Not Coming Away Clean

A report entitled ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Using Animals in Research’, and published online by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, was the subject of the third post in this blog (1 August 2015, ‘The Complete Vivisector’). The report has now been published in book form, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey. I’ve re-read it, and I find it as good as it seemed the first time: a complete survey (though tending to concentrate on the situation in the U.K.), thoroughly lucid and readable, surely the best all-round account of this unpleasant subject there is.

The book version adds, to the original report, a new general introduction and some supplementary essays (rather a miscellany, I feel) by scholars and activists, which together account for about as many pages as the report itself. The introduction is headed ‘Oxford: the Home of Controversy about Animals’. It’s a fair title: not a glorious one, perhaps, since Oxford has first of all been the ‘home’ of vivisection, and the controversy has largely followed on from that; but an honourable title, because it shows that there have always been actively high-principled people, in the University and beyond, to object to this betrayal of what the University might stand for, or at least to insist publicly that there are profound moral questions involved. This last is the very least of what ought to be publicly acknowledged – and it was indeed acknowledged during the nineteenth-century phase of the controversy by the leader of medical science at Oxford, Professor Henry Acland, not otherwise an opponent of vivisection. He saw in it, with explicit unease, “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”.

His close friend John Ruskin was more absolute on the subject, of course. There has always been some doubt about why Ruskin resigned his chair in Fine Art. He was certainly ailing at the time, and had possibly become unfit for the hard work of lecturing as he practised it (i.e. with great earnestness and theatricality). However, he himself did not believe so, and he unhesitatingly gave as his reason the University’s decision in 1885 to fund a laboratory where vivisection would be used. More than that, he then spoke about his work as professor of Fine Art at the University since 1869, and the work he had been intending to do in the future (for he had “meant to die in my harness there”), in such as way as to say that the laboratory had nullified it all. His whole art project at Oxford University then, which quite apart from his own high ambitions as to its value had become a phenomenon of the University’s intellectual life probably never since matched for excitement and acclamation, he thus expressly made a casualty of this new scientific practice. It was the opposite of a dedication, reflecting his belief that the new laboratory represented the opposite of what a university should teach and be.

The introduction to the new book gives some account of these and other historical protests in Oxford. It touches rather more briefly on the campaign against the very recently built laboratory (oddly dating the campaign at 2006 although even at its full strength it lasted for several years, and it continues today). And the account concludes thus: “The campaign in opposition failed. The new Oxford lab was built.” Well yes, in that particular objective it did fail, just as the 1880s campaign had failed (that lab was built too) – just as, indeed, the book itself may be said to have failed if it doesn’t bring the practice of animal research to an end by the time it goes out of print. But in fact we know that the book’s ideas will spread outward and endure, just as the story of Ruskin and those University convulsions of the 1880s endures. And here is some of what the modern campaign achieved.

Most essentially, the campaign made manifest in modern Oxford what Henry Acland had acknowledged, the moral momentousness of the decision being taken by the University: the decision, that is, to build animal research into its long-term future. When Elizabeth Costello, in J.M.Coetzee’s novel of that name, speaks to a university audience about the slaughterhouses at work in the vicinity, unseen and unacknowledged, she concludes sardonically, “We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.” This, Oxford University would indeed have liked to do but was prevented from doing. For a time, demonstrations and rallies came to characterize speak-demos-024-300x281the city, made all the more conspicuous by the presence (often grossly over-numerous) of police officers with their alarmist cameras and high-visibility jackets. The University’s ceremonial events in particular were trailed, like a bad conscience, by demonstrators and their banners. And the scenery itself, even without the people, came to be expressive. For a year and more, the new laboratory was halted half-built, an ugly skeleton announcing itself along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Around it, painted lines marked the limits set by court injunctions as to where protesters might go. Even now, notices of these injunctions are pinned to the trees injunction.JPGoutside the laboratory: not irrelevantly, because the demonstrations continue in that place today, but they’re also important documents, advertising to a multitude of passers-by every day the cause they were aimed at.

With the new awareness of animal research which was thus gifted to the town and University came of course the debate properly due to this subject. It was forced upon the University by activists, but of course it should have been promoted by the University itself, as an intellectual institution preparing to implicate all its thousands of members in a renewed commitment to a practice that some of them must certainly have deplored. (I don’t want to sound naïve by calling the University also a moral or even spiritual institution, although its own motto does claim or solicit divine guidance.) That it did not promote or even facilitate the debate is a reminder of how little the University really does exist as one institution with any coherent aim other than growth and reputational success. Such unitary voice as it has is mainly synthesized by fund-raisers and PR people speaking on its behalf; otherwise it’s really a congeries of discrete subjects, professions, and careers, careful not to tread on each other’s ground. This was already a concern for Ruskin. He hoped to make his own art school a harmonising force, and indeed made himself unpopular with other professors by freely expatiating on their subjects in his own lectures (in fact on “every subject on earth but the subject of his chair”, as one contemporary complained). The progressive atomizing of the university is no doubt largely what prevented its senior membership from playing any collective part in the modern controversy, of the sort it certainly had played, on both sides, in the controversy of the 1880s.

Anyway, the debate did occur, and in many different ways, formal and informal, from televised set-pieces, through talks and seminars, to ‘vocalizations’ (I use the preferred physiologist’s term) of all kinds in the streets. And crucially, the audiences and participants included science students, who were encountering animal ethics for once not just as a possible branch of their professional training – another ‘module’ to pass an exam in – but as a decision of very great consequence to be made about human nature in themselves and in general.

“Where is your moral teaching in science?” So the politician Tony Benn asked the scientist Richard Dawkins (both of them Oxford graduates) during an interview. Repeatedly in the history of vivisection (including human vivisection), sudden light has revealed scientists insouciantly doing what astonishes and scandalizes their lay contemporaries. It’s really how the anti-vivisection movement began in the U.K., when outsiders to the profession were given an unintended view of the contents of the 1873 Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory. The recent news story about testing diesel exhaust on monkeys is another such occasion. Two of the supplementary essays in the Linzey book touch on this question of the morally unschooled science-mind. One of them, ‘Is “Necessity” a Useful Concept in Animal Research Ethics?’, shows how that slippery concept is used by the research community and its apologists as a sort of alibi or substitute for real ethical attention. The other, Katy Taylor’s excellent study of the utilitarian calculus, ‘Harms versus Benefits’, considers (sceptically) the notion that doing these calculations (in so far as they are done, or even can be), at least gets researchers “to simply consider the ethics of what they are doing.”

It’s a problem which will assume ever more urgency as science grows in scope and authority. Certainly it can’t be solved simply by direct action, but at least for the fourteen years to date of the Oxford campaign, no-one using the University’s science area can have been unaware of the existence of moral values more ambitious than their own or at least than their institution’s. The years of banners, whistles, amplified commentary, crowds, vigils, earnest human attention, have made sure of that.

Yes, direct action may pass into illegality, in a way that lectures and formal debates almost never do. In fact the tactics of the police and of the University’s security service were almost certainly designed to make anything done on behalf of the animal cause outdoors look illegal in itself, or likely to be illegal at any moment. And this is no doubt largely why the introduction to the Linzeys’ book hurries rather briefly over the modern phase of the Oxford controversy; why also, though it kindly mentions VERO (and I hope that VERO has indeed played a worthwhile part in the story), it does not mention by name the group which initiated, orchestrated, and led SPEAK banners at WDAIL.jpgthe most active of the protests throughout, and is still there on the street making the case against vivisection outside the new laboratory: that is, SPEAK, ‘the voice for the rights of animals’.

This blog has already covered the subject of law-breaking (15 January 2016, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’). I shall only say here that in the anniversary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when the suffragettes are being remembered with admiration and gratitude, I don’t hear it said that their criminal offences against property discredited the cause or the women’s reputations. It was said very often at the time, as it is said now about animal rights militancy. Well, let us wait until the animal cause too is won and has become orthodoxy; then we can more confidently decide what we think about the people who took its risks and paid its penalties.


Notes and references:

The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, is published by University of Illinois Press, 2018. Quotations are from pp.2 & 149.

The quotation from Henry Acland is part of the evidence he gave to the Royal Commission of 1875-6: see Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.47-8. The Ruskin quotation is from his letter to the Pall Mall Gazette explaining his resignation, reprinted in the Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-12, vol.33, p.lvi. The comment on his lecturing was made by the historian J.R.Green in the Saturday Review in 1870, reprinted in his Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901 (p.265).

J.M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is quoted from the Vintage edition of 2004, p.80. Chapters 3 and 4 of this novel recount Elizabeth Costello’s experiences as a visiting lecturer speaking about the rights and sufferings of animals. It’s a brilliant and profound piece of writing.

The illustrations show a demonstration in Broad Street (note the tourist bus viewing the principal sights of Oxford), an injunction notice outside the laboratory in South Parks Road (the cameras seen on the left followed me as I took this photograph), and a rally at the Mansfield Road side of the laboratory (this photo by Paul Freestone).

This blog’s review of ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable’ can be read here:

The post about law-breaking, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’, is here:



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