Sacerdotalist and Scientist

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


Strange bedfellows.”

  It is of very special interest to note that when some justification is needed for a cruel act, it is oftenest sought in the denial of “personality” to the intended victim, usually, of course, an animal; for which reason, as I have said, the recognition of the rights of animals will ultimately rest on our abandonment of the belief that they are not “persons” but “things.” Witness what was said by a prelate of high position, in a lecture before the medical school of Guy’s Hospital,1 where he was bold enough to suggest that the law should permit the vivisection not of animals only, but, under certain conditions, of criminals.

  “It was the violation,” he said, “of personality that finally prohibited the vivisection of men. Might they argue boldly that since rights attached to persons, and since animals were not persons, animals could have no rights?”

  With the speaker’s further contention that where criminals have forfeited their human rights they might justly be utilised by the scientists, we are not here concerned, except to observe that it throws light on the amount of humaneness that may be possessed by a leader in the Christian church; but he was at least logical in his estimate of the importance of personality.

  This dallying of sacerdotalist with scientist is by no means new. Over thirty years ago, for example, a justification of vivisection was put forward by Monsignor John S. Vaughan, an old-world Catholic, on the ground that “beasts exist for the use and benefit of man”; and there are undoubtedly many persons living in this twentieth century who still hold the belief that animals were created for man’s pleasure. That ancient superstition is probably the most popular weapon in the vivisector’s armoury. But here we come to what, if it were possible to jest on so terrible a subject, would be the humour of the situation—that the evolutionist and man of science is not able to take refuge in that old pretence that man is the centre of the universe, for if there is one thing above others that Darwin’s teaching has disproved, it is this anthropocentric assumption. The animals, according to the scientific view, were not designed merely for man’s benefit, nor is there any impassable gulf between human and non-human; on the contrary, man was evolved from among the animals, and is, if the truth be told, an animal himself. This is the creed, beyond denial or evasion, of the Darwinian scientists, whose torture of their rudimentary brethren the sacerdotalist is so eager to condone. Monsignor Vaughan was defending vivisection by an assumption which the vivisectors themselves must hold to be unscientific and obsolete. Such is the strangeness of the situation!

  But vivisection has got to be defended somehow, on moral, as well as medical, grounds; and to do Monsignor Vaughan justice the ground he alleged is the only one that can afford, or could once have afforded, any semblance of logical foothold. “Beasts exist for the use and benefit of man.” In that unquestioned belief lay the justification—the comparative justification-of the horrible tortures inflicted on animals in the medicinal and magical quackery of the Middle Ages, when, as has been pointed out, “the nastier the medicament the more was expected of it.” Animals were regarded alike by the religion, and the science, and the common usage of the times, as mere things, providentially designed to be the instruments of man’s welfare, at the cost of whatever suffering to themselves. What, therefore, if they were carved, and tortured, and vivisected to provide mankind with the filthy nostrums prescribed as the remedies for disease? An anthropocentric philosophy could explain and justify it all. And so it might do at the present time, but for the fact that the anthropocentric philosophy—as a philosophy—has itself ceased to exist!

  Indeed, the point of complaint against the scientists is precisely this—that the practice of vivisection, though perhaps logically justifiable on the absurd old belief that animals have no raison d’etre except to minister to man’s convenience, is wholly unjustifiable in the light of evolutionary science, which has demonstrated beyond question the kinship of all sentient life. That the scientist, in order to rake together a moral defence for his doings, should condescend to take shelter even under the mediæval reasoning of the sacerdotalist, is a proof that his position is hopelessly inconsistent and unsound; for having got rid of the old anthropocentric fallacy in the realm of science, he actually avails himself of the same fallacy in the realm of ethics. This, of course, is less surprising, when we remember that one and the same person may be, and often is, as reactionary in one field of thought as progressive in another, and that the modern man of science may be, in morals, a mediævalist.

  My sole reason for discussion is to insure that the humanitarian view of the question be rightly placed before the public, and this can best be done by stating it dearly in contradistinction to the anthropocentric dogma. I do not admit the assumption that “beasts exist for the use and benefit of man.” I view the matter in a wholly different aspect. We find ourselves born into an age which has been evolved in a gradual progress from savagery to something better, with old-world wrongs around us, the worst of which are being slowly redeemed, century after century, by a growing spirit of brotherhood. I have never pretended that these wrongs, woven as they are into the fabric of society, can be immediately and simultaneously righted, nor do I admit, in the case of the lower animals any more than in the case of men, that the necessity of inflicting some pain confers the right to inflict any pain. I insist on the undeniable tendency from barbarism to humaneness, which has already at many points bridged the gulf between man and man, and will in time bridge the gulf between man and his lower fellow-creatures. Science has exploded the idea that there is any difference in kind, and not in degree only, between the human and the non-human animal; and sympathy, guided by reason, is making it more and more impossible that we should for ever treat as mere automata fellow-beings to whom we are in fact very closely akin.

1 In June, 1933.

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