Singer's dilemma

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This post alludes to animal abuse.

Philosopher Peter Singer raises a point in his book Animal Liberation that has gone under the radar relative to many of his other ideas. It concerns experimentation on non-human animals.

Product testing is not a simple matter. Particularly for things like medicines, our society demands a high level of confidence in their safety and efficacy before they are recommended for use. And this testing is unpleasant; the reason other animals are used as subjects for this purpose is because few humans would be willing.

The question posed by Singer, simply: How much do humans and other animals have in common?

This question is a philosophical one; there is no real measure of “similarly” demanded. There is likewise no absolute answer, and there may be spectrum of different answers for different animals.

It is a dilemma in the classical sense, because both “horns”, or ends of the spectrum have implications about the way we use other animals to further the ends of humans.

If you view humans and (e.g.) rabbits as completely different beings with few similarities, then you cannot assume that any result of testing will be applicable to humans. Any products tested on them will need to be tested on humans anyway. What useful information is learned by testing on them, and almost certainly risking harm to them?

In this case, it seems we should skip the animal testing and go straight for human volunteers.

On the other hand, the more we lean toward the opposite branch — that rabbits and humans are similar — the more we need to justify exploiting them. Animal product testing nearly always involves using them in a way that we would never use another human.

We can try to tell ourselves that the suffering inflicted on rabbits is not equivalent to human suffering — but we just said that the two are similar enough to make product testing worthwhile!

Singer, as a utilitarian, is not fixated on an outright ban on testing on other animals. In fact, he would likely concede that in many situations, it can be justifiable, such as for a promising medication candidate that could save many lives.

He obviously does take issue with the way our current regime of animal experimentation often inflicts injury on them for little practical gain.

Singer’s dilemma invites us to consider whether and when testing on non-human animals can be morally justified.

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