This is an excerpt from Mona Caird's pamphlet, The Ethics of Vivisection (1900), in which she presents her own strongly-felt views on the topic. At one time President of the Anti-Vivisection League, amongst whose members were Annie Besant and George Bernard Shaw, she strongly opposed the practice, and saw in it a reflection of the way women themselves were treated in society: as Diana Donald has pointed out, there was an interesting relationship between this cause and the women's cause (see Donald 179-222). — Jacqueline Banerjee

A Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog, by Émile Édouard Mouchy (1802–1870). Image from the Wellcome Collection on the Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) licence.

In the last number of this magazine, I tried to show, as well as a few words on so vast a subject would permit, that the pain endured by the victims of vivisection is extremely severe ; so horrible, indeed, in many cases, as to task one's powers of belief, recorded though these martyrdoms are by those who inflict them. I gave references with every assertion I made, so that the reader could verify all statements for himself, if he wished to do so.

Let the reader then — for the moment at least — grant that torture to animals is involved in vivisection, by the very nature of the practice and its aims. The question of fact being settled, the question of ethics arises: Is the infliction of such torture on man's helpless depen- dents justifiable, and if so, on what grounds? The usual, and in fact, the only answer given is: It is justifiable on the ground that man is superior to animals, and that the suffering of the inferior is of no moment, in comparison with the hoped-for benefit to the superior.

Now, I propose to examine the principles involved in this reply, and to ask my readers to enquire whether those principles are in line with ethical development, whether they are progressive or retrograde in character, whether their acceptance by the public, and their sanction by law, is likely to further the movement of human society in the direction of security and liberty, in the growth of brotherly harmony, and of general well-being. Let us consider the vivisector's contention. "It is [13/14] justifiable," he asserts, "to inflict torture on the weaker inferior for what we may happen to believe will bring benefit to the stronger superior. It is justifiable to commit a deed that is, in itself, atrocious, so long as our object can be shewn to be important. In that case, the atrocity changes its character, and becomes laudable." This theory is no new discovery; indeed, it savours of the Middle Ages, when the Church held just such a creed, and carried out her views with the help of fire and sword, thumbscrew and rack — very much as science now carries out her aims by means strangely similar. The Church claimed that for the sake of her important end she might employ all necessary means (as she con- sidered them): the good end sanctifying the hideous means.

To this sacerdotal superstition the high priests of science have become heirs. It is not a little singular and significant that the scientific priesthood have stepped into the place once usurped by the Church, repeating her tyranny over the public conscience, repeating the stupendous claims which she made for her special objects ; demanding a privilege which, in these days, is granted to no other avocation or interest or body whatsoever, viz., to pursue just ends by cruel and unjust means.

Putting aside, for the moment, all other points, why should science enjoy a monopoly of this privilege? It is surely an offence against public liberties, which every other body and interest has a right to resent, on this ground alone. If cruelty is to be justified by its object in one case, why, in the name of common justice, not in another?

Two more images from the Wellcome Collection, on the Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence for re-use: Left: An experiment; led to the "brown dog" vivisection dispute. Right: A dog on a laboratory bench sits up and begs the prospective vivisector for mercy. Engraving by C.J. Tomkins, 1883, after a painting entitled Vivisection — The Last Appeal by J. McClure Hamilton (1853-1936). Dated 23 June 1883, ref. 25933i.

A law exists in the statute-book of England which forbids cruelty to (domestic) animals. Another law exists which permits a particular class of men to obtain certificates by which, for their special ends, cruelty may [14/15] nevertheless be perpetrated. Why, then, may not religion, whose ends (from her own point of view and that of vast numbers) are far more vitally important than those of science, obtain a special charter for cruelty, on the same plea of a good object? Why may not commerce, or agriculture, or art, claim the same right?

In Florence in the sixteenth century, the injustice of granting such a monopoly was evidently felt, for while physiologists were provided with victims from the state prisons to aid their learned researches, art also, it is said, put in a successful claim to a similar indulgence; a religious painter having obtained a prisoner from the Duke of Florence, with permission to have the miserable man crucified, in order to study his anguished face, and so be enabled to paint a moving picture of the crucifixion. The artist, doubtless, believed he could thus move men's souls and bring them to salvation, and he felt that the pangs of this wretched criminal were not worth a moment's consideration, in comparison with the importance of the service to art and to religion, which those pangs might render.

And if the principle of the vivisector is to be accepted (that important ends justify atrocious means), then the painter was perfectly right — from his own point of view — as the vivisector is from his. But does the general public really accept this principle which has justified every atrocity that has ever been committed by powerful monopolies, since the world began? If the inferiority of a victim compared with the importance of an object has really anything to do with the matter, then the painter was right and the vivisector is right, and their principle (being right) ought to be universally appjied_ in social life — that is to say, the importance and superiority of a sentient being should be recognised as the sole reason for exempting him from maltreatment under the law, for [15/16] the sake of science, or humanity, or whatever object we may happen to consider of most vital importance to the State. That being so, the question of superiority becomes a burning one indeed!

It is, of course, idle and impossible to attempt to decide exactly how inferior a sentient being must be, in order to exonerate his tormentors from blame. That clearly would involve a purely arbitrary decision, devoid of all logic or principle. There are idiots and maniacs and criminals who are certainly not superior, in any sense, to the dogs and horses so indescribably tortured by physiologists; yet if the principle on which they profess to justify these tortures were generally and honestly applied, there could be no sound reason for exempting those luckless products of our social state from the torments of the laboratory. The idiot, the maniac, and the criminal, would become the legitimate prey of the humane physiologist. In fact it would all become a mere matter of comparison — and what is worse — of opinion; those below the average being regarded as fair game for the vivisector, who benevolently wishes to benefit the average: the average, again, being utilized, in the same way, for the good of the exceptionally noble and superior — though one wonders how long men and women exceptionally noble would continue to appear in this vivisectional order of society! As a matter of fact, the race would inevitably degenerate into something worse than savage; and with increasing criminality and selfishness, even the physical type would be rapidly lowered — science notwithstanding. The moral law will not be so cheated.

Let the reader try to find a principle which justifies vivisection, and at the same time allows itself to be applied to civilized society, without showing itself laughably absurd. I defy him to logically achieve that [16/17] feat. Is it not plain to anyone admitting the existence of a moral obligation at all, that the claim to exemption from torture of either man or animal rests on the fact that he can feci it? Superiority has clearly nothing to do with the matter. As Jeremy Bentham so well says, in claiming the right of animals to this exemption: "The question is not, Can they reason, or can they speak? .... but, Can they suffer?"

If the test question were really, in all strictness: "Can they reason?" it is difficult to see how the majority of the human species would escape the hands of the physiologist. Certainly the average supporter of vivisection ought, in such a case, to beware of explaining why he thought it justifiable to vivisect animals!

Nor is this a mere gibe. In this, as in all other subjects which are still in the stage of ridicule or opposition, the reasoning powers of opponents are not brought into real action. The issues and principles, and their relation to principles already accepted, have never forced themselves upon the understanding; and intellects that are, in other directions, keen and honest, assume in regard to the luckless topic all the attributes of a feeble and even of a disingenuous mind.

I have purposely abstained, in these articles, from making a special appeal to the hearts and sympathies of my readers, for I am convinced that it is not primarily the heart, but the intellect that is usually at fault, on this question. What heart could be so base as to cheer on the man who dissects living animals, unless some intellectual conception, some theory or idea had redirected the heart and conscience, and thus overpowered every prompting of chivalry and pity?

It is, in fact, this preposterous theory which I have been examining, viz., that the inferior may be justly tortured for the good of the superior (if the inferior be [17/18] only sufficiently defenceless), which lies at the bottom of the strange perversion of feeling (as I regard it) now so common even among kind and conscientious people. It is to this intellectual confusion that I especially desire to call attention, in these articles. It has been impossible, in the space at my command, to do more than this. The practice is increasing, year by year, and it is leading, as it naturally must, to human vivisection, under various disguises and pretexts. Part of the natural penalty is already beginning to fall upon the human race, which thus tries to evade the moral law.

All who believe in that law ought to ask themselves whether they can conscientiously support, or rather whether they can refrain from strongly opposing this practice, resting as it does on a principle which would reduce human society to savagery if generally applied, a principle which checks the tendency of developing humanity to include in its sympathies and its justice other races and kinds of suffering beings; which teaches the sacrifice of the weak for the strong, and puts to utter confusion all that we have so slowly and grudgingly learnt of moral truth, every generous and protective instinct, every fine impulse of justice and chivalry: — in short, every quality that ennobles the human character, and justifies hope for the future of the race.

Links to Related Material


Caird, Mona. The Ethics of Vivisection. London: Society for the Abolition of Vivisection, 1900. Internet Archive, from a copy in Duke University Libraries. Web. 12 November 2023.

Donald, Diana, "Anti-vivisection: a feminist cause?" Women Against Cruelty: Protection of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press, , 2020; online edn, Manchester Scholarship Online, 21 May 2020),, accessed 12 Nov. 2023.

Created 12 November 2023