Killing for Life
by Emma Raven on February 10, 2015 - 1:52pm
Is killing wrong? Many people’s consciences would tell them that it is. But the question becomes more difficult to answer when the victims are animals, especially when the end goal is something other than food. Some ethical frameworks maintain that killing or harming animals is wrong, whereas others suggest that doing so can be morally acceptable, or even that it is sometimes the more ethically correct course of action.
The long-standing moral dilemma regarding whether or not animal testing for medical research is ethical demonstrates a clash between deontological and teleological ethics. Vivisection causes harm and sometimes death to numerous animal subjects, with the goal of developing treatments to improve and/or prolong the lives of humans suffering from severe health conditions. Whether or not this is acceptable depends on the relative costs and benefits, but also on the moral framework through which the situation is viewed.
The underlying principle behind deontological ethics is that the moral code is absolute. Immanuel Kant, a great Rational thinker, argues that the sole categorical imperative regarding ethical conduct is that an action is only morally justified if, were everyone to commit this action, society would continue to function (Kant). In this framework, only the action itself is considered and the context in which it is committed is inconsequential. Rationalism therefore views all killings of animals as the same, regardless of the agent’s end goal. Thus, deontology would condemn vivisection because society cannot remain functional if all of its members kill animals whenever they determine that doing so would benefit them.
An example demonstrates the inadequacy of this framework. Until the mid-20th century, an individual diagnosed with diabetes could only survive until the balance between diabetic coma and starvation became impossible to maintain. Enter Dr. F. Banting, who through extensive experimentation on dogs discovered how to treat diabetes with insulin, thus allowing patients to live almost normal lives (“The Discovery of Insulin”). By deontology, this work is morally wrong despite its huge benefit to humanity because it required knowingly inflicting harm and possibly death upon sentient beings.
Teleological ethics, specifically utilitarianism, is more suited to resolving this moral dilemma. In teleology, an action is considered ethical if it is a step toward the summum bonum or ultimate goal (Deigh). In utilitarianism, this summum bonum is the greater good of all. This framework considers actively causing harm to an individual or group ethical if doing so results in more good overall. Therefore, by utilitarianism, it is not only ethical but also the only morally correct action to use animals for medical testing, if and only if the collective harm to them is less than the net resultant good to humanity.
The major flaw in utilitarianism is that it is impossible to objectively compare the costs and benefits of two courses of action, especially in a situation such as medical experimentation in which the morally questionable action must be committed before its results can be seen. Researchers must therefore attempt to accurately estimate the success of their studies and then convince ethicists that they are working toward the greater good.
John Deigh, “What is Ethics,” 4-16 in An Introduction to Ethics (New York: Cambridge, 2010)
Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. 1785.
Marsh, James H. “The Discovery of Insulin.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.