The issue of animal experimentation, and the cruelty, violence and death that animals experience as a result of this experimentation, reflects in the existence of this very practice that a value is given to human life over animal life by those that conduct and endorse these experiments. This is what Singer terms “speciesism”, the concept that one species is superior to another and therefore such behavior can be justified. In the following essay, I would like to use Singer’s concept of speciesism to argue against animal experimentation. To the extent that one supports animal experimentation, one is making a value claim based on the worth of the life of one species over another, and if this value claim cannot hold, then animal experimentation should be condemned and banned.
In Chapter Two of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer provides a long and disturbing list of detailed experiments performed against animals. The clear suffering and pain experienced by these animals is established by the presentation of these events. The ethical question thus emerges: to the extent that one realizes the utter cruelty of these practices, how can they continue to go on and be justified? The ideological presupposition, which allows these practices to continue, is termed by Singer “speciesism”, to which he gives the following clear definition: “we tolerate cruelties inflicted on members of other species that would outrage us if performed on members of our own species.” (69) The crux of the claim, therefore, is that in every animal experiment, we see the reflection of a clear hierarchy, whereby importance and priority is given to one form of life, the human being, over others, in this case, animals. What makes this argument so powerful is that it forces us to look at the issue from a different perspective. What if we were not part of this particular species, that practices these experiments, and instead were part of the species that was being experimented on? How would our views change? Certainly, some would argue that this is absurd, because animals cannot think and reflect from these different subjective positions. But this, of course, does not discount the fact that animals can experience pain and suffering, composed of nervous systems and brains, just like human beings are. Furthermore, Singer also makes the point through his illustration of case studies that animals also undergo psychological torment and suffering in these experiments. This would suggest that the divide in consciousness of pain and trauma is as great as one may argue. Thus, the only way to endorse the treatment of animals in this way is to claim that one superiority has a greater “right to life” than another. If we accept this position as untenable, then we must reject animal experimentation.
Those in favor of animal experimentation would then perhaps argue that they oppose animal experimentation, but are in favor of these experiments when they demonstrate a clear benefit for human beings. We can call this position, in contrast to the person who endorses animal experimentation without any concern at all, a form of “light speciesism.” Yes, we should avoid testing animals, but still it is necessary to test, because our primary commitments should be to human beings. Singer attacks this argument largely by demonstrating, through his list of the actual experiments that are to be performed, that this view is an incorrect conception of actually how animal experimentation occurs in a scientific setting. As the painful details of Singer’s case demonstrates, animals are often subjected to excessive punishment in experiments, without any immediate benefits to the human being. Another way to think about these experiments is that of research and development projects, which do not have a clear-cut goal in mind. Furthermore, as Singer also notes, there are many cases where even when testing a particular issue, the levels of experimentation are incredibly disproportionate to garner the amount of information that would be beneficial to the human beings.
Both the hardcore and light variations of speciesism, however, still share an additional trait, which Singer attacks and makes a legitimate point in his argument. That is the idea that human beings give some priority to the very methodology of scientific experimentation so as to provide knowledge and information about issues. Singer thus writes that driving the pro-experimentation side is “the immense respect that people still have for science.” (69) Singer notes that this is paradoxical, especially when we consider the negative things that science has brought human beings, such as nuclear weapons as well as devastating ecological pollution. (69) It could be therefore argued that science is itself also a form of speciesism, namely, that the techniques of knowledge supposedly practiced by the sophisticated human race, instead of other species, is in itself innately beneficial and will always yield positive results. This type of argument in favor of experimentation thus contains a bias for a particular human practice, the power of this human practice to reach fundamental insights about reality. This is another form of speciesism because it overlooks an entire different arena of knowledge practices which could achieve many of the same therapeutic and beneficial results that animal experimentation has received. For example, we could cite simple things such as physical exercise or even something like music therapy, which could be alternatives to many of the products that result from animal experimentation, such as drugs.
The argument from the perspective of speciesism is compelling. It forces us to question the hidden and presumed values that underlie animal experimentation. Once we break out of an anthropocentric mindset, and understand that other living things of course also experience pain because they are living, just like us, animal experimentation is based on an importance given to human life and the ways in which human beings assume to gain knowledge over all other forms of life. When we put these assumptions into question, as Singer forces us to do, the product is a potent critique of animal experimentation practices.