One of the most interesting classes that I’m taking this semester is Philosophy 355, which covers the philosophy of contemporary moral problems. The topic of discussion for this past week’s class has been NYU philosophy professor Peter Singer’s piece “All Animals are Equal” — the thesis is self-explanatory. I think my love for animals is pretty average in that I will stop to ogle a corgi as it walks by, but I am not currently in the practice of chatting with squirrels in the park. In other words, I’d say that my sentiments towards animals are pretty representative of most people, but Singer’s paper still managed to change my outlook on the topic.
When considering why eating meat is accepted by the majority of society, there is one main reason that emerges: Non-human animals are not seen as very valuable to society. Though a bit harsh of a justification, it is a rational thought process — and one that I, too, shared. But the integral question that Singer prompts is: how do we define equality? For humans, if we defined equality by monetary value or intelligence, then it wouldn’t actually be equality. In order for us to all be completely equal, there can be no attributes that increase or decrease worth, since the second you add those attributes, we cease to be equal.
If we strip equality of being defined by monetary value or intelligence, there is no distinguishing factor that earns humans the right to be equal. I’m not saying that we need to be advocating for animals’ voting rights, but Singer does make a compelling case for their right to the equality of consideration; i.e, at the very least, their suffering is something that deserves consideration.
Having showcased the inherent flaws in the natural human attitude towards non-human animals, it is time to talk about animal testing. The fact that animal testing is not illegal yet is in itself quite shocking, but what’s even more surprising is the University of Michigan’s involvement. For some context, the University offers the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). One of the projects that this program conducted from 2010-2014 is titled “Modulation of Pulmonary Defenses in Pathobiology of Chronic Infections.” Essentially, the project entailed injecting mice with the bacteria cryptococcus to observe how the mice reacted and how the bacteria affected the body. The eventual goal of the research was to test the relationship between bacteria and antibiotics to ultimately find a healthy balance. It is important to note that the bacteria can be lethal and that in previous experiments, it caused half of the mice to die within 20 days. Though many may find this research completely justified in the name of science, the death toll of these mice does prompt some worry when considering its broader implications.
Taking a look at the University’s official statement on animal research doesn’t ease my conscience much. It opens with the line, “The University of Michigan appreciates that animals have been essential to nearly every major advancement in human and animal medicine.” This concept that animal testing is a necessary evil for medical advances in humans is simply not true. The reality is that animal testing has little predictive value for the effects a substance will have on humans, and often, animal tests have nothing to do with human medical advances. For instance, at the Humboldt University in Berlin, researchers carried out a study where the method involved implanting rats with electrodes and then killing them for dissections. The conclusion of the study was the astounding revelation that rats like to play hide and seek. Having nothing to do with human medical advancement and everything to do with the barbaric treatment of rats, this shows how researchers have unlimited power over what they can do to animals. Take a moment to think about the cryptococcus study, and consider that there is nothing on the official report that indicates any implications for humans. Thus, this project can be categorized as yet another curiosity-driven study that was carried out at the expense of non-human animals.
Looking at the issue more broadly, the only protection animals have is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. But that law only regulates the acquisition and maintenance of research animals, not what can be done to them in research, meaning that everything described here is perfectly legal. Similarly, the University’s policy toward animal testing is a clear sign of ignorance that is outdated and unacceptable. Even though national widespread reform may be years or even decades away, it doesn’t mean we can’t try to start the process of change. It is time to overcome our failings as moral agents to make sure that equality of consideration is achieved, for everyone and everything.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.