He that has Humanity

One of the reasons for the great increase in experiments on animals after the Second World War (five times as many in 1971 as in 1946) was the thorough-going institutionalization of the LD50 toxicity test. That disgusting method of finding what dose of a drug, or other substance of use to humans, will kill half of the test animals – a technique which merely by itself should have been enough to discredit the whole animal-research project – is not, you’ll be relieved to know, the subject of this post. But it seems that one of the assistants to Dr J.W. Trevan, the scientist who devised the method in the 1920s, subsequently celebrated the achievement by acquiring for his car the number-plate LD50. Here’s a showy instance, then, of science failing to rise to the ethical occasion, or even to notice it, and this at least fifty years after the Royal Commission of 1876 had spoken feelingly (for a government publication, anyway) of “the claim of the lower animals to be treated with humane consideration, and . . . the right of the community to be assured that this claim shall not be forgotten amid the triumphs of advancing science.”

That number-plate is mentioned in a recent history of the vivisection controversy, Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain by A.W.H. Bates. A part of the book’s theme is exactly that failure of science to rise to the ethical problem set to it by bates covervivisection – the failure of science or the science establishment rather than scientists in general, because Bates shows (what is evident also in the evidence put before the 1876 Royal Commission) that many of the opponents of vivisection in its earlier days were individual doctors. Bates himself is a medical doctor and professor of pathology, and can therefore feel, from within medical practice, the perplexity or even indignation of the healer who has to give with one hand what he’s stolen with the other.

Or if not stolen, at least been accessory to the theft of: not many doctors have themselves been vivisectors, because laboratory research was an occupation distinct from healing well before animals had become a common part of the equipment for it. But since the 1870s, vivisection has been the premise of orthodox medical science and training. Every British doctor has therefore been implicated in it. Writing of the period up to 1970 (but the situation has not noticeably changed since then), Bates says

all were taught in medical schools that it was indispensable for knowledge, and that those who opposed it were enemies of science. To speak out was disloyalty, and medical students and young researchers (as I know from experience) went along with the culture of animal experimentation because to dissent was heresy. [200]

As to those early days of vivisection in the UK, Bates does not picture a doctor’s dilemma, a painful choice between two hard positions, for he believes that the medical profession had an established ethic which ought to have made its way clear. The clue is in that word used by the Commissioners, ‘humane’. For Bates (and for the Commissioners too, I hope), it’s not a vague term of moral approval. He gets out the Oxford Dictionary and insists on the word’s proper definition: “such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man” (the medical scene at that time was indeed populated almost exclusively by men). What behaviour or disposition, then, particularly befits a doctor? If compassion and the will to heal, or at least – translating from the original Hippocratic Oath – to ‘abstain from all intentional wrong or harm’, are to be part of it, then, so it seemed to many doctors in the mid-nineteenth century, “vivisection was not something that a doctor ought to do”. More largely it was “incompatible with the humane ethos of their profession.” (These two quotations come from the first and the second-to-last pages of the book, and the whole story in between is told with reference to this conviction.)

That sort of moral thinking, based on the idea of what “befits” a human, would now be called ‘virtue ethics’. Dr Bates rightly traces it to the philosophy of Aristotle, but whether academically codified or used by a sort of informal instinct, it has always been the standard moral reference in life and in literature. “I dare do all that may become a man,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, defending himself from his wife’s accusation of cowardice; “Who dares do more is none.” And as the story of Macbeth shows, human character has this dynamic quality to it, that it is revised by its own choices, so that virtue becomes steadily less or more natural, less or more possible, to it. And likewise this was always the principal reference in the case against vivisection, until well into the twentieth century: as Samuel Johnson had said, its “horrid operations” would “tend to harden the heart and make the physician more dreadful than the gout or the stone.” [21]

And not just the medical profession would be affected; opponents argued that society as a whole would be corrupted by the practice. It was this latter conviction which, so the courts decided in 1895, entitled the anti-vivisection Victoria Street Society to its charitable status: the Society’s aim was, or at least included, the good of humanity. And the Society did indeed state that its primary inspiration was “a conviction that the spread of mercy was the great cause of civilization.” [46]

Dr Bates shows how well-established the ‘virtue’ tradition of thought was when vivisection first came to the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. He quotes the British Medical Journal itself endorsing it: “Let there be no mistake about it: the man who habituates himself to the shedding of blood, and who is insensible to the sufferings of animals, is led on into the path of baseness.” [21] And of course the proponents of vivisection attempted often enough to defend their case on that same ground. They insisted on the fine character of the practitioner in general (“the best people in the country”, said Sir William Gull) and of each other’s in particular (“I do not anywhere know a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, one of his colleagues told the Royal Commissioners, speaking of the editor of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory of 1873). Conversely, they disparaged the characters of their opponents, notably for their want of manliness (“old ladies of both sexes” [21]). For of course what constitutes virtue is always a contestable matter, even though the consensus seems to have changed surprisingly little since Aristotle’s days.

Anyway, those attempts at virtue ethics were improvisations only. After all, animal research had come about for purely technical reasons, as a means of research; it had not been ethically argued into being, nor much questioned within the profession thereafter. In fact, as the controversy over Professor Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook showed, the professionals were wholly unprepared for the moral indignation aroused by their work: he himself admitted, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft.”

But an ethic of sorts, or a substitute for it, was at hand, and was soon fixed into law by the Cruelty to Animals Act, passed immediately after the Royal Commission had reported. What looked like cruelty would be all right provided it produced or might produce some commensurate benefit: the more “horrid” the operation (vivisection of dogs, for instance, or absence of anaesthesia), the more attention had to be paid to this notional benefit (that is, special certificates would be required). So the problem of what people ought to do, as doctors, as Christians, as humans, which was how the anti-vivisectionists put the matter, was countered with a sort of calculus: indeed, utilitarianism has sometimes been called ‘the felicific calculus’ (counting happiness). Of course, only the scientist can say what the benefit will or may be: he or she owns the crucial half of the computation. So when the Oxford professor and champion of vivisection Ray Lankester promised in a public lecture of 1905 that eventually, through bioscience, “man can get rid of pain and unhappiness”, such an enormous and alluring benefit made almost any cost acceptable, and nobody could say that it wasn’t possible.

Utilitarianism remains the core ethical principle in modern medicine: “Bioethics as currently taught in British medical schools is unlikely to stress the importance of the physician’s humane character; as anyone who works in a teaching hospital will know, medical students and junior doctors are trained to seek the greatest benefit for the largest number; and to their utilitarian hammer, everything looks like a nail.” [2] By that last image, I think Dr Bates means that there is nothing that has to be regarded as falling outside the calculus, no absolute yes or no in conduct. The implications of this had been noticed by C.S. Lewis when he was writing on the subject in 1947: “the victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as the animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements.” 1947 was the year, incidentally, in which the courts, conforming to the spirit of the age, revised their 1895 decision, and took charitable status away from the anti-vivisection organisations.

Dr Bates shows how thoroughly this “materialistic utilitarianism” did indeed represent “an ethical break with the past” [199]. In fact he argues that the term ‘anti-vivisection’ is an unfortunate misnomer. It implies “protest, negativity and perhaps even rejection of progress”, whereas the movement was really a defence of positive human values against a sudden and novel assault. And it wasn’t the voice of a non-conformist minority: There was never a time in Britain when there were more people active in support of vivisection than against it, and in the nineteenth century the antis raised petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures, more than for any other cause of the time.” [14]

Nor were they simply appealing to an old moral orthodoxy. Against the obduracy, even bumptiousness, of the utilitarian, with his LD50 number-plate, they brought a flourishing moral idealism. They not only made sure of a continual argument (repetitive certainly, but philosophically fertile too); they also showed, as many of their successors have since discovered for themselves, that thinking or being made to think about our proper relations to other animals is the best, perhaps the only, way to make sense of our own place in the world. Dr Bates shows it happening: for instance in the thought of Josiah Oldfield, founder of anti-vivisection hospitals and other like-minded projects, who wrote rhapsodically in 1898, “The higher the man, . . . the more reverence he has for his fellow traveller – a true brother in the eyes of science – on the same spiral pathway of vitality, towards a perfection of evolution.” [86] All of us animals “on the same spiral pathway of vitality”! It’s a dream, perhaps, but an inspiring guide also, and there’s certainly nothing ‘anti’ about it.

Bates’s history shows, in fact, that anti-vivisection continually won the argument, but that the science establishment, working in particular through the British Medical Association and the Research Defence Society, had the influence and therefore won the politics. But he ends his account in 1970, just before the argument re-blossomed in the most astonishing way, with the publication of Animals, Men and Morals, and all that came after it. The subsequent ascendancy of the ‘rights’ idea, supported by the new science of animal sentience, has given anti-vivisection very great additional authority, if not much additional success.

However, Bates believes that the ‘virtue’ argument shouldn’t be let go. He points out that the five decisive objections to vivisection put forward by the Animals’ Friends Society (set up in 1833 by the saintly Lewis Gompertz) “did not mention animals at all.” [197] It was enough, even for that pioneering vegan who refused to travel in horse-drawn vehicles, to insist that the practice was bad for humans. And Dr Bates concludes that “For ethicists, the most important lesson from history is that it is possible to construct a coherent and effective case against vivisection in which neither utilitarianism nor animal rights needs feature prominently!” [200]

It’s an unconventional, perhaps perverse, conclusion but, as I’ve mentioned, this is a practising doctor speaking, with an ideal of the healer in mind. And we might all agree with him to this extent, that a line of moral thinking which has kept human savagery intermittently in check for millennia should indeed be held on to for the animals’ sake as well as our own. “I would not enter on my list of friends,” says William Cowper in his long meditative poem The Task (1785, Book VI, l.560),

                                                . . . the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush a snail,
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarn’d,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.

We don’t need, then, to argue whether worms or snails (‘reptiles’ for Cowper, from the Latin repere, meaning ‘to creep’) can feel pain, nor to set up experiments to find out for sure. All those researches into the intelligence or sentience of our fellow-animals are beside the point. An ideal of ‘humanity’ will by itself teach us how to treat them – better still (a point on which utilitarianism is silent) why to want to treat them well, supposing we need a reason for that.


Notes and references:

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the magnificent Animal Ethics series edited by Andrew Linzey. There are 37 titles in the series to date, but this volume is only the second of them to deal just with vivisection. Note also that the book is free to read online at https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2F978-1-137-55697-4.pdf.

Quotations from the book here, including instances where the author is quoting others, are given page numbers in square brackets. Other quotations are referenced below.

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO, 1876) is quoted at pp. xxi, 266 (Gull), 75 (character of Dr Sanderson), 118 (lay criticism of the Handbook).

Ray Lankester is quoted in E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern Biology, Joe Lester, British Society for the History of Science, 1995, p.175.

The essay Vivisection by C.S. Lewis was first published as a pamphlet by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in 1947, but can be found re-printed in various selections of his essays and lectures.

The interesting cover illustration is credited to “Peter Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo”. Evidently it wasn’t commissioned for this book, and it has its own take on vivisection in the early twentieth century, noticeably different from the author’s.