The New Charter
Vegetarian Review, September 1896
We are “among the authors” with a vengeance this month, for here are six of them at once, in this “Discussion of the Rights of Men and the Rights of Animals,” to say nothing of the editor, who happens to be the present writer. The book,1 which is a sign of the times, a new wave in the rising tide of humanitarian feeling, consists of six representative essays on the subject of Rights, by advance thinkers of different schools, speaking quite independently of each other. Thus Mr. Kenworthy states the humanitarian view, Mr. Frederic Harrison the ethical, Mr. Oldfield the scientific, while the Rev. A. L. Lilley, Mr. G. W. Foote, and Mr. C. W. Leadbeater speak respectively for the Church, the Secularists, and the Theosophists.
Have men rights? Have animals rights? And how is the one class of rights related to the other? Such is practically the question under discussion; and the significance of the book lies in this—that the several writers, though approaching the problem from widely divergent standpoints, are largely in agreement on the central and most important issue; they all recognize the New Charter which proclaims the ultimate emancipation of the non-human races from cruelty and wrong. This Charter is based on the scientific fact that there is no gulf, or difference in kind, between man and “the animals.” “To the scientist,” Mr. Oldfield says, “a man is really and truly an animal. To the physiologist the difference between a human and an anthropoid ape is not one of essentials but one of details. . . . Even the details are not of comparatively overwhelming importance; a rather larger brain, and some deeper furrows in it, sum up the chief details of difference between the tremendously vaunted human and the despised non-human. In the eyes of science, man is an animal.”
Side by side with this scientific principle stands the ethical principle, as set forth by Mr. Frederic Harrison in his forcible chapter on “The Duties of Man to the Lower Animals.” “Our relation to the animals,” he says, “at least to the nobler mammals, does not form an appendix to our human morality, much less does it form a distinct branch of Ethics, or an independent morality by itself. No, it is part and parcel of our human morality, and is inwoven with it, and inseparable from it. Our duties towards our lower helpmates form part of our duties towards one fellow-beings. The highest "brutes'' are our fellow-beings. Man can only regard himself as the advance-guard, or as the commanding officer and leader of a vast army of living, sentient, and moral beings, whose natural function is to use, improve, and make the best of this wondrous and complex earth.” Here, it will be observed, is a complete and very welcome departure from the old pseudo-scientific, pseudo-religious notion which drew a deep line of division between mankind and “the beasts that perish.” It is evident that this new ethical doctrine cannot fail to have momentous consequences, as soon as it is fearlessly applied to what Mr. Harrison calls “the practical questions that flow from these principles, questions enormously complicated and subtle, questions of food, clothing, labour, science, and amusement.”
Let us take the food question, as the one which most concerns the readers of the Vegetarian Review. Three of the six essayists, Mr. Kenworthy, Mr. Oldfield, and Mr. Leadbeater, expressly include Vegetarianism as a necessary part of a right treatment of animals. Mr. Harrison and Mr. Lilley do not enter on the subject. Mr. Foote is for improved methods of slaughtering, at whatever increase to the cost, but is not prepared for an abandonment of flesh-food. “I admit the progress of Vegetarianism,” he says, “but it will take a long time to wean the majority from flesh-eating; and some of us consider that the dietary problem is not to be settled by sentiment, although it may have its place in the settlement. People will eat to live, and they will eat whatever is necessary.” But surely not only some of us, but all of us, hold this opinion! Mr. Foote does not seem to be aware that the Vegetarian movement relies not merely on “sentiment,” but also on scientific and hygienic facts which point strongly to the same humane conclusion; otherwise the admitted progress of Vegetarianism would be as impossible as its ultimate acceptance. Undoubtedly people will eat what is necessary, but the contention is that flesh-food is not necessary—that the slaughter of animals for the table is no more necessary than the blood-sports or the vivisection which Mr. Foote so powerfully condemns in an essay which, apart from the diet question, is, perhaps, the most eloquent and convincing in the book.
Doubtless time, much time, is needed for food-reform, as for all reform. But, to look at the matter from another standpoint: Can we imagine the existence of a society in which sport, vivisection, murderous millinery, and all other cruelties would be prohibited—where animals would be treated with the extreme consideration which Mr. Foote advocates and where yet we should continue to kill and eat them? Such a state of affairs would be an anti-climax, an anachronism. Vegetarianism is as surely implied in the abandonment of other cruel usages as other humane reforms are implied in Vegetarianism.
Mr. Oldfield, in his extremely interesting and able chapter on “The Claims of Common Life,” which seems to me the best thing that has yet been written on the scientific basis of humanitarianism, touches on that curious argument so beloved of flesh-eaters, that as animals can be bred by man, the man who gave them life may use that life for his own purposes, because the joy of living exceeds the pain of torture or death. His conclusion is that the claim of “giving” life is in itself an unscientific one, because we have no evidence that the sum total of life can be increased; man can do no more than attract into one channel “free vitality” which would otherwise have been attracted into another. But granting the force of this, there remains the ethical consideration that even if it were possible to “give life” to animals, the assertion of a right to torture or kill them on that account would be no less preposterous. The “giving of life” cannot in any way be proved to be a “kindness,” or construed into a claim on the gratitude and self-sacrifice of the animals in question. All such ethical relations must begin with birth and end with death; they are concerned with what is existent, not with what is non-existent, for non-existence is entirely beyond the scope of sentiment or comparison. Such methods of argument open out an alarming vista of absurdities, for, as Mr. Oldfield truly remarks, they are equally applicable to men as to animals. “I should have just as good a scientific right to inflict pain or death upon my children as upon my bred pups or lambs.”
But to return from Vegetarianism in particular to the main subject of “The New Charter.” In a very important introductory passage, Mr. Kenworthy points out the close connection between the various branches of humane reform, between the social condition of men and the treatment of animals—a truth too apt to be forgotten by philanthropists on one side and zoophilists on the other.
“By humanitarians, socialists, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, teetotalers, land-reformers, and all such seekers of human welfare, this must be borne in mind—that each of their particular efforts is but a detail of the whole work of social regeneration; and that we cannot rightly understand and direct our own little piece of effort, unless we know it, and pursue it, as part of the whole. . . . Fondness for a lap-dog, or a passion for horses, by no means constitutes a humanitarian. The affection of the woman who demands that the butcher shall kill the sheep that her spaniel may have his mutton-chop, and of the man who houses his horses in model stables and his grooms in the loft above, is entirely narrow and selfish. . . . Obviously our first concern in seeking right relations with the universal life, must be to bring ourselves into right relations with our fellow-men. That is a sham humanitarianism, a dangerous hypocrisy, which can agitate against vivisection, and at the same time look calmly upon, even apologize for, the misery and degradation of the masses of humanity. The treatment of man by man is, I submit, the first subject for us to consider, who seek to establish the rights of animals in principle and practice. . . . The suffering of the animals at the hand of man is the counterpart, the extension, of the suffering which man inflicts upon man. The animals, in short, are equally involved with ourselves in our social conditions. Salvation for man means salvation for the animals; but while man suffers, the animals must also suffer.”
In conclusion, a few words about the term “rights,” as used in the sub-title of this volume. In my own book on “Animals’ Rights,” and elsewhere, I have freely admitted that the term is logically open to objection; it is impossible to frame an unassailable definition of “rights,” and the word has at times been made to cover all sorts of vague and contradictory assertions. Still, on the whole, it is a just and expressive word, and in default of a better, is likely to do good service in the future as it has done in the past. One or two of the contributors to “The New Charter,” prefer to speak of “duties.” “I do not know what the rights of man are,” says Mr. Frederic Harrison; “much less shall I talk about the rights of animals.” “The very idea of rights,” says Mr. Leadbeater, “is based entirely upon selfishness”—a judgment, by the way, which seems to me to be entirely mistaken. The case is put in a nutshell by Mr. Foote, when he says that rights and duties “are like the two halves of a pair of scissors; inoperative and unintelligible except in relation to each other, and also in relation to the purposes they both sub-serve.”
I have said that “The New Charter” is a sign of the times. It would hardly have been possible, ten years ago, that such a book could be written; and the very fact that these advanced humanitarian principles are now heartily accepted by men of widely different persuasions—positivists and socialists, churchmen and secularists, theosophists, and men of science—should bring no little comfort and encouragement to the handful of humane workers who, in spite of ridicule and misrepresentation, have so long been steadily striving through darkness towards light.
1 “The New Charter: A Discussion of the Rights of Men and the Rights of Animals,” by J. C. Kenworthy, A. L. Lilley, Josiah Oldfield, Frederic Harrison, G. W. Foote, and C. W. Leadbeater. (George Bell & Sons, 1896, 2s.)Henry S. Salt