6.4: “Benefits” Arguments
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Many people argue that there are medical benefits for humans that result from animal experimentation, e.g., treatments and cures for diseases, improvements in health, and so forth – and that, therefore, animal experimentation is morally permissible. The suggested argument is this:
(P1) Animal experimentation benefits humans.
(C) Therefore, animal experimentation is morally permissible.
There are many problems with this argument. First, (P1) is imprecise in many ways. Much animal experimentation is done without any expectation that it will yield (medical) benefits for humans. So (P1) should claim that some animal experimentation benefits humans. But there is more imprecision. It either says:
(P2) Some animal experimentation benefits some humans,
(P3) Some animal experimentation benefits all humans.
(P3) is false. About 30,000 people, many of whom are children, die each day from starvation, malnutrition, and lack of very basic medical care.1 These people, and at least millions of other humans, do not benefit from it. About (P2), as it is stated, few scientific, humanistic and/or ethical critics of animal experimentation deny it. There have been many, many experiments on animals. To claim that not one of them has led to any benefits for any humans – even just by good luck – would be to claim something false. So (P2) is true: some humans benefit medically from some animal experimentation. Some people seem to think this automatically shows that animal experimentation is morally permissible. Oddly, they often seem to think this supports a more precise conclusion that all animal experiments are permissible, even those that do not lead to any benefits for humans and are expected not to. But no such conclusions follow, for many reasons. First, just because some humans benefit from something does not entail that it is morally permissible for them to get it: e.g., some people might benefit from an extremely expensive medical procedure, or from receiving vital organs taken from living, healthy people. But those benefits do not automatically justify directing so much money toward them (at the expense of others) or killing innocent people to take those organs.
To assume something different about animal cases – i.e., that it is morally permissible to seriously harm animals to benefit humans – just assumes that animal experimentation is permissible: it does not give any reasons in favor of that. As we saw above, common claims about rights, importance, and moral status do not justify this assumption, but perhaps arguments discussed below will help justify it.
1 Peter Singer’s One World: The Ethics of Globalization (Yale, 2002) provides information and arguments for the conclusion that we are morally obligated to assist people in absolute poverty. See also his The Life You Can Save and more recent books on absolute poverty: http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org