The Use of Animals in Biomedical Research Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 20 March 2017

The Use of Animals in Biomedical Research

There is a big issue on the use of animals for biomedical research (i.e., research done for the understanding and promotion mainly of human life. Such would include, but not limited to, medical formulation and testing, formulation and testing of hypotheses about diseases, surgical experimentations, testing of various consumer goods for safety, and psychological experimentations). At least up to the present time, animals are still widely used for research. In an estimate by Barbara Orlans (2001, 400), there are like 50 to100 million animals being used for research annually.

Nevertheless, with an increasing awareness on the complexity of animal psyche and the increased voice that animal rights advocates have, the morality of such research (along with the other uses that animals have) has been put into question. In a Dutch animal committee hearing on the use of animals for cancer medical testing, for example, a woman who is terminally ill due to cancer stepped forward and said that she would rather die than have another animal suffer painlessly just for her cure.

Human beings are beginning to be acutely aware of such experimentations and different sentiments and ideas have been brought to the core. Now, amidst the almost unending debate on the use of animals for biomedical research, I would want to first, present the philosophical debate on this issue; then second, present my opinion on it. To be able to accomplish this goal, I would first present the debate between Carl Cohen and Bernard Rollin. Afterwards, I will present what I think is a middle position between the two.

The Cohen-Rollin Debate

            A representative debate on this issue would be the debate between Carl Cohen and Bernard Rollin. Basically, the two are debating on the moral status of animals. Allow me to present a summary of the points of these two philosophers.

            Carl Cohen, a speciesist, says that animals do not have rights and that animal experimentation should go on. A speciesist (2002, 303) is someone who says that our species, i.e., the human species, gives us all the moral rights that we have. That ultimately, what makes us different, and hence rules on human experimentation are different, is the fact that we belong to human kind. As such, humans cannot just be experimented on but would need precautions like informed consent; measurement of risk; the prior and post evaluation of the research using the principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice; etcetera. Hence, because we are humans, we have all the rights and privileges that we know we have.

            Now, the next question that we may have, which Cohen answers, is: what makes us humans in the first place? For Cohen, the answer is pretty simple. We are human beings because we have moral capacities which animals do not have. These moral capacities refer to the aptitude of human beings in applying an abstract moral rule on an act; has capabilities to make moral claims; has the capacity to comprehend rules of duty; the capability for self-legislation; and are members of communities governed by moral rules (2002, 300-302).

These moral capacities would then make human beings are capable of understanding conceptual principles of morality (like for example, “do good to others,” or “do not do actions that would purposely harm other human beings”) and apply such to individual human actions. Now because of this capacity, human beings have the capacity for self-restraint. They do not need others (presuming that they are already within the age of reason, i.e., mature enough to do these tasks) to restrain them from harming their fellows.

Nor would they need others to goad them to do acts that are praiseworthy. As such, human beings could legislate themselves, i.e., govern their own actions. Now, because of this, human beings could very well belong to a community of other human beings who are capable of the same moral capacities as he is. And his belonging to this community is of the nature that rules and laws are there to minimally guide human interaction. They are not there to govern each single action of the human being.

This would mean that human beings, on the most part, are free on how they interact with each other. She/he is free provided that her/his actions are responsible actions, i.e., actions that the human being may be made accountable for. Now, these moral capacities make human beings capable of rights. Rights basically refer to “claims, or potential claims, within a community of moral agents” (2002, 300). The human capacity for understanding concepts and applying such concepts in his dealings and acts with each other makes the human being capable of making such claims.

            At this point, Cohen says that these rights cannot extend to animals for the simple reason that animals do not have these moral capacities we have mentioned.  They are incapable of understanding, i.e., of moral reasoning, and such, all the other moral capacities could not be attributed to them. We have to state at this point that for Cohen, even psychologically disabled or comatosed human beings retain these rights plainly because they belong to the same kind. In one way or another, such human beings seem to “ride on” the capabilities of other human beings.

            Hence, for Cohen, animal experimentation (of course not withstanding useless cruelty to animals) should go on for the good of the human race since we could not talk of violation of any rights in the first place since animals do not have rights.

Bernard Rollin (2001, 418) responds to Cohen’s arguments by saying that it might be true that rights started from humans, but, it does not mean that such rights should remain among humans. He made an analogy on the game of chess. It might be true that chess was made initially for Persian royalty, nevertheless, the game started to have a life of its own and as such, it is not anymore restricted by the original makers of it. The same may be said about rights that human beings made and sorted out for themselves.

What would stop the “Bill of Rights” from being applied to animals if sociological evolution would lead to such? Plainly, there is no guarantee that such rights would have to remain and be applicable only to its sources. In one way or another, Rollin seems to allude to the Ricoeurean hermeneutics on the life of the text, on the unstoppable and “unfigurable” refiguration of the text. Now, this may be true if the Bill of Rights could plainly be called a text, as a product of a social contract, but probably not if these rights are perceived in a naturalistic way.

Rollin goes on to elaborate his basic stand: there seems to be no morally relevant difference between humans and vertebrate animals “to include all humans within the full scope of moral concern and yet deny such moral status to the animals” (2001, 413). Then, he goes on to define morally relevant difference: it is a “difference that rationally justifies treating them differently in some way that bears moral weight” (2001, 413). Hence, Rollin says that if two students coming from two different races and having two different eye colors would have the same class standing, they would be given the same grade.

Their differences cannot be considered as “relevant” for the teacher’s act of grading. Now, Rollin states that the differences between humans and other vertebrates are not relevant because aside from the fact that both feel pain, both also have interests that must be respected. True, human interests may be different from animal interests, but the fact remains that both are interest-driven.

Animal interests are violated when they are made to suffer; when social animals are kept in isolation; when burrowing animals are kept in steel cages; etcetera. Rollin also argues that there seems to be no difference between intellectually disabled humans and many animals, and hence, if consent is called for when experimenting on these human beings, such would also be called for when doing animal experimentation.

The Middle Position

            Cohen is clear on his position: we are not violating anything when animals are used in experimenting since these experiments are needed for the human good. Rollin, on the other hand, is on the soft position that animals and humans are not relevantly different, and hence, the rights accorded to human beings in research ought to be the same rights given to other vertebrates. For Rollin, simply, animals should be treated as humans especially when it comes to biomedical research.

Now, the consequences of their positions seem to be clear: Cohen’s position is a defense of the status quo, while Rollin’s position implies that medical codes on human experimentation like the Nuremberg Code should all be extended to vertebrate animals. I would say that though it is true that certain animals exhibit characteristics that are almost like that of humans (like the great apes, for example), still, Cohen is right in saying that rationality as it is present in humanity makes humans largely different from the other animals (just look at all the human civilizations and histories which even the most “intelligent” animals are incapable of, and as such, I find it hard to understand why Rollin says that the difference between animals and humans are not relevant differences), and as such, things that apply to human beings cannot all be applied to animals, like the medical code of ethics on human experimentation, for example. Such an application leads to difficult consequences.

For one, such would necessitate the experimenter to gain the subject’s consent. How do we get an animal’s consent? What standard should we use? Should we ask the owners? How about animals that do not have owners? Next would be the issue of informed consent. Again, who do we inform and whose signature do we get? I would say that the present trend in animal experimentation in at least some parts of the world is a sober middle ground since at least in ten developed countries, legal measures have been passed regarding the control of pain and suffering of laboratory animals.

Many other countries also have legislation on the inspection of research and breeding facilities, requirement for daily care, the checking on the competency and the licenses of qualified persons who handle the experiment, the monitoring by an independent committee, the searching for available alternatives for the experiment, and the creation of ethical criteria for decision making (Orlans 2001, 405).

These legal concerns are far from the contents of the Code of Nuremberg or the Helsinki Declaration, nevertheless, they express a concern for the animals who also feels pain like human beings, and who also deserve a sort of concern from us. Hence, animal experimentation should not be stopped but legal constraints distinct from that of human beings have to be put on such experiments since animals are also capable of pain and have interests.


Cohen, Carl. “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research,” in Ethical Issues in Biotechnology, ed by Richard Sherlock and John Murrey, 299-308.  Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Orlans, Barbara. “History and Ethical Regulation of Animal Experimentation: An International Perspective,” in A Companion to Bioethics, ed by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, 399-410. Massachusetts, Oxford, and Victoria: Blackwell, 2001.

Rollin,  Bernard. “The Moral Status of Animals and Their Use as Experimental Subjects,” in A Companion to Bioethics, ed by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, 411-422. Massachusetts, Oxford, and Victoria: Blackwell, 2001.

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