Being for the Other: Animal Rights Stuff
I recently submitted a few chapters to a unpcoming anthology regarding animal rights. Needless to say that I am really looking forward to it. As part of the revision and editing process, some stuff gets cut out and other stuff gets added. In one of my chapters I had written a section that attempted to bridge the previous and the one that came after, but it didn’t make the final cut. Instead of evolving the sections that will not be part of the book into an article, I’d rather post it here. After all, that’s part of what I made this blog for – exploration of topics in literature. As for the text, I can’t tell you anything beyond the fact that it’s a working title (likely to be called Being for the Other: Ethics and Animal Rights in Literature), that it will be edited by an experienced scholar of reputation, that it will make an invaluable addition to anyone who is interested in the topic, and that I’m in it ^___^. Now then, without further delay – Some rants on Victorians and Animal Rights (not the title of the chapter): The Missing Levels.
During the Victorian period, poets were highly influential in literature. Poets like Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, and Christina Rosetti were read widely and their poetry sparked heated debates regarding topics such as faith, science, philosophy, and sexuality.The debate regarding morality towards animals that would take place during the Victorian period, however, would not take place in its poetry. Darwin’s findings as publicized in On the Origin of Species, and the commentary on his 1881 letter to The Times, brought the debate regarding animal rights to a different medium: the essay.
Despite claiming that all his life he had been a staunch supporter of humanity towards animals, on his 1881 letter, titled Mr. Darwin on Vivisection, Charles Darwin, the most prominent scientist of the Victorian era, wrote that despite the many similarities between animals and humans, and specially because of them, experimentation on animals was necessary. He wrote that “I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals.” Despite being a self-proclaimed supporter of animal rights and the moral duty of humans towards animals, Darwin believed that his duty towards humanity and the advance of the practice of medicine was greater than that towards animal writes. Darwin further wrote “I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind.” By accusing those who oppose experimentation on animals as criminals against mankind, he was forcefully making an argument in favor of a means to an end – it is acceptable to experiment on animals as long as humanity benefits.
It is not surprising that Darwin received a number of letter negating his statements. Individuals who were against animal experimentation, which included writers, reverends, and doctors, strongly argued that if humans and animals were as closely related as Darwin suggests, then it would be morally unacceptable, even a sin by some standards, to experiment on animals, as they were close evolutionary relatives. One of the strongest voices against animal practice was Frances Power Cobbe, an irish writer who accused Darwin of having many remarkable errors in his assumptions. She thought that, despite the similarities between humans and animals, vivisection, nor any other means of animal experimentation, would yield new remarkable insight into the human anatomy. Because of her essyas and letters several prominent doctors of the time wrote statements against the practice of animal experimentation. One such doctor, Dr. Arthur Baele, wrote that “like most members of my profession, I was nurtured in the belief that vivisection is an important, useful, and justifiable adjunct to medical science. But reflection and experience have convinced me to the contrary” (Bael, 1896). Dr. Lawson Tait further stated in regards to a series of experiments on animals whose results he had published that “the results obtained […] could not be applied to man, and […] our efforts to adapt them were leading us into serious surgical blunders” (Tait, 1896). In attacking his own previous work on vivisection, Tait was giving credibility to the idea that animal experimentation may not necessarily be beneficial for the science of human anatomy. These ideas quickly became part of the Victorian scientific discourse. However, this would not be the end of the debate. Supporters of vivisection countered that the very evolutionary proximity of man to animals meant that animal experimentation offered vast scientific benefits. With one side of the debate stating that cruelty to animals in the name of science was immoral because it devalued an individual’s natural sympathy and compassion and the other side claiming that these means to an end allow the scientific community to better discern knowledge regarding human anatomy, the debate regarding animal rights and humanity’s moral duty towards animals raged on throughout the entire victorian period with no clear winner. This debate is one that still rages on today.
Baele, Arthur. Why I Oppose Vivisection, No. 12. Animals’ Friend. London, 1896.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Abridged Modern Library College Edition. New York: Mc Graw Hill, 1965.
Denenholz Morse, Deborah and Danahay Martin A. Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture.Portland, OR: Ashgate Publishing, 2007.
Johnson, Robert. Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/>
Johnson, Samuel. Medical Professors Experiments. The Idler. London, 1761.
Kant, Imanuel. Lectures on Anthropology. Berlin, Akademie-Textausgabe: 1997.
Kenyon-Jones, Christine. Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2001.
Tait, Lawson. Why I Oppose Vivisection, No. XIII. Animals’ Friend. London, 1896.