Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

A Metaphysic of the Larder

Vegetarian Messenger and Health Review, April 1923

IN an age when the duty of kindness to animals is generally admitted, it is entertaining to observe with what queer arguments, or substitutes for argument, one very important branch of that duty—viz., the obligation of humaneness in diet—is still evaded. Of the many fallacies with which the food-reformer finds himself confronted, the one I like best is that which urges that it is better for the animals themselves to live and be eaten than not to live at all; in other words, that the breeding of cattle for the slaughter-house confers on them the boon of life, and that this more than compensates for the manner of their death. Whenever I hear this excuse put forward, I get the impression that the person who employs it does not feel very secure in the other arguments against vegetarianism: he has begun to doubt, perhaps, whether “What should we do without leather?” or “What would become of the Esquimaux?” may be safely relied on, and is therefore anxious to have a remaining loophole for escape. I remember, by way of illustration how a distinguished “dress-reformer,” who used to astonish London by his strange costume, once told me that when he had been refused admission to the British Museum reading-room, he insisted on knowing for what particular feature of his personal appearance he was excluded. Was it the absence of a hat? His long hair? His gown? And so on, in detail, travelling downwards. To each of these questions the authorities rashly answered in the negative, till they became aware that there was nothing left but his sandals and on those—a most unobjectionable item of his attire—their objection had to be based. So I think it must be in the case of this “metaphysic of the larder.” It is the flesh-eater’s dernier ressort. All else has crumbled.

A recent instance of the manner in which appeal is made to this saving sophism may be seen in Dean Inge’s second series of Outspoken Essays, where, in a passage which is largely an acceptance of humanitarian principles, he thus attempts to make the world (morally) safe for the flesh-eater.

“The discoveries which are still rightly associated with the name of Charles Darwin have proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the so-called lower animals are literally our distant cousins. They have as good a right on this planet as we have; they were not made for our benefit, as we used to suppose. This discovery has certainly altered our way of regarding them; it has made us aware of moral obligations which were formerly unrecognised. The only question is how far the recognition of these obligations ought to take us. Some think that we ought to abstain from animal food altogether. But the whole of nature, as has been said, is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive; and if we assume that survival has a value for the brutes, no one has so great an interest in the demand for pork as the pig. The morality of field sports is much more dubious, and I cannot doubt that the opinion will, before long, be generally held that to kill animals for pleasure is barbarous and immoral.”

Now this, on the face of it, is a most confused and puzzling pronouncement. The lower animals, in the Dean’s opinion, “have as good a right on this planet as we have”; yet we may claim from them such gratitude for bringing them here as to justify ourselves in eating them—that is, in depriving them of the enjoyment of a planet to which they have so good a right! Then, again, the now recognised relationship between human and nonhuman has established certain “moral obligations”; but these obligations may be in one case disregarded because “the whole of nature” is predaceous; though, of course, Dean Inge knows well enough that nature is not wholly predaceous; that mutual aid between animals plays a great part in nature; and that in the matter of diet there are, and have always been, numbers of humans and non-humans who do not devour “those who are literally their distant cousins.” And finally, as if his appeal to primitive savagery were not sufficiently incongruous in a statement of ethical duties, Dean lnge adds the remark that it is barbarous and immoral to kill animals “for pleasure.” He has never heard, it would seem, of “the pleasures of the table”!

Nor, apparently, is he aware that the field sports which he condemns are often defended by precisely the same reasoning as that which he advances as a plea for flesh-eating. As long ago as 1883, in a House of Commons debate on pigeon-shooting, Sir Herbert Maxwell argued that a “blue rock” would prefer to live and be shot at than not to live at all. Fox-hunters remind us that the fox, in like manner, has a strong “interest” in the continuance of fox-hunting. Vivisectors who breed guinea-pigs for experimentation use the same argument. In fact, if we once assume that it is a benefit to an animal to be brought into the world, there is hardly any treatment that cannot be justified by the supposed terms of such a contract. It is the assumption itself that is delusive. Replying to Sir Herbert Maxwell in the debate to which I have alluded, Mr. W. E. Forster satirically remarked that what we have to consider is not a “blue rock” before existence, but a “blue rock” in existence. The essence of the whole matter is contained in those few words.

The fallacy lies in the haziness of thought which attempts to compare existence with non-existence. Of existence it is indeed possible to predicate certain qualities, good or bad, happiness or unhappiness, as the mood may be; of non-existence we can predicate nothing. Therefore when we “bring a being,” as we vaguely express it, “into the world,” we cannot claim from that being any gratitude for our action, or drive a bargain with him (and a very shabby one) on that account; nor can our duties to him be evaded by any such quibble, in which the wish is obviously father to the thought. Nor, in this connection, is it necessary to enter on the question of ante-natal existence, because, if such existence there be, we have no reason for assuming that it is less happy than the present existence; and thus equally the argument falls to the ground. It is absurd to compare a possible pre-existence, or non-existence, with actual individual life as known to us here. All reasoning based on such comparison must necessarily be false, and will lead to grotesque conclusions.

Grotesque the conclusions certainly are! What could be more laughable, were not the subject so serious for the unfortunate victims of the butcher, than the recourse to this abstruse, far-fetched apology for a cruel practice, for which no actual justification can be found? It reminds one of two famous lines in Pope’s “Dunciad”:

Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense.

Or rather, in this case, on Nonsense.

For, frankly, this Metaphysic of the Larder is nonsense, and nothing else; although it seems to have a perverse attraction for learned men. I would remind Dean lnge that the fallacy of believing that there is any profit in existence was exposed by Lucretius (v, I70-180), in words thus translated by Munro: “What evil had it been for us never to have been born? Whoever has been born must want to continue in life, so long as fond pleasure shall keep him; but for him who has never tasted the love, never been on the lists of life, what harm not to have been born?”

That a confusion of thought, noticed by a great poet nearly two thousand years ago, should still be able to find acceptance in acute modern minds, is a proof, I think, that it belongs to that class of hydra-headed fallacies which must be regarded as deathless, inasmuch as however often they are refuted they spring up a fresh. That being so, it is the wiser course not to be troubled by its recurrence, but to extract from it what amusement we can; and therefore I like to view it in the large and tolerant spirit of Whitman, when he expresses himself as in sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men.

“The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market:
I loiter, enjoying his repartee, and his shuffle and break-down.”

May not we vegetarians also enjoy (in a slightly different sense) the shuffle and break-down of those who can find no better excuse for their flesh-eating than that “survival has a value for the brutes?”

Henry S. Salt