An introduction to ethics

Ethics of animal use by society

The use of animals in research is a matter of general public concern and forms part of wider ethical concerns relating to how we should treat animals.

Our society uses animals for many purposes – for food, as companions, in sport, for entertainment, and in research. Most of these uses involve some harms to the animals involved, and views on what should, and should not be permitted vary widely. Some consider that all of these uses of animals are unethical, that animals have rights, and that these rights should be respected by humans. At the other extreme is the view that the use of animals should be of no ethical concern.


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The great majority of our society have views that fall between these extremes. We will often agree to permit some use of animals, for example for research into life-threatening diseases, but would not approve of other types of use. An excellent detailed consideration of the ethical issues posed by animal research can be found in the Nuffield Council on Bioethics review .

Attitudes to animal research in 2016

What has also been shown in a number of polls is that the public are more concerned about the use of some species (e.g. dogs, cats and primates) than others, and that research that causes pain to animals is less likely to be supported than work that does not involve pain or suffering.

The poll reports “On balance, the public is supportive of the use of animals in research; for example, almost two-thirds (64%) ‘can accept animal experimentation so long as it is for medical research purposes’”. In comparison, the report states “There remains relatively little public appetite for the government to actually ban all experiments on animals – but the 22% who now want this is slightly higher than usual.”

It is important for all of us involved in the use of animals in experiments to reflect on our own views on what should, and should not, be considered ethical. We need to appreciate that this is a difficult and controversial area, and we should be able to explain our personal views, as well as those reflected in our legislation, to friends and colleagues. We may also on occasion need to discuss them with those who have opposing views to our own.

Ethical principles, the Law, and a “culture of care”

Given the wide range of views in society on this topic, it is unlikely that there can ever be a consensus regarding what uses of animals can be justified, but it may be possible to reach a compromise whereby controls on animal use and the requirement to apply the 3Rs of replacement, refinement and reduction are considered acceptable to the majority of our society (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2005).

Further reading on Ethics

This publication may be a good ‘first point of call’:
Grayson L. (2000). Animals in Research: For and Against. The British Library.
An annotated bibliography, that provides balanced commentaries and lists of references on all the main aspects of the debate.

Paul E F and Paul J eds. (2001). Why Animal Experimentation Matters. Transaction Publishers: London.

Mellor D J. (1998). How Can Animal-based Scientists Demonstrate Ethical Integrity? pp.19-31, in: Ethical Approaches to Animal-based Science (eds. Mellor D, Fisher M and Sutherland G.) ANZCCART: Adelaide and Wellington.

Sandoe P and Crisp R. (1997). Ethics pp. 3-16, in: Animal Welfare (eds. Appleby M C and Hughes B O.) CAB International.
Presents a range of ethical views on how humans ought to treat animals and looks at the justifications for them.

Jennings M and Silcock S. (1995). Benefits, Necessity and Justification in Animal Research. ATLA 23, 828-836.

Paton W. (1993). Man and Mouse. 2nd edition. OUP.
A distinguished scientist’s case for responsible use of animals in experiments.

Report from a Working Party of the Institute of Medical Ethics, Smith J A and Boyd K M (eds.). (1991). Lives in the Balance: The Ethics of Using Animals in Biomedical Research. OUP. Provides a comprehensive introduction to the issues, including consideration of approaches to assessment and weighing of costs & benefits – although a bit elderly, the issues are still relevant

Baird R M and Rosenbaum S E (eds). (1991). Animal Experimentation: The Moral Issues. Prometheus Books. An interesting collection of essays, both ‘for’ and ‘against’.

Donnelley S. (1990). Animals in Science: the Justification Issue. pp. 8-13, In: Animals, Science and Ethics (eds. Donnelley S and Nolan K). The Hastings Center: NY.

Arguing For Animal Use in Science:

  • UAR Understanding Animal Research www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk
  • UK Life Sciences Committee (Animal Science Group) www.bscb.org
  • SIMR Seriously Ill for Medical Research www.simr.org.uk A voluntary patients’ group that promotes research into serious illnesses and medical conditions and supports humane animal research.
  • Animals in Medicines Research Information Centre www.abpi.org.uk Publicises information about how animal studies promote medical advance.

Animal Welfare and Alternatives Organisations:

  • FRAME Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments www.frame.org.uk
  • RSPCA Royal society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals www.rspca.org.uk Wilberforce Way, Southwater, Horsham, West Sussex, RH13 9RS.
  • UFAW The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare www.ufaw.org.uk A UK charity focusing on welfare aspects of laboratory animal use.

Antivivisection Societies:

Ethics – Organisations and information services

A number of organisations are interested in the development, promotion and/or funding of alternatives. They may have publications available to enquirers, and may also be able to respond to specific queries.

  • AWIC The Animal Welfare Information Centre produces a number of reference publications and bibliographies on alternatives and animal use. www.nal.usda.gov/awic
  • CAAT/Altweb The Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing maintains the Altweb site. This site contains information about alternatives and the full text of a number of publications. altweb.jhsph.edu
  • IAT The Institute of Animal Technology. www.iat.org.uk
  • LASA The Laboratory Animal Science Association is concerned with all aspects of the welfare of animals. www.lasa.co.uk
  • LAVA The Laboratory Animal Veterinary Association. www.lava.uk.net
  • Norecopa Norway’s National Consensus Platform for the advancement of “the 3Rs” (Replacement, Reduction, Refinement) in connection with animal experiments. norecopa.no
  • UFAW The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare is a UK charity focusing on welfare aspects of laboratory animal use. Publishes the journal ‘Animal Welfare’. www.ufaw.org.uk
  • NC3Rs National centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. www.nc3rs.org.uk

Updated on 16th June 2021

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