Free the frogs!

Why should ethics concern animals?

We will present two ways of integrating animals in our moral community with the different consequences drawn for animal experimentation. The two authors, Tom Regan and Peter Singer are generally considered as classics or foundations of animal ethics.

“The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been with-holden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But they were otherwise, what could it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” [1]

Before entering into the various theories we wanted to quote this famous reflection of J. Bentham, an utilitarian philosopher of the XVIIIth century. Bentham theory of moral is widely recognized as one the first hesitation to rationally integrate animals in our theory of justice . This quote introduces the basics references on the debate: the parallel made with racism and slavery, the disqualification of reason and languages as pertinent criteria to determine the limit of the moral realm, the temptation to define justice as the equality of human and non-human animals, equality based on the following criterion: the ability to feel pain. The parallel made with racism and slavery will be drawn again in 1970 with a semantic consequence, the creation of a neologism: speciesism. The analogy is drawn with racism and sexism. The term has been introduced by Ryder in 1970 in Oxford, and exposes the discrimination between being on the arbitrary criteria of their species. A quite simple case can illustrate this concept: many people would prefer that animal experimentation is done on rats rather than on cats on the simple basis that rats are disgusting and cats are cute. This is a case of speciesism.

Tom Regan is the most radical of the three authors we will present here. His approach is part of a deontological way of thinking ethics. This involves a clear definition of what is good and what is bad based with which you can’t negotiate. A basic statement reflecting a deontological approach would the commandment “You shall not murder”. Tom Regan considers that each subject-of-a-life has an intrinsic value. For this reason it is morally wrong to consider animals “as supplies at our disposal, to be eaten, to be subjected to surgical experiments or to be exploited or money or sports” . The only way according to Tom Regan for the animal condition to evolve towards a more respectable treatment is to give them a special place in the law. Hence, T. Regan defends the concept of animal rights, a quite radical concept, the only one that could help establishing a coherent and rational justice with regards to the foundation of justice. Indeed, according to the author, a theory of justice based on the capacity of reasoning and talking would exclude from its realm children and some of the most handicapped people. Concerning our subjects, animal experimentation and animal biotechnologies, T. Regan would defend an abolitionist position that can’t be debated in reason of his deontological perspective.

Though the title of Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, may seem quite aggressive it is far more moderate than Regan’s theory. Peter Singer develops a utilitarian theory in the continuation of Bentham. P. Singer doesn’t want to mix justice with morality, talking about “animal rights” doesn’t mean much to him as rights have to be link with duties and responsibilities: animals can’t fulfill them. Neither can children nor strongly handicapped people, this is why they have tutors, people responsible for them. Nevertheless, P. Singer still defends a form of equality between human and non-human animals, which is called an equality of interest. This theory is based on the ability for animals to feel pain, to the interest of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Hence we have to do our best to respect those interests. This means reducing animal experimentation, breeding cows and pigs in good conditions, forbidding bullfight and other cruel games involving animals. But equality of interest doesn’t mean equality of life value or equality of treatment. Some species have more interests than others, for example they need forms of society, communication etc. As the principle is too privilege the maximum of interests, might seem to be better treated than simpler. This theory implies to rethink our relation to food production, drug and cosmetic test on animals for developing a less excessive system respecting as much as we can the interests of the beings we are living with. As this theory is utilitarian, what we can and cannot do can be, to some extent, negotiated. We have to “calculate” the interests involved in our actions and established if there is a gain or not.

These two approaches of animal ethics, despite their differences, have in common to emphasize on the political aspect of the animal question. Taking seriously animals as beings that deserve a moral care implies changing many of our habits of consumption. These required changes are quite close in their quality to those recommended by many ecological theories: being less excessive and more attentive to the world in which we are living. All this get quite interesting if we rapidly sum-up the ambition of animal ethics and ecology: making life better, one being at a time. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Animal biotechnology and human/non human relationships

Melvin Kranzberg, professor of history of technology and founder of the Society for the History of Technology, reached posterity through the formulation of six laws concerning technology which he called “The Kranzberg’s laws” . We will use the first law as a starting point on the relation of animal biotechnology and ethics. The first law states: “technology is neither good nor bad; nor it is neutral” . This statement is crucial to be well understood by engineers and bioengineers, one can’t state that technology is neutral. Once we are bringing new artifacts or entities into the world we can’t declare that we don’t have any responsibility of what will be done thanks to them or because of them. Technology is generally presented as a solution to a problem and most of biotechnologies could be said to be produced in the same state of mind, making the world better. This will be, at least, the way they will be presented to the public. This aim of technology has many impacts on our ways of being. It changes our relation to time, space and society (through clocks, trains and social-networks), it gives us the possibility to be related to any part of the world and organizing international contests with real-time communication through internet.

It also profoundly modifies our relationships with nature. Nature, which was once declared as an enemy, a dangerous force threatening the human race, is now more and more perceived as something sacred that has to be preserved from huge disasters occasioned by human technology. Fears concerning environmental changes and the disappearance of the world we knew are leading to this extreme. From one extreme (paying no attention to significant others) and another (paying so much attention that we want to keep them in formalin), an intermediate solution, pragmatic, made of compromises, have to be found.

However synthetic biology is still building itself on strongly anthropocentric values. These values are stated in the first fundamental canon of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Code of Ethics : "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties." The attention to the principles of sustainable development was added in 2009, as explained in the footnote of the document. This novelty is quite important as it highlights the need of an evolution of our relation to non-human beings. The environmental crisis and maybe pressure from society compels technology to care for a "sustainable develoment". Synthetic biology appears to have in mind a quite similar understanding of ethics. Ethics is widely link with safety and security, with the issues of bioterrorism and the avoidance of environmental leaks. The formulation of the human pracice on the iGEM site also encourages this conception: "Will the world be a safe place if we make biology easy to engineer?". Those questions of environmental safety and risk assessment are quite difficult to deal with, and we are glad to see that the project of Paris Bettencourt was to take them seriously through a study of horizontal gene transfer. It seems to be too often taken as granted with some killer switch assumption.

But improving human welfare from an anthropocentric perspective can have for consequences a deep blindness of the environment in which we are embedded. The history of animal ethics testifies of the limits of a blind fulfillment of human diseres. The animal issue was triggered in UK by Ruth Harrison’s book, Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry published in 1964. From this book rises a campaign against industrial farming giving birth in the early 70s to the concept of “speciesism”, and slogans around “animal liberation” “animal rights”. The main works structuring the animal movement were published between 1975 and 1983; Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Tom Regan’s Animal Rights and Human Obligations (1976). The Case for animal rights (1983). The renewal of the attention of animal, though imposed to the practice by laws and ethical commitees, is not necessary integrated in the scientific reflection. A closer look at stories of “new” animals brought into living reveals that our responsibility concerning those beings isn’t well established at all. Raphael Larrère tells the story of two hybrids, Agrostis, a transgenic crop, and Lucifer, a transgenic and cloned bull. The story of Lucifer tells something that we need to be well aware of as we decide to make living being and specifically animals easier to engineer. Lucifer was the only survivor of numerous embryos cloned and genetically modified, the fruit of a long and tough labor. However, when grew old, the bull was getting really aggressive and dangerous. It was getting really complicated to take care of it. After long debates, INRA’s scientist decided to euthanize Lucifer. This case is interesting as it questions the responsibility of the creator on the creature. Don’t we have duty towards being we brought to the world? Shouldn’t we try to anticipate such situations? It also reminds that the questions raised by synthetic biology are not new. As technologies/biotechnologies shape the world we live in, shape the society we live in, they also shape ethics. [3] Technologies progressively address new ethical needs, as can be seen in the fifty last years. Animal ethics is an instance among many others, nearly insignificant comparing to all that has been thought after the second world concerning nuclear or the development of bioethics since the early nineties (Bioethics has for object what can or can’t be done to human. It is not turned towards animals.)

Some of the members of the team think that synthetic biology gives us the possibility to renew our relation nature. By putting animals and bacteria at the center of our system of production we could make people more conscious of the implications of some excessive ways of living. To some respect, synthetic biology would be creating new symbiosis. Here comes the original formulation of this idea:

"To me, modifying frog or other organisms is not a way of controlling them, neither it is against the laws of nature (if it were, they would die anyway). To me, it is to develop a new symbiosis, which imply interdependency. In this setting, mankind will depend on these organisms, and will have to treat them well. People usually don't think of the dependence on animals synthetic biology creates, they only think about control (anthropocentric view). But I prefer being dependent on Bioengineered frogs, rather than on very polluting (and invisibly polluting and destructing) industries thousands miles from me. In a way, and counter-intuitively, synthetic biology would make us closer to nature and ecosystems..."


  1. Bentham J., 1781 Introduction to the principles of morals and legislation, Chapter 17
  2. Larrère Raphaël, 2006 « Une éthique pour les êtres hybrides » De la dissémination d'Agrostis au drame de Lucifer, Multitudes, 1 no 24, p. 63-73.
  3. C. Mitcham and A. Briggle, The Interaction of Ethics and Technology in Historical Perspectives, in Meijers A. (eds.)Philosophy of technology and engineering sciences, 2009 p1147-1191