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Animals and Their Medical Use by R. G. Frey

May we use animals in medi order to enhance and to extend our lives?1 That we do so is commonplace, and their numbers, especially given developments in genetic engineering, xenotransplantation, cloning, and the like have increased, even as questions have been raised today about their continued use. Thus – e.g., in the search for “designer” mice that exhibit just those features that we are breeding them to exhibit – vast numbers of mice as by-products are produced along the way. Again, we need only to imagine a series of successful xenotransplants to believe that a wholesale effort to produce human organs in animals would take root with a passion. Moreover, genetic engineering and cloning continue to take place in animal models, before being attempted in humans, and trial and error in this regard is likely to result in increasing numbers of animals created for these essentially human ends. In any event, it remains true today that millions of animals continue to be used in medical experiments, even if we ignore those animals used in countries about which we lack adequate information or which effectively hide their research projects from prying eyes.

Are we justified in using animals in these ways? This question must not be thought applicable only because some of our efforts at the moment result in failure. For it would apply even if, as in the case of the development of Salk vaccine for polio, we were eventually proved to be successful in eradicating a disease. If, for example, we were successful through genetic engineering and eventually gene therapy in eliminating Huntington’s disease, would we have been justified in reaching this happy outcome through using animals in order to do so?

It is tempting to see this question as one pitting life enhancement and extension in humans against suffering in and the very lives of animals – tempting, in other words, to see the issue as one in which we have to decide whether it is permissible to use animal suffering and lives in order to benefit humans. Can we give a principled justification of this use (Frey, 1989, 2003)?

I believe that we can give a principled justification of this use, but I also believe that it is not easy to do so and that the kind of justification to be given exacts from us a cost that many people will not be prepared to pay. To this extent, I think the case for anti-vivisectionism is far stronger than most people suppose.

I do not have space here to give any very detailed account of how I think this case for animal experimentation goes and so for how we are to choose between animal and human lives, but I certainly can give an indication of some of the important issues that bear upon this choice.

The way I have put the central issue pits human and animal lives against each other. For it is surely wrong to maintain that the bulk of medical experimentation takes place for the benefit of animals themselves, even though it may be true, through the incorporation of discoveries into veterinary practice, that animals may indeed at times benefit from the experiments of which they are a part. Seen in this light, two obvious positions suggest themselves, namely, abolitionism on the one hand, or the view that it is always impermissible to use animals for human benefit, and, on the other, anything goes, or the view that it is always permissible so to use animals.

In the case of abolitionism, all experiments involving animals, whether invasive or not, however far advanced, whatever the likelihood of imminent or eventual success, must be stopped at once. In the case of anything goes we may do whatever we like to animals, short perhaps of excessive cruelty and wanton slaughter, in the name of medical advance, most especially if what is proposed figures in the research protocol that is subject to peer review and if it is carried out in accordance with what counts as usual levels of standard of care for the animals in question.

These two positions are, I think, too extreme. For different reasons, they strike me as objectionable; the second is objectionable in ways that take us to the very core of the choice between human and animal lives. Some more middle position strikes me as preferable, and I here set out what I take to be the first steps towards that middle position. Obviously, as with any middle position, it will be exposed to attack from the two extremes, and I will try to show how it might try to deal with some of those attacks.

The Abolitionist Appeal to Animal Rights

Abolitionism fails because the vehicle by which the case in favor is to be made cannot bear the weight that is put upon it. In the main today this vehicle is moral rights, but not just moral rights under any conception. For under most conceptions it will not follow that a case for human use of animals in experimentation will be barred. There will be merely a prima facie right on the animal’s part, and such rights can have countervailing concerns arrayed against them and so possibly be outweighed. So, the theorist must come up with a conception of a right that bars precisely this effect.

Most mainstream rights theorists today either do not confer rights upon animals or do so only in some attenuated sense. Tom Regan, on the other hand, wants to confer upon animals rights in the sense of a trump, much along the lines of Ronald Dworkin’s sense of certain moral rights as trumps in the human case (Regan, 2001).

That is, Regan conceptualizes rights as trumps to considerations of the general welfare. Giving animals rights in this sense disallows appeals to human benefit as a justification for the use of animals in medical research, since that would amount to using appeals to the general welfare to justify an infringement of an animal’s right, say, to life. And what, other than appeal to human benefit, is animal research all about?

In Regan’s picture, then, we are left with no way to raise the issue of animal research. For the only way moral perplexity registers at any deep level in Regan’s picture is if some countervailing right comes into the matter, such that it then poses a conflict with the animal’s right to life; then, one is on the familiar though nonetheless difficult terrain of a rights-theorist having to deal with a conflict of rights. Conflicts, of course, pose problems, and their resolution is not always easy. But in the case of medical experimentation there is no countervailing right: we do not have a right to use animals merely in order to benefit ourselves. Our convenience battles their right, and we lose. There is no way, then, to register the moral perplexity people feel between weighing and balancing human and animal lives and seeing whether there can be a case for using animals.

In Regan’s picture, rights are powerful things to have, and, if animals have them, they have them in the full sense that human beings or persons do. Nothing contends against a right except another right, since anything else is not sufficiently weighty to contend; all medical research has is gain in human benefit. Thus, there is no way to portray the effects of polio vaccine as eliminating one of the scourges of human life in order to justify using monkeys in the research. All invasive (or, for that matter, non-invasive) medical research that is for our mere benefit must be stopped at once, for benefit can never trump rights. And that, basically, covers all the medical research that exists.

The problem here is that Regan has set out to endow animals with rights in so powerful a sense that nothing is able to contend with them. Certainly no argument grounded in human benefit can. Thus, to cite benefit as a ground for an argument in support of animal experimentation fails to appreciate the force of the rights that animals possess – rights that do not accept benefits to others as a reason for their infringement. It is not possible even to state the pro-research position, since all such statements inevitably run through human benefit and thus fail to grasp that, in Regan’s eyes, animals have rights that trump our attempts to achieve that very benefit. It seems odd not even to be able to state the pro-research position, even if it ultimately turns out to be mistaken, which, I suspect, is one important reason why mainstream rights theorists continue to resist endowing animals with rights as trumps. But the matter seems worse than odd: to bestow upon the animal a right so strong that one thereby ensures that no case from benefit can even register and then to turn around and point to the fact that no case from benefit can overcome an animal’s right (to life) seems to achieve the desired result by cooking the broth.

The “Anything Goes” View on Animals

If the abolition of animal experiments and the forgoing of all benefits in terms of the removal of illnesses and the prolongation of life that animal research confers or promises constitute an extreme position, so too does the “anything goes” position. On this position, anything we might do to animals appears justified, provided only that the benefit obtained, actually or potentially, is significant enough to offset massive animal suffering and deaths. (Obviously, what counts as “significant enough” here is contentious, and it can often appear, even to sympathetic observers to the research cause, that the benefit gained is trivial compared to the cost exacted.) This position also strikes me as extreme: to hold it on plausible philosophical grounds requires one, I think, to argue that animals do not matter morally in the sense that they are not members of the moral community. This strikes me as mistaken.

What is it about animals that does not warrant our moral concern? The usual answers are their pain and suffering and their lives. As for the former, everywhere today the medical research community has presented guidelines governing animal pain and suffering that insist that these be controlled, limited, mitigated where feasible, and justified in the research protocol and actual experiment, and the very care that researchers bestow upon their animals shows that they take animal suffering seriously, as does the insistence that animals be euthanized before they recover from certain painful experiments. If this level of care should be absent, government and funding oversight committees can challenge – indeed, close down – research projects.

On the other hand, to take seriously or to count morally animal suffering, but not animal lives, is implausible, since so much of the worry over suffering, whether in our case or theirs, is precisely owing to the way it can blight, impair, and destroy a life. If animal lives have no value, why should we care about ruining them? Why, in medical research, do we go to such great lengths to justify animal sacrifice? Why do we demand that such sacrifice be directly related to the achievement of the protocol’s results? If, however, animal lives have some value, then we need to justify their destruction and the intentional diminution of their quality of life.

At bottom, adherents to the anything goes position must hold that there is a genuine moral difference between the human and animal cases, where pain and suffering and/or the destruction of valuable lives are concerned. But what is the genuine moral difference between burning a man and burning a baboon? Between infecting a man with a certain disorder and genetically engineering a baboon to be subject to that disorder? Between killing both man and baboon? What is at issue is not the claim that it is worse to do these things to the man, but that, according to the anything goes view, doing these things to the baboon is of no moral concern whatever, even though – as in the man’s case – suffering occurs, the quality of life is drastically lowered, and killing takes place. If done to the man, these things are wrong; if done to the baboon, they are not. How can species membership make this difference? For it is not easy to see how species membership can constitute a moral difference between two relevantly similar acts of killing or lowering of quality of life; in the case of pain and suffering, I cannot see how they constitute a moral difference at all. Nor is my view any different if we substitute a rat for a baboon. If, in other words, we use something other than a primate by way of contrast, for, as will be seen below, my views of moral standing and the comparative value of lives assigns both to the lives of rats.

It should be obvious that these issues involved in the anything goes position take us to the very center of the debate on the choice between human and animal lives. I will now elaborate on some of these issues, with an eye towards indicating how, if we must choose to use certain creatures in medical experimentation (since fully developed alternatives are not yet in existence), we are to choose those creatures (Frey, 1996b, 1997a, 1997b, 2002).

In my view, moral standing or considerability turns upon whether a creature is an experiential subject with an unfolding series of experiences that, depending upon their quality, can make that creature’s life go well or badly. Such a creature has a welfare that can be positively and negatively affected; with a welfare that can be enhanced and diminished, a creature has a quality of life. In this guise, rodents and baboons are experiential subjects, with a welfare and a quality of life that our actions can affect, and this is so whether or not they are agents (which we think they are not) and whether or not they are the bearers of rights (which most of us think they are not). (Thus, agency and rights to my mind are irrelevant to the issue of moral standing.) Such creatures have lives that consist in the unfolding of experiences and so have a welfare and a quality of life, and while there may be some creatures about which I am uncertain of these things, the usual experimental subjects in laboratories are not among them. Thus, to my mind, these laboratory creatures have moral standing, and are, therefore, part of the moral community on the same basis that we are.

I reject, then, the central claims of the anything goes position. I see no reason to deny that rats and baboons feel pain, and I can see no moral difference between burning a man and burning a rat or a baboon. Pain is pain, and species strikes me as irrelevant; what matters is that a creature is an experiential one, and pain typically represents an evil in the lives of all such creatures, if only instrumentally, with respect to quality of life. But if pain and suffering count morally, it is hard to see why animal lives do not; as what concerns us so much about pain and suffering in our case is how these things can impair and significantly diminish the quality of life, they can also, it seems reasonable to believe, in the cases of all creatures who can experience them. No one takes intense pain or prolonged suffering, other things equal, to indicate a high or desirable quality of life, and animals, just as we ourselves, are living creatures with experiential lives, and thus beings with a quality of life. For these reasons, I think animal lives have value.

Thus, I reject abolitionism and the anything goes position. And I am not a speciesist. I do not think we can justify animal experimentation by citing species as a morally relevant reason for using animals in experiments. Nor do I deny that animals are members of the moral community; they are. So how is mine a position that can support some animal research?

The Value of Lives and Quality of Life

In my view, not all members of the moral community have lives of equal value, and where sacrificing life is concerned the threshold for taking lives of lesser value is lower than it is for taking lives of higher value.

It is deeply unpalatable to many to think that some lives are less valuable than others; they would dearly love it to be true that at least all human lives are equally valuable. But when I speak of not all lives being equally valuable I am not referring only to the difference between animal and normal adult human lives; I refer also to human lives themselves. A quality of life view of the value of a life makes the value of a life a function of its quality, and it is commonplace in the medical world today that not all human lives are of equal quality. Indeed, some people lead lives of such a quality that even they themselves seek release from them, as some cases involving a right to die and physician-assisted suicide make clear, and it seems somewhat bizarre to tell such people that, after all, according to some abstraction or other that one happens to believe, they really do have lives as valuable as normal adult human lives. There are some lives we would not wish upon even our worst enemies, and it seems mere pretense to claim that these are as valuable as normal adult human lives. Of course, no one can deny that some may find comfort in such abstractions that substitute for, or, indeed, may even reflect the old adage that all lives are equal in the eyes of God; but I take it to be equally obvious today that many people no longer find this venerable adage comforting.

What is at issue, then, is the comparative value of human and animal life. If we think that not all human lives have the same value, and if we think about the depths to which human life can tragically plummet, then it may well turn out that some animal lives have a higher quality than some human lives. And if we have to use lives in experiments (if, I emphasize, we have to), then surely we are here also to use the life of lower quality in preference to the life of higher quality. (Here, I allude only to the logic of the position, not to any side-effects that might easily bar one from acting on that logic.)

My account of how we are to decide the comparative value of human and animal life must be subject to scrutiny; that is, at the very least, I must have something to say, in addition to trying to assess the comparative value of these lives, for going about assessing it in the way I do.

One of the strengths of my position on the value of human and animal life, I think, is that it coheres nicely with recent discussions of the value of life in medical ethics and allied areas. In a word, what matters is not life but quality of life. The value of a life is a function of its quality, its quality of its richness, and its richness of its capacities and scope for enrichment; it matters, then, what a creature’s capacities for a rich life are. The question is not, say, whether a rat’s life has value; I agree that it does. The rat has an unfolding series of experiences and can suffer, and it is perfectly capable of living out a life appropriate to its species. The question is whether the rat’s life approaches normal adult human life in quality (and so value) given its capacities and the life that is appropriate to its species, and this is a matter of the comparative value of such lives. Here, the claim is that normal adult human life is more valuable than animal life, based on greater richness and greater potentialities for enrichment. Autonomy or agency can help augment that value. How?

The claim is not that autonomy will inevitably or certainly enhance the value of a life; rather, it is that autonomy can be used for that purpose. In my view, autonomy is instrumentally, not intrinsically, valuable; its value depends upon the uses made of it, and, in the case, at least, of normal adult humans, those possible usages significantly enrich a life. To direct one’s own life to secure what one wants; to make one’s own choices in the significant affairs of life; to assume responsibility over a domain of one’s life and so acquire a certain sense of freedom to act; to decide how one will live, and to mold and shape one’s life accordingly: these are the sorts of thing that open up areas of enrichment in a life with consequent effect upon that life’s quality and value. Equally, however, it is possible that nothing of the sort will issue from the exercise of one’s autonomy: just because a life’s value can be augmented through the exercise of autonomy in no way shows that it is inevitably or always so augmented. The point behind all this, of course, is that these ways of augmenting the value of our lives are, arguably, not available to animals. It does not follow that animal life has no value (indeed, exactly the opposite is my view) or that an animal life cannot have greater value than some human life (again, it is my view that it can). Rather, what is centrally at issue is the comparative value of normal adult human life and animal life and how we go about deciding the matter.

Certainly, were we to adopt some Eastern religion or some form of quasi-religious metaphysic, it is possible that we might come to have a different view of animals and of how we stand to them. Indeed, we might come to take a different view of our relations to the animal kingdom (and to the inanimate environment), without any specifically religious impulses at all. This much is clear through poetry, through cultural differences we encounter among the individuals that make up our society, and through exposure to the art of different ages and cultures. From these different possible views of our relations to animals different possible accounts of the comparative value of human and animal lives may flow. But from the mere fact that different possible accounts of this comparative value may arise nothing follows per se about the adequacy of any single one. Argument must establish the soundness of such accounts, and if, e.g., one’s claims about comparative value turn upon one’s adoption of an Eastern religion, some religious metaphysic, or some abstraction (such as the claim that all life, whatever its quality, has the same “intrinsic” or “inherent” or “innate” value), then it is that religion, metaphysic, or abstraction that must be subjected to scrutiny.

As I have indicated, since not all human lives have the same richness and potentialities for enrichment, not all human lives are equally valuable. In fact, some human lives can be so blighted, with no or so little prospect for enrichment that the quality of such lives can fall well below that of ordinary, healthy animals.

It might be claimed that we can know nothing of the richness of animal lives, but ethologists and animal behaviorists, including some sympathetic to the “animal rights” cause, certainly think otherwise. How else, for example, could the claim that certain rearing practices blight animal lives be sustained? That we cannot know everything about the inner lives of animals, of course, in no way implies that we cannot know a good deal.

Quality of life views turn upon richness, and if we are to answer the question of the comparative value of human and animal life we must inquire after the richness of their respective lives. Intra-species comparisons are sometimes difficult, as we know in our own cases in, say, medical ethics; but such comparisons are not completely beyond us. Inter-species comparisons of richness and quality of life are likely to be even more difficult, though again not impossible. To be sure, as we descend from the “higher” animals, we lose behavioral correlates that we use to gain access to animals’ interior states. Yet scientific work that gives us a glimpse into animal lives continues to appear, though it is hard as yet to make out much of a case for extensive richness (or so it appears).

Again, we must not simply think that criteria for assessing the richness of human lives apply straightforwardly to animals. Rather, we must use all that we know about animals, especially those closest to us, to try to gauge the quality of their lives in terms appropriate to their species. Then we must try to gauge what a rich, full life looks like to an animal of that species, and, subsequently, try to gauge the extent to which this approaches what we should mean in the human case when we say of someone that they had led a rich, full life. A rich, full life for the rat, science seems to suggest, does not approach a rich, full life for a human; the difference in capacities is just too great. However, if one is going to suggest otherwise, we need evidence of what in the rat’s case compensates for its apparent lack of certain capacities, since by its behavior alone we do not normally judge it to have comparable richness.

In order to adopt a quality of life view of the value of a life of a rat, we must try to place ourselves in the rat’s position, adopting the capacities and life of the rat. This may be difficult, but it does not appear impossible, and in the case of primates, or animals closer to ourselves, we may well be able to overcome many difficulties that impede our doing this with rats, chickens, or birds.

Can one drop the provision that quality be determined by richness and so avoid the judgment of reduced richness and quality in the animal case? However, richness does not determine quality of life – i.e., by the extent, variety, and quality of experiences – so what else can determine it?

Of course, one might just want to claim that humans and animals have different capacities and lives, and that each leads a rich and full though different life. But this makes it appear that we are barred from comparative judgments, when, in fact, the central ingredients of the respective lives – namely, experiences – appear remarkably alike. Surely I can know something of the lives of animals? Ethologists and animal behaviorists support this. But I have no reason to believe that the rat’s life possesses anything like the variety and depth of ways of enrichment that normal adult human life possesses, and I need evidence to make me believe that, for example, one of the rat’s capacities so enriches its life that it approaches normal adult human life in richness. The rat has a keener sense of smell, but how does this fact transform the richness of its life to approximate the richness that all the variety and depth of human capacities typically confer upon us? We need evidence to think this.

Two Senses of Moral Community

The ultimate problem over vivisection should now be obvious: we cannot be sure that human life will always and in every case be of higher quality than animal life. And if we are to use the life of lower quality in preference to the life of higher quality, assuming that some life or other has to be used, then we seem committed to using the human life of lower quality in this case. To be sure, this thought might (or will) outrage people, and adverse side-effects might (or will) make us choose otherwise. And I am not advocating that we use humans. What I am doing is trying to point out the logic of the position. Today, in medical ethics, we appeal constantly to concerns of quality of life, and we treat quality as if it determines the value of a life. What can be cited that guarantees that human life will be more valuable than animal life? I cannot think of any such thing.

Well, it might be said, this just goes to show the problem with using quality of life talk in this kind of context; perhaps. But it seems a peculiar reason to, say, believe in God or to endorse some abstraction about the (greater) inherent value of all human life because one has thought through the logic of the position on animal experimentation and can find no argument that enables us to continue to only use animals for our benefit.

Finally, I think we must draw a distinction between two different senses of the moral community and show how this distinction fits the earlier discussion.

No one will deny that the patient in the final throes of Alzheimer’s disease or the severely mentally enfeebled are members of the moral community in the sense of having moral standing, since they remain experiential subjects with a welfare and quality of life that can be augmented or diminished by what we do to them. This is true of all kinds of human beings who presently, as the result of disease or illness, have had the quality of their lives radically diminished, from those seriously in the grip of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to those with Huntington’s disease. All kinds of human beings presently live lives of massively reduced quality – reduced from the quality of life we find in healthy, normal, adult humans. Yet, they remain members of the moral community.

On the other hand, patients in a permanently vegetative state or anencephalic infants are more problematic candidates for membership in the moral community in this first sense. For though what happens to them may well affect the welfare and quality of life of other people, such as their parents, it is not obvious that they have experiential states that would include them as members of the moral community in their own right.

This first sense of moral community, then, is that in which the creatures that figure within it are all those who are morally considerable in their own right. I have indicated how I think (the “higher”) animals get into this sense of the moral community, but it does not matter if one thinks that sentience in one of its senses encompasses animals, and so admits them. For all accounts of moral community in this first sense are accompanied by disclaimers that animals are moral agents – are capable, in the sense of agency that matters for the assessment of moral responsibility, of acting for and weighing reasons. They are not morally responsible for what they do, not because they fall outside the moral community in this first sense, but because they do not weigh reasons for action.

Animals, then, are morally considerable; what befalls them as patient or as the object of actions on our part that affect their welfare counts morally. This is no mean consideration, since, heretofore, many have insisted that animals are not morally considerable. But all the creatures that fall within the class of morally considerable beings are not alike: some are included as agents, some as patients, and there is a (further) sense of moral community in the case of the former that is not present in the case of the latter.

In this second sense of moral community, members have duties to each other, reciprocity of action occurs, standards for the assessment of conduct figure, reasons for action – especially where deviation from standards occurs – are appropriately offered and received. The absence of agency – the absence of the proffering and receiving of standards and reasons – matters because those who cannot do these things are not appropriately regarded as moral beings in the sense of being held accountable for their actions. To be accountable for what one does in a community of others who are accountable for what they do is not the same thing as being considerable in one’s own right.

Plainly, some humans are not members of the moral community in this second sense: they are incapable of adducing standards for the evaluation of conduct, of conforming their conduct to those standards, and of receiving and weighing reasons for action. Disease and illness, for example, can undo agency in this sense. Equally, perfectly normal children and many of the very severely mentally enfeebled are not members of the moral community in this second sense. In this sense, many more humans can fall outside the moral community as a community of agents than fall outside the moral community as a community of morally considerable beings.

Some humans, such as those in permanently vegetative states and anencephalic infants, fall outside the moral community in both senses. (Hence, much of the controversy about, say, whether the former may permissibly be removed from respirators or whether the latter may permissibly be used as organ donors.) On the other hand, while a great many, if not all, animals arguably fall outside the moral community in the second sense, a great many fall inside the moral community in the first sense. Thus, there are some humans outside the moral community altogether, even while some animals are within the moral community in the first sense, and if one were going to select a creature upon which to experiment, this consideration, at least to morally serious beings, would seem to be relevant.

(I do not here address the question of whether creatures that fall outside the scope of both senses of moral community can be more easily killed than creatures that fall without the second but within the first sense. In fact, given some argument from potentiality that encompasses children, if it works, I do think the threshold for killing is lower in the cases of those in a permanently vegetative state and anencephalic infants. But the facts that affect this case for a lower threshold are too numerous and complex to go into on the present occasion.)

Membership in the moral community in this second sense has nothing to do with whether a being is morally considerable. Agency construed as acting and weighing reasons for action in the light of proffered standards is not required in order to be morally considerable in one’s own right. So to what is it relevant? The answer, I believe, is that it can be relevant – note, the absence of any necessity in the matter – to augmenting and helping to determine the value of a life.

On a quality of life view of the value of a life, being a member of the moral community in the second sense can enrich one’s life and, therefore, enhance its quality. It does this by informing the relations in which we stand to others and thus affecting how we live and judge our lives (Frey, unpublished).2

The moral relations in which we stand to each other are part of the defining characteristics of who we are. We are husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, friends, etc. These are important roles we play in life, and they are informed by a view of the moral burdens and duties they impose on us, as well as the opportunities for action they allow us. Seeing ourselves in these relations is often integral to whom we take ourselves to be, from the point of view of the son as well as that of the father. In these relations, we come to count on others to entwine ourselves with the fate of at least some others, to be moved by what befalls these others, and to be motivated to affect the fates of these others to the extent that we can. Our lives, and how we live them, are affected in corresponding ways. Though there is no necessity in any of this, being a functioning member of a unit of this kind can be one of the great goods of life – enriching the very texture of the life one lives.

Again, binding ourselves to others, pledging ourselves to perform within the moral relations in which we stand to others, and holding ourselves responsible for shortcomings in this regard are all part of what we mean by being a functioning member of a moral community, within which we live our lives with other members. We come to count on others and they on us: the reciprocity of action and regard so characteristic of fully functioning moral communities find their root in these moral relations.

Part of the richness conferred on our lives by being a functioning member of a community characterized by these moral relations is that we come to take certain reasons for action almost for granted. We come to take the standards to be at least prima facie ones that it is appropriate by which to judge our own and others’ actions. Again, there is no necessity about any of this, for we can come to reject the standards implied in the usual understanding of these moral relations in our societies in favor of others. But that these standards take a normative form by which we can evaluate reasons and actions, whatever their substance, is the crucial point; it is a normative understanding of these roles that seems crucial (1) to how we see ourselves within them, (2) to how we live our lives and judge many of our actions within those lives, and so (3) to how we judge how well or badly those lives are going.

Participation in such a community can enrich our lives; even in a minimal form, it achieves this by enabling us to cooperate over extensive areas of our lives with at least some others to achieve those of our ends that can only be achieved through cooperation. Put differently, the relations in which we stand to each other aid us in the pursuit of our ends and projects, many of which require the cooperation of others to achieve, and the pursuit of these ends and projects. The pursuit, as some philosophers would have it, of one’s own conception of the good, adds enormously to how well we take our lives to be going. Since our welfare is, to a significant extent, bound up in these kinds of pursuits, to ignore this fact is to give a radically impoverished account of a “characteristically” human life. Since all these ends and projects can vary between persons, there is, in this sense, no life “appropriate” to our species, no single way of living to which every one of us “has” to conform. Agency, of course, enables us to select different ends and projects, to mold and shape our lives differently, and to achieve and accomplish different things.

But, beyond any such minimal form, we should note that the very way we live our lives as, for instance, fathers and sons – in order to fulfill what we see as our obligations within these moral relations – forms part of the texture and richness of our lives. We often cannot explain who we are and what we take some of our prized ends in life to be except in terms of these relationships in a moral community, and we often find it difficult to explain why we did something that obviously was at great cost to ourselves except through citing how we see ourselves linked to certain others. Thus, the fact that most humans are members of the moral community in the second sense is a powerful and important feature of their lives: they can live out lives of their own choosing, molded and shaped in the ways they want, in order to reflect and capture the ends and projects they want to pursue. More than this, they can live out these lives in a normative understanding, e.g., of the relationships that characterize their interactions with others, relationships in terms of which they see themselves as linked to these others. Here, also, the normative understanding of these relationships enables us to see our lives as going well or badly depending upon how these relationships are affected by what we do to others and by what they do to us. The reciprocity so characteristic of a fully functioning moral community is not the mere reciprocity of action; it is the reciprocity of judging actions from a normative point of view that sees something like enhancing the welfare of another as a reason for action.

Of course, much that we do mirrors the animal case, but agency enables us to fashion a life for ourselves, to live a life molded and shaped by choices that are of our own making and reflect, presumably, how we want to live. Achievement or accomplishment of ends so chosen in this regard is one of the great goods of human life and is one of the factors that can – again, there is no necessity in the matter – enrich individual human lives.


When we seek to compare human and animal life, then, in order to make judgments about the comparative richness of lives, account must be taken of this fashioning of a life for ourselves in a community of shared moral relations. Nothing I have said has implied that there may not be to animal lives features that enable them to make up in richness what agency can confer on ours. We should need evidence of this, of course, thus we have added reason to take seriously the subjective experiences of animals. All I am claiming is that agency can enable normal adult humans to enhance the quality and value of their lives in ways that no account of the activities that we share with animals comprehends (as best we know), and in seeking to give some account of the comparative value of human and animal lives, this kind of difference is obviously both relevant and important.


1 For a sample of my other writings on this issue, which I draw upon in this chapter, see Frey (1996a, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 2001, and 2003).

2 What follows draws upon material referenced earlier, especially material from Frey (1997b, 2003, and unpublished manuscript).


Frey, R. G. (1989). “Vivisection, medicine, and morals.” In T. Regan and P. Singer (eds.), Animal Rights and Human Obligations (pp. 223–6). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Frey, R. G. (1995). “The ethics of using animals for human benefit.” In T. B. Mepham, G. A. Tucker, and J. Wiseman (eds.), Issues in Agricultural Bioethics (pp. 335–44). Nottingham: University of Nottingham Press.

Frey, R. G. (1996a). “Medicine, animal experimentation, and the moral problem of unfortunate humans.” Social Philosophy and Policy, 13: 181–211.

Frey, R. G. (1996b). “Autonomy, animals, and conceptions of the good life.” Between the Species, 12: 8–14.

Frey, R. G. (1997a). “Moral community and animal research in medicine.” Ethics and Behavior, 7: 123–36.

Frey, R. G. (1997b). “Moral standing, the value of lives, and speciesism.” In H. Lafollette (ed.), Ethics in Practice (pp. 139–52). Oxford: Blackwell.

Frey, R. G. (1998). “Organs for transplant: animals, moral standing, and one view of the ethics of xenotransplantation.” In A. Holland and A. Johnson (eds.), Animal Biotechnology and Ethics (pp. 190–208). London: Chapman and Hall.

Frey, R. G. (2001). “Justifying animal experimentation: the starting point.” In E. F. Paul and J.

Paul (eds.), Why Animal Experimentation Matters (pp. 197–214). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Frey, R. G. (2002). “Ethics, animals, and scientific inquiry.” In J. Gluck, T. DiPasquale, and F. B. Orlans (eds.), Applied Ethics in Animal Research (pp. 13–24). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Frey, R. G. (2003). “Animals.” In H. LaFollette (ed.), Oxford Handbook to Practical Ethics (pp. 151–86). New York: Oxford University Press.

Frey, R. G. (unpublished manuscript). “Lives within the moral community.”

Regan, Tom (2001). Defending Animal Rights. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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