Ethical issues with the use of non-human animals

WJEC PY3 revision on the ethics of using animanls in psychological research.

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  • Created by: Flo
  • Created on: 03-06-12 13:47


An ethical issue is defined as arising in where there are conflicts between the rights of participants and the needs of researchers in conducting valid experiments. The key ethical issue surrounds the harm that is caused to animals as a result of taking part in research. The type of harm caused can be broken down into different types;

- Physucal harm
- Psychological harm
- Maternal deprivation
- Removal from natural habitat
- Control of food intake

It is not simply the case of saying we shouldn't be crule as no researcher would set out to be deliberatly harmful to an animal. The BPS even recognises that "some research questions cannot be answered adequately without more invasive studies". The problems lie in what constitutes unnecessary pain and distress. It is however, important to note thta psychologists use animals in a wide range of contexts, not all of which provoke such a strong reaction. Animals can be used in types of psychological therapy and some studies simply involve the observation of animals in their natural environment.

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The BPS Guidlines

The BPS have issued guidelines to control animal experimentation bases on the legislation of the 'Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act' (1986). In general all researchers should;

  • Avoid or minimalise stress and suffereing for all living animals
  • Always consider the possibility of other options to animal research
  • Be as economical as possible in the numbers of animals tested

Howerver, before any animal is tested a Home Office Licence to conduct animal research has to be acquired. The Home Office provides legislation for an moniters;

The conditions under which animals are kept - cage sizes, food, lighting, temperature, care routine, etc. all have to be suitable for the species and its habits
The researchers conducting the study - all involved have to demonstrate they have the necessary skills and experience to work with the particular species they wish to study in order to acquire their personal licences.
The research projects allowed - aplications must be submitted outlining the projects aims and possible benefits as well as the procedures involved (including the number of animals and the degree of stress they might experience). Projects are only aproved if all the specificaltions are met and the levels of distress caused to the animals are justified by the benifits of the research. The conditions of the licence must be strictly adhered to regarding numbers, species and procedures allowed. Research on endangered species is prohibited unless the research has direct benifits for the species itself.

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'Speciesism; is the idea that being human is a good enough reason to have greater moral rights than non-human animals. It is often considered as the same sort of bigotry as racism or sexism. Supporters of speciesim say that there is a clear difference between humans and other species, and that this difference affects their moral status. They argue that human beings are more self aware, and more able to choose their own course of action than other animals. This, they say, enables them to think and act morally, and so entitels them to a higher moral status.

Another argument in favour of speciesism is that it is biologically natural to treat one's own species favourably. Virtually all non-human animals treat members of their own species better than those of other species. Howerver, this can be known as natural fallacy - just because something is natural does not make it right.

People who oppose specieism say that giving human beings greater rights than non-human animals is as arbitary (and moraly wrong) as giving white people greater rights than non-white. Howerver, others would argue that the struggle for racial and sexual equality has a moral and social importance that animal right can never have.

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Animal Rights

If we accept that animals have rights then when an experiment violates those rights then it is wrong, because it is wrong to violate rights. The possible benifits to humanity of performing the experiment are completly irrelevant. If this means that there are some things that humanity will never be able to learn, so be it.

However, some would argue that animals do not have the same rights as humans. This is because rights arise as a result of implicit contracts between members of society and imply duties. Animals have no such responcibility, cannot reciprocate and therefore have no rights.

Opponents of animal research would arge that animals have rights by virtue of their 'inherent value', including the right to be treated with respect and not have to be harmed. In addition, some groups of humans such as infants and the mentally ill are not able to fulfill their obligations to society but are not denied right in it.

Peter Singer (1975) argued that discrimination on the basis of membership of a species is the same as discriminating someone based on their race or gender. As a result he suggested that the use of animals was an example of specieism.

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The Double Blind and Issues of Genralisability

People who want to experiment on animals are caught in a double blind.

The animals mus be sufficiently like humans beings for the experiment to be useful but if this is the case then it is unethical to treat them in a way that would be unethical to treat a humn being.

If the animals are insufficently like human beings for the experiment to be useful then it is unethical to experiment on them because to do so would be a pointless use of resources.

The use of animals in Gibosn and Walk's 1960 study was attempting to assess whether depth perception was inate or learnt. However, as human babies could only be used from 6 months animals had to be used instead. Some of the animals used could not be generalised to humans due to them being insufficently simular making their use a unethical use of resources.

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Cost Benefit Analyses

This issue forms the basis for the BPS guidlines on working with animals;

"Members of both societies are reminded of their general obligation to avoid or at least minimise discomfort to living animals...permission to perform procedures regulated under the 1986 Act will not be granted unless the researcher can justify the costs to the animals in relation to the likely benefits of the research"

Sherrington (1900) surgacally mutilated cats and dogs so that all their major organs were no longer conected to their brains by nervous tissue. he did this in order to see if emotions were still able to be expressed.

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Other Issues

  • Animals cannot comunicate to humans in the same way that other humans can - this means that it is not always known if they are experiencing pain and it also means they cannot give informed concent/excercise the right to withdraw ect. Does ths mean that humans are taking advantage of them or can it be justified?
  • Many rats are selectivly bred for research and would not survive for long in the outside world. Does this mean that they can be used for research as they would not be alive otherwise? Or does it make the results from a manufactured species even more useless and unethical?
  • Animal research is regulated by law (in fact there is a longer history of laws protecting animals than there is of laws protecting humans) but some woiuld argue that this legitimises it. Regan suggests that what is needed is not larger, cleaner cages, but empty ones.
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Advantages of Using Non-Human Animals

  • They are facinating species and research may actually benifit other non-human animals
  • It allows for greater control and objectivity in research projects
  • Human beings and some non-human animals are very close physiologicall speaking and therefore genralisations can be made. As a result findings may be beneficial for humans
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