Thursday, August 13, 2020



Tom L. Beauchamp and David DeGrazia.

Oxford University Press. New York. 2020. 176 pp. ISBN 9780190939120. US$34.95 (Hardback).

(This review is out in the journal Bioethics.) [final version]

In Principles of Animal Research Ethics, Tom Beauchamp and David DeGrazia (hereafter B&D) aim to replace the well-known “3Rs”—Replacing animal research with non-animal methods, Reducing the numbers of animals, and Refining experiments to reduce harms and improve welfare—as the guiding principles regulating animal research.

They propose six principles. The first are “Principles of Social Benefit,” where these benefits are medical and health-related (pp. 6-7):


(1) The Principle of No Alternative Method

(2) The Principle of Expected Net Benefit [to Human Beings]

(3) The Principle of Sufficient Value to Justify Harm [to Animals]


These principles require that animal research be done only when there’s no alternative to using animals. Additionally, since animal research sometimes misleads in many ways, resulting in harms to humans (p. 8), the research must be expected to sufficiently benefit human beings. Moreover, these benefits must be significant enough to justify harming animals.

The next principles are “Principles of Animal Welfare” (p. 12):


(1) The Principle of No Unnecessary Harm

(2) The Principle of Basic Needs [of Animals Must Be Met]

(3) The Principle of Upper Limits to Harm


These principles require that any harms to animals be “necessary” for the scientific purpose, and that animals’ basic food, housing and medical needs are met, and that there be upper limits on harm. (They also present freedom from pain and suffering as a “basic need,” but don’t say whether “freedom from premature death” is a basic need or address whether premature death is a harm [p. 15].)

            In three final sub-sections, B&D conclude by discussing the need for ethics review committees to more rigorously evaluate animal experiments, observe that scientific results never solely by themselves ethically justify animal experimentation, and review how their principles improve upon the 3Rs.



B&D’s principles do improve upon the 3Rs which don’t mention the need for benefits from animal experimentation, the need to compare these benefits to animal harms, and provide no hard limits on experimentation.

However, B&D present their principles as “useful” for people engaged in animal research and as a “philosophically sound” (p. 4) framework for a new ethic for animal research. Regrettably, I have doubts about both these overall claims and so am pessimistic about the book. 

            The book is 164 pages in total, but the section in which B&D state and develop their principles is just 23 pages, including a Preamble, and is followed by 18 pages of endnotes. Most of the book then consists of commentaries on this section by seven experts on various aspects of animal research, only one of whom is a philosopher. B&D do not respond to these commentaries.

My main concern is that there doesn’t seem to be much of an attempt in B&D’s contribution at providing the hard details that are needed to really understand the principles so they might be used to help determine whether some animal experimentation is morally justified or not.

So, e.g., two of the “Social Benefit” principles involve comparing animal harms to human benefits and judging whether some animal research sufficiently promotes benefits for humans, compared to anything else that could be done to promote human benefits. B&D don’t say much, if anything, on how to do this: they mostly only say it needs to be done. True, but how, especially in harder cases? Thus, the principles are philosophically underdeveloped.

The principles also do not critique common unhelpful ways of conceptualizing the issues: e.g., that there is “no alternative” to doing some action, or it’s “necessary,” to bring about even a good result usually does not entail that the action is permissible. The language of B&D’s principles might not help people more deeply engage the issues. 

B&D suggest that both advocates and critics of animal experimentation can accept these principles. Some critics might tentatively accept them but respond that we just aren’t given enough theoretical details here to really see how these principles would work: which experiments would be condemned and permitted by these principles?

This question also can’t be answered since these principles are presented as necessary conditions for permissible animal experimentation, not sufficient conditions (p. 6): any animal experimentation must meet these conditions to be permissible but meeting these conditions might not mean that it is permissible. B&D don’t say what else would be needed to justify animal research (if anything could) and critics of animal research would want to know more about that.

The more one (reasonably) believes that animal research is wrong, the more one will be (reasonably) puzzled about the point of these principles. By (a provocative) analogy, suppose someone developed some principles (different from B&D’s, of course) that offer, in their view, necessary conditions for “ethical dogfighting,” to make it more “humane.” Critics of dogfighting might agree that any dogfighting that meets these principles is less bad and so, in a sense, accept them as good principles to follow to make something wrong less bad, but still overall reject those principles, or the project of developing them, since dogfighting is wrong. So it’s unclear really which critics of animal experimentation would accept B&D’s principles, or how they would accept them.

Some critics would outright reject them, arguing that many animals have rights to their bodies and lives, or have interests deserving serious consideration, or that animal research is simply unfair and unjust, and so animal research is wrong. Perhaps B&D think that these philosophically respectable positions just won’t ever be persuasive (since, honestly, they haven’t, for most people) and so it’s better to focus on what’s more agreeable to animal researchers.

This might be the strategy since I suspect most advocates of animal researchers would respond to B&D’s offer of these principles with this: we already accept these principles! They frequently claim that they want “alternatives” but that animal research is regrettably “necessary” to promote human benefits which outweigh harms to animals but that animals used in research are well-cared for and aren’t caused any “unnecessary” pain or suffering. Resistance to “upper limits” on harm is likely due to worries about slippery slopes, not any inherent rejection of limits.

So, at least in practice and common ways of engaging the issues, B&D’s principles are likely already widely accepted by animal research advocates. Yet animal research continues, without much profound ethical critique. But without the philosophical details of B&D’s principles, they can neither be the basis for much serious critique nor can they be used to provide the “rigorous evidence and argument” that they report that critics of animal research seek (p. 2).

Both too much philosophical critique and details and too little present different challenges, but I am doubtful that B&D have found the right balance and an ideal mode of “public philosophy” to change the ethical culture surrounding animal research, at least with this book. They do have an article-length presentation of their principles (“Beyond the 3 Rs to a More Comprehensive Framework of Principles for Animal Research Ethics,” ILAR Journal, forthcoming), but I wonder if B&D’ revising their presentation of their principles and discussion for broader audiences and making that available in booklet and online format would have an even greater impact.



To conclude, many of the main themes of the commentators are presented above: e.g., that these principles are not quite novel and that hard details are needed to put them into practice. The observations from practitioners from within animal research culture about how that culture engages ethical issues are informative and interesting. Many of the commentators focus on the need to make animal ethics committees (IACUCs) both more ethically and scientifically rigorous and informed: this is vital since these committees would be who put B&D’s principles into practice.

Since this is a more philosophical forum, I will only comment on philosopher Julian Savulescu’s contribution. He discusses the challenges in interpreting and applying B&D’s principles and offers some detailed proposals for how some of the harder questions about them might be answered.

However, I found his concluding paragraph most interesting: there he observes that, around forty years ago, Beauchamp and James Childress, in the 1978 Belmont Report and their 1979 Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Oxford University Press, now 2019 8th edition), developed the four principles of biomedical ethics—respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice—and suggests that the six principles from this book are the “animal research equivalent” (p. 144).

The question is why the original four principles, modified and extended a bit, aren’t adequate for engaging animal research ethics. Concerns about nonmaleficence and beneficence clearly apply to animals, it’s increasingly argued that our relations to animals are a matter of justice, and many animals arguably have some kind of autonomy: at least, they have preferences that can be respected or not. Before reading this book, I expected that it was going to be an extension of the well-confirmed basic principles of biomedical ethics to animal issues.

Yet B&D state that they decided against including “values or principles such as respect for animals and justice as fairness” in their framework because they only included values that “every reasonable individual can be expected to endorse” (p. 3). This omission, however, does raise doubts about whether their framework is, as they put it, “philosophically sound” and acceptable to thoughtful critics of animal experimentation. Indeed, it seems like perhaps only animal research advocates might embrace the book’s principles, which is likely not a good result for animal research ethics.


Acknowledgements: I thank Tom Beauchamp and David DeGrazia for their feedback on and discussion of this review, as well as David Benatar and Bob Fischer for their comments and suggestions.


This material was cut from section 3 from the final, to-be-published review, due to space reasons:

Veterinarian Larry Carbone argues that the six principles are mostly already in practice, although often not explicitly stated (p. 47, 57). He explains why making many of them really rigorous, especially in terms of comparing harms to benefits, is difficult.

Primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal writes that Beauchamp and DeGrazia’s recommendations “make perfect sense” (p. 61) but observes that it is sometimes hard to tell what kind of benefits might result from animal research. He concludes by sharing a moving observation about a colony of chimpanzees: each chimpanzee was individually isolated for a few weeks so a new climbing structure could be built, and when they were released they ignored their new toy and focused on “touching, kissing and embracing their long-lost friends and family” (p. 67). de Waal argues that attending to animals' social needs would greatly enhance their well being and improve scientific results.

Attorney and ethicist Rebecca Dresser observes that getting ethics evaluation committees (IACUCs) to put the principles in practice would be very challenging. She argues that animal experiments need more rigorous scientific and ethical review, but observes that there are “significant financial and ideological impediments” in making that happen (p. 76). I found her observations and suggestions very interesting and important.

Professor of comparative medicine Joseph P. Garner expresses appreciation that Beauchamp and DeGrazia provide an ethical framework for the current regulatory systems. He argues overcoming “statistical illiteracy” in experimental design and review (p. 85) and environmental enrichment being the norm would improve animal welfare and the resulting science. He argues that IACUC members seeing experimental procedures, with revolting examples of experiments involving drowning mice (pp. 91-92), would lead to more critical ethical reviews.

Ethologist Brian Hare argues, like Carbone, that current research review mechanisms make Beauchamp and DeGrazia’s principles “redundant but essential” (p. 102). He finds their need for an upper limit on harm and the need to specify expected benefits most novel in their proposals but suggests that that, for evolutionary reasons, we may suffer from a kind of “moral blindness” (p. 105) that would make effectively applying the principles difficult.

Veterinarian Margaret Landi offers a detailed and critical commentary on each of the principles. Like others, she observes that the claims of benefits from animal experimentation are often hard to justify and that review committees are often not rigorous. Unlike Carbone and Hare, she doubts research culture is already imperfectly committed to something like Beauchamp and DeGrazia’s principles and so thinks that accepting them would go a “long way” towards improved practice and discussions of the issues (p. 116).


  1. Nice review Nathan. You were very kind with the gaslighting that happens in the way these principles are situated by the authors. This is not the first time that folks with serious reservations about this kind of approach - which seeks to capture principles already acceptable to a 'majority' of stakeholders - are gaslighted as unreasonable (even if only by implication). My hand is up as one of those 'unreasonable' philosophers. Maybe I'm among a minority of stakeholders, but I doubt it. But anyway, ethics isn't actually decided by committee and that is one of the underlying problems with the status quo of animal research.

  2. Good blog post. Also, defenders of animal research never really engages, in any serious way, with consequentialist calculations either. They PRETEND they're being all consequentialist, but they're not.
    To clarify, I'm not a consequentialist, I'm an animal rightser of a much more Kantian bend. But let's assume consequentialism for the sake of argument.

    LOADS of animals are used in animal experiments. And most of those experiments do not in any straightforward way lead to a new drug or other treatment that can save humans from an untimely death or at least spare them serious pain. It's not just that experiments sometimes have downright misleading results. So much research is done to gain more basic knowledge. Of course we should do basic science and not just applied science, but when you specifically want to argue that the benefits for humans outweigh the suffering of animals, research that has very weak and indirect, if any, connections to concrete alleviation of human suffering creates extra problems. And loads and loads of new drugs are developed all the time because big Pharmaceutical companies (like ALL companies) continuously strive for more profit, but aren't much better at the end of the day than older drugs.

    I think LaFollette and Shanks were 100 % correct in their "uti-lizing animals" paper that even if we assume for the sake of argument that humans have much higher moral status than animals, and their suffering or happiness therefore count for much more in the utility calculus, it's really hard to argue that the calculation falls out in favour of continued animal experimentation, as long as the moral status of animals remain at some substantial value (and that animal suffering doesn't count for nothing or almost nothing, is actually deeply ingrained in common-sense morality and legislation alike).
    There might be details to quibble with in their paper, but I think their conclusion is absolutely correct.

    But as well-known as that paper is, and as widely read even among defenders of animal experimentation, no one seriously responds to the challenge posed. Everyone assumes that according to some kind of common sense morality, according to which humans are more important than other animals, doing medical experiments on animals can OBVIOUSLY be justified. You can only be against it if you're one of these "extreme" animal rightsers.

  3. Thanks for your review. You might have seen that Martha Nussbaum writes about their book in her own new book, Justice for Animals. She thinks it will soon replace the 3Rs. Even if it does, I can't see how it will make much difference. Do you know where the chimpanzees mentioned by DeWaal are?