On Vivisection and Violence

Dear Colleagues:

In today’s Mail Online, the internet edition of the Daily Mail, a U.K. newspaper, there is a fascinating article about vivisection by Dr. Danny Penman, a former research biochemist who now does science journalism for New Scientist and the Daily Mail.

Penman makes it clear that he supports vivisection:

Like most people, I would sacrifice the lives of countless lab animals to save my fiancèe or other members of my family.

Putting aside that most people would, if in a situation which they were forced to choose, sacrifice the lives of countless other humans to save those close to them (so the animal issue is beside the point), Penman goes on to express concern that there has been an increase over last year of half a million animals used in Britain labs and that the number of animals used for research in Britain now stands at 3.7 million.

Penman maintains that some use of animals is necessary but he argues that vivisection may actually threaten human health. He quotes New Scientist as reporting that the results of vivisection are “no more informative than tossing a coin,” and although he, Penman, would not go so far, he does agree that “vivisection is, at best, unreliable and, at worst, lethal.” He cites several examples where drugs that were tested on animals without there being any adverse reaction caused humans to become critically ill and to die. He argues in favor of new technologies that do not involve animals and that are much more reliable.

Penman’s critique of vivisection is quite remarkable given that he supports vivisection. I cannot recall the last time that I saw such an essay.

Perhaps the lack of criticism of vivisection is explained by another observation that Penman makes:

Why are there so many animal experiments when there are alternatives?

One reason, ironically, is that violence and intimidation by a handful of animal rights fanatics has clouded the debate. For if you question the work of scientists today, you risk being lumped together with the extremists.

Thus the scientists have been able to expand their research on animals without anyone in authority examining whether their tests are truly necessary. This seems to me both unjust and against the spirit of academic inquiry.

Penman is absolutely right. As a result of a relatively small group of people who advocate violence against vivisectors, to question or debate vivisection even in academic contexts invites having one’s views dismissed as part of an extremist or violent agenda.

This observation applies not just to vivisection but to animal issues generally. The actions of a small number of people have allowed a reactionary press, together with institutional exploiters who would rather not have any discussion about these matters, to create the impression that those who oppose animal exploitation generally are violent misanthropes who value animal life but do not care about human life.

We must not allow that characterization to prevail.

As you know, I am opposed to all violence on moral grounds. (See, e.g., A Comment on Violence and More on Violence and Animal Rights) I accept the concept of Ahimsa.

Violence against institutional exploiters is not only immoral but it is incoherent—it makes no sense. The institutional exploiters are not “the enemy.” We are the ones who demand animal products. If we stopped consuming animal products, institutional users would shift their capital elsewhere. We are the ones who continue to believe the myth that vivisection will make us live longer and better lives and, as a result, we continue to support it, if only by not demanding of our politicians that they ensure that the alternatives that Penman mentions are used and that others are developed.

Many “animal people” are not even vegan and are willing to tolerate and support the torture of nonhuman animals simply because they like the taste of animal products and just cannot give up the cheese, ice cream, or whatever animal products it is that they eat. How are these people any different in a moral sense from vivisectors? At least some vivisectors think that they are performing some social good. As I have indicated in my writing, I do not agree that the use of animals is necessary as an empirical matter and, like Penman and others, I maintain that vivisection is often clearly counterproductive. Indeed, unlike Penman, I agree with the statement he attributes to New Scientist: the results of vivisection are “no more informative than tossing a coin.” Even if that were not the case, and even if vivisection were useful in some sense, it could still not be justified morally. But non-vegans support exploitation simply because of the whim of taste. They have no excuse.

I would certainly hope that no one would advocate violence against all non-vegans, particularly since this would include much of what is referred to as the “animal movement”! That being the case, and apart from whether you share my general rejection of violence, singling out institutional exploiters, be they farmers or vivisectors, simply makes no sense whatsoever.

I call on all animal advocates to unequivocally and without reservation reject violence. The animal rights movement makes sense only as a movement of peace and nonviolence. Gandhi said:

We must become the change we want to see in the world.

If we want to see a world in which there is no violence against the most vulnerable, we must ourselves become non-violent and present our views in a non-violent way. Non-violence begins with our own veganism and our use of creative, non-violent ways to educate others about veganism.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione