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.

What is Humanitarianism?

by Henry S. Salt

HUMANITARIANISM in the ethical sense—wholly distinct from the theological—is the deliberate and systematic study of humane principles, the attempt to show that humaneness is an integral part, if not the actual basis, of morals. In estimating the value of compassion as a moral force, it is not necessary to discuss the different theories as to its origin, propounded by the two schools of intuitive and utilitarian ethics, as represented on the one hand by Butler, who holds (in his "Sermon on Compassion") that it is an "original, distinct, particular affection in human nature," and on the other hand by Hobbes, who maintains ("Human Nature," ix. 10) that it is "imagination, or fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of another man's calamity;" for, however this may be, it is evident that compassion is closely allied to that imaginative sympathy by which we identify ourselves with others. In the words of Wollaston ("Religion of Nature," 1759) "there is something in human nature, resulting from our very make and constitution, which renders us obnoxious to the pains of others, causes us to sympathise with them, and almost comprehends us in their case. It is grievous to see or hear, and almost to hear of, any man, or even any animal whatever, in torture."

For example, when a man turns aside to avoid crushing an insect, why does he do so? Certainly not because of any reasoned conviction as to the sufferings of "the poor beetle that we tread upon," but for the simple fact that consciously or unconsciously, he is humane; the sight of suffering, however slight, is distasteful to him as being human. Of all mistaken notions concerning humanitarianism, the most mistaken is that which regards it as some extraneous artificial cult, forced on human nature from without, whereas, in truth, it is founded on an instinctive conviction from within, a very part of human development. When we talk of a man "becoming a humanitarian," what we really mean is that he has recognised a fact that was already within his consciousness—the kinship of all sentient life—of which humanitarianism is the avowed and definite proclamation.

But if it be true that compassion, in the words of Schopenhauer, is "an undeniable fact of human consciousness," residing "in human nature itself," it is also true that this compassionate instinct, before it can be put to practical service in a complex social state, must be tested by experience and reason. Unmistakable as are our humane promptings, they cannot in all cases be realised; for self-preservation, that other great natural impulse, has first to be consulted, and we are trammelled by a host of traditional customs and obligations which often render it difficult or impossible to give our humanity due effect. Here, again, it is the function of humanitarianism to reconcile the ideal with the actual, to unite compassion with judgment, and to discover not only how we feel, or ought to feel, towards our fellow-beings, but also to what extent and with what limitations we can, at the present time and under present conditions, put those feelings into practice.

An attempt is sometimes made to disparage humanitarianism by setting it in contrast to humaneness: "I would be humane," some one will say, "but not humanitarian." But as a matter of fact, there is no sort of contradiction between the two terms, for humanitarianism is nothing more than conscious and organised humaneness. There is a vast amount of compassionate sentiment that is at present scattered and isolated, and therefore to a great extent ineffective; it is the business of humanitarianism to collect and focus this feeling into an energetic whole.

It must be noted, at the outset, that humanitarianism in this sense, as a branch of ethical science, is a modern product, for it was not until the eighteenth century—the age of "sensibility"—that there began to be any widespread recognition of humaneness as a force in civilised society. No doubt the duty of love and gentleness to sentient life had been inculcated, all down the ages, as part of the higher teaching–in the doctrines of Buddha, in the system of Pythagoras, in the practice of the Essenes, in the pagan philosophy of Plutarch and Porphyry, and with less consistency, perhaps, so far as our duties towards the lower animals are concerned, in the Christian scriptures. For though the gospel of "peace and goodwill" led its early followers to a belief in the sacredness of all human life and the natural equality of men, and this belief led in its turn to the abolition or curtailment of many cruel practices such as the gladiatorial shows, there is also truth in the statement (Mrs. Jameson's "Book of Thoughts, Memories, and Fancies," 1854) that "the primitive Christians, by laying so much stress upon a future life in contradistinction to this life, and placing the lower creatures out of the pale of hope, placed them at the same time out of the pale of sympathy, and thus laid the foundation for utter disregard of animals in the light of our fellow-creatures."

It is certain that during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was dominant, there was, in this respect, little or no progress in humanitarian feeling, the uniform indifference of the hierachy to the claims of animals being broken only by the splendid example of St. Francis of Assisi, whose profound sense of brotherhood with beast and bird is the more remarkable owing to its contrast with the general callousness of his contemporaries. It was this lack of sympathy which, surviving in large measure even to modern times, has caused Buddhists to speak of Christendom as "the hell of animals."

When we come to the Renaissance, however, we find, with the revival of learning, a revival also of the humanitarian spirit, many humane sentiments, for example, being observable in the writings of More and Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Bacon, and this renewed appeal to the instinct of compassion paved the way for that advanced eighteenth-century sentiment which found its fullest expression in the saying of Voltaire, that "without humanity, the virtue which comprehends all virtues, the name of philosopher would be little deserved." Philosophers and poets vied with one another, through this era of awakening, in a recognition of the claims of common life on the heart of human kind, and the post-revolutionary writers have continued to develop more and more the ethics of humaneness. It is sufficient to mention such names as those of Thomson, Pope, Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns, Shelley, and Wordsworth, to show how largely our modern poets have been concerned in this humanising process. It is to the last 150 years, in fact, that Western humanitarianism, in the sense in which we use the word, owes its origin; and it is of Western humanitarianism only that we here propose to speak.

The first point which needs to be emphasised is this—that the principle of humaneness is based on the broad ground of universal sympathy, not with mankind only, but with all sentient beings, such sympathy being, of course, duly proportioned to the sensibility of its object. Humanitarianism is not to be confused with philanthropy—love of mankind—on the one side, or with zoöphily—kindness to animals—on the other; it includes and comprehends them both.

"It is abundantly evident," says the author of the "History of European Morals," "both from history and from personal experience, that the instinctive shock or natural feeling of disgust caused by the sight of the sufferings of men, is not generically different from that which is caused by the sight of the suffering of animals. . . . At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family; soon the circle expanding includes—first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity; and finally its influence is felt in the dealings of mankind with the animal world."

Humanitarianism, then, is the application of an evolutionary doctrine founded on the kinship of life, which unites the sentiment of East and West in the growing perception of fellowship and brotherhood between all living creatures; and a humanitarian is he who has substituted this wider sympathy for the partial benevolence which is restricted to the narrower circle of one's own countrymen or kin. "The time will come," wrote Bentham, "when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes. We have begun by attending to the condition of slaves; we shall finish by softening that of all the animals which assist our labours or supply our wants."

But before we proceed further, it may be well to clear away certain common misapprehensions by a short statement, not only of what humanitarianism is, but also of what it is not. For example, it is not Brahminism. What it condemns is not the taking of life, through callousness, ignorance, or force of habit; and there is no point whatever in applying to humanitarianism the trite story of the Hindu whose principles forbade him to drink water when the microscope had revealed to him the infinitesimal creatures that inhabit it.

Nor are humanitarian doctrines, as Nietzsche and his school would have us suppose, an offshoot of Christianity; for, as has already been shown, they go far beyond the Christian ethics in all that relates to the lower animals, and they number among their professors many well-known names that lie altogether outside the Christian sphere of thought. Nor, again, is humanitarianism altogether identical with "altruism"—the suppression of the ego in the supposed interests of others; for it is to satisfy his own needs and instincts—involved in those of the sufferer–that the humanitarian takes action; it is self-fulfilment rather than self-sacrifice that he desires.

Finally, humanitarianism is not, as is often assumed by its critics, a merely negative, prohibitive, and ascetic view of life, by which we are constrained to desist from certain practices in which we might otherwise take pleasure; on the contrary, by discovering for us a freshness of relation towards vast numbers of our fellow-creatures, it opens out new fields of pleasurable friendship which have hitherto been neglected, and points the way to a fuller and better realisation of what is beautiful and true. Contrast, for instance, the wholesale destruction of sea-fowl for their feathers, or for mere amusement, that disgraces many parts of our coast, with that scene that may be daily witnessed in winter—time on the Thames Embankment—the feeding of scores of gulls by their human friends and protectors, under terms of perfect amity and trustfulness. Can it be doubted which of these two attitudes towards animals brings the greater pleasure to mankind?

Dismissing, therefore, these false ideas of humanitarianism, let us try to grasp its true purport and significance as part of the modern democratic movement; for there is no more essential mark of democracy than the fostering of kinship and understanding in place of division and distrust. In holding that the difference between human and subhuman is one of degree only, and not of kind, the humanitarian has the support not of sentiment alone, but of science. "The trend of investigation," says Dr. Wesley Mills in his work on "The Nature and Development of Animal Intelligence," "thus far goes to show that at least the germ of every human faculty does exist in some species of animal. . . . Formerly the line was drawn at reason. It was said that the 'brutes' cannot reason. Only persons who do not themselves reason about the subject, with the facts before them, can any longer occupy such a position."

In like manner Mr. E. P. Evans has pointed out, in his "Evolutional Ethics and Animal Psychology," that "man is as truly a part and product of Nature as any other animal, and the attempt to set him up as an isolated point outside of it is philosophically false and morally pernicious." Thus the old "anthropocentric" position is being more and more abandoned, and it is no longer possible to draw an absolute line of demarcation between men, as "persons" and "ends," and animals, as mere "things"—such distinctions being a thoroughly unsound basis for any ethical structure, inasmuch as the more highly—organised animals possess, though of course in a lower degree, the qualities of true personality. Even the expression "man and the animals," though unavoidable in common speech, is philosophically incorrect, for man is himself a part of the great animal kingdom, and cannot disown the relationship. We have from science itself the clearest assurance that man is an animal, and that the great gulf which was supposed to exist between human and non—human has existed only in imagination.

For this reason humanitarianism claims for animals, as for men, a measure of individuality and freedom, a space in which to lead their own lives—in a word, "rights." It is unnecessary here to enter into the wide field of discussion as to the fitness of this term; for if objection be taken to it, it is possible to consider the question from the other, the correlative side, and to arrive at the same conclusion by use of the term "duties." The essential part of the humanitarian contention is that there is no absolute difference between mankind and "the animals"; that if man has reason, animals have the germ of reason; that if man has "rights," animals have the same in due degree.

With regard to human rights, it is sometimes said that "men can take care of themselves." This, however, is not always the case; for to refer to two classes only, the pauper and the criminal, it is evident that the unfortunate inmates of workhouse and prison are not able to take care of themselves, but are as helpless in the hands of others as any animals could be. The rights of men are admitted in theory, but often violated in practice. We speak of all men as brothers, but when it comes to giving practical proof of our brotherhood with paupers and criminals, we too frequently show by our treatment of them that we really regard them as a wholly alien class. The same is true of the usage accorded to subject races, aborigines, and all who, in the aggrandisement of one nation at the expense of another, are liable to find themselves at the mercy of their brother-man.

Again, when we turn to the protection of animals, we hear it sometimes said that we ought to help men first, and animals afterwards. But if the principle which prompts the humane treatment of men is the same essentially as that which prompts the humane treatment of animals, how can we successfully safeguard it in one direction while we violate it in another? By condoning cruelty to animals we perpetuate the very spirit which condones cruelty to men. Humanitarians do not say that the lower forms of life must be treated in the same way as the higher forms, but that, in both cases alike, we must be careful to inflict no unnecessary, no avoidable suffering. This is briefly expressed in the manifesto of the Humanitarian League, which enforces the principle that "it is iniquitous to inflict avoidable suffering on any sentient being."

It does not fall within the scope of this article to do more than indicate the general aspects of humanitarianism, and we pass on to speak of some of the common objections that are urged against humanitarian principles. The first and most prevalent of these arguments is that drawn from the poet's picture of "Nature red in tooth and claw," which represents humanitarianism as in conflict with the stern facts of existence. It is said that the animals themselves prey on one another, and that the law of Nature is founded on internecine conflict and sacrifice. But this, though true in part, is not the whole truth; for, while appealing to the law of competition, it leaves out of sight the not less important law of "mutual aid," and evades the fact that, while some animals are mainly predacious, others are mainly social in their habits, and that there is no reason why mankind, whose instincts are of the social order, should violate its own nature in order to imitate the beasts of prey. Nor is it true that an analogy can be established between the suffering inflicted in Nature and the artificial and unjustifiable, because unnecessary, cruelties of man; for the best naturalists are of opinion, with Dr. A. R. Wallace, that "Nature red in tooth and claw is a picture the evil of which is read into it by our imaginations, the reality being made up of full and happy lives, usually terminated by the quickest and least painful of deaths." All these conditions are wanting in the unnatural cruelties against which humanitarianism protests.

Then, again, we are confronted with the argument drawn from that much misapprehended term "consistency." "Where will you draw the line?" is a question frequently put to the humanitarian, who is reminded that, if he be "consistent," he will be precluded from defending his crops against the ravages of wild animals, and even from cultivating the ground, because of the injury done by the plough to earthworms and to the lowliest forms of life. But here there is, of course, a complete perversion of the humanitarian doctrine, which, as has already been stated, asserts that rights are the same in kind, but not in degree, and that we owe to all sentient creatures a universal, but not an absolute, justice. We are not bound to starve our own race by abstaining from agriculture on account of the injury done to earthworms, but we may all remember what Cowper says of the man "who needlessly sets foot on worm." The true consistency is that which has regard to the direction of one's course, and because the whole journey cannot be accomplished at once, it does not follow that no step should be taken.

Equally pointless is the cry that is raised against the "sentimentality" of humanitarians, "sentiment" being one of those vague, indefinite terms which are used as a substitute for argument. That there is much that is ultrasentimental in the present age—as, for instance, in its spasmodic and partial benevolence and ill–adjusted "charities"—will not be denied; nor are humanitarians more exempt than other persons from the danger of falling into excess in the advocacy of their views. But though the charge of sentimentality may be fairly urged (e.g.) against the anti-vivisector who, while denouncing the cruel experiments of physiologists, is himself an advocate of vivisecting convicts with the cat-o'-nine-tails, it cannot lie against the all—round humanitarian who pleads for the adoption of some rational and comprehensive principle. It is, in fact, not on mere sentimentality, but on a wider and more philosophic view of the subject, that humanitarianism relies. "As long," it has been said, "as certain favoured aspects of humaneness are exclusively insisted on, as long as pity is felt and expressed for this or that particular form of human suffering, while others of equal or greater importance are neglected or ridiculed; as long as the compassion which is claimed for men is denied to animals, or extended only to certain classes of animals—so long will it be difficult to appeal successfully from the narrow selfishness of personal interests to the higher and nobler sentiment of universal brotherhood."

Perhaps in no more effective way can proof be produced of the inevitable further growth of humanitarian principles than by a consideration of the alternative that must be faced by society if humanitarianism is to be disowned. Whether wisely or unwisely, we have now reached a certain transitional stage of humane development, both in our manners and in our laws, and those who would dissuade us from continued advance on the same lines are bound to frame some other policy for our guidance. If we are not to go forward, are we to turn back? or are we to remain at the precise point to which we have now attained? It will hardly be argued that the present very confused state of English law and feeling on humanitarian subjects represents the golden mean which is incapable of further improvement; it follows, then, that, if progress is to be barred, we must henceforth return to that old "brutality" which certain writers affect to regret that we have "allowed to die out too much." To state this alternative is sufficient to show that the future lies with humanitarianism. It is obvious that we shall continue to advance in the same direction as in the past, and that a gradually expanding sense of sympathy and kinship will bring with it a gradual but certain increase in the humanity of the treatment which we shall accord to every living creature.

Herein, then, lies the strength of the humanitarian position, that its principle is a consolidation of the countless humane impulses that spring up everywhere in the human heart, and that on an instinct so simple as to be intelligible to a child it builds a progressive ethical system that can satisfy the intellect of a philosopher. It is an amusing comment on the prevalent ignorance of humanitarianism that those who hold a faith which so profound a thinker as Schopenhauer cherished as "the basis of morals" are often lightly dismissed with the remark that "their hearts are better than their heads." We have advisedly spoken of this principle as a "faith," for it is indeed the ethical belief of the future—the faith of universal kinship—and no infidelity can be so grievous as that which hinders men from recognising their own kindred, and makes them deny that oneness in life which wisdom sees everywhere, and to which folly is everywhere blind.

Published: Humane Review, October 1907 (Volume 8: 1907-1908)