulceration that resulted was grotesque and the pain the rabbit was enduring was gut wrenching. To this day I remember vividly and regret that I paid tuition for this needless cruelty-although to show any reaction at the time risked being viewed as unscientific and emotional, a definite no-no in medical schools.
The lesson to be learned from this pathetic display of human insensitivity was that noxious chemicals will ulcerate and dissolve eyes. How profound. There wasn’t a student in the class that could not have guessed the outcome before the macabre demonstration was done. The real takeaway was that life could be treated with disregard. If we wanted to be good doctors we needed to suck it up, put aside silly compassion and bravely mutilate life for the sake of the greater good of medicine.
Torture aside, such experimentation is unnecessary and really quite embarrassingly sloppy science. Those who participate in it become desensitized to suffering, lose compassion, and learn to hone the skill of obtuse justification. Medical experimentation upon animals is unnecessary because every species reacts to toxins, drugs, and even surgery differently. For that matter, every individual is different biochemically. What might be true for one goose is not for a gander. So a scientific result from a lab in which thousands of mice, dogs, or monkeys are tortured does not give certainty about an effect in humans or in other species. Biological differences skew all results (2).
Aspirin causes birth defects in rats but not in humans. Humans and guinea pigs require vitamin C in the diet but most other creatures manufacture it themselves. An opium dose that will kill a human is harmless in dogs and chicks. Allylisothiocyanate will cause cancer in the male rat, but may not in the female, or in mice. Penicillin will kill a guinea pig but potentially save the life of a person. Most drugs, nutrients, and toxins have a reverse effect: a benefit at one level is a danger at another. Measuring such things is near impossible (3). Even kindness in the lab can alter results as demonstrated by atherosclerosis (the heart attack factor) being reduced by as much as 60% in rabbits that are handled, compared to those ignored (4).
The point is that nobody knows all the variables when conducting such research. They can only control for some, guess at all the others, and then make an extrapolation, a huge leap in faith timed precisely to occur before the budget runs out. This is the reason drugs go through years of FDA trials at a cost of 360 million dollars, and then can kill and maim when introduced to the population.
Nevertheless, such heartless experimentation proceeds in the name of science and the promise of cures. It’s a shame. Using a little logic, or other laboratory tools such as tissue culture techniques, could as well have led to the same conclusions gained from animal experimentation. For example, researchers used 24,000 mice to prove that 2-acetylaminofluorene was carcinogenic. Based on genetic context logic, you or I could have told them the result without caging or torturing one mouse. Why would a synthetic chemical such as this not be harmful?
What is most frustrating is that the result of all the animal experimentation is not cures. Rather, there are hundreds of thousands of maimed and killed humans who bought into the faulty science of such ‘proven’ drugs. Animal research brings us drugs with side effects, dependencies, prescription errors, cross-reactions, and removal of symptoms while the cause of the disease continues. Animal experimentation is a bad idea at its start and a tragic disaster in practice.
The popular idea is that our environment, including all of its creatures, is a mere resource for our exploitation. That is irrational if long-term human welfare is to matter and denies that humans have a higher purpose than might makes right.
(1) Relationship between Animal Abuse and Human Violence. Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, 2007. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: http://www.oxfordanimalethics.com.
(2) Gawrylewski, Andrea, ‘The Trouble with Animal Models: Trials and Error’, The Scientist 21-7 (2007), 45-51.
(3) Qureshi, B. The reverse effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 83 (1990), 131-132.
(4) Rowland, D. The Nutritional Bypass: Reverse Atherosclerosis Without Surgery. Parry Sound: Rowland Publications, 1995.