In his book Moral Literacy: or How to Do the Right Thing (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1992), British philosopher Colin McGinn writes,
We should, at the very least, minimize our dependence on animals, treating their interests as comparable to the interests of fellow humans in the respects relevant to the case at hand. This will mean, for starters, stopping eating meat if you live in one of the societies in which it is perfectly possible to find other sources of food, i.e., almost everywhere on earth. Don’t even think about owning a fur coat. Very few animal experiments, if any. Bloodsports — give me a break. In sum, we have to cease doing to animals what we would not in good conscience do to humans. We must make our morality consistent.
In general, I am in agreement with McGinn that we need to consider the interests of animals; however, I wish to elaborate on when it is moral to use animals for food, and I wish to argue that in some cases it is moral to use animals for experiments.
First let me talk about using animals for food. McGinn says that we ought not to use animals for food if alterative sources of food re available, but I want to give my reasons why we humans can morally eat animals when other food sources are not available.
I believe that all creatures, including animals, do what is necessary to survive, except in extraordinary cases such as those involving mental illness. Let’s perform a thought experiment to illustrate this. Imagine that you are shipwrecked on a desert island and the only available food is a living animal that has also been shipwrecked; in such a case, I am sure that you will agree that it is morally right to kill that animal and use it as food. It’s also important to realize that the animal, if it is carnivorous, also may attempt to kill you to survive; we are not making any special allowances for human beings that we would not allow for animals. On that deserted island, you will use your intelligence to try to kill the animal, and the animal may use its teeth and claws to try to kill you. (Let’s hope that the animal is a bunny rabbit and not a lion.) On this reasoning, therefore, in places where food is scarce, human beings can use animals for food. McGinn agrees with this. Both McGinn and I are also in agreement that should we need to kill an animal for food, we ought to kill the animal as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
I also believe that we will do whatever it takes to keep our children safe. (As in the previous case, many animals do this, too. Let’s perform a thought experiment to illustrate this. Imagine that a bear is running after your child; you have a rifle that you have been carrying for target shooting (you are not hunting). I think that you will agree that it is morally right for you to kill that bear in order to protect your child. In the same way, animals protect their young. If you are out walking in the woods and you run across a couple of bear cubs, I advise you to get as far from the bear cubs as possible before their mother returns. (You do not want to be in between a mother bear and her cubs.) Both human beings and animals do whatever is necessary to protect their young. Human beings use their intelligence (and the weapons their intelligence has fashioned)., and animals use their teeth and claws to protect their young.
However, because of their intelligence, humans can see many threats to their children that animals are incapable of seeing. For example, humans know that diseases can be deadly to children. Since human beings have the right to protect their children, they use their intelligence to develop vaccines that will immunize their children against diseases that can kill them.
Therefore, if experiments on animals can produce a vaccine that will wipe out a disease deadly to humans (and no other method can be used to produce that life-saving vaccine), I believe that we have the right to perform experiments on animals (always taking care to keep the animals’ pain at a minimum). However, since cosmetics are not necessary to human survival, I do not believe we have the right to perform experiments resulting in pain and/or death for animals simply so that a company can develop a new cosmetic product.
I must plead guilty to speciesism here. I would not allow experiments to be performed on mentally defective human beings or on children, yet I would allow them to be performed on animals. Let’s perform a thought experiment to see if experimentation on animals is justified. Suppose that your child is dying of a disease for which there is no cure. Further suppose that an experiment involving the deaths of 1,000,000 white mice will result in medicine that will save your child. (No other tests can be used to develop the medicine; the only available test involves experimentation on animals.) Would you say to go ahead with the animal experimentation? I would, and I think you would, too.
As you can see, I agree with much of what McGinn says. However, McGinn believes in “[V]ery few animal experiments, if any.” Since I believe that there are life-and-death situations in which it is both moral and necessary to use animals in experiments, I believe at this time that there must be some experiments performed on animals.
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