Chimpanzee Research and Animal Rights

Last month, two federal agencies took steps that together may come close to ending research on chimpanzees in the United States.

First, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed to list all chimpanzees, including those in captivity, as endangered.   (Currently, only wild chimpanzees are listed as endangered, while captive chimpanzees are listed as threatened).  This would require that almost all research on chimps be done with a permit, and the agency has suggested that these permits may only be granted for research that enhances the propagation or survival of the chimpanzee species.

Second, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided that more than 300 of the approximately 360 research chimpanzees that it owns will be retired and moved into sanctuaries.  This decision was based on an Institute of Medicine report finding that most current research on chimpanzees is unnecessary, and that chimps should be used only when public health is on the line, no other animals are appropriate, and ethical experiments on humans are not possible.  On the basis of these findings, the NIH is planning to keep a colony of about 50 chimps available for research that is not possible in any other way.

Comparing these two agency actions raises an interesting question:  In evaluating whether research on chimpanzees is ethical, does it matter whether the beneficiary of the research is the chimpanzee or the human species, and if so, on what grounds?  

While it might seem that restricting chimpanzee research to studies that benefit the chimpanzee species is more consistent with an “animal rights” position, this may not actually be the case.   For if an individual chimpanzee has rights that make it unethical to perform research on it, it should not make a difference—as a general matter, and from a rights-oriented perspective—whether the research is being used to benefit chimpanzees or humans.   The individual chimp’s interests are equally violated either way.  (Assuming, as I will throughout this post, that the research helps the survival of other chimpanzees, not the chimpanzee subject to the research).

There may, in theory, be some exceptions to this.   For example, if it were possible for an individual chimpanzee to consent to research on grounds of species-oriented altruism, the fact that the research would benefit other chimpanzees could make a difference on a rights-oriented approach, as it would further some of the interests of that individual.   But such interests cannot be assumed in general.

One might counter that my argument assumes an individual-oriented perspective, and that the restriction makes a difference when seen from a species-oriented perspective.   For example, one might argue that only allowing research that benefits chimpanzees is more consistent with an animal rights position on the grounds that it gives legal recognition to the right of the species to exist.

However, this idea of “species rights” seems to be based on a mistaken premise that a species is the type of entity that is capable of having rights—that it is has independent and cohesive interests that can be legally recognized.  This idea has its roots in evolutionary biology, where talk of species interests might be used as a short hand.  Yet because species categories are not dictated by nature, but rather developed by humans on pragmatic grounds, there is no natural account of “species interests” that can provide a foundation for species rights.

This suggests that the animal rights case for restricting chimpanzee research to that which benefits chimpanzees is not as strong as it might at first appear.  In closing, however, it is worth noting that there is one more potential foundation for the case.   It is, paradoxically, a partly consequentialist one: if the restriction causes a general decline in funding of chimpanzee research, it will result in fewer violations of the interests of these animals as an indirect consequence.   But setting aside that uncertain possibility, it seems that it does not matter—from an animal rights perspective—whether it is the chimpanzee or the human species that benefits from chimpanzee research.  So if it matters, it must matter on other grounds (such as considerations of utility, or the rights of humans).

    5 thoughts on “Chimpanzee Research and Animal Rights

    1. Excellent post Jeffrey,
      I was wondering whether you think your argument cuts both ways: would it be justified to experiment on humans for the benefit of chimpanzees? Suppose we could greatly benefit the chimpanzee’s species by means of experimenting on severely mentally retarded human individuals incapable, as the chimpanzees, I guess, to give genuine consent…

      • Thanks for the comment and question. Perhaps I should have emphasized that my argument does not speak to the ultimate question of whether research on chimpanzees for the benefit of humans is justifiable. And for this reason, it also does not speak to your question of whether research on severely mentally disabled humans for the benefit of chimps is justifiable.

        Rather, my argument challenges the intuition that the FWS approach to chimpanzee research (which limits research to that which benefits the chimp species) is more consistent with the recognition of animal rights than is the NIH approach (which limits chimp research to that which is necessary for the protection of human health).

        Applied to your hypothetical, the implication of my argument would be that if we were to perform research on severely mentally disabled humans, it would not matter (from a rights perspective) whether that research benefited the human or the chimpanzee species. On a rights perspective, this would be normatively irrelevant.

    2. I’m not sure why naturalism is a criterion for rights, and if it is, I’m not sure it applies to human individuals.

      • Thanks for the challenge, and apologies for the delayed response, as I have been traveling. I am not sure if we disagree, and if so, on what point. It is possible that my use of the term “natural” was unclear. When I said “there is no natural account of ‘species interests’ that can provide a foundation for species rights,” I was using the term “natural account” in opposition to “socially constructed account” or “account imposed by humans on the world/others.” I think that to have a moral claim to legal rights, an entity must be the type of entity that can by its nature have interests, such that the interests that provide the basis for the claim to rights exist (or are considered to exist) as a matter of fact. These need not be limited to interests that are “determined by nature,” at least not in the reductive sense in which that phrase is often used, but rather can include interests that are determined by the entity’s individual desires, preferences, goals, etc.