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Some aspects of the modern conflict between sentiment and reason

By Sir Arthur Keith, f.r.c.s., f.r.s., Conservator of Museum and Hunterian Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons ofEngland.

(Delivered on Wednesday, June 15th, 1982, at the Annual General Meeting of the Research Defence Society.)


Physical and Physiological Research Contrasted.

Modern physicists may count themselves fortunate in their field of enquiry. There is no society for the protection of atoms; they may be bombarded, exploded and tortured in every possible way without evoking any protest. Modern astronomers assure us that the tortures to which atoms are submitted in our experimental laboratories are as nothing compared to what happens to them in the burning centres of the Universe; news of the annihilation of distant worlds engenders no feeling in the human breast, unless it be that of wonder. We give chemists the utmost freedom to do with the elements as they will; we never seek to restrain geologists from probing to their depth the ancient wounds of mother earth. But when we experiment with matter in that state known as living, then we find that we are confronted with a new attitude of mind; such experiments evoke not only an intellectual but also an emotional response; our hearts as well as our heads are challenged. Yet it is not all kinds of living matter which exercises this power over our feelings. We mow our living lawns, we dig up our garden weeds, we mutilate and torture trees, we produce monstrous flowers and vegetables, we sow life in the soil and reap it in its maturity to satisfy our appetites without remorse and without criticism from our neighbours. We permit botanists to carry out any experiments on plants they care to devise because we assure ourselves that plants do not feel; they only live. It is when we propose to experiment on sentient animal matter that an additional factor enters into our enquiries; feeling is evoked in the mind of the experimenter as well as in that of the onlooker. Herein lies one of the critical differences between experimental physics and experimental biology. The physicist has to satisfy only a single or scientific ideal; the idea which confronts the experimental biologist is double; he has to satisfy an ethical as well as a scientific standard. To serve these two ideals, to harmonise them, entails a conflict in the mind of everyone who seeks to extend biology by experimental research.


Conflict between Sentiment and Reason in Various Branches of Medicine.

It is not only within the laboratory of the experimental physiologist that the competing claims of reason and of sentiment have to be adjusted. We, whose business it is to teach anatomy to medical students, meet with an ethical problem of a somewhat similar kind. Experience has taught us that if young men and women are to become skilled in medicine and surgery, they must know intimately the structure of the human body. There is in everyone a natural repulsion to the desecration of the dead. Medical students, on entering the dissecting room, go through a mental struggle; usually a sense of duty aided by reason quickly ends the conflict. In some, however, although they carry on, a sense of repugnance is never conquered. In a few the repulsion grows so strong that they cannot continue and they abandon the study of medicine. In their case, the conflict has ended in the triumph of sentiment. Heart has conquered head.

It is not only medical students who have to reconcile their wish to help the living with their desire to respect the dead; the same ethical problem exercises the lay mind. There are men and women who, when they realise the reasonableness of dissection do their best to reconcile their feelings with what they know to be necessary for the welfare of humanity. But there are others—an increasing multitude—dominated by the feeling that the dead are sacred and convinced that dissection is a ghoulish practice, who use every means, legitimate and illegitimate, to bring the fundamental— study of anatomy to an end. Here, again, we are confronted with an ethical problem—the adjustment of the claims of rational medicine with our inborn respect towards the dead. Our feelings are in conflict with our needs. If blind sentiment wins then is there an end to rational medical education.

The conflict between sentiment and reason, as carried on to-day, finds its sharpest expression in the opposition offered to the beneficial work carried on by experimental physiologists. This society—the Research Defence Society—rightly concentrates its efforts on the vindication of the work carried on in our physiological laboratories. The anti-vivisection crusade is dangerous and has to be repelled but after all, it is only an acute mani­festation of a conflict which permeates modern society—a conflict in which blind sentiment is ranged against clear reason. We meet with minor manifestations of the same conflict in all departments of medicine. It can be seen daily in the operating theatre of every hospital. No surgeon makes his initial incision without some degree of internal conflict; part of his nature rebels against wilfully wounding a fellow being. His reason, strengthened by the knowledge that the operation he is to perform will bring relief and ultimately health to his patient, gives him victory over his initial feelings. Every medical measure which aims at an ultimate cure by the infliction of immediate suffering entails a repression of feeling on the part of the prescribing physician. The judge on the bench has to divest himself of his natural instincts if he is to administer law to the criminal in the dock. The crowd, bemoaning the terrible end that awaits the man in the con­demned cell forgets the justice due to the woman whom the criminal has widowed and the children he has made fatherless. No parent ever administers punishment to a child, however deserved and salutary the punish­ment may be, without a conflict between reason and sentiment. There is a growing feeling amongst teachers that physical punishment, administered to scholars, is an unjustifiable form of cruelty. Sentiment asserts itself more and more at the present day as a ruling force. The repugnance to eugenical measures of a surgical nature springs from sentiment, not from reason.


The Modern Conflict between Sentiment and Reason.

Amongst all highly civilised peoples, there is a growing tendency for feelings to dominate reason and for sentiment to be accepted as a guide in life rather than intellect. Under modern conditions, it is said that the public conscience becomes more tender and impressionable, the public nerves more sensitive to pain, suffering and every shade of cruelty, and these changes are vaunted as sure signs of human progress. If sentiment and feeling are to completely subjugate and enslave reason—as now they threaten to do—then the ultimate result for civilisation will be, not progress —but disaster. The conflict in which the members of this Society are now engaged is not merely to vindicate the right of medical men to carry out enquiries which are lawful under the Act of 1876, but also to demand that in settling all the issues relating to the life and death of a community reason as well as sentiment must have sway.


Conscious Sympathy as a Human Peculiarity.

In no animal communities do we find societies for propaganda purposes —for the prevention of cruelty or defence of research. Such societies, are found only in human communities. They are so confined because man differs from all other animals in being endowed by Nature with feelings which render him sensitive to the sufferings—not only of his fellow men—but of his fellow creatures. If man was evolved from the brute, as the enquiries of a lifetime have convinced me to have been the case, how did he come by his power of conscious sympathy which no brute has?[1] This special endowment came to him late in his evolutionary career—with the phenomenal increase of his brain—the organ of feeling as well as of thinking. His powers of sympathy primarily intended for the succour of his fellows, have, in recent times, been extended beyond the confines of the family or tribal circle, to include all animals which have entered into friendly association with him.


The Conflict between Economic Needs and Sentiment.

This sympathetic attitude of man towards the sufferings of animals deserves our consideration for a moment. We now know, with a fair degree of accuracy, the conditions under which our forefathers lived inWestern Europesome 4,000 years ago, and we can infer what their attitude was to all wild animals. We have no reason to believe they had then domesticated animals or had learned even the rudiments of agriculture. Every man and boy was then a hunter; they had to kill or starve. A successful chase gave them not only their livelihood but their pleasures.   Even we, who are their remote descendants, can still feel the excitement that raced through their veins when a "kill" is in sight. In these times, game of all kinds has disappeared—save in private preserves. The wilds where our ancestors hunted have become fenced meadows, in which there browse millions of contented sheep and cattle. We see them trustfully grazing one day; next time we see them they are suspended in a butcher's shop; later, we meet them at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Against the attack of our forefathers they had a chance of escape; against us they have none. Most of us refuse to think of the silent tragedy that goes on in our midst; we merely insist that it must be done swiftly and as humanely as is possible. Most of us succeed in reconciling our sentiments to our economic needs by a frank effort of reason but in others the conflict between the urgent demands of hunger and the violation of the feeling that life is sacred culminates in a resolution to foreswear all forms of animal meat. Nay, in some of the older civilisations of the East, sentimentalism has become enthroned; animal life, in every form, is counted sacred. The more vermin a devotee harbours between his garments and his skin the greater is his merit. That is what must happen amongst every people who place sentiment above reason. If we agree to place the life of an animal on an equality with human life, then we must all become devout Bhuddists. There is no other religion which will hold us. For my part, I think it best to recognise honestly and openly the conditions of human existence. We have to live on the products of life; we have no alternative. We have to effect a frank compromise between ideals dictated to us by our feelings and the claims enforced on us by our reasonable necessities. It is not sentiment but reason which must be the final arbiter in the attitude we are to adopt to our four-footed dumb friends.

The Origin of Cruelty.

We cannot discuss the issues in which this Society is concerned without touching on another side of human nature—cruelty. If we ascribe to Nature the endowment of man with the god-like qualities of mercy and sympathy, to what source is the vice of cruelty to be traced? For civilised man can be cruel; by his spoken or written words he can outdo the worst wounds inflicted by the poisoned darts of savages.

It has been asserted that in the whole range of animal life, only man has been stained by the vice of cruelty. It has been alleged that animals of prey, even when they play with their victims, are not consciously cruel; man, on the other hand, can be wilfully, consciously and purposively cruel. We can understand how man came by a gift so beneficial to his community as is sympathy; but how did he come by this abhorrent quality —cruelty? No child escapes this heritage; the power of being cruel may­be latent or suppressed but it is never omitted from the gamut of human nature. What purpose could cruelty ever have served in the survival of a people? We may be sure that in the creation of man Nature has done nothing in vain.   In the late war, "^rightfulness" was practised deliberately as a means of reducing an invaded people to a state of terrorisation. The vice of cruelty has been given to man for the same reason as a sting has been given to the wasp and thorns to the rose—namely, for protection—to make their enemies afraid of them. Cruelty in its primitive form is a vice of hot blood; it becomes manifest only in. times of terror. Thoughtless cruelty, on the other hand, is a prevalent failing. Everyone of us wishes to see this form of cruelty eliminated from our midst—none so more than the members of the Research Defence Society. It has also to be admitted that there are beings in human shape who seem to be so constituted as actually to cause cruelty for the sake of the pleasure experienced. Such beings are pathological sports and should be treated as criminals are.


A Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Scientific Men.

I have mentioned man's vice of cruelty because it has been alleged by our opponents that those who make experiments on the living do so to exercise an inborn desire to inflict suffering on helpless animals. It has been my privilege to know many of those who, in my lifetime, have advanced the resources of medicine by operations on anaesthetised animals ; the}- have been, one and all, tender-hearted men who, having convinced themselves that by a present sacrifice of animal life, they could make the world a better place for man and beast, have conquered their feelings and carried out the experiments which they had planned, impelled by a sense of duty to their fellow men as well as fellow creatures. I have seen them operate: no surgeon, exercising his art on his own child, could be more tender in his manipulations. And yet I have heard such men branded as malefactors and criminals. Of all forms of cruelty I know of none more diabolical than that which wilfully seeks to misinterpret motive. If there is need for a society to save animals from unnecessary suffering there is still more need for a society, such as this, to save scientific men from the cruelty of mis­representation and of injustice.


The Evidence in Favour of Research by Vivisection is Overwhelming.

I have approached the cause which the Research Defence Society has at heart from a rather unusual direction. I have been seeking to make clear to you that the opposition to research on living animals is part of a great ethical question which is forcing itself more and more on the attention of the present generation. Are we, in determining our practice and policy, to be guided entirely by our feelings r Or are we to give intellect and reason a hearing in making up our minds as to what is best for the present and future of humanity? We can resolve this ethical problem only if we understand human nature. Human nature has a wonderful power of rejecting facts which run counter to its feelings. If reason were the sole arbiter in deciding whether or not vivisection is justifiable, the public jury ofEnglandwould have returned long ago a verdict in favour of this Society. If reason could convince our opponents, then the portfolios of evidence which have already been laid before you by the distinguished men who have given this lecture in former years, should not only have reduced our opponents to silence, but compelled them to throw in their lot with us. We are the true friends of animals. No matter what aspect of medical and of veterinary progress one considers, whether it be the ridding of the tropics of their plagues, the removal of the ailments which are caused by error of diet, the rescue of human and animal life from the onslaught of its microscopic enemies, the relief of pain by a better knowledge of the action of drugs or the restoration of those who were counted as doomed by a better knowledge of the physiology of the body, it will be found, on proper enquiry, that all of these advances have been made possible by vivisection. The man of science draws no distinction as to who is to share in the fruits of his dis­covery; he is as proud to be of service to the meanest beast as to the finest lady in the land. These 50 years I have been an interested spectator in the progress of medicine and I declare to all whom it may concern, that even-great advance I have seen, has been the result of discoveries made, not in ancient literature nor in the sick-room, but in scientific laboratories— more often than not in physiological laboratories where vivisection is necessarily practised. If mankind were have ceased long ago. Reason, however, does not hold the sceptre of public opinion. We must, if we are to prevail, continue to produce our evidence and so enlighten public understanding. We have to take into consideration that the majority of the people to whom we appeal are guided by feeling rather than by reason. It is only when we realise the dominance of feeling in human nature that we can understand the opposition which is launched against us and the need for patience and education, if we are to overcome it. Our opponents cannot believe that we have the same sympathies as they have, that we are equally tender in our regard for animals but that we have conquered our feelings in order that we may do the greater good.


"Common Sense" is Not a Reliable Guide in the Solutions of Scientific Problems.

We have, if our cause is to prevail, to continue to produce evidence, both old and new, so as to leave no doubt in any mind that research on living animals adds to the well-being of mankind and to the progress of civilisation. We produce our evidence not so much in the hope of converting those who are dominated by their feelings, but in the assurance that we shall bring over to our side all impartial onlookers. We can never hope to win an abiding verdict except by an appeal founded on well ascertained facts. We have to combat ignorance in all its forms—especially in that form which passes as "common sense." As I was preparing this lecture, Mr. Stephen Coleridge, who has never hesitated to offer an honest and emphatic con­demnation of physiological methods of research, questioned the new con­ceptions of space and time promulgated by Einstein and his followers. He applied to their conceptions the criterion of "common sense," and found that they were, in his opinion, promulgating nonsense.   He was not restrained by the fact that those who had the training, ability and oppor­tunities of investigating the depths of space at first hand had discovered evidence which was altogether at Variance with the "common sense" conception of space. When "common sense" comes against expert know­ledge retreat, I think, is the wiser policy.Darwin's victory was one over the "common sense" of his age. In the recondite fields of medicine, especially in the basal science of physiology, we must be prepared to be guided not by common sense but by the argument of irrefutable fact. We can hardly expect the man in the street, who has his own preoccupations, to know all that special experience has vouchsafed to us. If research is to prosper, the great public must be kept informed of its aims, its scope, and its accomplishments.


How Animal Suffering can be best Relieved.

Although the main object of this Society is to defend those who seek to relieve animal suffering by research there are occasions when it cannot afford to remain merely on the defensive but must take the offensive. We must take the offensive when we see the great charitable heart of the public being misdirected as to the best means of relieving the sufferings of animals. One would have supposed that there could not be a more practical way of bringing succour to the ailing animals of the poor than by giving liberally to veterinary institutions which offer to rich and poor alike the best that can be done by modern means of treatment. Some time ago, I learned with sur­prise that this is not the point of view adopted by some of those who oppose "vivisection. You must bear with me for a few minutes as I give in some detail the circumstances which made me realise that charity intended for the relief of animal-suffering may be used merely to satisfy a human prejudice.

In a part ofLondon, quite near to the place in which we have met, I saw a small crowd gather in the street. Peering over the shoulders of the bystanders, I caught a glimpse of a little urchin in the centre hugging an injured fox-terrier. It had hesitated in crossing the street and got run over by a van which was soon out of sight. The little fellow made off with the dog, followed by a troop of sympathisers, mostly boys. I wondered what was to be done and followed the lad and his companions who headed at a trot in the direction ofCamdenTown. Presently a street was reached along one side of which stretched a high, bare wall. A wide gateway in the wall opened on an ample yard. Without hesitation, our little Samaritan, followed by his straggling troop, entered the great gateway, crossed the yard, evidently making for a shed hid away in a distant corner. Within the shed sat a row of all sorts of people nursing sick pets of the most diverse kinds. A white-coated surgeon, in a neighbouring office, examined each of his animal patients in turn and gave appropriate treatment. As the little cavalcade entered the waiting shed the surgeon beckoned the lad with the "run-over" to enter forthwith. Less urgent cases were pushed aside and the injured fox-terrier became the centre of attention.   No accident case brought to our best hospitals could have been handled more tenderly or more skilfully than this apparently ownerless dog. A broken leg was found to be the worst of his misfortunes. The little cavalcade, having seen the injured leg dressed and splinted and the patient lodged in an adjacent ward dispersed, but not before a collection of coppers had been dropped within the charity box.

I am ashamed to say that the Institution into which an accident had led me was new to me, but so impressed was I by the good work it was doing, that to satisfy my conscience, I had to seek out someone in authority to whom I might tender my tribute of praise. The office of the Institution I found in another side of the gaunt yard—modest, unostentatious, but like all within the gates, clean and orderly but poverty-stricken. I was fortunate in finding the head of the Institution in his office—Frederick Hobday, Principal of the Royal Veterinary College—a man known throughout England not only for his professional skill but also for his deep love of animals convinced by reason and by judicial and verifiable evidence, then the need for such a Society as this would On thanking him I added: "You should have no lack-of fund ; you are surrounded by millions of charitable pockets." "We are terribly poor,' he replied. "But," said I, "is there not a powerful and rich Society with its headquarters in this city, which claims to be the special friend of animals in distress?" "There is," was the laconic reply. " And does this Society which spends so much on propaganda give you no material help r " I asked. " On the contrary," was his answer, "the Society you mention puts every obstacle in our way—even to the propagation of misrepresentation."

As I left Principal Hobday, I could not help recalling the various forms which cruelty has taken in human communities during past times. Under the cloak of religion, cruelty has been practised in many countries, but here, inLondonof the twentieth century, I found cruelty being perpetrated against dumb, suffering animals in the name of humanitarianism! For what worse form of cruelty can be conceived than the deliberate withholding from dumb, ailing brutes and birds the best that modern science can do for them?


Our Founder—A Sensitive and Highly-Cultured Man.

It was injustices of the kind I have been describing to you that moved the Founder of this Society to take action. We know something of the motives which impelled him to become a crusader on behalf of research. In one of his best books, " Confessio Medici," he lifts the veil of personality sufficiently high to give us a glimpse of the kind of mental conflicts he endured before he found his real mission in life—the defence of research as the true handmaid of medical progress. "The strain in the practice of medicine," he wrote, " may be so severe that many of us fail, or partly fail, to do what we will." Our founder suffered from the strain of practice. Strain implies a mental conflict of some kind; it may be between the hand that holds the knife and the will which seeks to guide it : or it may be between the " present-thought " which had prescribed a certain line of treatment and an " after-thought " which feared a mistake had been made.   "This fear of doing harm," our founder asserted, " does not pass with the passing of youth. Consider the cases which fail through no fault of ours. It is just in such cases that temperament is so apt to get the upper hand of reason. . . . Our successful cases we feel might belong to anybody but the unsuccessful ones are ours." From these sentences we obtain a glimpse of the daily conflicts which made our founder's mind a perpetual battlefield, one in which "temperament" and "reason" were at variance.- Of all the enemies of his reason, the most relentless was a tireless monitor which lurked in the depths of his brain, ever criticising and belittling his own professional skill while exalting and belauding that of all his competitors. We realise, from these self-revealed glimpses, something of the ordeal which this "extremely sensitive and highly-cultured man" went through " until the wear and tear of practice broke down his health " (Plarrs Lives). But when research as a means of advancing medicine and surgery was called in question, the mind which had wilted under the stress of practice, rose strong and triumphant. Intellect, like a courageous ship's captain, brought the unruly crew of doubts and fears to heel: hesitation and vacillation vanished. Braced by the righteousness, justice and reasonableness of his cause, this sensitive man, who never in his life had practised experiments on animals, became the champion of those who did. Their defence became his life's work; no toil was too arduous ; he organised meetings, he delivered a countless series of carefully-prepared and scrupulously reasoned addresses ; he wrote pamphlets; he carried warfare into the camp of the enemy ; he organised this Society for the Defence of Research. Was there ever such a transfiguration? The justice and righteousness of a great cause—the relief of suffering through research—carried him triumphantly onwards.


The Example of Lord Knutsford.

Those whose beliefs and actions are determined by their untutored temperaments are altogether ignorant of the conflicts which sensitive minds go through before they give their assent to the sacrificing of life for any pur­pose whatsoever. Such minds are as intolerant of cruelty as are those of the most bigoted of anti-vivisectionists. That a sensitive surgeon, such as our founder was, familiar with the benefits which accrue from research, should succeed in subduing his feelings after an early period of conflict need not surprise us. But what are we to say of the self-conversion of a layman so sensitively constituted as the late Lord Knutsford was? Only last year, he was the life and soul of this Society. In 1896, in the full strength of manhood, he shouldered the affairs of theLondonHospital— a burden such as few men have ever been called upon to bear. It was then my good fortune to occupy z humble position in the school of the hospital and see near at hand how Sydney Holland—as he then was—carried philan­thropy to the highest pitch of idealism. So deep and vehement was his sympathy for poor and suffering humanity that he turned tempting worldly prospects aside to devote his life to its relief. Not only were his emotions warm and responsive, but his feelings were runed as sensitively and as delicately as those of any woman. With such a constitution, life would have been well-nigh intolerable for him had not nature added to his other gifts the anodyne of sensitive souls—the gifts of wit and humour. Not only had Nature given him a full installation of sensitive feeling, with wit and humour for self-protection, but she had also bestowed on him an intellect active, acute and discriminating. There were in his mental outfit warring elements which might have paralysed his best enorts—but for an inflexibility of will. No doubt his training at the bar and his knowledge of business gave him a superb power of sifting evidence and of drawing just inferences. If he hated one thing more than cruelty, it was all manner of sham and hypocrisy.

Very soon after his arrival at theLondonHospital, Lord Knutsford had to make up his mind as to the attitude he must adopt towards those who were seeking to extend medical knowledge by experiments on animals. If he had considered merely his natural feelings or the financial prospects of his hospital probably he would have attempted to suppress the researches he found going forward in the laboratories of the School. He thought only of what was best for the sick and the injured which filled the wards of the hospital. He was quick to see that in the majority of cases, medicine as it then was, could play only a palliative r6!e. Looking round, he perceived that the men who were advancing our knowledge of disease and of rational treatment, were those engaged in research—especially research on living animals. Once his intellect was convinced, his struggle with his natural ■disposition was over. He became a champion of research. His unmatched courage has given heart to those who seek to follow in the footsteps of Harvey, Hunter, and Lister.



In this lecture, given to honour the memory of Stephen Paget, the founder of this Society, I have sought to prove that the opposition to vivi­section is not an isolated manifestation but is part of a great, modern issue. The issue at stake is the future of civilisation. Are we to go forward with reason blinded and guided solely by our feelings, or is our course to be determined by feelings combined with intelligence? It is an issue between heart and head. It is true we can move reason and so subjugate natural and very proper feelings only by an appeal to the evidence of facts. My predecessors have overwhelmed our adversaries with unanswerable evidence —both old and new. The case for vivisection could not be more justly stated or more cogently urged than in the recent Romanes Lecture given by Lord Moynihan. If mere weight of evidence could convince then our victory would have been assured long ago. We have to recognise that a great number of men and women are not open to reason; they deliberately prefer to be guided by their feelings towards an impracticable ethical ideal.

A Long View.

Even in this difficulty, men like myself who have concerned themselves with the evolution of humanity can offer some cold comfort for those who are impatient for the advance of medicine by research. It becomes increasingly clear that in his ascent from brutedom man has been guided by inborn feelings, prejudices and inherited tendencies; under their guidance man has struggled into the light of civilisation. So complex, however, has civilisation now become, so numerous and urgent have become the needs of massed humanity, that the ancient guides are no longer trustworthy. Intellect as well as feeling must take a hand in determining the course which civilisation must take. Blind sentiment, if we allow it to prevail, will land humanity in chaos. It is just this danger which makes the existence of the Research Defence Society a necessity for our time.



[1] Dogs certainly manifest " conscious sympathy " for their master or mistress, but never, so far as 1 know, to members of their own species.

Last edited: 19 January 2018 13:56

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