Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/July 1882/The Ethics of Vivisection

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 21 July 1882  (1882) 
The Ethics of Vivisection
By Samuel Wilks


SINCE many writers opposed to the practice of experiments on animals have based their objections entirely on moral grounds, and thus made the question of vivisection an ethical one, I have been anxious to know what laws they have discovered for our guidance on this vexed subject. They discourse on cruelty, on immorality, and on the rights of animals; but these expressions are so vague that they fail to afford any basis for legal or public action, or, if there be any attempt at definition, it is with the object of making these terms conform to a foregone conclusion on the very point under discussion. Thus it is constantly asserted that physiologists feel at liberty to torture animals at their pleasure, without regard to the "higher dictates of humanity" or to the "laws of morality." It is thus implied that there exists among the public some principle of conduct toward the lower animals which has no place among experimenters. They speak as if, standing on a higher platform and beholding all creatures from a superior position, they could frame a code of laws which should have due regard to the rights of animals, and govern our own conduct in all our relations to them. This position is altogether fallacious: man can not disconnect himself from the animal world, and can not define its rights. It must, therefore, be abandoned as altogether untenable, and the subject discussed from a totally different stand-point. Our relation to the animal world can only in a very qualified sense be regarded from an ethical point of view; much in the same way as eating and drinking may be spoken of as questions of morality when moral considerations exert their influence over the amount and kind of food which we consume; this, however, can not hide from us the fact that the subject of digestion is fundamentally a physiological one.

The duty of man toward animals as an abstract question is from its very nature insoluble; it can only be partially answered on the grounds of expediency, and these will vary according to age and nation. We should, rather, ask what is our relation to the lower animal world, and in what place in that relationship can moral considerations come into force? In endeavoring to form a judgment of this relationship we must take facts as we find them, for the attempt at an explanation is trying to solve the riddle of our existence, and leaves us still with "the burden of the mystery of all this unintelligible world."

In seeking a solution of such a question as our duty toward inferior creatures, we must take into account man's animal nature; he is of the earth, earthy, and depends for his existence on the living world around him. Like many other creatures, he has to prey upon the lower animals for his subsistence, and although he may not often, after the example of some monsters of the deep, swallow small fishes by the mouthful —as in partaking of white-bait—yet, like the other carnivora, he hunts his prey and stealthily lies in wait for his victim. A large part of the existence of the lower animals is employed in search for food, or in protecting themselves from the assaults of their more powerful foes. Their exquisitely keen senses are put into full play to seek out their prey, or to place them on their guard against their more subtle enemies. Paley could discourse on the design manifested in the claws, teeth, and lithesome movements of the tiger, so well adapted for the capture of its victim, and with equal discernment portray the form and slender legs which enable the latter to escape its foe. It is necessary to picture Nature as we find it, or we may fall into the error which we see pervading so many recent writings—viz., that nearly all the miseries and pain inflicted on the lower animals arise from their connection with man. If we remember how many animals prey upon one another we shall realize the vast amount of pain and suffering ever existing among highly organized and sensitive creatures. None of us can measure the agonies of the slow death of an animal who has escaped mangled from his enemy and been left to linger on a sunburned soil, with hunger unappeased and thirst unslaked. Most of us have seen the picture of the dying camel in the desert, glancing up with fearful eye at the vultures hovering above him; and the cat playing with the terror-stricken mouse is to many a familiar sight. Over other and grosser cruelties practiced by one animal on another, it would be best to draw a veil. A far pleasanter picture is it to contemplate the beauties of Nature, the glorious vegetation, the singing of birds, the gamboling of the lambs in the meadows, or the wild herds in the prairies; and yet there is no escape from the fact that animals practice toward one another nearly every human crime. There is the bright side of the shield, but there is the other which shows that "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth with pain until now."

Man, like other carnivorous animals, derives a pleasure from hunting his prey; and, indeed, many of the gratifications of life are dependent upon his animal instincts. In a primitive condition, while the woman is at home providing for the household, the husband is away in the forest or on the mountain seeking for food, and finding a keen exhilaration in the chase. In a higher state of civilization the instinct still remains; for, although the butcher may supply the meat, the sportsman still pursues the game; or if the fish-monger sells the salmon, the zest for catching the fish still exists. A man does not kill his own sheep for dinner, but he approves of the act; the most honest and guileless lady will not hesitate to eat the bird for the capture of which cunning and treachery have been employed. It would seem, from these examples, that a carnivorous animal like man can not frame a code of laws in relation to his inferiors, or determine the rights of the lower animals, on any Christian or other ethical principle, such as "to do as we would be done by." Up to recent times we have acknowledged no other law than "might is right." For I am not aware that society or the public voice has put any restraint on man's desire to kill whatsoever animals he pleases for his food; as for clothing, he may capture any creature he fancies, and steal the skin, coveting it the more the handsomer its coat; while society has not hitherto placed any limits upon his greed. We not only eat for necessity, but we foster and pamper our appetites, we breed creatures for our uses, and, when fit for our stomachs, kill them, doing also what humanity has never yet blushed at; first mutilating them and unsexing them. It has been truly said that in this sad world one of the greatest gifts bestowed on the animal creation is the relation of the sexes; and the singing of birds, the building of nests, the mating of animals, have given rise to much of the poetry of Nature. But it has been left for man to make herds of beef, and flocks of mutton, and horses whose only function is to drag our carriages. One might ask, in these sentimental and aesthetic days, whether one sigh of pity has ever been raised over these poor maimed creatures? What do those who talk of the rights of animals say on this matter? or how does the ethical question apply here? Was the morality of the business discussed when nearly the whole family of whales was exterminated for the sake of their oil, or whenever troops of horses have been exported to engage in our quarrels and perish on the battlefield? If a horse could define his rights, would he admit the necessity of his going round and round in a mill the live-long day, or dragging a tram-car with the never-ceasing jangle of bells in his ears? Would the thousands of God's creatures in India approve of being called "vermin," and exterminated at so much a head? It is clear that, as regards food, clothing, mutilation, or work, there seems to be no other rule guiding us than "might is right." We have exercised the dominion given us over the beasts of the earth and fowls of the air as tyrants.

Now, when all this is said and admitted, we recognize over and above our animal instincts a higher nature within us—pity, love, compassion, and duty toward other objects; sentiments, indeed, which seem almost antagonistic to our lower life and to the proclivities of our fleshly body. This higher aspiration has ever been regarded as one of the best evidences of man's spiritual nature. We observe that a cultivated man is obliged to find a substitute to kill the sheep for his dinner, or to employ the necessary cunning to catch his game, since he could not practice deceit himself, nor nerve his arm to strip the Arctic animals of their skins to clothe himself. But although he does not imbrue his hands in blood, and although he dismisses from his mind the question of the animal's "right" to its own skin, he can not discard his own animal nature by appointing a substitute to perform actions in the result of which he participates. When, therefore, the question of the relationship between man and animals is considered, the fact that man is a killing and hunting animal himself lies at the very foundation of this relationship. Where, then, it may be asked, do the higher sentiments of which I have spoken come in? A ready answer is, that all these practices toward the lower animals are admissible and necessary for man's existence, but that cruelty should be avoided. This word, in common use of late, appears to signify the giving of unnecessary pain, but it still remains ambiguous unless the word "necessary" is defined. One may gather from various writings that "necessary" is equivalent to "advantageous to man"; for example, the word "cruelty" would be applicable to the case where a half-starved horse is made to drag a cart too ponderous for his strength, but it would not apply to the case of the same horse dragging a heavy cannon over a mountain for the safety and glory of the nation. What, then, is necessary pain, and what unnecessary pain or cruelty? If necessity is construed, as it is at present, to include not only the procuring of food, but man's enjoyment and general advantages, it is obvious that the question must have ever-varying answers. There are a few persons, vegetarians on principle, who would not kill animals for food under any consideration; there are others who would not take their lives for pleasure. Past generations have approved of cock-fighting: there may be a future generation who will discountenance pigeon-shooting, and will regard that age as barbarous which could witness without disgust the bleeding carcasses of sheep hanging up in our most fashionable thoroughfares. The spirit of the age and the feeling of society for the time seem to determine what amount and kind of pain and suffering people will allow to be inflicted on animals and what they will disallow. The very valuable Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does not seem in its operations to offer a solution of the question. It would seem that most of the examples of cruelty which the society publishes are those where the public gain nothing by the act complained of, and can therefore afford to prosecute. For example, I have heard "shame" called on a carman who was endeavoring: to make a horse draw a coal wagon along the slippery pavement of Bond Street; and this exclamation came from a gentleman who on turning round might have seen the quails and larks closely caged for his table, and the dying and writhing lobsters waiting to end their miseries in a pan of boiling water. It would almost seem that the infliction of pain is allowable if approved by the majority, and that it is not allowable and constitutes cruelty if disapproved. In other words, cruelty depends upon the public estimation of its utility or inutility. One is forced to arrive at this conclusion, for the more one thinks over the rights of animals, or the ethical question of our treatment of them, the less does it appear that any considerations framed upon rights or morals have ever influenced mankind in its conduct. It is possible that some vague ideas respecting man's duty to animals may be floating-through different brains, but those ideas have never become concrete.

It being admitted that man has a power, if not a right, over the lives of the lower animals, the question arises, Where should this right be limited, and at what point should our animal instincts, appetites, and wants be restricted? Utility or advantage seems to be the gauge used by the majority of persons. The question, therefore, between the anti-vivisectionists and their opponents appears to be a narrow one. The former assert that the pain inflicted on animals is out of proportion to the advantages obtained: Lord Coleridge says as much in his well-wrapped-up dictum. We, on the contrary, declare that the importance of experiments can be shown to be overwhelming in comparison with the pain inflicted on animals for this and other objects. The lofty phrase that "knowledge is unlawful knowledge if it is pursued by means which are immoral" must be analyzed to understand its meaning. As it is made applicable to vivisection, it is clear that "immorality" means "giving pain to animals"; and his lordship's statement would run, "All knowledge is unlawful if obtained by giving pain to animals." Whence it follows that, as it is allowable to give pain to animals for various purposes, it is only unlawful to give pain when the purpose is knowledge. I see no other interpretation to put upon his words, and thus he places himself entirely at one with the rest of the anti-vivisectionists. These writers select out of foreign works all the horrible pictures they can find, and most unfairly ignore all those important experiments made by the aid of the most trifling operations under chloroform, and which have proved to be of inestimable benefit to animals and men. Lord Coleridge, although protesting against the charge of antagonism to science, unwittingly shows how profoundly he misunderstands the methods of scientific men, and consequently falls into the same error as his more ignorant friends. However little sympathy he may have with science, one would have thought that Whewell, Mill, Jevons, and others had clearly demonstrated that the methods of science can only be reached by accurate observation and well-devised experiment. I am afraid, therefore, that scientists will scarcely consider that man to be among their allies who believes their method is "to perform a hundred thousand experiments in the hope that some new fact may turn up." But this is only an example of the misleading nature of the statements and expressions of the anti-vivisectionists. This very term implies that their opponents are vivisectionists; much in the same way as, if a certain sect of vegetarians were to style themselves anti-sheep killers, all the rest of the world would be sheep-killers, and this opprobrious word would be employed toward any lady who was seen eating a mutton-chop. The two cases are exactly analogous, for among the thousands of medical and scientific men who see the advantages of making experiments on animals there are scarcely twenty who would be willing to undertake operations of so disagreeable a nature. Just as the sheep-killers are those only who would protest against any laws being made to prevent them eating animal food, so in like manner the "vivisectionists" are those who maintain that legislation should not prevent a few physiologists performing the experiments which they judge necessary. What is asked by the vivisectionists is, that the whole power of the law should not be brought to bear upon a handful of accomplished men who are engaged in the service of science and humanity. They do not object to laws being made to prohibit incompetent persons from experimenting.

The difference between a dozen anti-vivisectionists and a dozen scientific men can not possibly turn upon a moral question such as dislike of cruelty; and, therefore, if the one can look upon an animal injured and bleeding with serenity and the other not, it would be owing, as the former party assert, to usage or habit. Let this be admitted, the converse is also true, and it may be safely conjectured that much of the opposition to experimentation is due to the unpleasant picture which the subject presents to the imagination. The difference between sensitiveness and compassion, or active benevolence, was long ago pointed out by Coleridge; but for this difference, Howard would be justly called the most hard-hearted of men. A lady shrinks with horror from treading on a black beetle, but is only too satisfied to hear that the cook has exterminated the "vermin" by poison or boiling water. But lately an excellent example of a personal sensitiveness being mistaken for compassion has been witnessed in the case of the sale of the elephant. If the word of the Council of the Zoölogical Society can be taken as true, it was believed that "Jumbo" would be far happier traveling among his kin than leading a life of solitude in London. Yet, in spite of this statement, all the kind-hearted people have been sending their subscriptions to enable the society to forego its bargain, since they and their children can not bear to part with their favorite. It is like the frequent example of a mother preventing her son taking the voyage prescribed for the benefit of his health because her feelings can not allow her to part with him.

After eliminating all that is irrelevant and false, the question between experimenters and anti-vivisectionists appears to be a simple one. The latter declare that experiments are attended with great cruelty, and the results are of little or no good; they should therefore be disallowed. The former deny the truth of the proposition, and maintain that it is tyranny to put in force the power of the law to prevent a few, a very few, men of known reputation as trained physiologists performing occasional experiments, often unattended by pain, for the sake of advantages which they believe to be enormous. To endeavor to make vivisection a question of ethics, when moral considerations are altogether and confessedly ignored in a thousand other instances, is clearly illogical, and obviously prompted by an undue bias. In other words, the selection of the so-called standard of "morality," or of the "rights of animals," by which to measure the permissibility of physiological experimentation, is undeniably a prejudgment of the real point at issue.—Contemporary Review.

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