Bioethics Blogs

Is it worth saving human lives at the cost of mistreating animals?

Guest Post: Emilian Mihailov, Research Centre in Applied Ethics, Univeristy of Bucharest

The most persuasive argument for experimenting on animals is probably the claim that it is only through such research, that we save human lives. This does not imply that we don’t have any moral duties towards animals. Because they are not mere objects we ought to treat them kindly, promote their wellbeing, and even take action to prevent others from applying cruel treatment. However, when human lives are at stake, we have the strong belief that it is morally permissible to experiment on animals even if the experiments in question necessarily involve chronic pain and death. We might get residual moral feelings, such as guilt, from the infliction of pain, but nevertheless, it is believed that saving human lives takes priority. We are sorry, but we matter more.

It is hard to argue the contrary, since the idea of saving human lives seems so appealing. How can we not try to cure cancer, epilepsy, or Alzheimer’s disease? Those who challenge the desirability of this aim will be considered eccentric, if not irrational.

But, sometimes, our strong reactions may stem from the framing of a problem. The way a problem is “framed” often has a powerful influence on how people react. The “framing effect” is observed when the description of consequentially identical decision problems in terms of gains (positive frame) rather than losses (negative frame) elicits systematically different choices (Tversky & Kahneman 1981). Christine Korsgaard recently suggested in the Animal Ethics Workshop, held in Oxford, that the there are “framing effects” with the problem of saving lives through animal experimentation.

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.