Secular Ethics and Animal Rights
by Peter D. Wilson
Would not a world without religion be an anarchy of moral relativism,
devoid of order because right and wrong cease to exist? This is the last
ditch defense by theists against arguments that gods do not exist. Their
point being that even if religions are false, for an orderly society
religion is necessary and should be promoted and revered; good behavior
can only be inspired and justified by religious belief. This is reflected
in the recent pushes to reinstate school-sanctioned prayer into public
schools wherein prayer and religious indoctrination is seen as the
cure-all for today's social problems.[1,2]
But is it true that only theists can be moral and that a secular and
atheistic world is doomed to degenerate into chaos? This article argues
yes for the former but no for the latter. A secularly based ethic is
developed that coincides with the majority of what people consider right
and wrong. These ethics do go against one widely accepted belief by
providing strong support for animal rights.
Morality tells the individual how to behave in order to be a good
person. The source of most morality is religion where a holy book inspired
by a god reveals the Truth and commands proper behavior. Coming from the
Creator of the Universe, these moral codes are accepted (if not actually
followed) without question -- since the god is perfect, the morality must
also be perfect. In some religions to behave immorally is to risk eternal
damnation, adding extra incentive for obedience. Often, the very act of
questioning is itself immoral. This further protects the religion and its
morality from attack. But because there is no incontrovertible evidence
for the existence of a perfect god, it is impossible to know which of the
many conflicting claims of revelation is to be accepted. Therefore, in the
name of religion any atrocity -- ethnic cleansing, terrorist bombing,
inquisitions, witch burning -- can be defined as moral by appeals to
divine law without needing further justification.
Atheists, in contrast, do not have a moral code to which they must
subscribe. No stone tablets contain an atheist morality to which obedience
is commanded. Whatever morality, if any, an atheist has can only be as
good as the rationality of its justification. As humans are often an
irrational lot, such rationality arguments are bound to be flawed and open
to interpretation. Therefore, because atheists deny the existence of a
perfect god handing out a treatise on good behavior, atheists must also
deny the existence of an absolute perfect morality. There will always be
some subjectivity in a human founded morality hidden by collective
As the atheist only believes in things that can be observed, an
atheistic morality must somehow be derived from the observed workings of
the universe. So, what sort of natural morality can be drawn from the
Just a few centuries ago, we thought we were at the center of the
universe and that the universe existed just for us. With this view,
anything and everything observed in the universe needed to be interpreted
in human terms -- comets foretold the death of kings; disease was the
punishment for sin. We have since learned that our place in the universe
is one of insignificance, undermining the earlier anthropocentrism. Humans
have existed for only the last 0.01% of the universe's existence and live
on just a tiny dust speck in the vastness of space. The universe does not
care one whit what we do. We could destroy ourselves in a nuclear
holocaust tomorrow without having any effect beyond our own planet. The
universe will continue to expand and follow its destiny whether we live or
die. Even if we do not kill ourselves, blind chance may. Sixty-five
million years ago an asteroid hit the Earth that killed probably 99% of
all life on the planet and caused the extinction of at least half of the
major marine species, as well as the dinosaurs.
It is nothing more than pure luck that another one does not hit today.
Even if we survive these flips-of-the-coin, in five billion years the sun
will expand, engulf the Earth, and destroy whatever life still exists
here. It will happen whether we behave morally or not. The deterministic
nature of the universe undermines any possibility for a universal
imperative for moral behavior. So, the only morality to be drawn from the
universe is nihilistic.
On a much smaller scale, life itself is nihilistic. Everyone will die
eventually. It is unavoidable. Without an afterlife of eternal bliss or
eternal damnation to motivate moral behavior, life ceases to have ultimate
meaning. That there is no meaning to life should not, however, be
interpreted to mean there can be no meaning in life. Without an imaginary
god commanding your behavior and religion forcing a meaning onto your
life, it is up to you to choose what makes life worth living. To me, this
gives life extra meaning because my life truly becomes mine.
Even without an ultimate meaning to the universe and life, we could
simply take the physical laws of nature as examples for moral laws.
Nature, however, is infinitely better at enforcing its laws than we ever
could be; the laws of nature can never be broken no matter how hard we
try, so nothing 'unnatural' can ever occur. This makes it impossible for
right and wrong to exist in nature. There is only 'is' and 'is not'.
Therefore, it is necessary to reinterpret nature in human terms. We must
connect the 'is' to the 'ought'. But this reinterpretation is so
subjective as to be pointless, unless one first postulates that the
physical laws were created specifically for this purpose, thereby making
it possible to believe that there is a "correct" interpretation. Like
divine revelations, then, natural moralities are little more than
tests of their proponents. The embracing of Social Darwinism by the early
is but one example of projecting one's own desires onto nature. Claiming
that there exists a natural order on which a morality can be based and
actions can be objectively judged just substitutes one make believe god
The atheist is thus in a bind when it comes to morality. Without a god
or a purpose to the universe there is no reason to believe that any
morality is better than another. At this point, then, morality for the
atheist becomes demoted to the level of a personal preference with no
right or wrong answer. This is the moral relativism that theists fear. But
is the loss of morality a bad thing?
When one has a morality coming from a god (or universe) that exists
everywhere and defines what is good and bad, all aspects of one's life are
subject to morality. Morality determines what one can think, how one can
dress, and who one can marry. (Ironically, the believers in an omnipotent
god thought their god was incapable of enforcing its own laws, so many of
these moral laws have come to be enforced by society and government. The
victimless crime thus comes into existence.) Without a god or natural
order against whom one can sin, actions that affect only the individual or
groups of consenting individuals (e.g., drug use, prostitution, gay
marriage) cannot be judged as right or wrong. The atheist cannot make
appeals to authority to determine good behavior and must, therefore, judge
actions only on their effect on others.
Whereas morality deals with the inherent worth of actions themselves
and the motivations behind them, ethics deals with the worth of the
probable effects brought about by actions, especially when the actions
affect non-consenting individuals. So, although the atheist cannot behave
morally, the atheist can alternatively behave ethically.
Without divine revelation, though, there cannot be an absolute
foundation upon which secular ethics can be built. We must instead choose
a foundation that sounds reasonable and see where it takes us. As such
these ethics will always be imperfect and must be subjected to rigorous
questioning, debate, and possibly subsequent modification. But what is the
best foundation for ethics? It must be objective and, yet, intuitive
enough that most people can accept it without the resulting ethics being
too dependent on individual interpretations. A good candidate is a
Fairness Principle that requires making ethical judgements in a consistent
and similar manner unless there is a relevant difference between the
situations that justifies dissimilar treatment. In essence, this means
that one cannot make arbitrary distinctions between otherwise similar
cases. Unfortunately, many invalid reasons have been offered in the past
to justify unequal treatment; the inability of people to identify with
others different from themselves has led to slavery and genocide. To make
the Fairness Principle as objective as possible we must replace simple
intuition and emotional rhetoric with science and logic. Whenever a
difference is claimed to justify violating the principle, that difference
must be scientifically verifiable and logically relevant to the unequal
treatment in question. Only in this way can we hope to produce an ethic
based on reason that is not easily swayed by fear and hate.
The Fairness Principle by itself does not prescribe the ethics; it is
just the tool that allows us to build the ethics. The ethics themselves
will come from applying the principle to the real world and locating what
constitutes similar situations and relevant differences.
The starting point of our development of ethics must be Descartes's
conclusion, "I think, therefore I am." There seems little doubt within
each person's mind that they can think and feel. If you prick your finger,
you can feel it. No argument is going to convince you that the pain you
experience is not real. Nor can you be convinced that your thoughts are
also illusory. There is no denying that they exist. Having admitted the
existence of the mind, where does it come from? What creates the ability
to think and feel? For the theist it is believed to derive from the soul.
But in the naturalistic universe revealed by science, the source is
undeniably the brain and nervous system -- purely materialistic means.
With nearly absolute certainty you know that your biological make-up
produces feelings and thoughts. It is then by virtue of these abilities
that you have interests in what happens to you. Because you experience
pain when injured, you have an important interest in not being injured.
Likewise, because you are aware of your own existence through time, you
have an interest in not being killed (see below). On the other hand, you
are not affected by the color of your shoes so you do not have any
(ethical) interests in that regard. If these interests are important
enough, they can be viewed as rights which cannot be violated without your
consent. So, it can be argued that you have the right to be free from
unnecessary and avoidable pain as well as a right to life.
But what about others? Do you alone have these rights?
Consider your identical twin who has exactly the same genetic structure
as you. Could your twin be just an automaton, built to behave like a human
being but lacking any feelings? If an automaton, in ethical decisions your
twin should be given no more consideration than a pocket calculator. In a
universe with a god giving out souls, this is certainly possible. But
without a divine entity to muck up the issue you cannot reasonably deny
your twin's sentience without denying your own since you both share the
same biology. Strictly speaking, the biologies are not absolutely
identical because the environment has some influences on brain
It may therefore be possible to imagine an accidental difference in brain
structure that renders you conscious while your twin remains an automaton.
This, however, seems to be untenable. Since it is impossible to get inside
another person's mind, we can only infer mental states in others from
their observable behavior. So when the outward behaviors of you and your
twin -- saying ouch when injured or laughing when tickled -- are similar,
you must conclude that similar mental states exist in you and your twin.
With all the similarities apparent between you and your twin, in the
absence of evidence to the contrary anything you can feel should also be
similarly felt by your twin. Therefore, the Fairness Principle requires
that any right you claim for yourself must also be granted to your twin.
Any behavior in which you feel justified in engaging, your twin must also
be justified in behaving the same way. So, if you don't want your twin to
lie to you or otherwise harm you, you cannot lie to or harm your twin. To
do otherwise would be rationally inconsistent and hypocritical, because
ethically you and your twin are equals.
But how far does this equality extend? It cannot be an absolute
equality because you and your twin are not exactly identical in ability.
If you are a trained surgeon and your twin is an artist, in an emergency
where consent cannot be given you would be justified in operating on your
twin but not vice versa. The equality applies only in issues where the
relevant characteristics are shared. In surgery, the relevant characters
are skill and training, in which you and your twin are not equals. But,
when considering the ethics of harming one another the relevant character
is the ability to feel the harm, in which you and your twin are equals.
Cutting off a hand will cause pain to either one of you, so you both have
an interest in avoiding it. Unless you are willing to condone your twin
cutting off your hand, you should not cut off your twin's hand. Of course,
if consent is given (e.g., the hand is gangrene) it ceases to be an issue
These ethics would be worthless if they could only be applied to
identical twins. Fortunately, the boundary of consideration is easily
expanded. Your non-identical sibling on average shares 50% of your
chromosomes but still differs genetically only infinitesimally from you;
the biology is virtually the same as in the identical twin case. Hair
color and height may differ but what issue of ethics has as the relevant
character hair color or height? Siblings may also differ by gender which
many people have claimed is an ethically relevant difference. But is it?
Gender is determined by only a single chromosome out of 46, so the biology
of the genders are to a large extent still identical. In those cases in
which there are clear differences (as those obviously in reproductive
abilities) different rights may be present (e.g., a woman can have the
right to choose an abortion while a man cannot). But for most issues the
relevant characteristics lie in the brain not in the reproductive organs.
As both genders have very similar brains, it follows that they have
similar characters and must be given equal ethical consideration. Rights
denied to women in the past (ownership of property, voting) but given to
men were wrongly based on prejudice rather than true measures of ability.
Laws or societal pressures currently applied differentially between the
genders (unequal pay for equal work, appearance standards and dress codes)
are likewise unethical.
The envelope is easily expanded to include your parents and children
since they are so closely linked; each shares exactly one-half of their
chromosomes with you and therefore does not differ from the sibling case.
The intimacy of the biology makes it impossible to entertain the
possibility that a family member is actually an automaton undeserving of
ethical consideration. But with the parents come grandparents and all
their descendants, then great grandparents, etc. How far back in common
ancestry can you go before hitting the biological wall between sentient
and automaton? Is it at the split in the races tens of thousands of years
ago? Is there any race of humans that lack the biological ability to think
and feel? Many people in the past have searched for a justification for
their bigotry but despite several erroneous claims, they have failed.
Whatever differences that do exist are dwarfed by the similarities. The
envelope must go at least as far back as the origin of the human species.
In broad general terms all human beings share identical biologies which
imbibe them with consciousness and feeling. Because of this all humans are
ethical equals, thus demanding each person behave in a manner that does
not harm another. The recognition of similar characters demand similar
We need to pause here to consider some of the implications of this
foundation of ethics in order to make sure they do not contradict our
major notions of right and wrong. The most obvious implication of the
preceding argument is that we must adopt a principle of equality that
prohibits discrimination on any basis other than a demonstrable difference
in a characteristic relevant to the discrimination. This means that in
accepting students a college can discriminate based on the students'
academic records but not on, say, their shoe sizes. The former is a
measure of their ability to succeed in college while the latter is not. Of
course, if a scientific study shows intellectual ability is more strongly
linked to shoe size than high school performance, then shoe size becomes a
relevant measure of ability. But in the absence of strong evidence to the
contrary, equality must be assumed.
One of the worst crimes recognized by society is murder. We have
already admitted a right to life but glossed over exactly what harm was
being done to justify the right. Just by the Fairness Principle murder is
prohibited: because you do not want to be murdered, you cannot murder
others. And hopefully, others would see the same reasoning and would not
murder you. But what is the harm that is actually being done and that
determines which others share this right to life? Murder robs the
individual of the future, so obviously one must be self-aware and have a
concept of the possibility for one's own future in order to be harmed by
its loss. Clearly, most people do conceive of their own future and, in
fact, make plans and look forward to it. Ending their life robs them of
the ability to experience that future. But people who suffer severe brain
damage and become "vegetables" would cease to have a right to life. And as
has been mentioned several times before, consent circumvents this
argument, so assisted suicide also does not qualify as murder. Finally,
although it is still a controversial issue, the necessary higher brain
functions probably do not exist in a fetus during the first trimester, so
early abortions are ethical provided the fetus is unable to feel any pain
during the procedure (e.g., it is a very early abortion or anesthesia is
In addition to murder, it is easy to similarly show that rape, theft,
arson, etc., are also prohibited because they cause harm to nonconsenting
individuals. Acts that are more innocuous, like lieing and cheating, do
not directly harm others, so they loose much of the force present for the
other often violent actions. But still the Fairness Principle prevents
lieing and cheating from becoming acceptable. Because you can only act in
a manner in which you would want others to act, in addition to judging
your actions by the harm caused to others, your actions must also be
judged in terms of what would happen if everyone (or at least a lot of
people) acted in the same way. So, although a single student cheating on a
test taken by a thousand other people does not harm those others, a
hundred cheating students would. And if most of the students cheated the
whole purpose of the test is undermined and the test becomes meaningless.
Lieing has a similar effect on truth and honesty. This is essentially
Kant's Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to a principle which
you can will would be an universal law."
These ethics are based on the principle of "similar characters demand
similar consideration" where characters must be scientifically identified
and logically linked to the consideration. On the whole this principle
leads to ethics that conform with most people's intuitive sense of right
and wrong, yet there was never any need to appeal to a supernatural being
or a mystical inherent value to human life. A secular and scientifically
supported ethic, therefore, does appear capable of producing an orderly
But the argument is not complete. We stopped expanding the principle of
equality when it encompassed the entire human race. Because the principle
is based on scientifically measurable characteristics, we need to ask if
there is a valid justification for applying the principle only to human
beings. Do the differing biologies of humans and nonhumans warrant the
current lack of consideration given to nonhumans?
Quoth John Merrick, "I am not an animal! I am a human being!"
Darwin long ago showed the error of such statements. Humans do not occupy
a special place in nature that completely separates us from all other
animals. The evolutionary tree provides an unbroken link between humans
and all other life just as your family tree links you to your parents to
your grandparents and on to the rest of the human species. We share 99.6%
of our active genes with our nearest cousin, chimpanzees,
and all terrestrial life, from the smallest bacterium to the largest
whale, share the same genetic language. The biological similarities of all
animals cannot be denied. Behavioral similarities also exist, including
many of those characteristics thought unique to humans (tool use,
The discovery of these similarities provide support for Darwin's
contention that the differences between humans and animals are ones of
degree not kind.
Once the link between humans and animals (and plants) is recognized and
the absolute supremacy of humans shattered there can no longer exist a
sharp line separating 'us' from 'them'. This prevents any
justification for excluding animals from all ethical consideration.
Instead, each issue needs to be examined separately and the question of
similarity of relevant characteristics needs to be answered character by
As no one knows exactly what it feels like to be anything other than a
human being it is impossible to know how much harm a cow is capable of
feeling and whether a pig feels more or less. Strictly speaking of course,
one cannot even know exactly what another human feels. In fact, the
medical community has acknowledged the ability of human infants to feel
pain only in the last decade.
Despite the obvious uncertainty, by appealing to our biological and
behavioral understanding of pain and consciousness we can build a likely
relative scale for major groups of life. The Institute for Medical Ethics
has selected by analogy to humans 7 possible criteria on which the ability
to feel pain might be judged.[13,14]
These criteria include biological similarities in nerve and brain
structure and behavioral similarities in responses to possibly noxious
stimuli. The inclusion of behavior allows for the possibility that
different physiologies can create the sensation of pain. While these tests
do not provide an absolute basis on which pain can be judged, they do
provide a useful starting point. As expected, mammals meet all the
criteria and are unquestionably capable of suffering. Birds satisfy 6 of
the criteria with the seventh one left unknown. Reptiles, amphibians, and
fish have nervous systems increasingly different from humans and fail some
of the criteria, but it is still likely they are capable of some
suffering. Insects, in contrast, fail most of the criteria. Plants are not
considered in the institute's report, but in lacking any known mechanism
for consciousness, they may reasonably be considered incapable of
To help ground the bottom of the scale, consider simple inanimate
matter. Because in the absence of souls and supernatural beings
consciousness and feeling must be caused by purely materialistic means,
when one fails to find any such means consciousness and feeling must be
denied. A rock, for example, is a static object, changing only through
external means -- weathering, etc. But mental ability at the very least
must be mirrored by internal activity which is not seen in rocks.
Therefore, we can conclude with nearly absolute certainty that rocks (and
other inanimate matter) do not have any ability to think or feel, removing
any justification for giving them ethical consideration. If you put
inanimate matter together in the right combination, though, you can start
getting internal activity and behaviors that bear some resemblance to pain
avoidance. Take as a very simple example the thermostat of an air
conditioner. When the temperature leaves the desired range, the thermostat
switches the air conditioner on or off in order to bring the temperature
back into range. Does the thermostat feel pain when it gets too hot or too
cold? Or, is it more reasonable to consider the thermostat as blindly
reacting to certain stimuli in a pre-programmed way? The latter is most
assuredly the better viewpoint. Single-celled organisms and plants are
much more complex than the electrical circuit in a thermostat. But is it
not more parsimonious to consider the reactions seen in them to be
pre-programmed by their DNA rather than to ascribe consciousness and pain
to them when the internal physiology producing these mental abilities
cannot even be identified?
The scale we have built runs from you to other humans to other animals
to other life to simple machines to inanimate matter. At no point on the
scale is there a sharp boundary demarcating life (or, more generally,
entities) capable of suffering and life incapable of suffering. The scale
contains only differing shades of grey, but the further down we go the
more confident we can be that we are reducing suffering.
We can similarly build a scale to help determine which animals have a
right to life. This right is linked to the ability to conceive of the
future, thereby producing a perceivable harm by the loss of that future.
This is much more difficult to show than the presence of pain and is
probably present in fewer species. But a dog demonstrates the ability to
conceive of future possibilities when it begs at the table for food. And a
mouse demonstrates it each time it runs through a maze to reach a piece of
cheese. Birds might be demonstrating it when they meticulously select
material for building their nests. Unfortunately, the author is not
familiar enough with other groups to even speculate on their abilities,
but at the very least all mammals and probably birds do have a right to
The recognition of these rights is drastically different from the
western view which is dominantly theistic. Had a god created each species
separately or directed evolution to form humans, a line would definitely
exist between humans and animals that could be used to restrict rights to
humans. Humans would have a soul or a divine spark missing from the
'lower' animals. Any level of cruelty could then be justified by claims of
divine sanction. Of course, religion is also able to justify (and has many
times) drawing the line at race, nationality, or gender. Claims of divine
right insulate believers from the need to think rationally and to justify
their beliefs. Alternatively, the theist may consider animals as "God's
creatures" and deserving the same respect as humans. Whether a theist
accepts animal rights or not is arbitrary, depending mainly on the
individual's compassion. So, the theist may just as well flip a coin to
learn which absolutist argument to believe. Even if the theist
(arbitrarily) decides to consider the issue rationally, as is done here,
the theist can always "insert miracle here" should the logical
consequences be unsatisfactory and thereby reach whatever conclusion
desired. To go all the way and reject a priori any divine
intervention is to undermine the very idea of theism -- belief in a god
manifesting himself in the world -- and to become an atheist. Unlike
theistic ethics, then, the secular ethics developed here has animal rights
as a natural and unavoidable consequence.
We now turn to how the presence of these two rights -- right to avoid
avoidable harm and the right to life -- affect modern society's treatment
The easiest cruelty to eliminate, and therefore the most abhorrent, is
that which is caused by vanity. There is no conflict in interests here;
the suffering is borne solely by the animals. What necessity is there in
fur coats, leather jackets, lizard skin boots, ivory sculptures, or musk
perfume? Humans would not suffer any from the absence of these items.
Because many desire the items as symbols of social status or as objects of
beauty, millions of animals are killed each year
and many species have been driven to extinction.
Often the deaths are long and painful. Animals caught in leg traps (set in
order to make fur coats) may take several days to die.
Nearly one-fourth of the animals chew off their own leg to escape, only to
die a short time thereafter from blood loss, predation, or infection.
And for the sake of maximum musk production the life of a civet cat is one
of constant pain. The animals are kept in sheds where the temperature is
raised to 110 degrees and every day the musk is scraped from their
genitals, making the genitals raw and swollen.
There is no justification for such suffering.
Food, however, is a necessity. In fact, most life needs to feed on
other life to survive. Therefore, our right to life may come into conflict
with the right to life of our food. But we have a choice of what food we
eat. Jeffrey Dahmer chose to eat other human beings and he's in jail.
McDonalds has served billions and billions of cow burgers and can be found
in every sizable town. Why is one choice so taboo and outlawed while the
other is an unquestioned tradition? Is a cow so different that it warrants
zero consideration? A cow, by sharing the fundamental biology of human
beings, undoubtedly feels pain and suffers just as a human does. If one
admits humans have a right to live free of unwanted cannibalism one should
also recognize a similar right for the cow. The extent to which the cow
has this right may arguably be less than that for humans because there are
(minor) differences between the two species, but the much larger
similarities demand the existence of this right. So, if it were a
necessity it would possibly be ethical to kill a cow for food and not a
human. But is it in modern society a necessity? If cows did not exist
would humans die? Certainly not. The human diet is capable of such variety
that the loss of cow flesh would not even be noticed. But some source of
food is necessary even though cows, specifically, are not.
How far down the suffering scale can the human diet be restricted
before beginning to inflict suffering on humans? Apparently all the way
down to plants. The health of life-long vegans provides incontrovertible
evidence to this conclusion. Therefore, to eat above this level on the
scale is to risk inflicting unnecessary suffering. In fact, the better
health of vegans shows how eating animals also inflicts suffering in
humans. Whereas the average American man has a 50% chance of dying of a
a vegan man's chances are only about 5%.[22,23]
Vegan women have lower risks of developing breast cancer and osteoporosis
as compared to their meat and dairy eating counterparts.
Other possible health benefits include reduced risks of prostrate cancer,
diabetes, and obesity.[25,26]
Throw in the many environmental benefits gained from becoming vegan
(decreased pollution, greenhouse gas emission, and rain forest clearing)
and the eating of meat clearly becomes a really dumb, as well as
The fur and meat issues are so one-sided that the answers are obvious.
There just are not any important benefits gained from using animals for
clothes or food that can be used to justify the enormous suffering
inflicted upon the animals. This is not the case when it comes to animal
experiments. Since the human benefits can be saved lives, discussions tend
to be overly emotional and cast in hypotheticals forcing you to choose
between your child and a rabbit. Because we started this argument by
rejecting emotional pleas as too subjective, we must continue on this path
or else we undermine all that has come before and open the door to
hypotheticals that force you to choose between your child and a Jew, or a
black person. So we must ask if there is any scientifically measurable and
relevant difference between humans and nonhumans that make it ethical to
do experiments on one and not the other.
Humans suffer from many painful and deadly diseases. To reduce and/or
prevent this suffering scientists must perform experiments in order to
find cures. The standard procedure today is to take a healthy animal,
infect it with the disease, study how the disease progresses, and then
attempt experimental treatments. But is it ethical to do these experiments
on unwilling animals? Consideration of the suffering of the animals
requires experimentation as low on the suffering scale as possible but in
order for the knowledge to be applied to humans the experiments often must
be on subjects high on the scale (i.e., similar to humans). The most
reliable subjects are humans themselves because unlike animal subjects
there is no need to extrapolate the results to humans. At times,
governments have resorted to human experiments that were analogous to
those currently performed on animals. Nazi doctors performed experiments
on Jews in concentration camps during World War Two
and the United States government performed radiation tests on unknowing
citizens during the Cold War.[29,30]
In these cases the individuals' rights to be free from harm were
egregiously violated. It has been widely accepted for most of the
twentieth century that informed consent is required before possibly
harmful experiments can be performed on humans.
This is clearly also the case when adopting these secular ethics. But what
if these experiments had the possibility of preventing harm in others?
Does this change the situation?
Consider a hypothetical in which several people are in desperate need
of new organs and will die without them. And you have the only match. By
using your organs doctors can save the lives of these other people. Can
the doctors force you to give them your organs and in so doing cause your
death? (This is actually a real situation. People routinely die for the
lack of donor organs.)
A purely utilitarian argument would require your death because there is a
net saving of lives. But this has not been a utilitarian argument. By
virtue of your ability to feel pain, you have a right to avoid avoidable
pain. By virtue of your sentience, you have the right to avoid avoidable
death. Therefore, you have the right to refuse the doctor's plea to donate
your organs. The prevention of suffering (or death) in any number of
people does not justify willfully inflicting suffering (or death) in even
one other person without their consent. If this were not already a common
belief, laboratories across the country would be performing experiments on
and doctors would be removing organs from healthy people in order to save
a large number of other people.
Since it has already been argued and concluded that most animals feel
pain and that mammals and birds are aware of their own future, we cannot
use these animals in any experiment in which we would be unwilling to use
a human. So, it appears that all but the most innocuous experiments
performed on animals, especially mammals and birds, are unjustifiable on
these ethical grounds.
But, without animal experiments won't all advances in medicine cease,
condemning future millions to premature deaths? While it is true that many
human lives have been saved because of animal research, it is impossible
to know for certain that animal research was the only way to get the
medical knowledge, especially considering how little effort has been put
into finding alternatives. One of the largest areas of animal research is
toxicity tests of new chemicals.
The two most notorious tests are the Draize Test (the chemical is put into
the eyes of rabbits and the amount of irritation is observed) and the LD50
(the material is given to a group of animals in increasing doses until 50%
of the animals die). In just the few decades during which research into
alternatives has been seriously conducted, in vitro tests have become
faster, cheaper, and more reliable than these animal tests,
making them "desirable both economically and scientifically."
Computer/mathematical modeling, use of less sentient organisms such as
yeast, hydras, and bacteria, and human epidemiological and post-mortem
studies are a few more alternatives that have been used successfully in
advancing medical knowledge but are often ignored in favor of traditional
For those cases where alternatives are insufficient for medical
research, the only ethical alternative is to do the experiments on human
volunteers. In particular, those who are already inflicted with the
disease should be the primary subjects. Surely many of those suffering
from the disease would be willing to try experimental treatments, first in
hopes of being cured and second to speed up the discovery of a cure.
Disgusted by the foot dragging of the FDA in allowing AIDS patients access
to experimental drugs, Larry Kramer pleaded before a Presidential AIDS
commission, "Let us be your guinea pigs."
Of course, everyone would rather have the other person do the really risky
tests with animals being the current involuntary subjects, but the
responsibility for curing human disease should be carried primarily by
those who suffer from the disease. And if the number of volunteers is too
small for effective and speedy research, so be it. The disease obviously
is not so threatening if a strong desire for a cure does not exist among
those suffering from the disease.
Is this an uncompassionate view? From the view of a person with a
terminal disease (or the scientist supported by NIH research grants),
perhaps. But from the view of the animals put to death in the distant hope
that maybe someday a cure might be found, it is the most compassionate
view. When one considers the fact that a lot of disease is preventable, it
truly becomes cruel to have animals suffer for our short-sightedness. The
diseases that kill most people (heart disease and cancer)
are strongly linked to the high fat and high cholesterol content in a meat
so turning vegan would save more lives than any treatment found from
animal experiments. Likewise, not smoking would prevent most lung
To quote an old wise saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of
The ethics developed here have drawn heavily on the similarity of
biology and genetic ties between individuals as well as species. This is
currently a sufficient basis for the argument since we know of only one
form of life and one biology leading to consciousness. In the future,
however, two new forms of life may be encountered to which our ethics must
be able to adapt. These are extraterrestrial life and artificial
intelligence. Having gone through billions of years of independent
evolution, life on other planets will very likely not have a biology
similar to ours. If this life has developed a civilization equal to or
greater than our own, whatever ethics one has it should undoubtedly be
able to embrace the alien life on equal terms with human life. The ethics
developed here, since it is based on the recognition of similar abilities
and characters rather than membership in an arbitrary group, does allow
for alien life without modification. Ethics based on the premise that
humans are special, cannot easily adapt. If they are to adapt to alien
life, they must first reject the uniqueness of humans and adopt the
ability-based ethics developed here.
Artificial life is harder to judge. These ethics were developed
essentially from the top down where one starts knowing that sentience
exists within yourself. Artificial life, on the other hand, is being built
from the bottom up. When the computer program is written by humans and can
be printed out on paper, it becomes difficult to imagine a computer
capable of feeling as we do. But there is nothing magical about the brain.
It operates by biochemical reactions and obeys physical laws, so it should
be artificially reproducible. At what point in the increasing complexity
of computer programs and technology does the computer gain consciousness?
The answer to this question will probably have to wait until that
complexity is reached and then passed.
To summarize, in the absence of a perfect god, a universal morality
cannot exist. It is then up to the individual to decide what actions are
right or wrong. But the individual is a part of a society of other
individuals. Adopting a Fairness Principle leads to the recognition that
others have the same right to make the choice of right and wrong. This
produces a secular golden rule whereby one's actions are judged by
reversing the tables and asking whether that action would be acceptable if
directed at the individual. For example, I will not kill you because I
would not want you to kill me. By rejecting morality, secular ethics
necessarily remove from public consideration private action and actions
involving only consenting individuals. The theist, however, believes in an
absolute morality independent of whether the actions have any effects on
others. The theist has thus successfully passed laws that restrict my
private actions on the grounds of the action being immoral or unnatural.
Such laws are unethical.
Secular ethics cannot make a clear distinction between humans and
nonhumans. Limiting the ethics to just the human species is arbitrary and
inconsistent with the evolutionary history of life. One could just as
easily choose to limit ethics to one's own race, but this has been almost
universally rejected. Ethics should not be based on one's membership in a
class but rather one's characteristics. Therefore, if any creature suffers
or feels the harm caused by an action, the creature's welfare must be
considered and judged against the harm caused by not acting. This
immediately leads to the conclusion that the use of animals for clothing
and food is wrong. The use of animals in research is a harder question to
answer but there are ethical alternatives to most if not all animal
experimentation, although some of the alternatives are less convenient.
The advancement of science does not provide an absolute justification for
obtaining knowledge by any means deemed necessary. If unethical
experiments are allowed in the name of science, then science will have
become a new god with animals being offered in sacrifice to gain Science's
favor. And that altar must topple.
 Christopher John Farley, "Without a
prayer," Time, Dec. 20, 1993, p. 41.
 Rob Boston, "Army of God,"
State, Feb. 1994, p. 7-10.
 David Morrison and Tobias Owen,
System (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987), p. 220-222.
 James Rachels,
Created From Animals: The Moral
Implications of Darwinism (New York: Oxford University Press,
1990), p. 63-64.
 James W. Prescott, "Body Pleasure and the Origins of
Violence," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov. 1975, p.
 Stephen Jay Gould,
The Mismeasure of Man
(New York: Norton, 1981).
 Bernard Rollin,
Animal Rights and Human
Morality (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992), p. 40.
 Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, and David Lynch,
The Elephant Man (Hollywood, Ca.: Paramount Home Video,
 Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan,
Shadows of Forgotten
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 Ibid., p. 365.
 James Rachels, p. 57.
 K.J.S. Anand and P.R. Hickey, "Pain and its effects
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Medicine, Nov. 19, 1987, p. 1321-1329.
 Patrick Bateson, "Do Animals Feel Pain?"
Scientist, 25 Apr 1992, p. 30-33.
 Jane Smith and Kenneth Boyd, eds.,
the Balance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 58-67.
 Peter Singer,
Animal Liberation (New
York: Avon Books, 1990), p. 235.
PETA Guide to Animal Liberation
(Washington, D.C.: PETA), p. 25.
 Lewis Regenstein, "Animal Rights, Endangered
Species and Human Survival," in Peter Singer, ed.,
In Defence of
Animals (New York: Blackwell, 1985), p. 118-132.
 PETA, p. 25.
 James Rachels, p. 210.
 Neal Barnard,
Food For Life (New York:
Harmony Books, 1993), p. xiv-xv.
 PETA, p. 9.
 Patrick Perry, "Diet for a Longer Life,"
Saturday Evening Post, Jan/Feb 1992, p. 26.
 National Institute of Nutrition (Canada), "Risks
and Benefits of Vegetarian Diets," Nutrition Today, Mar/Apr
1990, p. 27-29.
 Stanley Gershoff,
The Tufts University Guide
to Total Nutrition (New York: Harper Row, 1990), p. 233-244.
 Harriet Schleifer, "Images of Death and Life: Food
Animal Production and the Vegetarian Option," in Peter Singer, ed.,
In Defence of Animals (New York: Blackwell, 1985), p. 68.
 George Annas and Michael Grodin, eds.,
Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code (New York: Oxford University
 Colin Macilwain, "US admits to use of humans in
radiation experiments," Nature, Jan. 6, 1994, p. 4.
 Arjun Makhijani, "Energy enters guilty plea,"
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mar/Apr 1994, p. 18-20+.
 Bette-Jane Crigger, "Yes, they knew better,"
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mar/Apr 1994, p. 29.
 Roger Evans, Carlyn Orians, and Nancy
potential supply of organ donors: An assessment of the efficiency of organ
procurement efforts in the United States,"
Journal of the American
Medical Association, Jan. 8, 1992, p. 239-246.
 Jane Smith and Kenneth Boyd, p. 20-21.
 Alan Goldberg and John Frazier, "Alternatives to
Animals in Toxicity Testing," Scientific American, Aug. 1989,
 Constance Holden, "Industry Toxicologists Keen on
Reducing Animal Use", Science, Apr. 17, 1987, p. 252.
 Martin Stephens, "Replacing Animal Experiments," in
Gill Langley, ed., Animal Experimentation: The Consensus
Changes (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1989), p. 144-168.
 William Booth, "AIDS Policy in the Making,"
Science, Mar. 4, 1988, p. 1087.
 Neal Bernard, p. xiv-xv.
 Sue Gebo,
What's Left to Eat (New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), p. 90-105, 124-139.
 Stanley Gershoff, p. 207-218, 233-244.
 Sue Gebo, p. 124.