Are animals moral beings? An Essay

While the irradiation of laboratory animals has translated into paradigmatic advances in stem cell biology, cancer research and the development of therapeutic agents, animals in these experiments suffer from devastating consequences such as severe bleeding, inflammation, anaemia and ulcerations and many more pathological abnormalities before dying or being euthanised.

While this is a particularly poignant example of laboratory experimentation on animal subjects, it is by far not an exception. Maternal deprivation, social isolation, gene manipulation, cancer modelling, amputations, injections and lacerations are just some of the procedures performed on hundreds of thousands of laboratory animals every year.

The subject of this essay is to address ethical considerations of laboratory experimentation on non-human species by exploring the question whether or not animals are moral beings and by discussing practical implications that their moral status might have on experimental design and the housing and care of laboratory animals.

Despite thousands of years of ethical explorations and debate, the rapid development of human “dominion” over flora and fauna paralleled with an anthropocentric worldview has not only had devastating effects on the ecosystem but has also highlighted striking ethical contradictions in the realm of animal ethics.

Ethicists have challenged human exceptionalism, that, arguably, is rooted in religion and catalysed by agricultural and industrial revolutions, by examining the essence of morality and integrating it with empirical evidence from animal examinations. Morality, in its essence, can be defined as emotionally rooted, inner behavioural capacities allowing us to differentiate decisions and intentions based on our internal set of principles regarding what is right and what is wrong and, thus, generating external behaviour accordingly. These capacities may include a sense of fairness, altruism, reciprocity, empathy, compassion and their negative equivalents (Bekoff et al., 2009). If these capacities are shown to transcend the human species, it allows us to empirically falsify the claim that morality is unique to humans.

Why animals are moral too

While altruism has been convincingly demonstrated in numerous species (Dingfelder, 2006), there is evidence accumulating suggesting some animals additionally possess further moral capacities. Empathetic processes and affiliative behaviour, which require higher-order emotional control have been observed in primates (De Waal, 2013), canines (Cool et al., 2008) and rodents (Meyza et al., 2016). Rats, for example, when presented with the options of either receiving chocolate or helping a distressed rat nearby, chose to undergo an unpleasant swimming experience to save the drowning rat (Sato et al., 2015). A sense of fairness amongst primates has been demonstrated in a well-known study by Brosnan et al. in 2010 in which monkeys in adjacent, transparent cells were rewarded with cucumber when carrying back a pebble that had been thrown into

their cell. To introduce inequity, only one of the two monkeys suddenly received highly nutritious grapes instead of cucumber as a reward which led the other monkey, who priorly had appreciated the cucumber, to become very agitated and not only refuse to perform the task but to even throw the pebble at the researchers. This aversion for inequity has, since, been observed in numerous subsequent studies with other non-primate species such as rats (Oberliessen et al., 2016).

As mentioned above, emotionally rooted moral capacities are not restricted to altruism and inequity aversion. The last years have seen evidence that many non- human species demonstrate prosocial behaviour (Cronin, 2012) and compassion (Bartal, 2011).

The social and evolutionary foundation of morality

It is important to note that these fundamentally interdependent features that underlie morality have been observed primarily in species that display complex social structures (Bekoff, 2009).
Social structures may be particularly complex in homo sapiens, however, there is clear evidence for hierarchical dynamics and sophisticated social interactions in other species. In numerous studies, mice (Weizman Institute, 2013, Weber, 2008) and rats (Brown, 1986) have exhibited complex systems of communication and multiple-level relationships which are largely enabled by aforementioned emotionally rooted behavioural and moral capacities.

Sociobiologists suggested that these features may be adaptations to the increasing complexity of social dynamics that evolved incrementally across many species (Boehm, 1982). It is, therefore, sensible to argue that morality is an evolutionary adaptation to increased social complexity, which is characteristic of several animals. This interaction can be exemplified by above-mentioned altruism that puzzled even Darwin, as it does not seem to increase the individuum’s fitness at first sight but which is evidently beneficial in the light of kin selection and inclusive fitness, evolutionary strategies in which the reproductive success of an individuum’s relatives is favoured, even at cost of the individuum (Hamilton, 1964). Another example is illustrated by the Westermarck effect that hypothesizes that close proximity in the first years of life leads to desensitisation to mutual sexual attraction (De Smet, 2014), preventing incest that is known to cause severe birth defects. The aversion to incestual behaviour is common to humans and several other species and the evolutionary importance of this moral capacity accentuates the stance that morality is anchored in evolutionary adaptations to social complexity.

Unless it is argued that the mind, emotions and moral capacities arise at a metaphysical level, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay, they can be considered to be properties of matter. In fact, modern neurobiology can match cognitive behaviour such as the making of moral judgements with the electrochemical activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction area (Harenski et al., 2010).
When acknowledging that the emotions and moral capabilities that are seen in humans and several animal species are properties of matter, essentially neural circuitry, it becomes apparent that morality, like physical features and adaptations, must be phylogenetically distributed over many species, with individual characteristics and capabilities stretching over a continuum from simple and

restricted to complex and comprehensive depending on their individual evolutionary trajectory.
This argumentation strongly contradicts a common theorem of sociology which characterises morality as a uniquely human cultural innovation (Haidt, 2013), because although moral capacities may be particularly sophisticated in humans, reflecting our complex social structure, the evidence iterated in the argumentation indicates several other species find their place on this continuum too.

Moral being ≠ Moral agent

At this stage, it is crucial to make an important distinction: While moral capabilities have been demonstrated across many species, metacognitive capacities seem to be unique to human beings with few animals showing at best functional analogues (Smith et al., 2015)

Taking into account that animals do not seem to be able to scrutinise their cognitive processes and adapt their behaviour accordingly, the effective capacity for moral agency is absent and their status of moral beings, thus, cannot entail moral obligations of a moral agent. In contrast to that, the sophistication of human metacognition categorises humans as moral agents with a moral responsibility to prevent harm. Concluding, it is reasonable to characterise animals as moral patients, who are entitled to moral treatment without inherent moral obligations.

Consequences for experimental design

Our logically deducted reasoning regarding animals’ moral status defeats the major justification of human entitlement to decide over welfare and life of other species and characterises current practice as morally objectionable.

To address these concerns, the strategy of three R’s, reduction, refinement and replacement can be applied to the laboratory use of animals.
The first stage would be to significantly reduce the number of lab animals by using alternative models such as in-vitro cell cultures like human hepatocytes for metabolism experiments (Doke et al., 2015) or embryonic stem cells to study embryonic development (De Silva et al., 1996). At the same time, emphasising proper study design and the sharing of data and results from animal studies within the scientific community could help reduce animal testing.

In case animals are used nonetheless, it is imperative to avoid any sort of harm experienced by the animal by refining experiments. Refining experiments is currently mainly based on welfarism. Welfarism is a position that considers it morally acceptable to use animals if suffering and adverse effects are minimised.

If an animal reaches the threshold of sentience, it is the researcher’s responsibility to minimise any suffering the animal has to endure. While this seems to be a reasonable modus operandi, a few aspects should be taken into consideration:

Firstly, despite regulations and ethical guidelines, severe violations continue to occur in laboratories across the world (Asimov, N., 2019). This may be due to poorly enforced regulations in a simultaneously highly competitive environment.

Secondly, ‘grading’ and approving suffering, which, despite welfarism-based regulations, is the status quo in many countries, is at best ethically contradictory. Procedures in the UK are classified as ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, ‘severe’ or ‘non-recovery’ regarding animal suffering during the experiment ( While grading suffering seems to be a utilitarian answer to this ethical debate, the reasoning behind regulations and laws is based on the premise that harming sentient, moral beings is categorically wrong. The rationale behind current regulations is ethically and argumentatively inconsistent and highlights how human interest continues to be prioritised over animal welfare (Marino, 2016).

Thirdly, the welfarist position does not address the full spectrum of harm inflicted on laboratory animals. The repugnance of welfarists to the hypothetical biotechnological disenhancement of animals incapacitating them with regard to suffering casts light onto the blind spot of welfarism by indicating that suffering is not the only ethical constraint when using animals (Ferrari, 2012). Nussbaum theorised in 2000 that beyond suffering, animals experience harm on a fundamentally different level. This becomes apparent when considering the animals’ moral capabilities. Nussbaum states, that when moral capabilities such as affiliative behaviour, empathy and altruism are compromised, the animal experiences harm. This becomes more evident when looking at more practical examples. Rodents, that have shown to own most capabilities named above make up for around 95% of laboratory animals (Schipani, S., 2019). Even when the experiment does not cause immediate suffering, their moral capabilities are usually thwarted:

They are restrained, confined or isolated in sterile environments, deprived of parental figures while being constantly regrouped and displaced. At the same time, subjects often have perceptual access to procedures being performed on others while being confined to their cage. Another common practice is to interfere with their neural and endocrine systems to inhibit certain behaviours or provoke unnatural ones. Concerning moral capabilities, it is obvious that these methods prevent animal subjects from establishing social relationships, engaging in prosocial and affiliative behaviour and thus exert harm that is completely disregarded by welfarism that governs current laboratory practices.

Regarding refinement, it is advisable to introduce more restrictive guidelines for laboratory experiments with animals, that appreciate harm beyond suffering in the traditional sense. Practically, this would include prohibiting isolation and deprivation from forming social relationships, enriching cage environments and, more generally, to refrain from compromising the execution of their capabilities while strictly reinforcing welfarist guidelines and to control laboratories closely in order to prevent procedures from compromising researcher’s moral obligations. Not only would these refinements reduce harm to the animals, but would in many cases improve the reliability of results, as research has shown that animals in richer cage environments that better represent their idiosyncratic natural environment mimicked human physiological processes significantly better (Hendrikson, 2009, De Silva et al.,

Tightly intertwined with reduction, replacement is the third and perhaps most promising pillar of the 3-R’s strategy in the light of recent scientific developments. Besides previously mentioned in vitro cell and tissue models, microfluidic devices, biomimetic solutions and sophisticated computer models such as Computer-Aided Drug Design, SAR and computer-assisted learning for educational purposes are great starting points to replace animals in laboratories. Using non-sentient organisms

that are proved to not possess moral capabilities such as lower invertebrates or microorganisms could replace some animal experiments as well, although this may have ethical implications not covered by this essay.

Despite potential challenges of alternative models and a more comprehensive legislation, scientific vigour should never outpace ethics as ethical debate is not an ephemeral aspect but rather a fundamental pillar of science.


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BSc Neuroscience at The University of Edinburgh | Founder at Edinburgh’s first student-run accelerator | iGEM synthetic biology participant | Filmmaker

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Fynn Comerford

Fynn Comerford

BSc Neuroscience at The University of Edinburgh | Founder at Edinburgh’s first student-run accelerator | iGEM synthetic biology participant | Filmmaker

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