It might be thought that the last thing that twenty-first century Britain needs is more feeling for animals. The popular press is awash with sentimental animal stories of love and devotion and/or cruelty and neglect, designed to tug at our heartstrings or arouse angry indignation. Of course, we hardly expect scientists to be subject to such passions. Science is a privileged enclave from which normal emotional responses are excluded, and has been since at least the early-twentieth century, when it became acceptable for its practitioners to claim that, as Shaw stated ironically, ‘as a Man of Science you are beyond good and evil’.1 Thus, while no scientist wanted to perform vivisection, those who considered it necessary refused to allow personal feelings to get in the way. The ability to suppress one’s natural sense of compassion became something of a test for those embarking on a career in medical science , and they seem at times to have been proud of the objectivity they managed to achieve; or perhaps, as Vyvyan put it, ‘scientists will go to any length to avoid feeling what they know’.2

Since the nineteenth century, the main justification for vivisection has been utility. The traditional Christian teachings that animals lack souls , and that human dominion over them is divinely ordained, certainly did not help their cause, but any tendency for these doctrines to encourage the exploitation of laboratory animals has to be weighed against the efforts of many dedicated anti-vivisection campaigners who were inspired by their Christian faith. The laboratory animal’s tormentors were materialistic utilitarians, not Bible-believing Christians .

My judgement on their experiments, for what it is worth, is that the vast majority would have failed present day utilitarian criteria such as those proposed by Singer .3 Of course, some were medically useful, a few led to very significant developments in medical practice, and only rarely (despite what anti-vivisectionists liked to claim) did extrapolation of results from animals to humans lead to dangerous error—for the most part, laboratory mammals tend to behave physiologically in a way very similar to ourselves. Most experiments on animals carried out during the period covered by this book were not, of course, groundbreaking scientific studies, but demonstrations, repeat experiments, and routine tests. With regard to novel investigative research on animals, however, the historical record does nothing to substantiate extreme views that either it reliably produced medical breakthroughs, or that no good ever came of it.

What the history of the anti-vivisection movement does demonstrate, is that utility has not always been the main issue, and that many early anti-vivisectionists ignored it altogether. Their motivation lay in their concerns that vivisection would exert a demoralising effect on individual experimenters, and on society as a whole. The potential benefits to medical knowledge, and whether the animals used were physiologically, intellectually, or spiritually comparable to ourselves, were issues of lesser importance than the feeling that inflicting pain on helpless creatures was a morally dangerous business. It was the fear that vivisection would promote a more brutal society that united people of diverse backgrounds in opposition to it, from the poor who feared being experimented on themselves, to the rich, who worried that the example of cruelty set by the professional classes might spread to the unlearned and precipitate them down a slippery slope to moral anarchy.

At a time when the opponents of vivisection concern themselves almost exclusively with the rights and interests of animals (a subject with its own lengthy history), it is salutary to recall that the radical Animals’ Friend Society ’s five objections to vivisection did not mention animals at all: according to them, it was a moral failing, created public animosity against scientists, fostered cruelty towards humans, diverted charity away from human causes, and offended God. On these principals was built an anti-cruelty movement unequalled anywhere in the world.

Of the five objections, two might currently be accepted without demur: vivisection has certainly created animosity against scientists (some of whom have been the victims of violent attacks) and it probably diverts charitable efforts away from human causes (for some reason, it is anti-vivisectionists who tend to be blamed for this). The claim that vivisection promotes cruelty to humans is perhaps best regarded as unproven, though the link between cruelty to animals in general and violence towards humans is now well established. There has been no official pronouncement from any major religious denomination on whether vivisection offends God, despite the efforts, in recent years, of a growing number of animal theologians. What is curious is that the objection that vivisection is a moral failing on the part of the perpetrator, which was first on the list in the nineteenth century, is, nowadays, probably the most likely to be overlooked.

How did something that was once so important come to be so neglected? The declining interest in virtue ethics , especially in academic circles (where it is now enjoying something of a renaissance), has perhaps been partly responsible, as has an increased focus on the animals themselves, and in particular their rights and interests. So dominant has this approach become that it now seems somewhat strange to worry about the effect that vivisection has on us as humans.

One advantage of taking an anthropocentric view is that it does not matter whether animals have rights, or even feelings. Modern environmental ethics has, after all, been built on a foundation of human virtue: plants and landscapes do not have rights or feelings, but it is wrong to destroy them selfishly to serve one’s own interests. When we hear of the environment being thoughtlessly damaged, we may well ask ourselves ‘what sort of person would do a thing like that?’4 It is the question that nineteenth-century anti-cruelty campaigners demanded of vivisectionists. At the very least, they expected them to undertake their work in a spirit of honesty, humility and mercy, and not be casual, uncaring, self-righteous or cruel.5

Apart from very rare cases of experimenters, notably Magendie , who did seem to be thoroughly heartless, the vast majority of scientists were, and are, determined to behave responsibly. They did not enjoy, and may positively have disliked, vivisection, and could suppress their natural emotional response to it only because a dispassionate attitude that would have been considered callous in everyday life was permitted, and even expected, among medical scientists. For a profession that allowed its practitioners to set conventional moral norms aside, Vyvyan ’s question—‘To whom or what is a scientist responsible?’—became a crucial one.6

The practical answer was ‘to him- or herself’, because medical scientists, as educated people with privileged access to knowledge, were expected to self-regulate, an oxymoronic concept that led to the carte blanche conclusion that nothing could be cruel provided it was scientific. For many anti-vivisectionists, the exact reverse was true: morality came first, and nothing morally wrong could be scientifically right. For them, the vivisectors’ claim that they were excused from moral guilt because they were engaged in science was an inversion of the proper order: the deep understanding of the world that constituted ‘true’ science would, they believed, preclude its possessors from trying to wrest nature’s secrets out of her by brute force.7

We may now take it for granted that scientists are detached, objective, and unemotional, and that they are permitted to do things in the laboratory that would be socially unacceptable, illegal, or even damnable if done outside it, but in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when the philosophical and ethical rules of conduct for laboratory medicine were being laid down, it was not a foregone conclusion that amoral (or immoral) materialism would win out. In fact, the acceptance of animal experimentation in medicine represented an ethical break with the past, as the compassion and sensitivity that had characterised the medical gentleman were supplanted by the persona of the cool, impassive, white-coated medical scientist. Indeed, in a remarkable volte-face, emotion came to be seen as self-indulgent and unmanly, feelings as undesirable, and intuition as a methodological failing. Organizations such as the OGA that sought to preserve the role of the spirit and emotions in science became an increasingly marginalised voice, part of an alternative (sub)culture of utopian reformers, vegetarians, visionaries, and radicals.

The obvious heirs to this countercultural movement were the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s, with their ethos of pacifism , spirituality, syncretism and environmentalism, and there is enough common ground—the influence of transcendentalism , Eastern religions, Swedenborgianism , Unitarianism and theosophy, and the granting of equivalent legitimacy to laboratory experiments and subjective experience—to see the new age movement of the 1960s as a resurgence of the programme pursued by Oldfield and other reformers almost a century before, revived by a post-war generation after memories of the unfortunate association between the back-to-nature movement and National Socialism had faded. Anti-vivisection was revived too, though its wartime taint of disloyalty and subversion had perhaps not entirely been forgotten.

From the early history of British anti-vivisection emerge two points of relevance to us today: that medical practitioners thought from the first that vivisection was incompatible with the humane ethos of their profession, and that the objectivity of science was a contested construct. Medical practitioners in the nineteenth century felt that vivisection was wrong because it repelled them. They were prepared to accept emotions as evidence, and to situate their professional work in the wider context of their beliefs, something that the promoters of a morally neutral laboratory culture were determined to make unacceptable.

Theirs, of course, was the view that prevailed: there never were many medics who actually performed vivisection, but 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. It may encourage future dissenters to note that the conception of science as beyond morality is a comparatively recent, debatable, and perhaps ephemeral, one. Possibly no one ever can truly reach a state where they could look upon vivisection unfeelingly, and if they could, they would have lost their humanity.

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!

Perhaps, in my lifetime, vivisection will be confined to history. Attitudes constantly change, and within living memory, experiments were carried out in the name of science (perhaps science is not such a civilising influence after all) that most scientists would find unacceptable, even abhorrent, today. Moral judgements cannot be reliably applied retrospectively; since the nineteenth century, the scope and influence of medical science has increased beyond all bounds, and there will always be fresh ethical challenges to be faced. It takes time to find the right answers, particularly when our capacity to do surpasses our capacity to know. The vigour with which our predecessors engaged in the vivisection debate was a sign of an impressive intellectual and moral commitment from participants on both sides to do the right thing. We owe them our gratitude, and their arguments our attention.

FormalPara Notes
  1. 1.

    George Bernard Shaw, ‘These scoundrels!,’ Sunday Express, 7 August 1927 (Shaw 1927).

  2. 2.

    Vyvyan, In Pity, 20.

  3. 3.

    Singer, ‘Animals and the Value of Life’.

  4. 4.

    Matt Zwolinski and David Schmidtz, ‘Environmental virtue ethics: what it is, and what it needs to be’, in Daniel C. Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 221–239, on p. 224 (Zwolinski and Schmidtz 2012).

  5. 5.

    Compare Oakley’s discussion of induced abortion: ‘Virtue ethics’, 209.

  6. 6.

    Vyvyan, In Pity, 44.

  7. 7.

    Li, ‘An unnatural alliance?’.