14 June 2013

C.S. Lewis: Proto-PETA-an?

A short while ago I posted here with some reaction to C.S. Lewis's pedagogy as described in Alister McGrath's recently published (and superb) biography. Making my way slowly through the book I came across McGrath's lengthy consideration of Lewis's opposition to vivisection (surgery on a living animals). I vaguely remember coming across references to vivisection in Lewis's space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) but as a 15-year old I don't believe I even knew what the term meant.

Lewis was strongly against what in the pre-WW II years was seen as the "enlightened" positions on eugenics and vivisection. He was strongly opposed to writers like H.G. Wells who advocated doing whatever was necessary to "improve the race." Lewis made his opposition clear in a 1947 essay entitled, appropriate enough, "Vivisection."

It's not Lewis's opposition to vivisection as such that interests me. Rather, it's his theological justification as recounted by McGrath that continues to shed light on the place of animals in relation to human society that strikes me as valuable. Three lengthy quotes should suffice.
In Lewis's 1947 essay "Vivisection," he joined forces with the great Oxford children's novelist of the nineteenth century, Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), in protesting the infliction of torture on animals. For Lewis, the practice of vivisection exposed an inner contradiction within Darwinian naturalism. At one and the same time, it emphasized the biological proximity of humans and animals, while asserting the ultimate authority of human beings to do what they please with animals. (McGrath, 275)
As I've noted before, inner contradictions are inherent in naturalism but, of course, do not prove it to be incorrect so Lewis ratcheted up the rhetorical force of his argument. As McGrath observes, "The eugenics theories of the 1930s [and the 1920s] ... involve the assumption that certain human beings are inferior to others, and that the survival of the human race thus demands that only the 'best' be allowed to reproduce." (McGrath, 275) This is a persistent argument as my nearly four-year old posts (here and here) about the attempt by one of the states of India to forcible abort the unborn child of mentally challenged woman.

Lewis observes that
Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men.
In other words, the human-animal continuum of naturalism applies just as well within humanity as well as to animals supposed to be earlier on the evolutionary chain of development.

But what if one maintains the "old Christian idea" of a difference in kind between humans and animals? Is there within Christianity any warrant to oppose vivisection? Describing the place of animals in the Chronicles of Narnia McGrath concludes that
For Lewis, the true mark of the primacy of humans over animals is 'acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.' ... Human dignity demands that humans show respect for animals. More than that, animals can enable human beings to develop compassion and care. Lewis's theology of creation leads him to insist that human relationships with animals can be ennobling an fulfilling--both for animals and for humans. (McGrath, 276)
Using Nicholas Wolterstorff's analytic categories that I noted here, Lewis seems to recognize the value of animals both in terms of bestowed (by God) worth--love as attachment--and as a matter of love as attraction. In any event, there's more to C.S. Lewis than I had though.

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