Summary: animal ethics
Nobis N. In defense of 'How We Treat Our Relatives.' [Letter]. Am Biol Teach 2004; 66(9): 599-600.
Journal link.

Randy Moore’s editorial, “How We Treat Our Relatives,” (Vol. 65, #8, pp. 566-568) was an excellent display of careful moral reasoning regarding the ethical treatment of animals; his letter was met with a critical reply by McInerney, Morrison, and Schrock (Vol. 66, #4, pp. 253-254). Cross & Cross’s (2004) comparison of organic and virtual frog dissection was based in moral and pedagogical questions about animal dissection. Here I respond to Moore’s critics, thereby defending his position, and reveal a related oversight in the conclusions Cross & Cross draw from their study.

Moore argues that, like humans, many animals are conscious and can feel pain, suffer, and experience emotions. Like us, they are due respect because of these features of their mental lives and the harms that they might endure; minded animals are due the moral consideration due to comparably-minded humans. The many ethicists who have addressed these issues overwhelmingly support Moore’s position. They have argued that that animals’ interests – in avoiding pain, suffering and death – must be taken seriously and that this view has the weight of reason on its side (Taylor, 2003).

Moore’s critics, however, argued that his editorial contained “inaccuracies and misconceptions.” This is not true. As I will show, it is their response that contains the errors. And to offer a caveat parallel to what they offer (p. 253), if their mistakes stand unchallenged, there is a danger that they will be used to hinder students’ moral reasoning and critical thinking skills, violate students’ moral and legal rights, and impede students’ intellectual development. Given these stakes, their claims must be challenged.

First, Moore emphasized evolutionary relations between humans and other animals. His critics responded, “Evolutionary relatedness does not . . translate into moral equivalence between human and other species” (p. 253). True, not directly, but evolution suggests that consciousness, sentience, etc. – the basis for moral considerability – overlap between species and, therefore, many animals are due far greater respect, and better treatment, than is ordinarily given to them.

Second, Moore was correct to note that, historically, many scientists have believed that animals do not feel pain. While this is becoming a minority view, it is not clear that this has informed practice and resulted in animals’ pains being taken seriously. While some European countries categorically ban certain painful experiments, US experimenters have vigorously lobbied against any such restrictions. To suggest that US law and IACUC committees profoundly protect animals from pain is disingenuous, and unfaithful to the often painful truths of what happens to animals in procurement and processing for dissection and in laboratories (Regan, 2004).

Third, Moore’s critics suggest that since animals lack a sense of justice, the interest in developing advanced knowledge, and do not publish in this journal (!) (p. 254), they are less morally valuable than those who can. But disabled, very young and very old humans lack these abilities and interests yet are rightly protected from exploitation by those who do. The critics’ suggestion here harkens to a perverse “publish or literally perish” principle, not any morally justifiable beliefs and attitudes we ought to cultivate in ourselves or our students.

Finally, the critics’ attempts to extend what is true about some humans – in terms of their moral and intellectual achievements – to all humans, as a basis for their rights, are weak (Nobis, 2004). Humans are not a monolithic group: biologically human cells in a Petri dish lack moral standing and so moral status is not a matter of one’s DNA; rather, it is a matter of it is a matter of vulnerability to physical and/or psychological harm. And there is no abstract entity “humanity”; there are individual humans (and animals) who have (or lack) the morally-relevant characteristics that Moore and his philosophical allies identify. Their critics’ attempts to deny this fail; McInerney, Morrison, and Schrock provide no moral justification of any aspect of the status quo regarding animal use.

Their criticisms are instructive, however, in that they show how ethics and science are similar. Both involve developing and evaluating hypotheses, seeking best explanations, and testing theories and principles for false results. We can reason, and offer evidence, in science and in ethics: neither is a matter of “mere opinion” as we can show that some views lack support.

Both science and ethics require us to actively seek out the strongest challenges to our views to see how our research and thinking hold up to critical scrutiny. This is where Cross & Cross’s (2004) study was inadequate: their single study found that organic frog dissection was preferable, but over thirty other studies have found that humane alternatives to dissection are pedagogically sound and often superior to dissection (Balcombe 2000, 2001), which they failed to discuss. Unless one shows that these studies are faulty, that animal dissection is acceptable given its moral and financial costs, and there are no educationally preferable uses of class-time, one is not entitled to the judgment that there should be dissection, all things considered (Nobis, 2002).

If more educators followed Moore's leadership and addressed ethical issues in a more scientific, logical, and evidence-based manner, there would surely be more constructive discussions on these important matters of life and death. As Moore urges, “We should not look away” from these challenging issues: the lives of billions of animals, and our own moral development, are in the balance. Let us make the most of it.


Nathan Nobis
Philosophy Department
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

- Balcombe, J.P. (2000). The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems: Alternatives and Recommendations. Washington, DC: Humane Society Press. Available at
- Balcombe, J.P. (2001). Dissection: The Scientific Case for Alternatives. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 4, 118-126.
- Cross, T. & Cross, V. (2004). Scalpel or Mouse? A Statistical Comparison of Real & Virtual Frog Dissections. The American Biology Teacher, 66, 408-411.
- Nobis, N. (2004). Carl Cohen’s ‘Kind’ Arguments For Animal Rights and Against Human Rights. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 21 (1), 43-59.
- Nobis, N. (2002). Animal Dissection and Evidence-Based Life Science & Health Professions Education. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 5(2), pp. 155-159.
- Regan, T. (2004). Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Taylor, A. (2003). Animals & Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press.