By Vernon Coleman

Winning The Moral And Ethical Arguments

The vivisectors say: Animals are merely 'things' which exist to be used by humankind.

The truth is: Rene Descartes, who propogated this theory with enthusiasm, is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in history and one of the greatest men of the seventeenth century, but he had massive blind spots. The biggest was probably his belief that because they had no immortal soul animals had no conscious life, no desires, no feelings and no emotions.

Animals, declared Descartes, with the enviable certainty of a man who is inspired by powerful religious prejudices, were no more entitled to respect or consideration than were clocks. He claimed that horses were no more 'alive' in the human sense than were the carriages they drew.

If Descartes had spent just a little more time looking around him and a little less time trying to understand the secrets of the universe, he would have known that he was wrong. If he had had enough common sense to talk to any child with a dog, cat or rabbit he would have learned the truth: that although it may be impossible for us to imagine precisely how animals do think, or what they think about, there cannot possibly be any doubt that they are capable of as much thought as many humans. Simple observations would have told Descartes that animals feel pain, suffer when they are sick, get bored, endure unhappiness and depression, grieve, mourn and can be driven mad by abuse.

Each member of the animal kingdom is different, but that does not mean that cats are any less alive than Frenchmen, or that dogs are any less deserving of our compassion than children. Even rats perhaps the most despised and least loved of laboratory animals are intelligent, alert and sociable animals. They can develop relationships with one another and with human beings and they quickly become bored and frustrated when imprisoned.

But Descartes did not look around him, and did not talk enough to children, and his theories rapidly became accepted as fact by a society which was always better at thinking up theories than it was at sustaining them with facts. Descartes was a powerful and influential member of the academic establishment and, most important of all, his beliefs fitted in comfortably with the beliefs of other scholars.

As the years went by so Cartesian logic spread throughout the scientific community and before long a scientist who wanted to look inside a cat would do so simply by nailing it to a board and cutting it open. He would ignore its squeals of protest as of little more significance than the squeaking of a rusty door hinge or a stiff axle. To a large extent, therefore, it was Descartes' crude, simplistic and undeniably inaccurate philosophy which led to the development of modem day vivisection.

In order to keep thinking of animals as 'things', rather than sensitive individuals, most researchers have developed the habit of talking and writing about the creatures they use in a totally impersonal way, often using a strange vocabulary to describe what they are doing. Researchers will, for example, refer to cats as 'preparations', will describe crying or miaowing as 'vocalisation' and will use phrases like 'nutritional insufficiency' instead of saying that animals starved to death. At least one group of researchers has used the term 'binocularly deprived' to describe domestic tabby kittens which they had deliberately blinded. When animals are finished with at the end of experiments they are frequently 'sacrificed' or 'subjected to euthanasia'. Maybe researchers do not like to remind themselves that they are killers.


The vivisectors say: Animals do not have rights.

The truth is: Researchers with a simple way of looking at the world will frequently argue that animals do not have any rights. When pushed they will explain that the sole purpose of animals is to make our lives easier. The furthest they will go towards accepting that animals deserve to be treated with respect is to say that human beings share a responsibility to ensure that animals are not subjected to unnecessary suffering. The word 'unnecessary' is, of course, impossible to define satisfactorily and very few active researchers will ever admit that any experiments have ever involved 'unnecessary' suffering.

This is, of course, the same elitist talk that graced the dinner tables of the pre-Wilberforce slave traders and it is the same sort of talk that still graces the (invariably) well stocked dinner tables of the exceptionally fortunate and heavily prejudiced. People, they will claim, are the centre of the universe; all else revolves around us. People, they argue, are entitled to do as they wish with the rest of the world. They will insist that if it were not for human beings animals would have no role to play on this earth. Animals, they say, exist. solely to provide people with food, clothing and pleasure. This arrogant attitude has been described as speciesism and condemned as cruel and insensitive, but these thoughts are widely held and are not easily overpowered by logic or any of the other tools of the intellectual.

The primitive mind which sees humankind as the sole purpose of creation, and the single reason for life, is unlikely to be swayed by anything which demands such subtle expressions of intelligence as reason, insight or humility.


The vivisectors say: Animal experiments are not illegal, so how can they be wrong?

The truth is: I am constantly saddened by the fact that there are still men and women around the world who regard themselves as reasonable well educated and of adequate intelligence but who can accept such a narrow, selfish and unforgiving argument. I confess that when I hear this argument aired I feel overcome by weariness and despair. "It is against the law to torture and maim human beings in the name of science but it is not against the law to do these things to animals, so where can be the objection?"

Who can possibly live with such an absurdly mechanistic approach to life? What is legal is not necessarily moral, any more than what is moral is necessarily legal. A few generations ago the legal status of a black person in America was roughly similar to that of a field of corn. The truth is that what is legally acceptable and what is morally acceptable are two very different things. Most of us would agree that it is immoral to threaten or frighten children unnecessarily but such acts when committed within a family unit, are rarely illegal. In some conditions rape may be considered legally acceptable. But does that make it morally right? Parking a car in the wrong place is illegal but does that make it immoral?

If we take 'legal rights equal moral rights' to its logical conclusion, consider what would happen if extra-terrestrials were to land on earth. Under our present law no one from outer space, however charming, gentle or peace loving, could be protected from brutality. We are the only species protected by the full force of the law. A research scientist would be perfectly entitled to perform experiments on an alien, secure in the knowledge that such actions were legally proper.

It is not difficult to find many other flaws in this often voiced but shallow and remarkably simple-minded argument. For example, are animals outside our law because they do not have souls? And if so how do we know that they do not have souls? And even if it were true that they did not have souls (and were therefore denied another life) why does that give us rights over the one life that they do have? And what about those individuals who believe in the theory of reincarnation? According to their beliefs, a scientist who chops up a mouse may be destroying a former relative of theirs. Are such beliefs wrong? Do they have no legal or moral standing? Are we entitled to make judgements about our neighbours' theological beliefs simply because a written law does not forbid a particular activity?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions and I pose them simply to make it clear that there can be no inevitable agreement between activities which are legally acceptable and those which are morally acceptable. But there is one final argument which, I think, makes it crystal clear that on balance it is dangerous to assume, as so many vivisectors do, that because their work is legal it must be moral and ethical. This final argument concerns the question of consent.

A researcher who wishes to experiment upon a human being must first obtain that individual's consent. Without consent any act of vivisection on a human being would be an illegal assault. But how can a researcher obtain consent from a monkey when planning an experiment? Although obtaining consent is impossible we do know that monkeys can understand one another and can communicate with some human beings. So what gives a researcher the moral right either to assume that the monkey has given consent or to assume that obtaining that monkey's consent is unnecessary? The law may say that a monkey is not a human being and therefore has no legal rights, but just because vivisection is legal that does not make it morally right. As I mentioned earlier in this book, Gandhi described vivisection as: "the blackest of all the black crimes that man is at present committing against god and his fair creation."


The vivisectors say: Animals do not matter because they cannot think.

The truth is:I first heard this argument on a television programme some years ago. The dark-suited scientist who put it forward made the statement as though it were an accepted fact and as though it excused any sort of barbarity. "Animals can't think", he said bluntly, looking around him as though that settled that. "What about babies?" asked a young man whose hair was dyed bright green and who had a cluster of safety pins through his nose and ears. "Can they think?" He paused and thought for a moment. "And what about the mentally ill, the educationally subnormal and people suffering from senile dementia?" The scientist had no answer. The fact that animals cannot think (even if it were true) is no excuse at all for treating them without respect.

But it is not true that animals cannot think. Is there any good reason to believe that a baby monkey does not feel when separated from its mother and family, placed in a drum and left there, alone, for several weeks at a time?

Just because animals do not automatically speak our language, do we have any right to assume that they are stupid?

This is, indeed, the sort of argument once followed by the worst sort of colonial Englishman. "The natives don't speak English and so they must be stupid", he would argue with enviable simplicity.

The truth is that anyone who has ever lived with a cat will confirm, it is nonsense to say that cats are incapable of thought. They are remarkably intelligent and emotional creatures. They can communicate with one another and with human beings very effectively. And they even have skills that we certainly do not seem to have. There are, for example, numerous accounts of cats finding their way home on journeys of several hundred miles. Cats whose owners have died will walk for miles crossing motorways, rivers and railways and passing through cities and across fields in order to be with other human beings whom they like. Without maps or compasses cats can make long, arduous journeys with startling skill.

The only thing we know for certain is that there are no creatures in the world quite as cruel and unthinking as some of the humans who work in experimental laboratories.

The animal abusers say that those of us who oppose animal experiments are guilty of anthropomorphism, and that we are worrying unnecessarily about creatures whose lives and lifestyles we do not fully understand. We are, they say, projecting our feelings, fears and hopes onto the animals they use. There is, as ever, a strong streak of arrogance in this argument, for those who put it forward seem to be saying that although we are over-estimating the needs and rights of animals, they have got things just right.

The truth, as always, is that the pro-vivisectionist campaigners are limited by their own lack of perception and although they have managed to begin a train of thought they have been unable to see it through to a sensible conclusion. It is perfectly true to say that animals are not like people and it would be foolish to imagine that animals see things in the same way that we do. Each animal sees the world in a different light. Animals are not like people, but they are not like rocks either. Cats think and behave like cats. Monkeys think and behave like monkeys. Dogs think and behave like dogs.

Only when we have made the effort to understand how dogs think and behave will we understand the full extent of their suffering when they are used in laboratory experiments. All animals are different. Cats like eating freshly killed mice. Cows like eating grass. Monkeys use their tails to help them swing through trees. Some creatures are happy eating food that we would feel uncomfortable about stepping in. Although it is clearly wrong to anthropomorphise and to read ambitions and hopes into behavioural patterns that may mean something quite different, it is perfectly possible for us to learn enough about animal behaviour to understand something about what they like and what they dislike.

Back in 1965 the British government decided that the thin, hexagonal wire mesh used to make up the floors of cages in which hens were kept was uncomfortable for them to walk on. A well-meaning committee of human experts decided that thicker wire would be better. But when the chickens were given the choice they showed, quite clearly, that they preferred the thin, hexagonal wire. And the chickens overruled the distinguished team who had advised the government because in the end they managed to show that they knew best what they preferred (out of two cruel options).

By observing animals carefully it is possible to decide what sort of life they like best and it is also possible to discover that when given a choice animals will always choose the least distressing of all the available options.

But the people who conduct animal experiments do not bother to find out what the animals they use are really like. They do not want to know that the animals they are using have the intelligence to make choices. They do not like to think that the animals they are keeping might prefer a different lifestyle.

The conditions in which laboratory animals are kept are crude, cruel and barbaric. The way in which animals are used and abused shows that those who perform animal experiments have never made the slightest effort to understand the creatures whose lives they regard so lightly.

The final irony is that researchers frequently claim that they can make judgements about behavioural patterns, or the toxicity of tested substances, by making laboratory observations. These observations and judgements are utterly worthless because the circumstances in which the animals are kept and tested are unnatural and quite divorced from reality.


The vivisectors say: If vivisection were stopped then millions of animals which are specially bred for laboratory work would never have a chance to live.

The truth is: The people who put forward this argument obviously have no idea of the sort of 'life' that is involved. I have absolutely no hesitation in denying the prospect of life to a sentient creature which would, if it was conceived and born, spend its days alone, in a tiny cage, in constant physical and mental pain. What sort of 'life' is that? If this argument were to be followed then it would excuse a host of cruelties and obscenities including bear baiting and bull fighting. Taken to its logical conclusion it would also mean that since sterilistion would not be allowed many animals, such as stray cats, would starve to death.


The vivisectors say: It does not matter whether animals can think or not: we are stronger and more powerful than they are so we have the right to do as we like with them.

The truth is: Surprisingly, this argument is put forward quite frequently and there seem to be a large number of vivisectors who believe that the strong have a moral right to do what they like with the weak.

What those who favour this argument do not seem to realise is that the same argument can be applied with equal logic within the human race. So, if it is perfectly right and fair for humans to torture, maim and kill baboons because we are more powerful than they are, then it must be equally acceptable for the strongest and most powerful human beings to use the weakest humans for their own purposes. If it is morally acceptable for a researcher to use this argument to support experiments on dogs, what is there to stop the same argument being used to justify experiments on children, old people or the mentally or physically disadvantaged?

Scientists who promote this argument might like to think carefully about their own status in our society. If the intellectually deprived and socially worthless are to be used in experiments, then the vivisectors themselves will be among the first to find themselves selected for death in the laboratory.


The vivisectors say: Animal experiments are justified because without them human progress will be held back.

The truth is: One of the favourite debating tricks of those who support animal experimentation is to select a convenient date sometime in the past, point to all the scientific developments that have taken place since that time and to then argue that without animal experiments none of those things would have happened. This argument is to logic what marshmallows are to a balanced diet.

First, it is illogical to argue that just because animal experiments took place they were relevant, necessary or productive. Animal experiments have held back progress rather than aided it. You might as well argue that because people have managed to run faster and jump higher since animal experiments were started, there is a link between the two. You could as easily and as sensibly claim that the development of television was a result of experiments performed on animals and that without torturing monkeys, cats and dogs we would still be relying on the town crier.

Second, even if animal experiments had been relevant it would be absurd to argue that without them scientists would have made no progress at all. This is a gross insult to the intelligence and ingenuity of scientists and assumes that the only scientists with any capacity for original thought are the ones who chop up live animals. This is clearly nonsense. No one complains that we have been denied progress because scientists have not been allowed to experiment on human beings.


The vivisectors say: The use of animals in experiments is justified by the fact that such investigations enable us to add to our store of knowledge.

The truth is : Scientists usually try to justify the work they do by claiming that they are helping to save lives. They are ruthless in the way they exploit public fears and anxieties in their attempts to preserve their own careers. But such claims only stand up in the absence of evidence and more and more often scientists are having to abandon this line of defence.

When they are cornered and are unable to defend their work on practical or medical grounds, scientists will often claim that their work is justified simply because it adds to the sum of human knowledge. The work justifies itself, they say, and does not need to have any practical purpose.

It is probably as pointless to try to counter this claim with moral or ethical arguments as it would have been to try to dissuade Josef Mengele from his evil work by telling him that it was "wrong'.

Throughout history there have always been scientists who have claimed that the search for knowledge justifies any activity, however repugnant.

Like the Nazi and Japanese scientists who experimented on human beings and were convinced that their work was justified, today's animal experimenters seem to belief that their work, however barbaric, is justified because it adds to the storehouse of human knowledge.

Those who are convinced by this argument might like to ask themselves where, if ever, the line should be drawn. Does the pursuit of knowledge justify any activity?

There are some scientists who would say that it does; and there is no shortage of evidence that even today there are doctors who are willing to perform hazardous experiments on human patients under their care.

In my book The Health Scandal (published by Sidgwick and Jackson and in paperback by Mandarin) I describe a variety of experiments performed on human beings including one in which drops were put into the eyes of women in order to study the formation of experimental cataracts and one in which children were given drugs to stop them making a natural recovery from a liver infection. Most startling of all, perhaps, were the experiments in which a total of forty-two babies aged between eleven days and two and a half years were used. The experiments involved holding the babies under water to see how they responded. The scientist who conducted these experiments reported that the: "movements of the extremities are of the struggling order" and went on to say that the babies clutched at the experimenter's hands and tried to wipe the water away from their faces. She seemed amazed that the "ingestion of fluid was considerable" and made the infants cough.

During the last few decades thousands of human patients have been used in experiments (readers wanting to know more about medical and scientific research should read my book Paper Doctors published by Temple Smith).

In Britain, surgeons have deliberately and permanently damaged the brains of many patients in attempts to treat people suffering from disorders as varied as eczema, asthma, hysteria, chronic rheumatism, anorexia nervosa, tuberculosis, hypertension, angina and anxiety brought about by barbiturate toxicity. Were these operations experiments? Were they justified?

Patients have been injected with cancer cells to see whether or not they develop cancer. Without anyone bothering to obtain their permission, patients around the world are frequently given new and untried drugs so that doctors can find out what happens.

Many scientists who perform and support animal experiments also support experiments on human beings and will argue that such experiments are justified, either because they add to the sum of human knowledge or because they help doctors develop new types of treatment.

One American scientist recently claimed that: "a human life is nothing compared with a new fact ... the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice to human life".

When another scientist was attacked for using people in a nursing home for an experiment, he replied that he could not very well use scientists for his experiments because they were too valuable.

It is also worth remembering that although many scientists are prepared to excuse the foulest of deeds on the basis that they are searching for knowledge, very few, if any, scientists are prepared to conduct their experiments at their own expense or in their own time. The vast majority of modern scientific experiments these days are performed by extremely well paid scientists working in well equipped laboratories. Often the money they use is yours.

Those members of the public who find animal experiments unacceptable (however much 'knowledge' they may give us) should also be aware that many of these experiments are conducted with public money at a time when doctors and teachers seem to agree that public services are suffering from a lack of funding. I wonder how many animal experimenters would carry on with their work (allegedly determined to add to the sum of human knowledge for the general good of humankind) if, instead of getting fat salaries from public funds, they had to pay for their experiments themselves? I suggest that some scientists would suddenly find that they had something more important to do. In other words, many vivisectors are driven not by a search for knowledge, but by simple, old-fashioned, financial greed.


The vivisectors say: Every year thousands of animals are put down because they are ill or have been abandoned. It makes sense to use those animals instead of wasting them.

The truth is: What the scientists who favour this argument fail to realise is that there is a considerable difference between putting an animal to sleep painlessly, and subjecting it to a series of painful, humiliating and degrading scientific procedures. If this argument were sustainable then it would also make sense to use dying, lonely or 'unwanted' human beings for experiments.

The scientists who favour this argument also fail to realise that killing animals because they are ill, or have been abandoned, is usually done to satisfy human rather than animal needs. The killing of animals simply because they seem surplus to requirements is morally unjustifiable. It is absurd to attempt to build an argument on foundations that are ethically unsound.


The vivisectors say: The results from animal experiments can be utilised in the prevention or treatment of diseases which affect human beings but that animals are so different from human beings that we do not have to worry about them suffering any sort of pain or distress.

The truth is: These two arguments do not fit comfortably together. If animals are similar enough to human beings for the results to be of value to clinicians then the thousands of barbaric experiments which are conducted every day are insupportable, inexcusable and unforgivable on moral and ethical grounds. On the other hand, if animals are so fundamentally different to human beings that they do not suffer during procedures which would clearly be terrifying and enormously painful for human beings then the results obtained must be valueless.

Screams And Nightmares  •  Winning The Moral And Ethical Arguments  •  Winning The Medical And Scientific Arguments  •  Letter From Elliot Morley  •  Contact


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