Human Exceptionalism

A Welfare Argument for Limiting Animal Research

Many people think they support “animal rights,” when they actually believe in animal welfare.

What’s the difference? In a nutshell, animal rights is an ideology that creates an explicit moral equivalency between the value of humans and animals. Rights come from the capacity to suffer–known sometimes as “painience”–or in Gary Francione’s vision, that mere sentience grants the right not to be property. (Good grief, even a fly is sentient!)

Animal rights believers condemn treating humans differently from animals as immoral “speciesism,” discrimination against animals–supposedly as odious as racism. Meaning, no animal should ever be used in medical research–no matter the human benefit (often denied)–because animals can’t consent, and hence, doing so is morally equivalent to the Mengele experiments on Jews in the death camps.

But the animal welfare approach:

  1. Sees humans as having greater moral value;
  2. Acknowledges the propriety of using animals in an instrumental fashion for our benefit;
  3. Balances human benefit and animal harm in determining whether and how animals can be used; and,
  4. Argues for ever-improving methods of animal husbandry when using animals for our benefit is appropriate. 

An article in the Telegraph, calling for reducing the use of live animals in medical education, provides a splendid example of welfarist advocacy. From, “I Have Held the Heart of a Beating Ferret,” by Martha Gill (my emphasis):

While animal experiments are vital in research – we need to test new chemicals and procedures before they reach humans – the same case just can’t be made for experiments with known outcomes. There are too many alternative ways of gaining that knowledge.

Even the rules of dissecting a ferret can be taught without practical demonstration. So why do it? It can’t be necessary to sacrifice an animal simply to jazz up the unit on heart physiology for a bunch of bored students.

I am not saying she is correct. There may well be compelling reasons to use live animals in this educational experience. But I am saying that she takes the right approach to debating the issue, e.g., that the harm caused to the animals exceeds the benefits received by humans.

And here Gill shows the typical confusion about animal rights:

I’m loath to come down on the side of animal rights protestors, as they do often appear quite nutty.

Ms. Gill, you’re not. You are not arguing for animal rights–which, to repeat myself–seeks to prevent all animal research, for any reason, no matter the human benefit.

Rather, you are taking the proper approach to analyzing these provocative issues–by examining our concurrent duties to benefiting ourselves and properly treat animals.

Whether or not Gill’s analysis is correct, she is arguing consistently with a belief in human exceptionalism. 


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