Carl Cohen, "The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research"
- COHEN THINKS ANIMALS CAN'T HAVE RIGHTS AND SO
ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION CAN'T VIOLATE THEIR
- Animals can't have rights because they are not part of a community of
moral agents, capable of responding to moral claims (p. 302, text)
- Still, Cohen claims we do have direct duties to animals to not inflict
- Thus Cohen is not a strong anthropocentrist (=only humans count
morally, only humans have duties directed at them) (contrary to what
the editor of our text says in the introduction to the article).
- Cohen is a weak anthropocentrist: He grants that animals have moral
standing, but not rights (a strong and special kind of moral standing
reserved for humans).
- For Cohen, humans are at the center of moral
concern, nonhumans are of peripheral moral importance; we may
discount their interests, but their interests to count some
- DEFINITION OF RIGHTS:
- A right is a legitimate claim to certain treatment based on an interest
than can be demanded as one's due.
- Rights typically override utilitarian interest maximization reasons for
- THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN RIGHTS AND DUTIES:
- Rights of A entail duties of B, C (of others): If A has a right, then that
means that others (B,C) have duties to respect A's rights; thus an
individual's rights entail duties of others.
- In a world of no duty-bearers (no moral agents) there could be no
- Duties need not entail rights (Duties of B to A, need not be based on
A's rights): Duties to an individual do not necessarily depend on
rights of the individual
- A being might have a duty directed at it, but not have a right to
what the duty requires.
- For example, I have a duty to give my old coat to a homeless
person who is freezing on the street (a duty based on common
human decency-I ought to give him my old coat), yet the
homeless person does not have a right to my coat, because I have
a right to it (it is my property).
- Cohen's example is a duty of parents to pay for the children's
college education, but the children have no right to it.
- Similarly, Cohen thinks we have duties to animals (based on
common human decency) even though those duties are not based
the animals' (nonexistent) rights.
- Possessing rights does not entail possessing responsibilities (rights
of A do not entail that A must have duties):
- Even though Cohen sometimes suggests he thinks they do,
having rights does not entail having responsibilities or duties,
because human infants have rights, but no responsibilities.
Cohen can't successfully argue that animals lack rights because
they aren't moral agents (beings who have responsibilities), unless
he's willing to say infants lack rights also (he isn't)
- This point
is an example of the "marginal case argument"
- COHEN THINKS THE MARGINAL CASE ARGUMENT (USED BY
ANIMAL DEFENDERS) IS A BAD ONE BECAUSE (HE CLAIMS) WE
SHOULD TREAT INDIVIDUALS ON THE BASIS OF GROUP
MEMBERSHIP. (See Text, p. 303 and below)
- The Marginal Case Argument: If one tries to justify certain treatment
of animals (e.g., eating or experimenting on them) because they lack
certain features (they aren't moral agents, rational, autonomous, able to
communicate, social, etc.), then one is committed to the permissibility
of the same treatment of marginal case humans (infants, the severely
retarded) because they too lack these features
- Cohen's reply: Animals are not a part of a group whose typical
members are moral agents ("they are not members in a community of
moral agents"), and so they can't have rights.
- But human infants,
severely retarded humans, and other "marginal case humans" are
members of a group whose typical members are moral agents, so they
do have rights.
- Cohen's view goes against the following moral principle:
- It is wrong to treat individuals on the basis of typical characteristics of
groups to which they belong; One should treat individuals on the basis
of their own individual characteristics.
- For example, it would be wrong to deny a woman a job at a
construction site because she belongs to a group most of whose
members can't lift extremely heavy objects, if that woman can lift
- James Rachels has a similar response to Cohen:
- "The idea--that how individuals should be treated is determined by what is normal for their
species--has a certain appeal, because it does seem to express our moral intuitions about
mentally deficient humans. `We should not treat a person worse merely because he has been so
unfortunate,' we might say about someone who has suffered brain damage. But the idea will not
bear close inspection. A simple thought-experiment will expose the problem. Suppose (what is
probably impossible) that an unusually gifted chimpanzee learned to read and speak English.
And suppose he eventually was able to converse about science, literature, and morals. Finally he
expresses a desire to attend university classes. Now there might be various arguments about
whether to permit this, but suppose someone argued as follows: `Only humans should be
allowed to attend these classes. Humans can read, talk, and understand science. Chimps
cannot.' But this chimp can do these things. `Yes, but normal chimps cannot, and that is what
matters.' Following Cohen, it might be added that `The issue is one of kind,' and not one of
particular abilities accidental to particular individuals. Is this a good argument? Regardless of
what other arguments might be persuasive, this one is not. It assumes that we should determine
how an individual is to be treated, not on the basis of its qualities, but on the basis of other individuals' qualities. The argument is that this chimp may be barred from doing something that
requires reading, despite the fact that he can read, because other chimps cannot read. That
seems not only unfair, but irrational."
- COHEN THINKS SPECIESISM IS MORALLY DEFENSIBLE AND
NOT AT ALL LIKE RACISM OR SEXISM (AS PETER SINGER
- Unlike the differences between the sexes and races, there are vast
morally relevant differences between humans and animals (e.g., animals
can't make moral judgments); thus treating individuals differently
because they belong to a different species is not only acceptable, but
- (1) There are morally relevant differences between humans
- (2) Although species membership typically correlates with morally
relevant difference (e.g., most humans can make moral judgments), it is
not itself typically a morally relevant feature-thus using species itself as
a reason for treating individuals differently can lead us astray (e.g., in
cases such as Rachels' chimp, marginal case humans)
- COHEN THINKS AN ADEQUATE UTILITARIAN CALCULUS OF
ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION SHOWS THAT ITS BENEFITS FAR
OUTWEIGH ITS COSTS
- True of all experimentation on animals? Blow torching pigs for
knowledge of skin burns? Draise and LD 50 tests? Animal pain caused
for scientific curiosity or basic research, rather than applied research?
- Cohen thinks that we should increase, not decrease our use of
animals in medical experimentation (and that it is wrong not to do
- Cohen claims that there are no available substitute procedures that
would allow us to achieve the goals/benefits of biomedical research at
less cost to animals.
- Cohen must argue that spending resources on preventative
medicine (e.g., getting people to lead healthier lifestyles) or on
developing replacement tests (e.g., using insentient invertebrates
like shrimp) is less effective at relieving suffering
- Cohen thinks it morally permissible to discount animal pain (i.e., to
weigh it as less morally important):
- After all, it is only a rat and a rat's
pain counts for little
- This is to give up the utilitarian goal of
maximizing pleasure minus pain
- COHEN THINKS OPPONENTS OF ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION
ARE INCONSISTENT BECAUSE THIS IS BY FAR A BETTER USE OF
ANIMALS THAN ARE OTHER USES OF ANIMALS THE
OPPONENTS ACCEPT (E.G., THE USE OF ANIMALS FOR FOOD,
CLOTHING, AND SHELTER).
- The goal behind the biomedical use of animals is far more important:
improved human health, not simply taste/fashion.
- But is the pain caused greater?
- Cohen claims consistency requires opponents of animal
experimentation to abstain from all uses of animals.
- There are relevant distinctions to be made between kinds of
animals and various uses of animals (both biomedical and non-biomedical) that Cohen ignores.
- For example, there is nothing
inconsistent about eating shrimp or oysters (invertebrates who probably
don't feel pain) and being opposed to animal experimentation on
- Also why think drinking milk, wearing leather, fishing, meat
eating, going to a zoo, having a fish tank, and owning pets are the same
- Does consistency really require abstaining from all these
if one opposes some animal experimentation?
- PASSAGES FROM COHEN'S ARTICLE
- Why animals can't have rights:
- "(Rights) are in ever case claims, or potential claims, within a community of moral agents. Rights arise, and can be intelligibly defended, only among beings who actually do, or can, make moral claims against one another. Whatever else rights may be, therefore, they are necessarily human; their possessors are persons, human beings." (P. 302, text)
- "Animals . . . lack the capacity for free moral judgment. They are not beings of a kind capable of exercising or responding to moral claims. Animals therefore have no rights, and they can have none. . . . The holders of rights must have the capacity to comprehend rules of duty, governing all including themselves. In applying such rules, the holders of rights must recognize possible conflicts between what is in their own interest and what is just. Only in a community of beings capable of self-restricting moral judgment can the concept of a right be correctly invoked." (P. 302, text)
- Cohen's response to the marginal case argument (i.e., if animals can't have rights because they aren't moral actors/agents, then infants and the severely retarded lack rights because they too aren't moral actors):
- "This objection fails: it mistakenly treats an essential feature of humanity as though it were a screen for sorting humans. The capacity for moral judgment that distinguishes humans from animals is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one. Persons who are unable, because of some disability, to perform the full moral functions natural to human beings are certainly not for that reason ejected from the moral community. The issue is one of kind. Humans are of such a kind that they may be the subject of experiments only with their voluntary consent. The choices they make freely must be respected. Animals are of such a kind that it is impossible for them, in principle, to give or withhold voluntary consent or to make a moral choice. What humans retain when disabled, animals have never had.