George Bernard Shaw.

The Doctor's Dilemma: Preface on Doctors online

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pleasures of mankind, and that the detection of its Protean disguises as
law, education, medicine, discipline, sport and so forth, is one of the
most difficult of the unending tasks of the legislator.


At first blush it may seem not only unnecessary, but even indecent, to
discuss such a proposition as the elevation of cruelty to the rank of a
human right. Unnecessary, because no vivisector confesses to a love of
cruelty for its own sake or claims any general fundamental right to be
cruel. Indecent, because there is an accepted convention to repudiate
cruelty; and vivisection is only tolerated by the law on condition that,
like judicial torture, it shall be done as mercifully as the nature of
the practice allows. But the moment the controversy becomes embittered,
the recriminations bandied between the opposed parties bring us
face-to-face with some very ugly truths. On one occasion I was invited
to speak at a large Anti-Vivisection meeting in the Queen's Hall in
London. I found myself on the platform with fox hunters, tame stag
hunters, men and women whose calendar was divided, not by pay days and
quarter days, but by seasons for killing animals for sport: the fox, the
hare, the otter, the partridge and the rest having each its appointed
date for slaughter. The ladies among us wore hats and cloaks and
head-dresses obtained by wholesale massacres, ruthless trappings,
callous extermination of our fellow creatures. We insisted on our
butchers supplying us with white veal, and were large and constant
consumers of pate de foie gras; both comestibles being obtained by
revolting methods. We sent our sons to public schools where indecent
flogging is a recognized method of taming the young human animal. Yet
we were all in hysterics of indignation at the cruelties of the
vivisectors. These, if any were present, must have smiled sardonically
at such inhuman humanitarians, whose daily habits and fashionable
amusements cause more suffering in England in a week than all the
vivisectors of Europe do in a year. I made a very effective speech, not
exclusively against vivisection, but against cruelty; and I have never
been asked to speak since by that Society, nor do I expect to be, as I
should probably give such offence to its most affluent subscribers that
its attempts to suppress vivisection would be seriously hindered. But
that does not prevent the vivisectors from freely using the "youre
another" retort, and using it with justice.

We must therefore give ourselves no airs of superiority when denouncing
the cruelties of vivisection. We all do just as horrible things, with
even less excuse. But in making that admission we are also making short
work of the virtuous airs with which we are sometimes referred to the
humanity of the medical profession as a guarantee that vivisection is
not abused - much as if our burglars should assure us that they arc too
honest to abuse the practice of burgling. We are, as a matter of fact,
a cruel nation; and our habit of disguising our vices by giving
polite names to the offences we are determined to commit does not,
unfortunately for my own comfort, impose on me. Vivisectors can hardly
pretend to be better than the classes from which they are drawn, or
those above them; and if these classes are capable of sacrificing
animals in various cruel ways under cover of sport, fashion, education,
discipline, and even, when the cruel sacrifices are human sacrifices, of
political economy, it is idle for the vivisector to pretend that he is
incapable of practising cruelty for pleasure or profit or both under
the cloak of science. We are all tarred with the same brush; and the
vivisectors are not slow to remind us of it, and to protest vehemently
against being branded as exceptionally cruel and its devisors of
horrible instruments of torture by people whose main notion of enjoyment
is cruel sport, and whose requirements in the way of villainously cruel
traps occupy pages of the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores.


There is in man a specific lust for cruelty which infects even his
passion of pity and makes it savage. Simple disgust at cruelty is very
rare. The people who turn sick and faint and those who gloat are
often alike in the pains they take to witness executions, floggings,
operations or any other exhibitions of suffering, especially those
involving bloodshed, blows, and laceration. A craze for cruelty can
be developed just as a craze for drink can; and nobody who attempts to
ignore cruelty as a possible factor in the attraction of vivisection and
even of antivivisection, or in the credulity with which we accept its
excuses, can be regarded as a scientific investigator of it. Those who
accuse vivisectors of indulging the well-known passion of cruelty
under the cloak of research are therefore putting forward a strictly
scientific psychological hypothesis, which is also simple, human,
obvious, and probable. It may be as wounding to the personal vanity of
the vivisector as Darwin's Origin of Species was to the people who
could not bear to think that they were cousins to the monkeys (remember
Goldsmith's anger when he was told that he could not move his upper
jaw); but science has to consider only the truth of the hypothesis,
and not whether conceited people will like it or not. In vain do the
sentimental champions of vivisection declare themselves the most humane
of men, inflicting suffering only to relieve it, scrupulous in the use
of anesthetics, and void of all passion except the passion of pity for
a disease-ridden world. The really scientific investigator answers that
the question cannot be settled by hysterical protestations, and that if
the vivisectionist rejects deductive reasoning, he had better clear his
character by his own favorite method of experiment.


Take the hackneyed case of the Italian who tortured mice, ostensibly to
find out about the effects of pain rather less than the nearest dentist
could have told him, and who boasted of the ecstatic sensations (he
actually used the word love) with which he carried out his experiments.
Or the gentleman who starved sixty dogs to death to establish the fact
that a dog deprived of food gets progressively lighter and weaker,
becoming remarkably emaciated, and finally dying: an undoubted truth,
but ascertainable without laboratory experiments by a simple enquiry
addressed to the nearest policeman, or, failing him, to any sane
person in Europe. The Italian is diagnosed as a cruel voluptuary: the
dog-starver is passed over as such a hopeless fool that it is impossible
to take any interest in him. Why not test the diagnosis scientifically?
Why not perform a careful series of experiments on persons under the
influence of voluptuous ecstasy, so as to ascertain its physiological
symptoms? Then perform a second series on persons engaged in
mathematical work or machine designing, so as to ascertain the symptoms
of cold scientific activity? Then note the symptoms of a vivisector
performing a cruel experiment; and compare them with the voluptuary
symptoms and the mathematical symptoms? Such experiments would be quite
as interesting and important as any yet undertaken by the vivisectors.
They might open a line of investigation which would finally make, for
instance, the ascertainment of the guilt or innocence of an accused
person a much exacter process than the very fallible methods of our
criminal courts. But instead of proposing such an investigation, our
vivisectors offer us all the pious protestations and all the huffy
recriminations that any common unscientific mortal offers when he is
accused of unworthy conduct.


Yet most vivisectors would probably come triumphant out of such a series
of experiments, because vivisection is now a routine, like butchering
or hanging or flogging; and many of the men who practise it do so only
because it has been established as part of the profession they have
adopted. Far from enjoying it, they have simply overcome their natural
repugnance and become indifferent to it, as men inevitably become
indifferent to anything they do often enough. It is this dangerous power
of custom that makes it so difficult to convince the common sense of
mankind that any established commercial or professional practice has its
root in passion. Let a routine once spring from passion, and you will
presently find thousands of routineers following it passionlessly for
a livelihood. Thus it always seems strained to speak of the religious
convictions of a clergyman, because nine out of ten clergymen have no
religions convictions: they are ordinary officials carrying on a routine
of baptizing, marrying, and churching; praying, reciting, and preaching;
and, like solicitors or doctors, getting away from their duties with
relief to hunt, to garden, to keep bees, to go into society, and the
like. In the same way many people do cruel and vile things without being
in the least cruel or vile, because the routine to which they have been
brought up is superstitiously cruel and vile. To say that every man
who beats his children and every schoolmaster who flogs a pupil is a
conscious debauchee is absurd: thousands of dull, conscientious people
beat their children conscientiously, because they were beaten themselves
and think children ought to be beaten. The ill-tempered vulgarity that
instinctively strikes at and hurts a thing that annoys it (and all
children are annoying), and the simple stupidity that requires from a
child perfection beyond the reach of the wisest and best adults (perfect
truthfulness coupled with perfect obedience is quite a common condition
of leaving a child unwhipped), produce a good deal of flagellation among
people who not only do not lust after it, but who hit the harder because
they are angry at having to perform an uncomfortable duty. These people
will beat merely to assert their authority, or to carry out what they
conceive to be a divine order on the strength of the precept of Solomon
recorded in the Bible, which carefully adds that Solomon completely
spoilt his own son and turned away from the god of his fathers to the
sensuous idolatry in which he ended his days.

In the same way we find men and women practising vivisection as
senselessly as a humane butcher, who adores his fox terrier, will cut
a calf's throat and hang it up by its heels to bleed slowly to death
because it is the custom to eat veal and insist on its being white; or
as a German purveyor nails a goose to a board and stuffs it with food
because fashionable people eat pate de foie gras; or as the crew of
a whaler breaks in on a colony of seals and clubs them to death in
wholesale massacre because ladies want sealskin jackets; or as fanciers
blind singing birds with hot needles, and mutilate the ears and tails
of dogs and horses. Let cruelty or kindness or anything else once become
customary and it will be practised by people to whom it is not at all
natural, but whose rule of life is simply to do only what everybody else
does, and who would lose their employment and starve if they indulged
in any peculiarity. A respectable man will lie daily, in speech and in
print, about the qualities of the article he lives by selling, because
it is customary to do so. He will flog his boy for telling a lie,
because it is customary to do so. He will also flog him for not telling
a lie if the boy tells inconvenient or disrespectful truths, because
it is customary to do so. He will give the same boy a present on his
birthday, and buy him a spade and bucket at the seaside, because it is
customary to do so, being all the time neither particularly mendacious,
nor particularly cruel, nor particularly generous, but simply incapable
of ethical judgment or independent action.

Just so do we find a crowd of petty vivisectionists daily committing
atrocities and stupidities, because it is the custom to do so.
Vivisection is customary as part of the routine of preparing lectures in
medical schools. For instance, there are two ways of making the action
of the heart visible to students. One, a barbarous, ignorant, and
thoughtless way, is to stick little flags into a rabbit's heart and
let the students see the flags jump. The other, an elegant, ingenious,
well-informed, and instructive way, is to put a sphygmograph on the
student's wrist and let him see a record of his heart's action traced
by a needle on a slip of smoked paper. But it has become the custom for
lecturers to teach from the rabbit; and the lecturers are not original
enough to get out of their groove. Then there are the demonstrations
which are made by cutting up frogs with scissors. The most humane man,
however repugnant the operation may be to him at first, cannot do it
at lecture after lecture for months without finally - and that very
soon - feeling no more for the frog than if he were cutting up pieces of
paper. Such clumsy and lazy ways of teaching are based on the cheapness
of frogs and rabbits. If machines were as cheap as frogs, engineers
would not only be taught the anatomy of machines and the functions of
their parts: they would also have machines misused and wrecked before
them so that they might learn as much as possible by using their eyes,
and as little as possible by using their brains and imaginations. Thus
we have, as part of the routine of teaching, a routine of vivisection
which soon produces complete indifference to it on the part even of
those who are naturally humane. If they pass on from the routine of
lecture preparation, not into general practice, but into research work,
they carry this acquired indifference with them into the laboratory,
where any atrocity is possible, because all atrocities satisfy
curiosity. The routine man is in the majority in his profession always:
consequently the moment his practice is tracked down to its source
in human passion there is a great and quite sincere poohpoohing from
himself, from the mass of the profession, and from the mass of the
public, which sees that the average doctor is much too commonplace and
decent a person to be capable of passionate wickedness of any kind.

Here then, we have in vivisection, as in all the other tolerated
and instituted cruelties, this anti-climax: that only a negligible
percentage of those who practise and consequently defend it get any
satisfaction out of it. As in Mr. Galsworthy's play Justice the useless
and detestable torture of solitary imprisonment is shown at its worst
without the introduction of a single cruel person into the drama, so
it would be possible to represent all the torments of vivisection
dramatically without introducing a single vivisector who had not felt
sick at his first experience in the laboratory. Not that this can
exonerate any vivisector from suspicion of enjoying his work (or her
work: a good deal of the vivisection in medical schools is done by
women). In every autobiography which records a real experience of school
or prison life, we find that here and there among the routineers there
is to be found the genuine amateur, the orgiastic flogging schoolmaster
or the nagging warder, who has sought out a cruel profession for the
sake of its cruelty. But it is the genuine routineer who is the bulwark
of the practice, because, though you can excite public fury against a
Sade, a Bluebeard, or a Nero, you cannot rouse any feeling against
dull Mr. Smith doing his duty: that is, doing the usual thing. He is so
obviously no better and no worse than anyone else that it is difficult
to conceive that the things he does are abominable. If you would see
public dislike surging up in a moment against an individual, you must
watch one who does something unusual, no matter how sensible it may be.
The name of Jonas Hanway lives as that of a brave man because he was the
first who dared to appear in the streets of this rainy island with an


But there is still a distinction to be clung to by those who dare not
tell themselves the truth about the medical profession because they are
so helplessly dependent on it when death threatens the household. That
distinction is the line that separates the brute from the man in the old
classification. Granted, they will plead, that we are all cruel; yet the
tame-stag-hunter does not hunt men; and the sportsman who lets a leash
of greyhounds loose on a hare would be horrified at the thought of
letting them loose on a human child. The lady who gets her cloak by
flaying a sable does not flay a negro; nor does it ever occur to her
that her veal cutlet might be improved on by a slice of tender baby.

Now there was a time when some trust could be placed in this
distinction. The Roman Catholic Church still maintains, with what it
must permit me to call a stupid obstinacy, and in spite of St. Francis
and St. Anthony, that animals have no souls and no rights; so that you
cannot sin against an animal, or against God by anything you may choose
to do to an animal. Resisting the temptation to enter on an argument as
to whether you may not sin against your own soul if you are unjust or
cruel to the least of those whom St. Francis called his little brothers,
I have only to point out here that nothing could be more despicably
superstitious in the opinion of a vivisector than the notion that
science recognizes any such step in evolution as the step from a
physical organism to an immortal soul. That conceit has been taken
out of all our men of science, and out of all our doctors, by the
evolutionists; and when it is considered how completely obsessed
biological science has become in our days, not by the full scope of
evolution, but by that particular method of it which has neither sense
nor purpose nor life nor anything human, much less godlike, in it:
by the method, that is, of so-called Natural Selection (meaning no
selection at all, but mere dead accident and luck), the folly of
trusting to vivisectors to hold the human animal any more sacred than
the other animals becomes so clear that it would be waste of time to
insist further on it. As a matter of fact the man who once concedes
to the vivisector the right to put a dog outside the laws of honor and
fellowship, concedes to him also the right to put himself outside them;
for he is nothing to the vivisector but a more highly developed, and
consequently more interesting-to-experiment-on vertebrate than the dog.


I have in my hand a printed and published account by a doctor of how
he tested his remedy for pulmonary tuberculosis, which was to inject a
powerful germicide directly into the circulation by stabbing a vein with
a syringe. He was one of those doctors who are able to command public
sympathy by saying, quite truly, that when they discovered that the
proposed treatment was dangerous, they experimented thenceforth on
themselves. In this case the doctor was devoted enough to carry his
experiments to the point of running serious risks, and actually making
himself very uncomfortable. But he did not begin with himself. His first
experiment was on two hospital patients. On receiving a message from the
hospital to the effect that these two martyrs to therapeutic science
had all but expired in convulsions, he experimented on a rabbit, which
instantly dropped dead. It was then, and not until then, that he began
to experiment on himself, with the germicide modified in the direction
indicated by the experiments made on the two patients and the rabbit. As
a good many people countenance vivisection because they fear that if the
experiments are not made on rabbits they will be made on themselves,
it is worth noting that in this case, where both rabbits and men
were equally available, the men, being, of course, enormously more
instructive, and costing nothing, were experimented on first. Once
grant the ethics of the vivisectionists and you not only sanction the
experiment on the human subject, but make it the first duty of the
vivisector. If a guinea pig may be sacrificed for the sake of the very
little that can be learnt from it, shall not a man be sacrificed for the
sake of the great deal that can be learnt from him? At all events, he is
sacrificed, as this typical case shows. I may add (not that it touches
the argument) that the doctor, the patients, and the rabbit all suffered
in vain, as far as the hoped-for rescue of the race from pulmonary
consumption is concerned.


Now at the very time when the lectures describing these experiments
were being circulated in print and discussed eagerly by the medical
profession, the customary denials that patients are experimented on
were as loud, as indignant, as high-minded as ever, in spite of the
few intelligent doctors who point out rightly that all treatments are
experiments on the patient. And this brings us to an obvious but
mostly overlooked weakness in the vivisector's position: that is, his
inevitable forfeiture of all claim to have his word believed. It is
hardly to be expected that a man who does not hesitate to vivisect for
the sake of science will hesitate to lie about it afterwards to protect
it from what he deems the ignorant sentimentality of the laity. When
the public conscience stirs uneasily and threatens suppression, there
is never wanting some doctor of eminent position and high character
who will sacrifice himself devotedly to the cause of science by coming
forward to assure the public on his honor that all experiments on
animals are completely painless; although he must know that the very
experiments which first provoked the antivivisection movement by their
atrocity were experiments to ascertain the physiological effects of
the sensation of extreme pain (the much more interesting physiology
of pleasure remains uninvestigated) and that all experiments in
which sensation is a factor are voided by its suppression. Besides,
vivisection may be painless in cases where the experiments are very
cruel. If a person scratches me with a poisoned dagger so gently that I
do not feel the scratch, he has achieved a painless vivisection; but if
I presently die in torment I am not likely to consider that his humility
is amply vindicated by his gentleness. A cobra's bite hurts so little
that the creature is almost, legally speaking, a vivisector who inflicts
no pain. By giving his victims chloroform before biting them he could
comply with the law completely.

Here, then, is a pretty deadlock. Public support of vivisection is
founded almost wholly on the assurances of the vivisectors that great
public benefits may be expected from the practice. Not for a moment do I
suggest that such a defence would be valid even if proved. But when
the witnesses begin by alleging that in the cause of science all the
customary ethical obligations (which include the obligation to tell
the truth) are suspended, what weight can any reasonable person give
to their testimony? I would rather swear fifty lies than take an animal
which had licked my hand in good fellowship and torture it. If I did
torture the dog, I should certainly not have the face to turn round and
ask how any person there suspect an honorable man like myself of telling
lies. Most sensible and humane people would, I hope, reply flatly that
honorable men do not behave dishonorably, even to dogs. The murderer
who, when asked by the chaplain whether he had any other crimes to
confess, replied indignantly, "What do you take me for?" reminds us very
strongly of the vivisectors who are so deeply hurt when their evidence
is set aside as worthless.


The Achilles heel of vivisection, however, is not to be found in the
pain it causes, but in the line of argument by which it is justified.
The medical code regarding it is simply criminal anarchism at its very
worst. Indeed no criminal has yet had the impudence to argue as
every vivisector argues. No burglar contends that as it is admittedly
important to have money to spend, and as the object of burglary is to
provide the burglar with money to spend, and as in many instances it has
achieved this object, therefore the burglar is a public benefactor
and the police are ignorant sentimentalists. No highway robber has yet
harrowed us with denunciations of the puling moralist who allows his
child to suffer all the evils of poverty because certain faddists think
it dishonest to garotte an alderman. Thieves and assassins understand
quite well that there are paths of acquisition, even of the best things,

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Online LibraryGeorge Bernard ShawThe Doctor's Dilemma: Preface on Doctors → online text (page 4 of 7)