Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Animal experimentation and the lie of ‘high welfare standards’


Yesterday the Medical Research Council (MRC) released a press story boasting that ‘animals used in research are provided with the highest standards of care and welfare.’ The ricidulousness of this statement should be plain to anyone with half a brain, but sadly it’s a pervasive myth that animals are treated ‘humanely’ and to high welfare standards.

To have high welfare standards means to look after an animal’s wellbeing. Seriously harming a being is not compatible with wellbeing: it’s simply incoherent to claim that you are providing high welfare standards whilst causing harm. Similarly, to be humane is to show compassion or benevolence: causing severe harm is not compatible with showing compassion or kindness.

The science industry cuts up live animals, it gives them diseases and disabilities, it breeds them with terrible conditions, it inflicts chronic pain, and it makes them suffer physically and psychologically. None of those things are compatible with high welfare and nor are they humane.

The cognitive acrobatics required to believe that seriously harming an animal is compatible with high welfare standards are impressive, but the MRC is kidding itself and lying to us. By all means, argue that the harms are permissible, or that they are necessary (I happen to disagree, but that’s an entirely separate argument), but the lie that animals are treated humanely or with regard to their wellbeing is so absurd a lie that it really ought to stop.

This is the reality of Britain’s ‘high welfare standards’:


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

5 thoughts on “Animal experimentation and the lie of ‘high welfare standards’

  1. Dear Steve, I am afraid there is a quite a lot of misunderstanding. You should read carefully the statement. It talks about “standard”, this means a set of rules followed to standardize (i.e. make as identical as possible) the treatment each animal is given. This is with respect with any other “standardized” -exploitation- environment (e.g. farming, which has sizes of several orders of magnitude greater than scientific research). In this sense, if as human community we accept that animals can be exploited -and most of us do-, labs animals (which are for more than 90% mice, rats and fishes) receive the highest quality treatment in terms of hygiene, environmental conditions, stress. Obviously the experimental phase can be stressful, as an hospitalization, but we must acknowledge that it is a necessary (and usually limited in time) step for the health care and scientific development. This is the meaning of the statement.

    Is this “humanely”? You shall ask to humans. I do not agree about the necessity of cognitive acrobatics to “justify” animal exploitation. Inter-species exploitation is the norm (among all heterotrophic species), hence it is not a surprise that we are cognitively wired for exploitation. Maybe it can be complicated to build the moral framework in which we can accept this way of dealing with a basic human necessity (i.e. health), but I do no see such a framework as much more “acrobatic” than the average philosophical framework.

    As of the video you linked, I think it is quite dishonest. Dogs and cats represent around the 0.001% of animals used in research, and only when it is strictly necessary. Yet they are used as symbol of it by its detractors. An aberration which could lead to harm for the scientific research involving flies, worms and rodents, the same animals we all kill in billions with pesticides every day, to keep them off the resources we contend with them and prefer to keep for ourselves.
    I could reply with a video of a 6 years old boy, breaking into tears after his acoustic device is turned on for the first time, allowing him to hear the voice of his parents the first time in his life. Or the tears of a mother when the surgeon confirms a successful implant of an artificial hearth-valve on her child, saving his life from threatening disease. All result impossible to attain without animal research. But is this the correct way of leading an intellectual debate?
    I think that video is not even coherent. How many cats and dogs die in car accidents, are beaten, mistreated, abandoned by their owners? But not because of this we prohibit dogs and cats captivity and selection, as this is not representative of what domestication is. In the same way, animal research is not correctly represented by the video you linked, hence it is not a good video to promote a correct vision on animal research. With that video you follow a morally questionable path, implicitly promoting the idea that empathy, rather than moral status, should be a driving factor to decide if it is morally correct to exploit a living being. In this way you are no more coherent than those who -following the principle you seem to approve-, would exploit -like worms or flys- an intelligent, sentient, moral being, only because it is not cute enough or capable of an appreciable interaction with humans.

    To this end, I would like to know your opinion about the principle of “moral status” used by Carl Cohen to justify the exploitation of all the animal species which do not belong to a species where a continuous degrees of moral awareness exists (like, so far, only in humans). Thank you.

    Best regards,

    • It’s not remotely a misunderstanding to say that claiming that animals are treated humanely or to a high standard of welfare is simply untrue. It may be true that they are treated to a higher standard than some other animals in other contexts, but it’s incoherent to suggest that deliberate, serious harm is compatible with high welfare or humane treatment.

      You may think that the results are good, or that the harms are necessary, but it’s only possible to argue this if you give no consideration to the goods of other species, and if your definition of necessity is without limits on what is permissible. Saying that enormous harm is the means to acheive a desired outcome says nothing about whether the means is morally permissible. So no, I don’t accept that this research is necessary, because I think the concept of necessity you employ is far too expansive and builds-in no moral constraints.

      As for Carl Cohen – well, that’s a whole post of its own for another deay, but his arguments have generally struck me at seriously lacking. The idea that we should attach moral status to a property that doesn’t exist in the being we’ve accorded status to is frankly ridiculous. It makes sense to say that my kids have the potential to vote, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that my 4yr old should therefore be able to vote now. Species membership is a terrible (arbritrary) thing to hang moral status off, and it can only be managed with dodgy arguments about potentiality, historical possession, analogues to family membership, or theories of kinds – none of those are remotely convincing. Animals have moral status because they are sentient – their capacity to feel pain and pleasure means that pain and suffering are bad for them for their own sakes. They have morally relevant interests and that’s enough; we wrong them when we treat them as the means to our ends in ways which set back their interests in seriously harmful ways.

      However, as I said, this post is not supposed to be a defence of animal rights, it’s supposed to refute the incoherent claim that the serious harms inflicted are compatible with wellbeing or that causing serious harm can be humane.

  2. I think that the moral status is not only the property of a being, but also the property of a community. It is matter of empathy. Why did you choose a video of dog puppies and not a video of baby worms being sectioned? Species membership is not a good criteria, I agree on this. It is the fact that the best moral status of a category of animals is limited, and with it, its ability to understand sufferance, injustice, and that is morally important.
    Why, if you are sealing in the middle of the ocean with an incapacitated friend and your starving child, it is morally right to feed your child a fish meet and not your friend meat? This same principle is underlying the animal exploitation: the moral status of the fish, you empathy toward fishes and humans, the moral status of the fish community toward itself, toward humans, and similarly that of human community.

    • I chose to show a video of dogs because that’s what I had most recently looked at. In any case, since I think the capacity to suffer and feel pain is the thing that makes a being worthy of moral consideration, it seems that it’s better to talk about beings we know are sentient. I don’t know if worms are sentient – I doubt that they are, I do know that dogs are sentient and can suffer.

      As far as the ability to understand injustice as a category for moral standing is concerned – were that true then it would probably allow in some of the more mentally sophisticated animals, who have moral emotions, and it would exclude infants and those humans with severe cognitive impairments. I think we ought to include children and people with disabilities in the category of beings worthy of moral concern.

      The reason it’s permissible to eat a fish if you are starving is because there’s a moral difference between killing to save yourself from an urgent and immiment threat, and killing for pleasure. In any case, if we base our moral codes on what people are willing to do in order to save themselves from death, then we’ll pretty soon find we have a very frightening moral code. And this is the problem with empathy – your position seems to suggest that someone who lacks empathy doesn’t owe anything to anyone. Empathy is a very unstable foundation for moral standing. Similarly, community suffers from the same problems – you’re not in my community, then I owe you nothing.

  3. Pingback: Starbucks to Require More Humane Animal-Welfare Standards From Suppliers - EJuice Supplier

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