Hitherto the elites behind the first mobilizations in favor of the protection of animals have been presented as the members of a group united by their revulsion at the bestiality of the lower orders. It is now important for us to correct the misleading impression that animal protectionists were a homogenous group, by offering a ternary distinction – between the established group, the challengers, and the excluded – which reflects the variety of motives of the first animal protectionists. This perspective relegates the lower classes to the role of passive targets of those who attempt to exclude them, because of their supposed inferiority. The upper classes, on the other hand, are divided into two subgroups on the basis of the two competing forms of accreditation that they sought to promote. Here accreditation indicates the behaviors and discourse through which the members of these groups “attempt to present their own qualities, expertise, and experience as making them uniquely qualified to determine the common good of the community”.
Thus, on the one hand, the established group endeavors to maintain the primacy of the qualities on which their dignity, self-respect, power, and respected status rest. On the other hand, the challengers, or “the middle classes operating on two fronts”, did their utmost to emphasize the qualities which enabled them to question the superiority of the upper classes while not challenging what distinguishes them from the lower orders. This phenomenon made an important contribution to the spreading and intensification of the civilizing process, insofar as the challengers’ attached ever-increasing importance to methodical and constant self-control, the mastering of impulses, and promotion of introspection.
Indeed, the upward social mobility of the bourgeois classes seemed closely linked to the proliferation of religious movements and Protestant sects which developed in parallel. Thus the challengers particularly valued the close study of the Gospels and their practical application in everyday life. The challengers aimed to embody and display Christian rectitude, to not only distinguish themselves from the barbarous masses but also, albeit in a rather more subtle way, from indolent aristocrats. For these champions of Christian morality, being a religious person was not enough: the first principle laid down by the Redeemer (“To Go about Doing Good”) requires one to engage in works founded on continual vigilance and discipline. In order to live as a Christian one must not only do good deeds but demonstrate an unusual capacity to free oneself from habits and temptations which are often regarded as insignificant. The best Christians can be recognized by their temperance and self-discipline, as well as their belief in the power of individual resolve, and in the possibility of continual self-improvement, as part of a quest for perfection.
From this perspective, any dealings an individual has with an animal present an opportunity to surpass the standards of those at the very top of the social scale. At the end of the 19th century for other evangelists, who were equally keen to display “a high degree of self-awareness and self-control,” treatment of insects and other “lower animals” [frogs, minnows, toads and snakes] “became important precisely because that treatment seemed so trifling”. Furthermore, relationships with animals also provide an individual with an opportunity to test their thoroughly puritanical ability to turn their back on immediate sensual gratification: alcohol, gambling, reading novels, “amusements which violently inflame and gratify [men’s] appetites”. By the same token, as we have already seen, a wide range of popular practices, such as bullfighting or cockfighting, were roundly condemned. The moral excellence of evangelists caused them, to go further in their rejection of self-indulgence, by giving up wine and meat. Refraining from eating meat appeared particularly virtuous, firstly because meat production involved inflicting violence on animals, and, secondly, because meat constituted an important part of the kind of copious and luxurious diet only the rich could afford.
Thus, the accreditation procedures of the middle classes operating on two fronts, by praising their qualities of rigor and optimal moral vigilance, contributed to the emergence of a new type of animal protectionist. To the prescripters, who were characterized by their aptitude for formulating norms to which deviants should conform, may be added the ascetics, who are able to control and modify their own behavior, with a view to improving the moral order of the world. In Britain, these accreditation procedures based on ascetic qualities have undoubtedly greatly contributed to the spread of vegetarianism, whose values are widely accepted in Britain, particularly among animal protection activists. It is certainly important, once again, when considering the motives for adopting a vegetarian diet, to take into account that some of these motives have a longer history than others and that they can be heterogeneous, and vary over time. Nevertheless, two particular bodies of evidence explain how the intensification of the civilization of manners contributed to vegetarianism becoming associated with campaigns to outlaw cruelty to animals. Firstly, the decision to give up eating meat can have its origins in feelings of disgust at breaches of the integrity of an animal’s body which result in bleeding, injury, and death. Secondly, as we have already established, giving up meat could also be a course of action, inspired by Protestantism, which enabled ascetics from the middle classes operating on two fronts – exercising superior moral fortitude – to demonstrate gentler habits than those prevalent among members of the establishment.
During later phases in the history of animal protection these forms of accreditation, based on ascetic rigor, which required the observation of a particular diet became more widespread, although Christian references progressively disappeared from the rhetoric. Thus, nowadays, animal protection activists, even more than ecological activists, equate the rigorousness of their dietary regime with the intensity of their commitment to their cause. If they are vegetarians they eat no meat or fish; dietary vegans, also known as strict vegetarians, take their stand against animal exploitation a step further by eating no eggs, milk, or cheese, as well as no meat or fish. Ethical vegans, on the other hand, are also careful to avoid using anything whose production caused animal suffering of any kind. This can affect their choice of clothing and footwear, as well as other products they use, leisure activities, etc. An ethical vegan avoids all animal-derived products, such as leather, wool, fur, or cosmetic and household products that have been tested on animals.
Dissenting voices, heard within the society when attempts were made to promote the consumption of horse meat, were a manifestation of underlying power struggles over status within the animal protection movement. Doctors, veterinarians, and hygienists from the upwardly mobile middle classes believed that the debate over whether or not to eat horse meat provided them with an opportunity to demonstrate the social utility of scientific expertise and knowledge, which guided their own relations with animals. Other members of the SPA, who had aristocratic backgrounds, considered that eating horse meat degraded an animal which the nobility traditionally used to associate with its exceptional status and with its prowess on the battlefield. Under such circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine how this kind of activist – already concerned by the way burgeoning industrialization was marginalizing horses – could be outraged by a campaign that reduced this noblest of animals to a mere source of protein – and for the humblest members of society! While eating horse meat prolongs the accreditation initiatives of upwardly mobile sectors of the bourgeoisie, it also excites fears of loss of status among the members of the established group, who stress their links with the aristocracy and its equestrian culture.
Clearly, the motives we have hypothesized are linked to gnawing, ill-defined fears and did not necessarily give rise to an intense discursive formulation of the reasons for an aversion to eating horse meat. Moreover – providing further evidence of the heterogeneity of the underlying motives and reasons for animal protection campaigns – opposition to eating horse meat, was not confined to the indignation of horsemen and horsewomen attached to the prestige traditionally associated with equestrianism. For others, their opposition to eating horse meat came out of a more reasoned understanding of basic principles as to what constitutes civilized practices and behavior. In any event, critics of the practice attacked promoters of hippophagy and their claims to have a perfectly rational approach to animal protection, using a procedure which we have already clearly identified, by associating the eating of horse meat with excluded domestic groups or foreign atrocities.
Statements of this kind, and other evidence, make it easy to imagine the kind of sharp exchanges of views that the topic of eating horse meat must have provoked within the SPA. Indeed, a row ensued after it was suggested that a bust should be commissioned to honor contributors to society. The project was abandoned due to the fact that this tireless activist had stood on a committee for promoting the consumption of horse meat. Almost one hundred and fifty years later, both the French and the British still had difficulties understanding the very different attitudes to eating horse meat that prevailed on the other side of the Channel.
Revulsion at a practice defined as “foreign” was intensified by the fact that it was a way of proclaiming one’s pride in being English. Of course, there were other motives behind opposition to vivisection; to neglect other, complementary, explanations would be highly reductive. Indignation at the practice also appeared to be a way for the traditional dominant classes to react against the accreditation enterprises of the scientific community, put in place by the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. As we have already seen, the leaders of the first societies to denounce vivisection in terms of regression toward the barbarity of the most horrifying kind came from the aristocracy, the judiciary, and the clergy. The members of the dominant classes who engaged in charitable works to help the poor reacted particularly sharply to the threat represented by scientists and physicians, who claimed that their work presented a greater contribution to improving a lot of humanity because of their ability to push back the boundaries of science.
One can easily imagine that, in the course of these traditional charitable activities, Cobbe crossed the path of doctors who, having a high opinion of their own scientific knowledge, had correspondingly low regard for what they regarded as old-fashioned charitable works. In other words, vivisection debates were largely fueled by competition between conceptions of charity based on antithetical accreditation enterprises. On the one hand, the traditional elites call, with magnanimous indulgence, for respect to be shown to a long-established and harmonious order, within which the powerful are under an obligation to protect those beneath them in the hierarchy. On the other hand, the technical competence resulting from new scientific discoveries allowed some members of certain professions to aspire to leadership roles, in order that a social order – purged of the most persistent kinds of poverty – might be founded.
Challenged in this way, the established group was bound to react with the utmost hostility. Thus, in “The Medical Profession and Its Morality,” Cobbe described doctors as a class of parvenus who scoff at values such as patience and compassion and extolled the kind of scientific progress which did not necessarily work for good of humanity, but which certainly did facilitate their personal enrichment. Furthermore, scientists and doctors who display no sensitivity when practicing vivisection will be unlikely to treat their patients in a humane way: “a patient is to the doctor what a rock is to a geologist or a flower to a botanist – the much-desired subject of his studies.” Elsewhere Cobbe vehemently denounced the hagiolatry which resulted from efforts made by doctors to convince their contemporaries to attach more importance to the physical health of their bodies than their moral virtue. The antivivisection struggle was given an added urgency by the fact that it was part of a bigger fight against the scandalous “takeover” plans of the “new priests”: “today there is no one to stand up to the French Medical Board, which occupies a position strangely comparable with that of the priesthood in ancient times.”
It should be noted that, as a rule, antivivisectionists were less hostile toward science perse, than toward the “experimental method,” which posed a serious threat to the knowledge on which the best-established authorities relied. The idea that medical students should be taught that the acquisition of knowledge should depend, not on unquestioningly accepting the authority of one’s glorious predecessors, but on investigating and revealing the unknown, was profoundly troubling and controversial. This attempt to pervert young people was seen as not only an attack on the gentleness of customs but also the faith on which morality is built. Once again, attacks on the practice of vivisection often conjure up images of uncontrolled violence, whose effects are unpredictable and irreversible: The child takes a watch and breaks it in order to get to the “little animal” inside that intrigues it, just as a vivisectionist takes a living being and submits it to horrible suffering, in the hope of solving life’s elusive mystery: it will no doubt elude him for a long while yet, and it is not presumptuous to predict that, if one-day human science does succeed in fully explaining organic life, it will be the result of the patient and protracted observation of its normal functioning, combined with the painstaking and meticulous disassembling and observation of organisms, and not by the work of a brutal and destructive hand on a living creature, which involves the perturbation of all-natural phenomena.
Vivisection, for its detractors, represents less a contribution to advances in the medical field than a promotion of unhealthy curiosity and insensitivity to the pain of other living things. Such attitudes, they argue, are incompatible with the qualities required of a doctor. Training medical students to cultivate the detached attitude necessary to engage in the dissection of live animals can only result in them becoming immune to the suffering of their future patients. The idea appears all the more worrying when one considers that these medical practitioners will surely be invited into civilized homes in which it is increasingly common for a dog or dogs – the main victims of vivisection – to be treated as one of the family. Given the wide variety of beliefs held by members of protection societies, it is unsurprising that the issue of vivisection gave rise to heated debates and to regroupings, and even splits within these societies.