In recent years there have been a series of direct action campaigns by animal rights activists aimed at intimidating investors and backers of pharmaceutical companies involved in developing medicines requiring animal testing. Farms involved in breeding animals for experimentation, share holders and universities seeking to develop facilities in conjunction with companies have all been the target of different sorts of demonstration and in some cases intimidation.
Ethically there are a number of factors at play. There is the question of the law, which allows these experiments to take place. There is the question of the beliefs of activists which are powerfully at odds with the law. There is the benefit of developing medicines which help to alleviate suffering. This aspect is much debated by activists who claim, against established scientific wisdom, that experimentation is not necessary or safe. There is the status of animals and human responsibility towards them, and there are the actions themselves, the experiments and tests. This issue involves justice, belief, ends, means and the nature of animal life. Let us briefly consider the challenges each element of the moral dilemma presents.
Animal testing and experimentation is legal under certain circumstances and is required by law in the production of medicines. However, being permitted by law does not make something moral. Aquinas wrote that an unjust law is no law at all. This is not a justification to overrule laws we disagree with, even if we have strong beliefs that the law is wrong. To act on our beliefs is a sign of integrity, but to use those beliefs to act against the law is a step further in a liberal democracy. In liberal democracy people are involved in the selection of legislators by a majority process and an independent judiciary assures the fair application of those laws. If our beliefs lead us to oppose a law, the civic response is to generate political support for a change, not take law into our own hands. Most people with strong views on animal rights stay within the law though they may use quite uncomfortable methods to make their point. Part of a free democracy is living with people who will sometimes demonstrate against the things we think are lawful. However, breaking the law, threatening and causing anxiety cannot be justified in a liberal democracy because it represents the exercise of power over the will of others, rather than the exercise of reason and persuasion.
It is difficult for non scientists to understand or argue convincingly against the case for the necessity of animal testing and its usefulness in science. But it is difficult to argue against the development of drugs which save lives and alleviate suffering. Animal life is sacrificed for the benefit of human life. It is commonly felt that the end (the alleviation of human suffering) is justified by the means (the sacrifice of animals). If your house was on fire and you had to choose between saving your pet or your baby brother, you would not hesitate. That is the fundamental difference in the value we place on human life. Of course many would find it difficult to stomach the reality of the sorts of things that are actually done to animals, but the argument from squeamishness is always weak. There are many necessary unpleasant things that take place in life and it is only our sheltered modern existence which distances us from some of the brutal aspects of life.
Ultimately, it must be through the democratic process that laws are changed and the moral view of the nation expressed. There will always be areas where someone’s individual beliefs fall outside the majority view and sometimes that will affect things of great importance, even human life, as in the dilemmas surrounding abortion and euthanasia. Even in these cases it cannot be right to abandon the democratic process and adopt violence, fear and anxiety as tools for establishing right.