Carl Cohen (New England Journal of Medicine (1986)
“The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research”
1. COHEN THINKS ANIMALS CAN'T HAVE RIGHTS AND SO ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION CAN'T VIOLATE THEIR (NONEXISTENT) RIGHTS
a. Animals can’t have rights because they are not part of a community of moral agents, capable of responding to moral claims (more on this below)
2. COHEN ALLOWS THAT ANIMALS HAVE MORAL STANDING, JUST NOT RIGHTS
a. Still, Cohen claims we do have direct duties to animals to not inflict pointless suffering,
b. Thus Cohen is not a absolute anthropocentrist (=only humans count morally, only humans have duties directed at them)
c. Cohen is a moderate anthropocentrist (or to use Jamieson’s language, moderate speciesist): He grants that animals have moral standing, but not rights
i. He sees rights as a strong and special kind of moral standing reserved for humans.
ii. For Cohen, humans are at the center of moral concern, nonhumans are of peripheral moral importance; we may discount their interests, but their interests do count some.
3. DEFINITION OF RIGHTS
a. A right is a legitimate claim to certain treatment based on an interest than can be demanded as one's due
b. Rights typically override utilitarian interest maximization reasons for acting
4. THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN RIGHTS AND DUTIES:
a. Rights of A entail duties of B, C (of others):
i. If A has a right, then that means that others (B,C) have duties to respect A's rights
ii. Thus an individual's rights entail duties of others
iii. In a world of no duty-bearers (no moral agents) there could be no rights
b. 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
i. A being might have a duty directed at it, but not have a right to what the duty requires
ii. Examples of duties not based on rights:
(1) 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).
(2) Cohen’s example is a duty of parents to pay for the children’s college education, but the children have no right to it.
iii. Similarly, Cohen thinks we have duties to animals (based on common human decency) even though those duties are not based the animals' (nonexistent) rights.
c. Possessing rights does not entail possessing responsibilities (rights of A do not entail that A must have duties)
i. Even though Cohen might be interpreted to suggest he thinks they do, having rights does not entail having responsibilities or duties, because human infants have rights, but no responsibilities
ii. Thus, 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 uses the “marginal case argument”)
5. 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
a. The Marginal Case Argument:
i. 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
b. Cohen's reply:
i. 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.
ii. 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
6. PROBLEMS WITH COHEN’S RESPONSE TO THE MARGINAL CASE ARGUMENT (OR HIS “DEPENDS ON THE KIND ARGUMENT”)
a. Cohen’s view goes against the following moral principle:
i. 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
b. 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 them
c. James Rachels has a similar response to Cohen:
i. “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 defective 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."
7. COHEN THINKS SPECIESISM IS MORALLY DEFENSIBLE AND NOT AT ALL LIKE RACISM OR SEXISM (AS PETER SINGER CLAIMS)
a. 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 morally required
b. Replies: (1) There are morally relevant differences between humans too; (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 (i.e., “speciesism”) can lead us astray (e.g., in cases such as Rachels’ chimp and marginal case humans)
8. COHEN THINKS AN ADEQUATE UTILITARIAN CALCULUS OF ANIMAL EXPERIMENTATION SHOWS THAT ITS BENEFITS FAR OUTWEIGH ITS COSTS
a. Worries: True of all experimentation on animals? Blow torching pigs for knowledge of skin burns? Draise and LD 50 tests for cosmetics and oven cleaners? Animal pain caused for scientific curiosity or basic research, rather than applied research?
b. Cohen thinks that we should increase, not decrease our use of animals in medical experimentation (and that it is wrong not to do this)
c. 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
i. Worries: 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
ii. See this article for an example of an alternative
d. 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
i. (This is to give up the utilitarian goal of maximizing pleasure minus pain)
9. 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)
a. The goal behind biomedical use of animals is far more important: improved human health, not simply taste/fashion.
i. But is the pain caused greater?
b. Cohen claims consistency requires opponents of animal experimentation to abstain from all uses of animals since animal experimentation is the best use
i. There are relevant distinctions to be made between kinds of animals and various uses of animals (both biomedical and non-biomedical) that Cohen ignores.
ii. 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 chimps.
iii. Also why think drinking milk, wearing leather, fishing, meat eating, going to a zoo, having a fish tank, and owning pets are the same moral issue?
iv. Does consistency really require abstaining from all these if one opposes some animal experimentation?
Carl Cohen and The Use of Animals in Research
1. What is a moral agent? Is a rapist a moral agent? Are any nonhuman animals moral agents?
2. Explain and evaluate the following argument: Since animals are not moral agents, they can't have rights. Assume it is true, that animals are not moral agents. Use the marginal case argument to criticize this argument.
3. Explain and evaluate the following argument: Since animals can't have rights, we can't owe any direct duties to animals. (Assume the premise is true–that animals can’t have rights. Does the conclusion follow?)
4. Does Cohen accept the anthropocentric criterion for moral standing (moderate or absolute)? Does Cohen think we have direct duties to animals? Explain Cohen's position on this issue.
5. Does a utilitarian calculus support or oppose current practices of animal experimentation? What does Cohen think about this and why? What do you think and why?
6. Does Cohen think we should reduce, increase, or eliminate animal experimentation?
7. Discuss possible alternatives to the use of animals in research. Are these alternatives practical enough to justify the reduction and/or eventual abolishment of research on animals?
8. Is it inconsistent to be opposed to animal experimentation and yet continue to use animals in other ways? Why or why not? What does Cohen have to say about this issue?
9. Define the notion of a right and explain it in detail.
10. Do rights entail duties on the part of others? In other words, if someone has a right, does that mean someone else has a duty? Or again, if no one has any duties, does it follow that no one has any rights?
11. Do duties entail rights (i.e., if someone has a duty does that mean someone else must have a right to what the duty says should happen)?
12. Do rights entail responsibilities on the part of the rights holder? That is, if someone has a right does that mean that the same individual must has responsibilities/duties?
13. What is Cohen's response to this marginal case argument? Is this response a good one?
14. Is it wrong to treat an individual on the basis of typical characteristics of groups to which they belong, instead of treating the individual on the basis of her/his own individual characteristics? For example, is it morally appropriate to treat individuals (such as marginal case humans or women) on the basis of characteristics normal for their group/species (even though they lack these characteristics)?
15. Why does Cohen think animals can't have rights? Do you think any animals have any rights? If so, which rights?