12. VIVISECTION AND VEGETARIANISM (1)
SIR, – pray permit me, as a vice-president of the Vegetarian Society – an organisation comprising many thousands of members, associates, and sympathisers in all parts of the world – and also as an active opponent of vivisection and every other form of cruel injustice, to correct the misapprehensions represented in the letter signed "W.C. Sidgwick" in the Times of the 5th instant, and to define at the same time our position in the controversy.
first, of the diet question. We hold that neither
by his physical nor his moral constitution does man belong to the order either
of the carnivora or of the omnivora,
but is purely frugivorous; and in this we have the
assent of all competent physiologists, including the Faculté of
And we have next our own personal experience amply confirming that of the past, and the results of which, so far from proving us "Weaklings," (2) are such as to justify our confident
belief that the general adoption of our practice would be a sovereign remedy for all our difficulties and defects, hygienic, economic, and social, and enormously enhance our intelligence and moral conscience as a people.
To come to our relation to and treatment of animals. If proof be wanted of the dulling effect of a diet of flesh, whether upon head or heart, we assuredly have it in the opinions which find expression upon this subject. A generation or two ago a certain difference of colour was sufficient to exclude a sentient fellow-creature from our sympathies, and to justify us in kidnapping and enslaving him. And now a certain difference of form is held to constitute a justification, not only for killing and eating, but for deliberately torturing him to the utmost extent which the ingenuity of modern science can devise. And so unfathomably low in the scale of morality does the physiologist of the period rate us no less than himself, that he seeks to bribe us into acquiescence in the wrong by offering us an interest in the expected proceeds, not in the least perceiving that the proffer of gains procured at such cost to others is an insult to our manhood, and one that must make us doubly resolved to root out the practice, if only to escape the disgrace of complicity.
The arguments they ply us with are such as to make it hard to believe they are not laughing in their sleeves when they propound them. Indeed, their want of seriousness is no less conspicuous than their want of accuracy, so abundantly illustrated of late. To give a typical instance. One of the foremost of their apologists, a man distinguished not only as a physiologist, but – as a recent eulogist put it – "for his well-reasoned recognition of the claims equally of Religion and Morals upon the fealty of mankind," has tried to persuade us that because animals have no moral nature, therefore man has no moral obligation towards them, but may without blame treat them as cruelly as he pleases. Which is to say, that our rule of conduct is to be, not our own sense of right and wrong, but the sense of right and wrong we ascribe to those with whom we happen to be dealing. So that if they are murderers, thieves, liars, or ruffians, we may be the same in our dealings with them, and, without disgracing our humanity, utterly ignore and belie that humanity. Not that we for a moment concur in denying a moral nature to animals. Rather do we hold with Porphyry that "there are animals who are
more forcibly actuated than man himself with a sense of justice, gratitude, fidelity, and other virtues."
The same distinguished physiologist – it is Dr W.B. Carpenter, writing in the Fortnightly Review, February 1882 – goes on to say in reference to the vivisector – "I can, from the bottom of my heart, wish him God-speed, in the full conviction that his work is good and right, and will be approved of as merciful in the highest sense by that divine Father who requires of us the obedience of the spirit, not that of the letter." From which we learn that, for the scientific mind, either there is no "divine Father" common to all created beings, but that the animals proceed from some other and unholy source; or, that a "divine Father" is one who approvingly permits the stronger and craftier members of His family, for their own selfish ends, ruthlessly to torture the weaker and simpler. And the man who by doing this follows such a "father" is pronounced by implication a god-like man! And the world is summoned to renounce a religion which exhibits humanity as demonstrating its divinity by its voluntary sacrifice of Self for others, in favour of one which insists upon the compulsory sacrifice of others for Self! If the doctrine of man's physical evolution is to have for its outcome his moral degradation, the sooner we hark back upon old lines the better. One would have thought it calculated to "make the whole world kin," and teach us to regard all existence as but a larger self, partaking the same universal life and substance, and but occupying different steps on the same universal ladder, and united, therefore, in a common sympathy. The failure of the physiologist to see that in denying any moral nature to the grades below him, he is denying the possibility of it to himself, – since he represents but a further development of what they are and have, – is a fact of no slight significance in the controversy.
I have said enough to show the havoc which the specialist of physical science makes of religion and morals when he quits his own sphere to deal with them. It is for Society at large to resent and repel the claim of any specialists whatever to impose upon it the limitations to perception to which, by the fact of their being specialists, they are inevitably subject.
To the question what is our rule about the killing of animals, we reply that we respect the instinct of self-preservation, and slay those only which, either by their nature or their numbers, are noxious to us. We also put out of their misery those which
are hopelessly suffering. But always as mercifully as possible, considering that any defect of mercy or justice on our part is the same and equally a reproach to us whether the subject be noble or mean. The only allowable infliction of suffering is that which is designed to benefit the sufferer. This rule does not exclude what are called farmyard operations; since these are not only slight in themselves, but are more than compensated either by subsequent kindness or by fitting the animal to earn a comfortable livelihood for itself. The tortures of the laboratory are wholly uncompensatable by their inflictors. The kindly use of animals may not unreasonably be regarded as an educational process adopted to promote their evolution, and certainly our treatment of them must have a very considerable influence upon our own.
The plea that experimentation is practised in self-defence against disease and death is utterly unsound, since it is not from the subjects of it that the danger comes. Such a plea is valid only as against the enemy himself.
As to utilising the death of an animal for physiological purposes, provided it be done painlessly, our position is clear and consistent. Unless the animal belong to the category above mentioned of those doomed to death, it ought not to be killed at all. If it be one of these, there is no wrong done in utilising its death as proposed. BUT – and this is a very formidable but – who is to guarantee the painlessness of the process? The physiologists have shown us that they are not to be trusted. The honour of humanity is not safe in their hands. They have written and published whole libraries of books to prove that this is so, and are not entitled to resent our assertion of it. We would therefore prohibit vivisection altogether by forbidding the introduction of a live animal into the laboratory.
Exception is asked for experiments which consist in a scratch or a prick with a needle on the ground of their triviality. Here we find that we cannot depend upon them to tell us the truth. For the effect of these trivial wounds is apt to be terrible in the extreme, seeing that they are made for the purpose of introducing into the system some kind of poison, virus, or venom. Even with the best will on the part of the Operator, the idea of painless vivisection is altogether an illusion, if only because it is impossible to forecast or limit the extent or result of any experiment once undertaken without depriving
the practice itself of its reason for being. There is no alternative but entire suppression; and the consolation to be derived from the reflection that if medical science indeed suffers, and human lives are lost thereby, the loss of those who would consent to accept benefits for themselves, obtained at such hideous cost to others, would rather enrich than impoverish the world. It is not for people that the earth languishes, but for humanity. And men and women do not constitute humanity; they are but humanity in the making, or, it may be, in the marring. For we Vegetarians have thus a standard of definition for man other than that afforded by physiology. And it is in virtue of our definition that we take up the same position with regard to the peculiar barbarism of the present that we should have taken with regard to those of the past, had we lived then. And just as we should have fought to the death against bloody sacrifices, human or animal, prisoner-killing, witness-torturing, gladiatorial and other brutal sports, witch-baiting, heretic burning and racking, and negro slavery, so now we fight to the death against vivisection in order to set ourselves and our children free to follow with unstained hearts and hands those knowledges which, be they ever so legitimate and even divine in themselves, become unlawful and damnable when sought by means which are not human, but sub-human. – I am, etc.,
P.S. – A word to your correspondent T– C–. In claiming the right to torture, as a prerogative of dominion, is he not rather confounding the rule of a king with that of a tyrant?
(170:1) Letter, dated 6th January 1885, written by Edward Maitland to the Times, but not inserted.
(170:2) See p. 113 ante.