Salt of the Earth: The Savour of Salt
New York Review of Books, February 15, 1990
The Savour of Salt: A Henry Salt Anthology
edited by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick.
Centaur Press, 204 pp., $30.00
Henry Salt called his autobiography Seventy Years Among Savages. It tells of a life lived entirely in England. As one might therefore guess, Salt’s writings were not well received when they appeared, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now George and Willene Hendrick have done Salt a much-needed posthumous service by presenting his ideas to a world sympathetic to the tenor of his thought.
Salt was born in India in 1851, the son of an officer in the Indian army, but was brought up by his mother in England and educated at Eton and Cambridge. A brilliant scholar, he was invited back to teach at Eton. There he married Kate Joynes, daughter of an Eton master and sister of his closest friend, Jim Joynes, also a master at Eton. But Henry, Kate, and Jim Joynes had become intoxicated with Shelley’s free-thinking brand of humanitarian socialism. This soon proved incompatible with teaching at a school that existed, as Salt’s father-in-law informed him, so that the world can be redeemed by its aristocrats!
Henry and Kate Salt exchanged their Eton lodgings for a laborer’s cottage in Tilford, a village in Surrey. There they lived without any servants, an extraordinary decision for people of their social class at that time (even Marx at his most penurious kept a housekeeper). Inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, they grew vegetables, wore sandals, and sought to simplify their lives.
As Henry Salt’s reputation as a man of ideas spread, a stream of social and political thinkers began visiting his cottage in Tilford: William Morris. Edward Carpenter, George Meredith, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the socialist leader H. M. Hyndman, Eleanor Marx, and Edward Aveling, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and Havelock Ellis. Among the most frequent visitors, particularly in the early days, was George Bernard Shaw, then young and unknown.
Salt’s abiding commitment was to making the world more humane. Although a socialist of sorts, he was not prepared to wait for the revolution to redress the suffering he saw around him. With support from some members of the Fabian Society he founded the Humanitarian League, bringing together prison reformers, those opposed to corporal punishment, campaigners for improved factory working conditions, socialists, vegetarians, and anti-vivisectionists. in order to advance the general principle of humaneness that, in Salt’s view, was the common factor in all their struggles. On the league’s behalf he wrote leaflets against conditions in prisons, factories, schools, and slaughter. houses. But Salt wrote more than leaflets. During his eighty-eight years he published forty-seven books, on a great many different subjects: studies of Shelley, Thoreau, De Quincey, and Richard Jefferies; humanitarian works on the rights of animals, vegetarianism, socialism, and corporal punishment; and collections of essays on the importance of preserving nature and places of natural beauty. The Hendricks have offered us only a sample. It is enough to display Salt as a path-breaking thinker, but I hope it will lead readers to want to read some of the works in their entirety.
In this respect Salt’s most remarkable work is certainly Animal Rights. Published in 1892, the book could, if its facts were updated, take its place alongside the modern works of the animal liberation movement. When I first became interested in the ethics of the treatment of animals in 1971, I found a reference to Animal Rights and eventually tracked the book down in a library. Subsequently someone who had been in the animal movement many decades longer than I had gave me a copy in an early edition. Though Animal Rights is now available again, that copy remains among my most treasured books. Salt’s scholarly knowledge of his predecessors was invaluable to me; but what is most astonishing is the way in which he answers so many still current objections to the idea of equal rights, or equal consideration, for animals.
The object of the essay, Salt wrote in the preface, was “to set the principle of animals’ rights on a consistent and intelligible footing....” The extract reprinted in this volume is enough to show that he does this with care and tactical skill. “Have the lower animals ‘rights’”? Salt asks at the start of the first chapter of the book. He immediately gives the answer: “Undoubtedly — if men have.” Thus he avoids the need to discuss the abstract theory of rights, and comes straight to the essential question of the means by which we seek to distinguish ourselves morally from all nonhuman animals. Here he draws philosophers like Jeremy Bentham to his side, arguing that the capacity for suffering is a sufficient basis for including a being within our sphere of concern. Then comes the sharp. efficient, and often witty disposal of contrary views, from religious writers who object that animals have no souls, from Cartesians who claim that they can feel nothing, and from those who twist Darwinism into a suggestion that death and suffering are inevitable in nature, so we may as well be part of it.
Animal Rights is not just a work of philosophy. It contains detailed descriptions of the way in which animals suffer for trivial human wants. The Hendricks have selected passages on the hunting of stags, foxes, and other animals, which has not changed greatly since Salt wrote; and on “murderous millinery,” the practice of killing birds for their feathers to adorn ladies’ hats, which has. Sadly, in reading this material, one cannot be confident that animals are much better off today than they were in 1892. If fashion no longer demands the killing of birds, it still requires the no less cruel trapping or cage-rearing of fur-bearing animals. Farm animals may have met a more painful death when there was no pre-slaughter stunning; but at least while alive they were able to walk around, not confined in battery cages and sow stalls so that they could scarcely move.
Salt differed from more respectable proponents of the humane treatment of animals by being prepared to take his ideas to their logical conclusions. For example, if the desire to wear feathers on one’s hat was a frivolity that could not justify animal slaughter, so too, in the end, is the eating of meat when alternatives are available. Thus Salt practiced. and preached, vegetarianism. His The Logic of Vegetarianism, extracted here, makes amusing reading for a modern vegetarian, since so many of the objections Salt considers and rejects are still current today. To this work also belongs the distinction of the first serious discussion of what has come to be known as “the replaceability argument”: that is, the argument that eating meat is justifiable on the grounds that if we did not kill animals for food, there would be no additional animals bred to replace them, and since these animals lead good lives until they are slaughtered, they owe all the pleasures of their existence to meat-eaters.
Salt rejected this argument. We cannot, he wrote, benefit nonexistent beings, and hence it is mistaken to trade off the future pleasures of nonexistent beings against the killing of a living animal. There are many who would share this view, but the debate has been taken up afresh in contemporary philosophy, and Derek Parfit has shown that there is no easy solution to the question of whether it is a good thing to bring into existence beings who can be expected to lead pleasant lives. Either an affirmative or a negative answer can lead to paradoxes and counterintuitive judgments in particular cases. For example, an affirmative answer suggests that if life for human beings contains more pleasure (or whatever else has positive value) than pain (or whatever else has negative value), we ought to encourage people to have more children, even when by doing so we reduce the average level of welfare in the world. For the good created by bringing extra people into existence will presumably outweigh some degree of loss on the part of others who exist or would have existed anyway. Today, of course, the risk of ecological collapse under the pressure of human population counts against such a policy; but in the absence of such problems, would having as many children as possible really be morally obligatory?
Yet a negative answer has implications no less troubling. If we hold, with Salt, that we cannot benefit nonexistent beings, surely we must also hold that we cannot harm nonexistent beings. But this entails that it would not be bad for a couple to conceive a child even if they know that, because they carry a genetic defect, any child they might have will suffer miserably great pain for six months and then die. Salt would surely have repudiated a conclusion so at odds with his humanitarianism. If conceiving a miserable child is bad because it harms the child, however, why is conceiving a happy child not good because it benefits the child? In practice, of course, much of the philosophical debate is irrelevant to nearly all the meat eaten in developed nations; for the lives of animals reared in modern intensive farming conditions are certainly not pleasant.
Salt may not have given the definitive answer to such objections, but he did have an important influence on some of his readers. Gandhi encountered another of Salt’s writings, A Plea for Vegetarianism, during his student days in London. Although brought up a vegetarian on religious grounds, Gandhi, like many young Indians in London, was under pressure from his secular friends to give up such silly superstitions. Until he read Salt’s book he was clinging to vegetarianism only because he would not break a vow he had given to his mother before leaving India. Later in his Autobiography he wrote: “From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice.” Gandhi also wrote to Salt (in a letter reprinted in The Savour of Salt) that he had read Salt’s Life of Henry David Thoreau with pleasure and profit. Subsequently, of course, Gandhi put Thoreau’s teachings on civil disobedience to good effect in India, and it was Gandhi’s success that suggested to Martin Luther King that Thoreau’s teachings could be brought back home and applied as a moral weapon on behalf of American blacks.
Animal rights and vegetarianism were only one aspect of Salt’s general humanitarian concerns. He was never afraid of estranging those who were attracted by only a part of his broad philosophy. In his autobiography we read that his thorough going opposition to flogging was a very unpopular policy; the Humanitarian League lost many members and much pecuniary support by its steadfastness on this point, especially, strange to say, among zoophilists and antivivisectionists, many of whom were firm believers in the propriety of vivisecting the backs of criminals, and would have gone any distance, as I have heard said, “to see a vivisector flogged.”
Salt would have been delighted to see how well those committed to animal liberation today understand that its underlying principles are part of a broad movement based on equal consideration for the interests of all, even those who are themselves responsible for causing unnecessary suffering. Yet it must be admitted that among those opposed to animal experimentation, there are a few who want to see experimenters suffer something like the pain that they have inflicted on animals. Fortunately when these anti-vivisectionist retributivists speak up at meetings they are invariably heavily outnumbered by people with a philosophy more in tune with the key principle of the Humanitarian League: “It is iniquitous to inflict avoidable suffering on any sentient being.”
The Savour of Salt also enables us to see that Salt would have felt at home today not only among animal liberationists, but also in the environmental movement:
Humanitarianism is not merely an expression of sympathy with pain: it is a protest against all tyranny and desecration, whether such wrongs be done by the infliction of suffering on sentient beings, or by the Vandalism which can ruthlessly destroy the natural grace of the earth.
This is an unusual extension of the ordinary meaning of the term “humanitarianism,” and Salt does not, to my knowledge, anywhere discuss the conflicts that may arise between the goals of reducing suffering and preserving the grace of the earth. There was certainly enough for Salt to write about nature conservation without raising such conflicts. As late as 1928, when he published Our Vanishing Wildflowers there existed no organization for the protection of the English landscape — though there was an English organization for the protection of the Swiss landscape. At that time highways, railway lines, and hydro-electric works were being pushed through the Welsh mountains, and even the very summit of Snowdon was deformed by the building of a railway and a hotel on the highest point in Wales. Salt pointed to the example of America, and suggested that, as in the United States, “public parks” should be established “in which the wild fauna and flora, together with all the natural beauties of the place, would be faithfully preserved.”
It is of course impossible to tell how much influence Salt had in bringing about the changes he advocated. He was a prolific writer, but never a very popular one, and the Humanitarian League did not become a major political or social force. Though he remained on good personal terms with Labour leaders like Ramsay MacDonald, he was, like many others, deeply disappointed with the failure of the Labour party to live up to its ideals when in office. On the other hand Shaw was later to write: “My pastime has been writing sermons in plays, sermons preaching what Salt practiced.” On that basis, through his influence on Shaw and Gandhi alone, Salt may have made a considerable contribution to progressive movements in the twentieth century. As for his work on animal rights, the returns are still coming in.
(Please note that above review may contain errors as we've not yet had the time to compare it with the original.)Peter Singer