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Christian Pity and Animal Suffering


“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”—ST MATTHEW 5:7.


We have dwelt on Christian pity in relation to sin and human suffering. To-day, we approach another side, namely, Christian pity in relation to animals, i.e., to that great mass of dependent life around us which lies between us and the vegetable world, yet marked off from both. Our thought must here be governed by a great principle, that, as far as we can see at present, animals do exist for the sake of man, to minister to his needs and wants; and that, therefore, his pity for them must take a coloring different from that which it assumes when it is exercised towards his fellowmen. Conduct which would be gross cruelty and intolerable selfishness, if shown towards our fellow-men—e.g., the making them bear or draw heavy burdens—becomes perfectly defensible when this principle is kept in view. All pity for animals, all the beautiful and tender relations which exist between ourselves and dogs and horses and cats and birds—those relations which so dignify and soothe our lives—all have to be conditioned, and kept in check by this stern limitation, if they are to remain healthy and moralizing.


The man or woman who lives for animals is generally a thing of weakness, a failure, and a nuisance. Such exaggerations are incidental to a high civilization. As men grow weary of their kind, they will seek satisfaction in their relation to animals which they do not find elsewhere, and so it is that now there are people who would not, perhaps, move a yard to help human suffering, yet who would sit up all night with a sick dog. I am not condemning them for the latter; I am not sure that I might not do it myself under certain circumstances; but when tenderness for animals coexists, as it sometimes does, with a cold pitilessness about human suffering, there must be a serious want of moral proportion, a something lacking. Among our own acquaintance, especially among our female acquaintance, it will be strange if we have not observed instances of a softness about animals which is not only very deteriorating to the animals themselves, but at least crippling to the usefulness of ordinary life. Such exaggerations there will be, but we may well be thankful that on the whole there is a much more true—a strong yet tender—feeling about animals, than there was a century ago.


Education has done much. We have got rid of cockfighting and badger-baiting, and I believe that the conscience of the community already condemns the artificial sport which shoots pigeons out of traps, and hunts tame deer turned out of carts. As the pleasures of the most idle section of the community—the unemployed rich—they may survive for a time, but their end is not far off.


As to natural sport, it is perfectly capable of defense on the general principle that animals were made for man; and it is a great wrong to confound it with its artificial counterfeits. To condemn all sport, as some seem disposed to do, is to throw things back by creating legitimate reactions. This want of proportion it is that has given rise to the sporting League, a mischievous institution which seems disposed to throw its ægis over gambling and over every form of cruel sport. It is just this want of proportion that is so perilous. It comes out in the way in which people dwell on the details of animal suffering, and speak as though, if these were ended, the world would be a paradise. A very slight knowledge of the world of nature will correct such an impression. Everywhere and every day the operations of nature involve a far greater amount of apparent cruelty than all the voluntary cruelty that has ever been inflicted by man. All through nature, one kind of life preys upon another, and tortures another. Obviously the grim law of the survival of the fittest will not easily lend itself to the working of the new hedonism which counts pain the greatest evil, and which numbers among its unconscious adherents most of the sentimentalists of our day. We must read nature very deeply, and with an eye for the backside of things, if we are to extract her deepest lessons, and the last lesson that she will ever teach us is that all pain is a thing to be got rid of, an unmixed evil, or even an evil at all, except of the most temporary character. “The whole creation groans and travails in pain together,” says the great Apostle. Shall we weep over it with the sentimentalist? Shall we not rather see with his faith that thus creation is being “delivered from the bondage of corruption,” and “waits for the manifestation of the sons of God.”


It seems clear from Revelation that animals were meant to be used by man with a sense of responsibility; that they were meant to be the willing or unwilling servants, helpers, sustainers of human life, and that all the kindly relations between ourselves and them must, if they are to be healthy, be colored by the maintenance of this principle. The animals for the man, and not the man for the animals, is the rule. It is the justification of our meals, the justification of our natural sport, the justification of our perpetual sacrifice of animal life. Even the most determined vegetarian destroys animal life perpetually by walking; and we cannot sit down in a wood on a summer day without practicing the most serious vivisection quite involuntarily; we shall have to leave off moving, and take to our beds if we want to make sure of not adding to the sum of animal pain. The truth is we cannot help it; voluntarily or involuntarily we inflict pain every day. The moral question comes in here, do we inflict it, as far as it is voluntary, under a sense of responsibility? The balanced movement, which we have dwelt on before, meets us again as the only true point of view. We must pass from the sense that God gave us the animal world to use for our good, to the opposite point of view that we are responsible for a trust, that we are put in charge of all departments of life, if we would see the whole question. The sense of responsibility not only prevents reckless and inhuman cruelty; it also makes us careful in what we do, in the pain that is involved, for instance, in killing animals for food. It makes us ask ourselves, in the chastisement of animals, the question, Is this necessary? It keeps us from that recklessness which marks the hard heart, which beats because it can beat; it makes us humane, to use the word we have coined, that is, it makes us act like a man to a dependent life, and not like one brute to another. It is the dependent life of animals, with all the touching and beautiful relations which it involves—the dependent life which so sharpens their instinct, and even gives them the semblance of a moral sense; and it is the sense of that dependent life which ought to cultivate and quicken our sense of responsibility. It appeals to us out of the eyes of every dog, and from the trembling limbs of every nervous horse.


But when the question is put, which is to be valued most, human health or animal life, there is no hesitation about the answer; at any rate, if the answerer has grasped the principle that animals were made for man. If man is the apex and crown of creation, if “for him are all things,” then he has a right, with a full sense of responsibility, to use animal life for any purpose that ministers to his well-being, and no want of mercy is thereby involved. This principle will keep our heads clear through the piled up horrors of the vivisection question. That question lends itself so easily to a superficial view, that it is really difficult to speak of it, and the difficulty is not lessened by the fact that the literature on the question (with which I have been deluged since it was known I should deal with the subject of mercy to animals), appeals almost entirely to the sentimental imagination, and that often in the most morbid fashion.


If any words of mine could influence the kind hearts of those who are responsible for that literature, I would urge them respectfully that they should try to address themselves to the reasons of their countrymen, and not be content with heaping up details of horror, which, while they may influence the emotions, yet leave the reasons of those who know anything about the inner workings of pain absolutely unconvinced.* It is a misfortune that this agitation should be conducted mainly by persons of a highly-strung and emotional temperament. For on all these matters the reason will ask to the end one question, Is there a cause? And the great majority of those who will really settle this question, on which I believe much has to be said (on both sides), will only be influenced by a strong, logical treatment of the question.


There are really two questions in this matter which are almost invariably confused in the literature issued on the subject.


First, Is vivisection necessary for the well-being of human life? Secondly, Is it justifiable, even if it is necessary?


On the second question there is no manner of doubt about the answer. If it is necessary for the promotion of man’s health; if Pasteur has discovered a cure for hydrophobia by vivisecting rabbits (on which I express no opinion), he has earned the gratitude of the human race. I say that with a full sense of responsibility, remembering that I speak for a Master Who did not hesitate to sacrifice the herd of swine for the sake of a demoniac’s life, Who taught us that, while God cared for sparrows, that we “are of more value than many sparrows.” If vivisection is necessary, if it conduces to the deliverance of man from vile and horrible diseases like hydrophobia, then it is justifiable so long as it is carried on under a due sense of responsibility, and with a pure intention to benefit the human race, and with as little infliction of pain as possible. The other question, “Is it necessary?” is evidently a question for experts; a matter not to be decided by fervid declamation and passionate appeals to our own feelings about the animals for which we personally care, but to be reasoned out with a due sense of responsibility and a studied regard for the moral dangers which must always attend deliberate infliction of pain. No doubt there is a conflict of medical opinion here, as there is somehow on most medical questions, but on the whole there seems to be a substantial agreement that no such physiological treatises as those which we possess, and which are a necessity for the training of physicians, could have been written without a previous resort to these experiments. But whether, as science advances, it may not be found possible to dispense with what must be painful even to those who insist on its necessity, is one of those questions which might well be considered by men of science. Certainly it cannot be necessary to go on repeating experiments by way of illustration; when the discovery has been made, the experiment ought to cease. On that the Legislature ought to insist. And further, we ought, I think, to appeal to the medical profession to reconsider the whole question from the point of view of existing knowledge. We ought to urge upon them, for the sake of medical students, that there must be grave moral dangers in the pursuit of knowledge under such circumstances, and, while we altogether dissociate ourselves from the accusations of deliberate cruelty, which are often made against those whom we know to be among the kindest and most humane portion of the community, we ought to express a hope that an ever-increasing sense of the responsibility of such experiments will mark the conduct of those who undertake them for the good of the community. That there has not been, and is not always, that sense of responsibility, is, alas! only too certain.


This is one of those moderate expressions of opinion on a difficult question which will not satisfy extremists on either side, but I trust it may commend itself to the consciences of the great majority among you. I cannot forego great principles at the bidding of the sentimental imagination, nor join in the denunciation of those scientific methods, which the consideration of the greatest happiness of the greatest number seems to justify. My experience of the denouncers is that they, for the most part, think that pain is the worst evil, a far worse evil than sin, or disease, or remorse; against that position, even when unconsciously assumed, we are bound to protest.


The animals were made for man, and if he grows through their pain, it seems to bring them into the circle of redemption in a fashion which more than compensates for their present loss. But unquestionably we must always go on saying that one great way in which God proves what we are is through His creatures, and even the sentimentalists of our day may do us good if they remind us of our deep responsibilities towards the animals which He has not only given for our use, but also entrusted to our care. For myself, I always cling to the hope that there must be some larger and wider future open to them beyond the grave, in which their present ministries may be continued in some higher way. “Thou Lord, shalt save both man and beast, how excellent is Thy mercy, O God.”


There is one other thing which I must put before you because, through failure to grasp it, so many fall into mistakes, and give to animals a sort of pity which is disproportionate, and therefore disturbing to the mental balance. It is a consideration which delivers us from some of the darker shadows which rest on the natural world. The universality of pain in the animal world oppresses us, when we look closely at it. In dealing with it, emotion so often takes the place of reason, and men say, “If this is God’s world, I will not believe in God.” There is something of that hinted at in “In Memoriam,” as we all know. And John Stuart Mill’s famous indictment of nature, with which most of us are familiar, is rhetorical and emotional to an extent which startles us in a profound logician. But let us ask ourselves, what do we really know of the sufferings of animals? No one doubts that they suffer; but they have not that look before and after which gives the sting to human pain, and like children, they seem to give strong indications when they are called on to suffer very slight pain. Moreover, there are strong evidences of the power of fascination exercised by one on another, as, e.g, by a cat on a mouse; and fascination probably destroys pain. Really we know little about them; they have organs of sensation of which we know nothing, they seem to perceive colours invisible to us, their instincts are far more numerous and finer than our own; if, instead of reading into them our own sensations, we put ourselves under the guidance of the zoologist, and try to study theirs, we begin to see dimly that their life is not merely a reflection of ours, and that though what would seem to be analogous to pain in us exists in them, yet it has compensations of which we know nothing. To know really about animals, about their feelings no less than about their future we should have to know everything, to comprehend the Divine nature and the whole plan of Providence from start to finish. But we cannot know all this as things are, and we embark on a very misleading course when we transfer to them our own sensations of pain. It is certain, for instance, that a dog will wag his tail when he is apparently suffering tortures which, if we men were suffering them, would make any analogous operation in ourselves impossible. And I refer to this here because it touches so closely the moral question.


There is nothing more dangerous than the pessimism which is always harping on pain in man or animals; it is simply disappointed hedonism. It is the sentimental form of that complaint from which the debauched roué suffers. It says, in effect, ‘pain is the worst evil, let us weep over it;’ instead of saying ‘through pain the world is and was redeemed, let us reverence it and dwell on its highest uses.’ But while we insist on this, let us not forget that the right view of our relation to animals is only to be attained when we remember they are given to us, trusted to us, and that we are responsible to God for the use we make of them, for the way in which we behave towards them; and that while we ought not to let anthropomorphic tendencies disturb our mental balance about them, yet that there is nothing more certain in this and every age than this, that it is the token of a righteous man,—his mark—the best evidence for his sonship of the great Father of all, that he “regardeth the life of his beast.”

* See note at p. 115.


Eyton, R. (1896). Christian Pity and Animal Suffering (IV). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 103–114). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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