Our Higher Obligation

By Catherine Roberts 
[Catherine Roberts received her doctorate in microbiology at the University of California in 1943; in 1946 she went to Copenhagen for a year's study at the Carlsberg Laboratorium, where she stayed until 1961 doing research in microbiology and genetics. She then gave up science to devote her energies to writing against current scientific practices, and in 1967 published The Scientific Conscience followed in 1980 by Science, Animals, and Evolution: Reflections on Some Unrealized Potentials of Biology and Medicine, reviewed in SUNRISE (August/September, 1981).
Dr. Roberts, biologist and Platonist, is a Life Member of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from an article which appeared in the NAVS Bulletin No. 2, 1989. -- ED.]

Animal advocacy has long suffered from internal dissension involving passionate disagreements over goals and strategies. In 1982 the suggestion was made that animal advocates could attain a more unified front by recognizing the spiritual basis of their work. Although the suggestion fell on deaf ears, what follows is another appeal in the same vein, . . .

For 20 years I have maintained that animal advocates have a moral obligation to be scrupulously fair in confronting their opponents, whoever they may be. This position, derived from a study of Plato's concepts of earthly and heavenly justice, stresses that animal advocates need to admit that animal researchers are often motivated by idealistic, compassionate desires to help others in need, and that the suffering and death they inflict upon laboratory animals often result in saving the lives and ameliorating the sufferings of other animals and of men. . . .

For many, the struggle between animal researchers and animal advocates seems to have reached a moral impasse. While the latter proclaim the immorality of animal experimentation, the researchers argue that since their experiments bring health benefits to man and beast, they have a moral obligation to continue them.

Except for the extremists who claim that such health benefits are non-existent, the argument poses an ethical challenge to all other animal advocates. We need to face it squarely without evasion or minimizing its importance, because animal researchers are now intensifying their campaign to enlist public support. Men have a moral obligation, they reiterate, to continue animal research to protect the health of living beings.

We can meet this challenge by spiritual thinking. For animal advocacy is far more than secular moral philosophy deciding what human behavior is ethical and what is not. Animal advocacy, whether consciously or not, is an attempt to respond to the demands of a divine ethic. Let us therefore point out that our moral obligation to ensure the health of men and animals must no longer violate our higher obligation to the universal moral law which embraces justice and compassion for all. And it is neither just nor compassionate to inflict suffering or death upon untold millions of animals for the sake of health benefits to others. In its excessive zeal to help others, medical research is leading evolution down the wrong road -- not only through its increasing abuse of animals but also through its choice of technological goals involving the increasingly artificial prolongation of human and non-human lives. Both the means and the goals of bioscience reveal the moral blindness of scientists unaware of the new spiritual awakening that is seeking to deepen its ties to the sacred. By recognizing the divine Good as the source of human good, a spiritually unified animal advocacy can help bring bioscience back to the main path of spiritual evolution on which all sentient beings are meant to be treated justly and compassionately.

A writer of a recent letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle will accept the sincerity of anti-vivisectionists only when they decide to boycott every form of medical aid developed through the use of animals. We need to respond to this position spiritually. In varying degrees, all fields of modern medicine are dependent upon experimental animals, but it is wholly unrealistic to expect that animal advocates will refuse all medical treatment and expect the general public to do likewise. All that medical science has learned through animal research can never be unlearned. New treatments abound, and all of us want cures for our ailments and a long life. But to realize more of the spiritual potentials of our lives, there are certain things we can do under the present circumstances.

First, we can express sincere repentance for the miseries and injustice medical research has so long inflicted upon other species primarily for the sake of Homo sapiens. Second, we can question whether the so-called health benefits resulting from vivisection, especially those based upon extravagant technological manipulation and prolongation of life, are actually facilitating its evolution. And third, we can recognize the fact that the continued scientific abuse of animals is not deepening, but loosening our ties to the sacred. Such a spiritually unified animal advocacy can light the way for biomedical advance, helping to give it a wholly new direction.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)

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