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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 209 - Summer 2008

University Sermon on Animal Experimentation
by Andrew Linzey

The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey PhD, DD, is a member of the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics ( He is also Honorary Professor at the University of Winchester. Here is the text of his sermon at St Mary’s University Church, Oxford, on Sunday 17 February, 2008 by Andrew Linzey.

There has been considerable public controversy over the use of animals in experimentation at Oxford. The controversy has involved both town and gown. Individuals have taken public stands for and against. There have been heated exchanges, protests, and much acrimonious discourse.

I am referring to the controversy that raged in the last years of the nineteenth century. For example: John Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Fine Art, resigned his post ‘following the vote endowing vivisection in the University’ in 1885.(1) Previously, Lewis Carroll circulated his own anti-vivisection tract entitled ‘Some Popular Fallacies about Vivisection’ in 1875.(2) Frances Power Cobbe, a long time associate of Manchester College (as it then was), launched the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection in the same year.(3) And E. B. Nicholson, Bodley’s Librarian no less, wrote the pioneering work The Rights of an Animal in 1879.(4)

Reference to this history only serves to emphasise that controversy about animals, and especially animal experimentation, is not new. Indeed, Oxford has been the home of such controversy. One hundred years later, in the 1970s, Peter Singer penned his Animal Liberation (5) whilst teaching philosophy at University College; Stephen R.L. Clark started his The Moral Status of Animals (6) while a Fellow of All Souls, and it was three enterprising philosophy graduates from New College, Balliol and St Hilda’s who helped re-start it all by producing the landmark book Animals, Men and Morals (7) in 1971 – a work that Singer himself properly described as ‘the Bible’ of the movement. Even my own first little book on Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment was published in 1976 (London: SCM Press). Controversy about animals? In truth, we have been growing it in Oxford for decades.

And it is important to recognise that the controversy concerns some hardcore, largely unresolved, questions. Can scientific research exist without causing suffering to animals? Why should animals always bear the cost? And how rightly should we understand ourselves, and evaluate our needs, in relation to the rest of creation? But one most centrally: is the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals itself ever morally licit? Special considerations For some of my contemporaries, it is a comparatively small thing to justify the infliction of suffering. ‘Animals’, they say, ‘are only animals’. But that dismissive line obscures the fact that animals suffer only to a greater or lesser extent than we do. There is now ample evidence in peer reviewed scientific journals that all mammals (at least) suffer not just pain, but also shock, fear, terror, anticipation, foreboding, stress, anxiety, and trauma.(8)

If it is true that animals can suffer in these ways which were once considered uniquely human, then it is peculiarly difficult – philosophically – to justify the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals. In addition, there are considerations here that are specifically relevant to animals, as well as some weaker humans, but they seldom receive the attention they should:

Consider: animals cannot give or withhold their consent. Informed voluntary consent is now regarded as essential in order to justify experimentation on human subjects, but when it comes to animals that relevant factor is always absent.

Consider also: animals cannot represent or vocalise their own interests. Individuals who cannot adequately represent themselves have to depend upon others to do so. Unlike even children or the elderly who suffer from dementia, but who can be represented in a court of law, animals seldom have a spokesperson who has ‘legal standing’ (the expression used in the USA) who can represent their interests, so it is precisely because they cannot articulate their needs or represent their interests, that these needs are almost always ignored and yet they should invoke a heightened sense of obligation.

Consider further: animals are morally innocent or blameless. Because they are not moral agents with free will, they cannot – strictly speaking – be regarded as morally responsible. As C.S. Lewis rightly observed: ‘So far as we know beasts are incapable of sin or virtue; therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it’ (The Problem of Pain, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940, p. 117).

Consider lastly: animals are vulnerable and defenceless. They are almost wholly within our power and subject to our will. Except in rare circumstances, animals pose us no threat, constitute no risk to our life, and possess no means of offence or defence. Moral solicitude should properly relate to, and be commensurate with, the relative vulnerability of the subject concerned, or what might be termed ‘ontologies of vulnerability’.

The point is that these considerations, when impartially judged (or at least as impartially as humans can manage) mean that the infliction of suffering upon animals is harder, not easier, to justify. Non-consenting, inarticulate, innocent, and vulnerable beings deserve special moral solicitude.(9)

Now some people believe that theology can be drawn upon to justify the infliction of suffering. Theology has been central, at least historically, in providing some of the key justifications for the use of animals. But how convincing are they?

‘We have dominion over animals’, it is often said. I never cease to be amazed at the number of atheists who believe that humans have dominion. For centuries, it needs to be admitted, Christians have interpreted Genesis 1 as meaning little more than ‘might is right’ – a view that has influenced the largely secular view of animals today. But modern scholarship has made clear how wrong we were. The priestly theology of Genesis is not that of man-the-despot, but rather of humanity as the species commissioned to care, under God, for the creation. And in case this appears like liberal revisionism of an ancient text, there is internal evidence in the text itself. In Genesis 1: 26-9 humans are made in God’s image and given dominion, and in the subsequent verse (29-30) given a vegetarian diet. Herb-eating dominion is hardly a license for tyranny.

‘We humans are made in the image of God’, it is often said. But the God in whose image we are made is a God of love, mercy, justice. It is difficult to see how being made in that image can justify the infliction of pain whatever the motives. Indeed modern scholarship reveals that ‘image’ and ‘dominion’ go together: humans are to represent God’s own benevolent care for other creatures. If one truly believes that God is benevolent and that humans are made in God's image, then our obligations are clear: we also must be benevolent not just to other humans but to the whole of God's creation. Humans are uniquely responsible to God for how they exercise their authority. The picture that emerges is of a God that creates humans with God-given capacities to care for creation as God’s own representatives on earth. We are to be not so much the ‘master species’ as the ‘servant species’.(10)

‘Only humans have souls, however’. In fact, Catholic theology has never denied that animals have souls, only that they possess rational and therefore immortal souls. Quite how that position squares with the biblical vision of the redemption of all creation is for others to judge.15 But, even if true, the absence of a soul – as C.S. Lewis once indicated – makes the infliction of pain harder to justify:

’For it means that animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Thus all the factors which render pain more tolerable or make it less totally evil in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts. ‘Soullessness’, in so far as it is relevant to the question at all, is an argument against vivisection.’(12)

‘But humans are rational’, we are told, ‘our lives therefore have a richness and a depth unavailable to other creatures’. There are reasons for being wary of the ‘my life is richer than yours’ kind of argument, if only because scientists are increasingly finding ways in which the lives of animals display characteristics and abilities that make us marvel. But even if true, does rationality make our suffering always more significant? While it is possible for example, that anticipation of death may make humans more liable to suffering, it is also the case that intellectual incomprehension may make the experience of suffering worse. Consider, for example, the predicament of captive animals who have no means of rationalising their deprivation, boredom, and frustration. They have no intellectual means of escaping their circumstances, for example (as far as we can tell) by use of their imagination. They cannot, like Terry Waite in captivity, intellectually appreciate the forces that led to their capture and begin, as he did, to write ‘in my imagination’.(13) It is unclear that rational incomprehension always (to say the least) makes suffering less acute.

Human unique superiority?
‘Nevertheless, humans are unique and superior’ it is claimed. ‘We have reason, free will, and we are morally accountable in a way in which animals can never be.’ But it follows that is precisely because we have those exalted capacities that we should acknowledge duties to them that they cannot acknowledge towards us. Properly understood, moral superiority can never be the basis for behaving in a morally inferior way. And here we reach the decisive consideration from a theological perspective: our power or lordship over animals needs to be related to that exercise of lordship seen in the life of Jesus Christ.

Jesus provides us with what I have called a ‘paradigm of inclusive moral generosity’ that privileges the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the marginalised, and the outcast. But if costly generosity really is the God-given paradigm then it ought also be the paradigm for the exercise of human dominion over the animal world. The doctrine of the incarnation involves the sacrifice of the ‘higher’ for the ‘lower’, not the reverse. And if that is the true model of divine generosity, it is difficult to see how humans can otherwise interpret their exercise of power over other sentient creatures. As I have written elsewhere:

’When we speak of human superiority, we speak of such a thing properly only and in so far as we speak not only of Christlike lordship but also of Christlike service. There can be no lordship without service and no service without lordship. Our special value in creation consists in being of special value to others’ (Animal Theology, see Note 10, page 33).

Now some will say that this discourse willfully neglects what they see as the central issue: isn’t such suffering nevertheless justifiable if it serves laudable ends? Important, serious ends, like the accumulation of scientific knowledge that may help cure disease or alleviate suffering?

Painful experiments on humans?
But a yes to that question is only readily available to those who hold to a simple kind of utilitarian philosophy, and believe (as I do not) that the ends always justify the means. If I did believe that, I would not want to stop at animals, however. If benefits can justify the infliction of suffering on animals, they should also logically justify the use of weaker human subjects. After all, the results would be more applicable, more certain. That this is the case is recognised even by those who fully support animal experimentation. The philosopher, Raymond Frey writes that ‘… we cannot, with the appeal to benefit, justify (painful) animal experiments without justifying (painful) human experiments’.(14) That we do not (usually) justify painful experiments on humans without their permission shows precisely what our ethics includes and where it stops, and yet this ‘boundary line’ is arbitrary.

‘But we have to experiment on animals because we can’t experiment on humans’, it is claimed. In fact, animal experimentation has not prevented experimentation on humans: alongside the use of animals, vulnerable human subjects such as: children, prisoners of war, Jews, people of colour, the mentally challenged, even ordinary soldiers have been used in experimentation without their knowledge or informed consent or both.(15) And some of us are still disturbed that experiments on human embryos are permissible up to 14 days – to which we shall shortly have to add the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids.(16) To those who once claimed that we must choose between ‘your dog or your baby’, we need to remind ourselves of the counter-claim made by early anti-vivisectionists: it is not a choice between ‘your dog or your baby’ but rather ‘your dog and your baby. It is not a question of animals or human beings, but one of animals and human beings.’(17)

The foregoing has sketched some of the grounds for regarding the infliction of suffering on non-consenting, inarticulate, innocent, and vulnerable creatures as intrinsically wrong. I am always rather bemused when people talk about ‘emotional arguments’ for animals, when in truth the purely rational case is one of the strongest in ethics. It seems to me that one can only justify painful experimentation if one can find clear rational grounds for saying that human interests are always and absolutely primary. Accepting that it may be sometimes right to choose in the interests of humans is one thing; believing that we are justified in creating an institution that routinely uses and abuses animals is another. But I also accept that others judge the matter differently, and that honourable people may honourably disagree.

Violence: morally self-contradictory
Despite my viewpoint, I have been reluctant to comment on the latest round of controversy at Oxford. The reason is that I have not wanted to appear to give succour or support to those who pursue violent tactics or intimidation. Some have been surprised that I wouldn’t join the protests, but they shouldn’t be. If I cannot accept the utilitarian argument of researchers that the end justifies the means, by the same standard, I cannot accept the utilitarian argument of violent protestors that their intended ends justify their means.

It is especially lamentable that people who are committed to a philosophy of respect for all sentient beings (as I am myself) should think that violence, coercion, and personal abuse is justifiable against human sentient beings. Violence is not just counterproductive or bad tactics; it is morally self-contradictory. One cannot get to animal rights by trampling on human ones. As someone who has experienced abuse and defamation for my work for animals, and lost job opportunities as a result of my views on animal testing, I think I have earned the right to say that personal attacks are as unconscionable as they are (almost always) ineffective.

Neither do I support illegality: however dotty or unjust laws may be, we are obligated to obey them, at least in a democratic society, where we have the ability to change the laws. In a democracy, criminal tactics are an attempt to shortcut the system. As I wrote way back in 1994:

’To pursue moral means requires that we reject strategies of blatant manipulation and intimidation. Not to do so risks not a decrease but an increase in the total amount of moral evil in the world today … People will not be easily cajoled, intimidated, threatened or bludgeoned beyond their moral senses into a new world: they need to be rationally persuaded’.(18)

Rational dialogue
I conclude with a very modest proposal: rational dialogue. What we need is dialogue without personal or political agendas. If such dialogue cannot take place within universities, where else can it be had? Certainly, not in the media who frequently succumb to sensationalist and frankly inaccurate reporting. A great university – as Oxford undoubtedly is – could lead the way in fostering and facilitating such dialogue. In doing so, it would accept the integrity of differing viewpoints, and give power to the conviction that reasoning can be one way of apprehending the fullness of moral truth.

The animal issue is not going to go away. Over the last 40 years, we have slowly but surely experienced a paradigm shift: a move away from the old idea that animals are just things, machines, tools, commodities, resources here for us to the idea that animals have intrinsic value, dignity, and rights. It is simply no longer clear to many people that human interests are the only important interests in the world, and that all other interests – including those of animals – should always be subordinate to ours. Oxford may be wary of this new paradigm, even uneasy with its own anti-vivisection history, but my hope is that it may yet find an appropriate and positive response to the growing ethical sensitivity to animals – a sensitivity which it has, in part, helped to inspire and pioneer.

And where might such dialogue lead? For the Christian such dialogue is to practise the virtue of hope. In the words of our University motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea. Perhaps it is not inappropriate to recall the context of that line from Psalm 27, which sometimes speaks to me at least: ‘an host of men were laid against me, yet shall I not be afraid’ (v. 3) because ‘the Lord is my light’. May the Lord enlighten us all. Amen.

1. John Ruskin, letter in Pall Mall Gazette, Vol. XXXiii, p. 1vi. See John Bowker, ‘Religions and the Rights of Animals’ (introduction) in Tom Regan (ed) Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), p. 3.

2. Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson), ‘Some Popular Fallacies about Vivisection’, printed for private circulation, Oxford, June 1875.

3. See Lori Williamson, Power and Protest: Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Society (London: Rivers Oram Press, 2005), pp. 125f.

4. E.B. Nicholson, The Rights of an Animal: A New Essay in Ethics (London: C. Kegan Paul, 1879).

5. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976).

6. Stephen R.L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1977).

7. Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (eds) Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-Humans (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971).

8. For an excellent summary of the empirical evidence, see David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), especially chapter 7.

9. I develop the case at length in Why Animal Suffering Matters, forthcoming.

10. See Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SCM Press and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), see pp. 56f.

11. For a variety of views, see ‘Souls and Redemption’ in Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (eds), Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics (London: SCM Press, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 118-119, and 171-200.

12. C.S. Lewis, ‘Vivisection’, first published as a booklet by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society [1947], reprinted in Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan (eds), Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings (London: SCM Press, and New York: Crossroad, 1989; reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 2008), pp. 160-4.

13. Terry Waite, Taken on Trust (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993), p. xiii.

14. R. G. Frey, Rights, Killing and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 115.

15. The key text here is Susan E. Lederer, Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America before the Second World War (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). One of her documented claims is that ‘Human vivisection must be understood in the larger context of animal protection’, pp. xiv and xv. See Andrew Linzey, Animal Gospel (London: Hodder and Stoughton, and Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), pp. 92-8.

16. See Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey, Research on Embryos: Politics, Theology and Law (London: LCAP, 1988).

17. Your Baby and Your Dog (New York: Vivisection Investigation League, nd), cited in Lederer, Subjected to Science, p. 101; original emphases.

18. Andrew Linzey, Animal Gospel, chapter 10, pp. 90-1. The chapter is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, 23 December, 1994.

© Copyright, Andrew Linzey 2008.

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