Animal testing – Do the end justify the means?  


Animal testing has contributed enormously to medical advances, knowledge and understanding of the aetiology and pathogenesis of a wide range of diseases. In fact, 94 of 106 Nobel Prizes awarded for physiology and medicine since the beginning of the 20th century are directly or indirectly depended on animal testing, underlining this statement.

The vast majority of human populations, particularly in developed countries, benefit from medical treatments that probably wouldn’t be available if it wasn’t for animal testing. However, animal testing in medical research is a controversial and highly debated subject because of fundamental ethical issues

Photo credit: Understanding Animal Research via Flickr


Ethical considerations

Since the dawn of human societies, animals have been held in captivity and used for various tasks such as farming, transport and entertainment. From an evolutional perspective, stronger species have taken advantages over weaker species and one could argue that the use of animals for research is just a natural step in evolution.

But as modern society has developed, so has our consciousness and awareness about animal welfare, and as a consequence questions such as “is animal research justified” and “what give humans the right to capture and sacrifice animals for research” have rose.



The majority of the scientific community seem to justify the use of animal testing based on the moral theory of consequentialism, stating that the morality of an action depends mainly on the overall outcome and not how the results are achieved (“the end justifies the means”) Hence, animal testing in biomedical research can, despite the pain-coursing procedures and sacrifice of animals, be justified because the outcome, e.g. medical progresses that benefit millions of people, give an overall positive outcome (“the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers”).

However, there are some obvious ethical considerations that consequentialism cannot account for:


  • It is not possible to measure the value of an outcome on an objective scale. When you argue, that animal testing is justified because it helps curing human diseases, you still have to decide how to rate the negative value of an animal sacrifice versus the positive value of curing a human disease. This is a matter of believe, and not a question that can be answered through scientific or ethical considerations.


  • The arguments of consequentialism seem to apply only one-way, and that is for the benefits of humans. If one argues that sacrificing a lot of animals to save some human lives is justified, one would also have to argue, that sacrificing some humans to save a lot of animal-lives is justified (as long as the overall outcome is “positive”). Consequentialism as argument for animal testing only makes sense, if you also argue that animals are of much less value than humans, this is not an ethical consideration, but a matter of believe. 

Deontological ethics

Although consequentialism to some extend can explain our view on animal testing, it cannot explain e.g. how we should rate the value of an animal life vs. a human life or why we do not use weaker humans for testing. The deontological ethics says that it does not make sense to decide if actions are right or wrong based on the overall outcome, and as a consequence, the end can never be justified by the means. It states that our ideas about moral and “right-doing” and “wrong-doing” are an integrated part of the human character and are (or should be) independent of the outcome.

When we don’t use a few number of humans for medical testing it is not because it wouldn’t benefit the majority, but simply because we believe it is wrong to do so!

Modern day laws and guidelines about animal testing seem to take both ethical positions. We allow animal testing because the benefits are indispensable, but we still aim to limit the amount of animal sacrifices and pain, because we believe this is morally right.

We do, of course, use humans for testing in clinical trials, but only by consent, not by force

4 Responses to “Animal testing – Do the end justify the means?  ”

  1. Intriguing! But then again until we have a better way to test all the drugs, we still have to rely on animal testing.
    Even with cosmetics who are against animal testing, country like China still make it a mandatory for a cosmetic product to be tested on animals before entering their market.
    As much as I hate to say this, animal testing is still our best way to test our drugs before clinical trials.

  2. Siân says:

    Wow what an interesting account of the dilemma – and with no easy answers! From a personal perspective I would agree testing is morally acceptable provided the animal feels no pain however I assume that is not always possible?

  3. Kellen Lowrie says:

    The ethics surrounding medical research is such a complex topic. What a good piece to get us thinking about it. Hopefully in the future we’ll have such robust in vitro drug screening techniques that the need for animal testing is decreased. I’m excited about and follow some research that aims to create a “human on a chip” exactly for that type of testing but it seems an awfully long way off.

  4. Alice Nicholl says:

    Great topic! Really interesting ideas about why it may be necessary, but also the strong arguments behind why it is wrong! I wonder how long it will be before animal testing is not allowed – but what is the alternative? Very enjoyable read!