C.S. Lewis’ Anti-Vivisection Argument

I had to schlep to the library my alma mater, UC Davis, to find C.S. Lewis’ essay, “Vivisection.”640px-UCDavis_PeterJShieldsLibrary
Above: The UC Davis Shields Library, photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

In other words, it took some effort to track it down, which is why I am posting the essay online. I found the essay included in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (pp. 693-697).

I first became aware of the essay through its mention in an excellent recent biography of Lewis authored by Alister McGrath, called, C.S. Lewis A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.
Above: C.S. Lewis enters The Wardrobe: Statue in Belfast, Ireland (his birthplace), photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The entire essay called “Vivisection” was difficult to come by. I could find the piece locally neither in a library nor bookstore, and not only, it was difficult for me (and therefore would be for others, I assume) to find, I am posting the essay online without permission, in order that it can be read for the widest number of people as possible. I do not endorse the reproduction of this material for the use of financial gain, and do not intend to maliciously violate any copyright laws.

Those who may be tempted to call C.S. Lewis an animal rights activist are, to my mind, getting to wrong. In fact, the essay highlights not the argument against any experimentation or testing on animals, but that the testing on what may be considered “lower” creatures actually creates a pathway to experimenting on humans who are not in a position to protect themselves.
Above: An unidentified prisoner is experimented on during World War II, in Japan, photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Written in 1946, he points out the chilling truth that humans have been experimented on already, especially in the German concentration camps of World War II. Lewis implies that the moral justification for incarcerating and torturing these imprisoned peoples was that they were considered lower than humans: they were thought of as animals.

[106] Vivisection

This first appeared as a pamphlet from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (Boston, 1947), and was reprinted in England by the National Anti-Vivisection Society in 1948. It was then reprinted in Undeceptions (1971) and First and Second Things (1985), and is now in Compelling Reasons (1998).

It is the rarest thing in the world to hear a rational discussion of vivisection. Those who disapprove of it are commonly accused of ‘sentimentality’, and very often their arguments justify the accusation. They paint pictures of pretty little dogs on dissecting tables. But the other side lie open to exactly the same charge. They also often defend the practice by drawing pictures of suffering women and children whose pain can be relieved (we are assured) only by the fruits of vivisection. The one appeal, quite as clearly as the other, is addressed to emotion, to the particular emotion we call pity. And neither appeal proves anything. If the thing is right – and if right at all, it is a duty – then pity for the animal is one of the temptations we must resist in order to perform that duty. If the thing is wrong, then pity for human suffering is precisely the temptation which will most probably lure us into doing that wrong thing. But the real question – whether it is right or wrong – remains meanwhile just where it was.

A rational discussion of this subject begins by inquiring whether pain is, or is not, an evil. If it is not, then the case against vivisection falls. But then so does the case for vivisection. If it is not defended on the ground that it reduces human suffering, on what ground can it be defended? And if pain is not an evil, why should human suffering be reduced? We must therefore assume as a basis for the whole discussion that pain is an evil, otherwise there is nothing to be discussed.

Now if pain is an evil then the infliction of pain, considered in itself, must clearly be an evil act. But there are such things as necessary evils. Some acts which would be bad, simply in themselves, may be excusable and even laudable when they are necessary means to a greater good. In saying that the infliction of pain, simply in itself, is bad, we are not saying that pain ought never to be inflicted. Most of us think that it can rightly be inflicted for a good purpose – as in dentistry or just and reformatory punishment. The point is that it always requires justification. On the man whom we find inflicting pain rests the burden of showing why an act which in itself would be simply bad is, in those particular circumstances, good. If we find a man giving pleasure it is for us to prove (if we criticise him) that his action is wrong. But if we find a man inflicting pain it is for him to prove that his action is right. If he cannot, he is a wicked man.

Now vivisection can only be defended by showing it to be right that one species should suffer in order that another species should be happier. And here we come to the parting of the ways. The Christian defender and the ordinary ‘scientific’ (i.e. naturalistic) defender of vivisection, have to take quite different lines.

The Christian defender, especially in the Latin countries, is very apt to say that we are entitled to do anything we please to animals because they ‘have no souls.’ But what does this mean? If it means that animals have no consciousness, then how is this known? They certainly behave as if they had, or at least the higher animals do. I myself am inclined to think that far fewer animals than is supposed have what we should recognise as consciousness. But that is only an opinion. Unless we know on other grounds that vivisection is right we must not take the moral risk of tormenting them on a mere opinion. On the other hand, the statement that they ‘have no souls’ may mean that they have no moral responsibilities and are not immortal. But the absence of ‘soul’ in that sense makes the infliction of pain upon them not easier but harder to justify. For it means that animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Thus all the factors which render pain more tolerable or make it less totally evil in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts. ‘Soullessness’, in so far as it is relevant to the question at all, is an argument against vivisection.

The only rational line for the Christian vivisectionist to take is to say that the superiority of man over beast is a real objective fact, guaranteed by Revelation, and that the propriety of sacrificing beast to man is a logical consequence. We are ‘worth more than many sparrows’ (Matthew 10:31), and in sayiing this we are not merely expressing a natural preference for our own species simply because it is our own but conforming to a hierarchical order created by God and really present in the universe whether anyone acknowledges it or not. The position may not be satisfactory. We may fail to see how a benevolent Deity could wish us to draw such conclusions from the hierarchical order He has created. We may find it difficult to formulate a human right of tormenting beasts in terms which would not equally imply an angelic right of tormenting men. And we may feel that though objective superiority is rightly claimed for men, yet that very superiority ought partly to consist in not behaving like a vivisector: that we ought to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us. But on all these questions different opinions can be honestly held. If on grounds of our real, divinely ordained, superiority a Christian pathologist thinks it is right to vivisect, and does so with scrupulous care to avoid the least dram or scruple of unnecessary pain, in a trembling awe at the responsibility which he assumes, and with a vivid sense of the high mode in which human life must be lived if it is to justify the sacrifices made for it, then (whether we agree with him or not) we can respect his point of view.

But of course the vast majority of vivisectors have no such theological background. They are most of them naturalistic and Darwinian. Now here, surely, we come up against a very alarming fact. The very same people who will most contemptuously brush aside any consideration of animal suffering if it stands in the way of ‘research’ will also, on another context, most vehemently deny that there is any radical difference between man and the other animals. On the naturalistic view the beasts are at bottom just the same sort of thing as ourselves. Man is simply the cleverest of the anthropoids. All the grounds on which a Christian must defend vivisection are thus cut from under our feet. We sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any objective metaphysical privilege over others, but simply because it is ours. It may be very natural to have this loyalty to our own species, but let us hear no more from the naturalists about the ‘sentimentality’ of anti-vivisectionists. If loyalty to our own species, preference for man simply because we are men, is not a sentiment, then what is? It may be a good sentiment or a bad one. But a sentiment it certainly is. Try to base it on logic and see what happens!

But the most sinister thing about modern vivisection is this. If a mere sentiment justifies cruelty, why stop at a sentiment for the whole human race? There is also a sentiment for the white man against the black, for a Herrenvolk [“Master Race”] against the non-Aryans, for ‘civilised’ or ‘progressive’ peoples against ‘savages’ or ‘backward’ peoples. Finally, for our own country, party or class against others. Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men. If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us and because we are backing up our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies or capitalists for the same reasons. Indeed, experiments on men have already begun. We all hear that Nazi scientists have done them. We all suspect that our own scientists may begin to do so, in secret, at any moment.

The alarming thing is that the vivisectors have won the first round. In the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries a man was not stamped as a ‘crank’ for protesting against vivisection. Lewis Carroll [1832-1898] protested, if I remember his famous letter correctly, on the very same ground which I have just used. (‘Vivisection as a Sign of the Times’, The Works of Lewis Carroll, ed. by Roger Lancelyn Green (London, 1965), pp. 1089-92. See also ‘Some Popular Fallacies about Vivisection’, ibid, pp. 1092-1100.) Dr. [Samuel] Johnson [1709-1784] – a man whose mind had as much iron in it as any man’s – protested in a note on Cymbeline which is worth quoting in full. In Act I, scene v, the Queen explains to the Doctor that she wants poisons to experiment on ‘such creatures as We count not worth the hanging – but none human’. (Shakespeare, Cymbeline, I, v, 19-20.) The Doctor replies:

Your Highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

(Shakespeare, Cymbeline, I, v, 23.)

Johnson comments: ‘The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.’ (Johnson on Shakespeare: Essays and Notes Selected and Set Forth with an Introduction by Sir Walter Raleigh (London 1908), p. 181.)

The words are his, not mine, and in truth we hardly dare in these days to use such calmly stern language. The reason why we do not dare is that the other side has in fact won. And though cruelty even to beasts is an important matter, their victory is symptomatic of matters more important still. 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 animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements. In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice.

You will notice I have spent no time in discussing what actually goes on in the laboratories. We shall be told, of course, that there is surprisingly little cruelty. That is a question with which, at present, I have nothing to do. We must first decide what should be allowed: after that is is for the police to discover what is already being done.


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