Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

The 'Via Media' in Experimentation

Vegetarian Review, July 1896

This book1 may be briefly described as an Interview writ large—a method capable, perhaps, of useful extension in literature. The Leigh Browne Trust, an institution endowed for the encouragement of humane research, asks Sir Benjamin Richardson nine questions, all bearing on the subject of scientific experimentation on animals; and he, after taking his own time to consider the matter, writes a book of nine chapters by way of answer. In effect, the Leigh Browne Trust has “interviewed” Sir Benjamin Richardson, and a very interesting and valuable interview it is, discussing, in an esoteric and oracular sort of tone, what we unscientific people are accustomed to call, in common parlance, the question of vivisection.

This question can be looked at from two great standpoints, that of principle, and that of utility. As far as the latter is concerned, Sir Benjamin Richardson’s book is very largely on the side of the anti-vivisectionists, for he shows, with the authority of his great personal experience, the uselessness, and worse than uselessness, of nine-tenths of all painful experiments on animals. “Pain,” he says “as a disturbing influence, is of so serious a character, that, quite apart from sentiment on the matter, it were, I think, best to exclude it altogether. It cannot guide; it must deceive. I doubt whether there is one experimental statement announced through phenomena of pain that is reliable. No two human beings give the same definition of the pains to which they are subjected. How, then, can signs of pain in experiment be booked with any accuracy by an observer who does not feel them, or yield any practical result?” The importance of this judgment, coming from such a quarter, is obvious, and it will doubtless be largely used by anti-vivisectionists for fortifying the practical side of the humanitarian position. The fifth chapter, in particular, on “The Natural Method of Prevention of Disease,” is admirable in its wisdom; and what could be better than this passage in the Introduction? “For the positive wants of man, the torture of animals is altogether unnecessary a remnant of an ancient barbarism, when man, a savage animal, found it requisite to hunt animals and to circumvent the cunning of creatures of a lower nature, in order that he and his might subsist on what he captured. For the wants of man, the slaughter of animals, for food, is equally unnecessary, a slur on Science that she cannot save man the expense and trouble of making the herbivora the laboratories of the carnivora, and cannot by her own skill produce all the necessities of sustenance out of the first fruits of the earth.”

But when we turn from the view of utility to the view of principle—that is to say, from the less important to the more important view—we find, to our disappointment, that we can no longer claim Sir Benjamin Richardson as an ally. While admitting the futility of nearly all the actual practices of the physiologist, he yet reserves for him, as a matter of principle, the right to vivisect—” an exceptional power for an exceptional benefit, a benefit extending not to man alone, but to all sentient existence.” Now I want to point out the curious fact that in this sentence, and indeed throughout his whole book, Sir Benjamin Richardson never once faces the real moral question which is at issue between vivisectionists and anti-vivisectionists, viz. the rightness or wrongness of the infliction of vicarious torture. Vicarious suffering is a very different thing from voluntary suffering yet he appears ingenuously to confuse them when he remarks that “perhaps it may be argued that man, endowed with feeling equal to his wisdom and knowledge might, exceptionally, exercise his authority for the infliction of pain on himself or on lower beings, for the sake of sound research.” On himself, or on lower beings! The alternative pops in so innocently; yet how vast an assumption it contains! To say that “all sentient existence” may derive benefit from the torture deliberately inflicted on one individual, is a grimly humorous assertion, since it excepts from the fortunate “all” the person who is most vitally concerned in the matter—to wit, the victim himself! Have we a moral right thus to doom one being to a terrible fate, in the hope that other beings may profit thereby? That is the true point at issue, and that is the point which Sir Benjamin Richardson has overlooked.

Yet it is evident that until this question is fairly faced, no adequate discussion of the ethics of vivisection is possible. If it is wrong to do a thing at all, the case is not mended by pleading that it need only be done “exceptionally,” or that the advantages that may accrue from it are more than usually great. If there be such a thing as moral principle, what can be the relevance of urging the amount of benefit to be gained by disregarding that principle? If, on the contrary, there is, in this matter, no such thing as principle, then it is equally superfluous to labour the plea of utility. When Sir Benjamin Richardson, after discoursing on the horrors of cancer, concludes that “every experiment, hitherto performed for the prevention or cure of this disease, has been, when carried out with a true and honest intention, a justifiable experiment,” it seems to me that he is practically asserting that, in the treatment of disease, there is no law but Expediency; his argument cuts at the root of Morals. Indeed his position seems in this respect to be on even lower moral ground than that of the orthodox physiologists, for whereas they do at least believe, in the blindness of their bigotry, that painful experiments are “indispensable,” and that there is no other scientific method than the one to which they are committed, he, on the contrary, is fully aware that “experiment may be expedient, it is not indispensable.” It is the expedient, and the expedient only, that he has studied in this book.

Sir Benjamin Richardson speaks very deprecatingly of “sentiment,” but there are one or two points which he himself treats in a most sentimental manner. He idealizes the profession of physiology to the extent of claiming for scientists a quite extraordinary position of privilege which no free or democratic society could possibly concede to them. The conscientiousness of the vivisector differentiates him, it is argued from others who inflicts torture on the animals. “The comparison is ignoble,” says Sir Benjamin Richardson. “Men of science ought to be as much above the trafficking in sport or slaughter as goodness is above evil, learning above ignorance, wisdom above superstition. Scientists are neither vermin-catchers, sportsmen, nor butchers.” Now it might be replied that the comparison would be as much disdained by the other parties as by the vivisector; a butcher, for example, might very properly protest that though compelled to earn his livelihood by killing animals he would scorn to torture them for experiment. But passing over this, and admitting that there is in the physiologist a conscientiousness which is wanting in the sportsman, this cannot exempt an individual, or a class, from the control of society where the interests of others are concerned—nay, the very deliberateness might be held to make the case more serious. The “conscientiousness” of some anarchists and political desperadoes is admitted, but what then? the argument does not carry us very far.

I scarcely know how to speak of Sir Benjamin Richandson’s strange contention that the vivisectional experimentalists, whom he seems to regard as sacro-sanct, should not be subject to law; for even if it were a mere question of professional capacity, he has himself shattered and riddled such a claim beforehand, by his very destructive criticism of the methods of physiology. “The insult to medicine is unpardonable,” because the vivisector has to ask for a licence like a publican! “A true and earnest physiologist requires no hand of the law to be kept over him.”

But why the physiologist in particular? There seems no conceivable reason, except sentiment and a very odd sentiment, for putting the physiologist on this unique pedestal of virtue. The whole idea that subjection to law is an “indignity” is antiquated and untenable; and the vivisection law, however unsatisfactory its working may be in some respects, has at least this to be said for it, that it, establishes the sound principle that the infliction of torture is not a private matter to be settled between the physiologist and his victim, but one which very closely concern society at large. If there were no moral principle at stake—if it were merely a professional question of adopting a wise or an unwise line of research—then it might fairly be said, Why trammel the physiologist? But as it is, the question is a public one, fraught with momentous moral issues, and the grip which the State has at last laid in the hands of the vivisector is not in the least likely to be relaxed.

Very strange too, is Sir Benjamin Richardson’s protest against what he calls “the infliction of the torture of sentiment, put forth too freely by the friends of animals, and addressed to men who, under a solemn and sincere sense of duty, feel it expedient to experiment upon living creatures.” When one reflects what is involved in this experimentation, and the utter helplessness of the living beings thereby subjected to the most excruciating forms of vicarious suffering, it seems odd that the scientists who do these things should be pained in their sensitive hearts when they hear what others think of them, or that they should need the protection of Sir Benjamin Richardson against the cruel people who call cruelty cruel. Really it is a serious outlook for the unfortunate animals, if we are to have a class of vivisecting scientists so conscientious that they cannot condescend to be licensed, and so tender-hearted that they cannot bear to be criticized. Of all the “sentiment” that has been talked on the subject of vivisection, I know of nothing more sentimental than this. In conclusion, and herein perhaps lies the gist of the whole matter, it is to be regretted that so distinguished a man of science as Sir Benjamin Richardson should have adopted the very unscientific argument of the “via media.” It is always effective, in the eyes of the majority of readers to take the “middle course,” and keep philosophically clear of the so-called “falsehood of extremes.” But unfortunately the truth does not always lie between two extremes. It may do so; it often does so; but the proverb which assumes that it always does so has brought many a philosopher to grief. There are cases where the verdict of Time as absolutely and unequivocally endorses one “extremist” view as it condemns the other. To represent oneself, then, in the question of vivisection, as standing between two sets of “sentimentalists,” and as “anxious to bring about a reconciliation between extremists of both schools,” is plausible rather than convincing; for such a position is not necessarily a sign that its holder is right in his judgment, but merely that he does not feel strongly enough on the subject to step into the fray. Nor do I see anything more in Sir Benjamin Richardson’s abstention from the heat and fire of the vivisection controversy than an indication of his personal habit of mind; it does not qualify him to speak with any greater authority on the moral question under debate. “Furious controversy is fatal,” he thinks, “to the proper settlement of any question.” Does history show this? There was furious controversy in the struggle over negro slavery in America; yet that settlement, which involved the absolute triumph of the abolitionists and the total prohibition of slave-holding, was surely a proper one.

The “via media” argument may be a useful bit of rhetoric; but it will not impress those who look beneath the surface in these matters, and take a rational view of the problem of experimental torture.

1 “Biological Experimentation; its Function and Limits,” including answers to Nine Questions submitted from the Leigh Browne Trust. By Sir B. W. Richardson, M.D., F.R.S. (George Bell and Sons, 1896).

Henry S. Salt