The Complete Vivisector

Out of the recent report from the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics[1] emerges a rounded portrait of the vivisector: the kinds of work he (or she) does, the arguments he and his apologists use to justify and privilege it, the things he has done when he didn’t know he was being watched, the language he uses to distance and objectify the animals, the laws and regulations which seem to inhibit but in fact protect him, and all the institutions which for one reason or another have an interest in his longevity, or think they do. And of course the 115 million or so animals every year who have to share the picture with him.

It’s not an impartial portrait, but then the subject of the report is the ethics of what he does, and the vivisector is really a “pre-ethical” character – so the report argues. The assumption about animals on which vivisection is founded – that their lives are ours to use as we will, with such welfare constraints as we think right – has been progressively discredited ever since Richard Ryder coined the word ‘speciesism’ for it. It was never a moral position. It was always what the pioneering vivisector Claude Bernard triumphantly said it was: a self-serving induration to the cries of other creatures – whether the “self” is the scientist or his species-client. Few of its apologists have liked to be as candid as Bernard, however, and the OCAE report shows how weak their rationalisations have therefore been. The 2006 Weatherall Report’s absurd “hospital fire thought experiment” is a memorable instance – a pretentious and confused bit of thinking, with the give-away facetiousness which speciesists habitually fall into when required to talk seriously about animals.[2]

In the absence of ethical support, then, what has kept vivisection publicly respectable is the “normalising” mentioned in the report’s title: all the shorings-up which it gets from the law, big business, the media and so on, but above all from the prestige of modern science. Somewhere in a 16th century drama by Sir David Lyndsay called Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, a priest answers the charges being brought against his Church – then an institution with prestige of the sort science has now – by saying (as translated from the Scots), “But if it was wrong, we wouldn’t be doing it!” It’s a fine and convincing, or at least coercive, argument inside a profession, and outside it too, if the profession has authority there. In the case of vivisection, the OCAE report demolishes it.

The style of the report is not as pugnacious or ad hominem as all this may suggest. Its authors prefer, for instance, the term ‘animal experimentation’ to the more graphic ‘vivisection’. They deal almost exclusively with the UK scene, where the practice is at its most strictly regulated (which is not to say that the regulations are strictly enforced); it can therefore be supposed to represent vivisection at its most defensible. The report even responds patiently to such ancient knock-outs as ‘Why should a meat-eating society bother about the far fewer animals in laboratories?’ and ‘Didn’t the Nazis prohibit animal research?’

The OCAE report was commissioned by Cruelty Free International (formerly the BUAV). Two such institutions would not be expected to give a friendly account of the practice, but this is a fully researched and referenced piece of work, well-argued and also very well-written. It relates vivisection to all the most recent ethical and scientific thought affecting (and subverting) it, and needs to be read by anyone who thinks the subject matters – even more so by those who don’t. It can be found on the OCAE web-site. If you haven’t time to read it all, read the summary at pages 70-72.

1] Normalising the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Animals in Research, a report by the Working Group of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey, 88pp, 2015. [It is now published in The Ethical Case Against Animals, ed. Andrew and Clair Linzey, University of Illinois Press, 2018, but can also be found online at]

[2] The subject of the Weatherall Report was the use of non-human primates in research. The OCAE report provides a thorough critique of its “thought experiment” at paras 6.40 – 6.47.