What if the cure to cancer could be produced by a hypothetical experiment on just a single animal?

Under these hypothetical conditions, many animal rights supporters would allow the experiment. Of course, these conditions are completely unrealistic, and would never be met in real life. Nevertheless, I believe that discussing such hypothetical scenarios sheds considerable insight into the issues involved.

Let us consider a new hypothetical scenario which is slightly different. Again, suppose that the cure to cancer could be produced by a hypothetical experiment on just a single test subject. However, in this new scenario, suppose that the test subject must be a human being.

We can try to escape the ethical dilemma by volunteering ourselves as the test subject. However, let us hypothetically suppose that the test subject must meet certain physical criteria, and that neither we nor any other volunteers meet this criteria. Therefore, if we are to perform this single experiment and cure cancer, we must select an innocent human being against his will.

Let us also hypothetically suppose that we have found a potential test subject without any friends or relatives. Furthermore, suppose that he is severely mentally retarded, and that his potential for intelligence is no greater than that of a typical laboratory rat. Do we believe that performing this experiment is ethically acceptable?

Some people would say that it is never permissible to take an innocent human life under any conditions, and would find the entire suggestion abhorrent. Others would point out that we kill innocent people when we bomb enemy countries in times of war, and that we do this for reasons considerably less noble than finding the cure to cancer.

Many others would respond that while they are not pacifists, there are significant moral distinctions between killing people in times of war and performing an experiment on a human being against his will. Others would respond that we should at least consider performing the experiment depending on how much suffering the person will have to endure before he dies.

Regardless of how we answer, we should at least be logically consistent in the application of our ethical principles. That is, our answer should not change depending on if the potential test subject is of the same race or ethnicity as we are. Nor should our answer change based on the potential test subject's gender or nationality.

Although this is a view which is not shared by all animal rights supporters, I believe that our answer should also not change depending on whether or not the potential test subject is of the same species as us. I believe that the species boundary is no less arbitrary than boundaries such as race, ethnicity, and nationality.

Not all animal rights supporters agree with me, but I believe that the only way we can be logically consistent in condoning an experiment on an animal is if we would also condone performing the exact same experiment on a member of our own species.


Follow up questions:

How can some animal rights activists believe that other animals are our equals?

Doesn't duty to our own kind come first?

Do animal rights supporters refrain from using life saving drugs which were developed through animal testing?

Aren't animals also killed during the harvesting of crops and the construction of roads?

How is experimenting on animals any different from other situations where humans kill animals for survival?


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