Bioethics Blogs

The Humane and the Ethical in Animal Research

A recent article by Marc Bekoff, written for the website The Dodo, asks whether it might be true that researchers who currently test on animals are less humane than their predecessors. Bekoff thinks it is. His reasons for that belief seem to be something like the following: We know considerably more about the cognitive and emotional faculties of animals now than we did in the past. That is, we know that even smaller mammals and birds can be quite cognitively sophisticated and emotionally developed. In the face of this knowledge, our continued use of those animals for the purpose of conducting research is less humane than it was at a time when we believed animals to not possess any such faculties. Bekoff uses this belief to cast doubt on the ethical status of continued research on animals. If we are being less humane in our research now than we used to be, then we are also being less ethical. It’s not clear to me that this inference is correct.

 Here are two definitions of ‘humane’:

 Humane |hjʊˈmeɪn|


1 Characterized by such behaviour or disposition towards others as benefits man; civil, courteous, obliging -1784; kind, benevolent -1603. b. Applied to certain implements, etc. which inflict less pain than others of the same kind- 1904…

– Shorter OED, 1947

1. Having or showing compassion or benevolence: regulations ensuring the humane treatment of animals.

• inflicting the minimum of pain: humane methods of killing.

– New Oxford American Dictionary

Both of these definitions (but the first especially) seem to offer two conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for an action’s being humane: a minimal harm condition, and a compassion condition.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.