Every-day Ethics: The Humanitarian League

Every-day Ethics: The Humanitarian League

I have been asked by the editor of Seed-time to write something about the why and wherefore of the “Humanitarian League,” the very latest addition to the not inconsiderable number of Ethical Societies already in existence. Let me say at once (for it is better, in such matters, to take the bull of criticism by the horns) that the “Humanitarian League” is an appeal not for but against what is known as “sickly sentimentality.” I beg my readers to distinguish, at the outset, between sentimentality and sentiment. Sentiment, or sensibility, as it used to be called, is a quality of which no wise man is likely to depreciate the importance; but sentimentality is sentiment abused—it is the exaggeration and distortion, on some particular point, of a principle which ought to be well-balanced and self-consistent and universal in its application. It is the more necessary to draw this distinction because it seems to be supposed in some quarters that the “Humanitarian League” is designed to be a sort of Cranks’ Carnival, a general congregation of the noble army of faddists. On the contrary, it is our purpose to demonstrate that it is quite possible to have a softening of the heart without a corresponding process of softening of the brain.

The duty of humanity, both to mankind and the lower animals, is one of those vaguely defined principles which are everywhere accepted in theory, but seldom thought out, or acted on, with any consistency or thoroughness. For why (if the question be forced on us) should we be humane at all? Self-interest “the fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of another man’s calamity”—may, as the utilitarians assert, have been the original basis of compassion; but we have long passed the stage where there is any consciousness of such calculation or any reason for employing it; and it would be difficult nowadays to assign any other ground for humaneness than the simple instinct of pity—the fact that, as Lecky expresses it in his History of Morals, “we know by nature that there is a distinction between humanity and cruelty, that the first belongs to the higher or better part of our nature, and that it is our duty to cultivate it.” So universally is this recognised that everyone professes a regard for humanity, and everyone, to some extent and in certain directions, both practises and appeals to it.

But if the duty of humanity holds good in one case, why not in all? If we should be humane to men, why not to animals; and a fortiori if to animals, why not to men? There is absolutely no intellectual foothold short of an acceptance of the whole humanitarian position; yet it would be easy to show that inconsistency runs rampant, even in the case of many persons who pride themselves on being humane. The “philanthropist,” for example, is too often indifferent to the terrible sufferings to which the lower animals are deliberately and mercilessly subjected; the “lover of animals” too often has no pity to spare for the human beings who are the victims of social injustice and oppression. Yet surely Lecky’s contention is here irresistible. “It is abundantly evident,” he says, “both from history and from present 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 sufferings of animals”; and again, “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 man with the animal world.”

Is it not time, therefore, that this subject of humanitarianism received somewhat more careful attention from moralists and sociologists than has hitherto been accorded it? The sentimentality, it seems to me, is by no means on the part of those who have a definite humanitarian creed, which they have thought out thoroughly so as to realise alike its capabilities and its limitations; the sickly sentimentalists are rather those who have no guiding principle in the matter, who sway helplessly between compassion and indifference, undoing with one hand the good they attempt with the other, and fanatically attacking a lesser abuse, while a far more glaring one, perhaps, is overlooked or even to some extent sanctioned. Humanitarians of the thorough-going kind are quite open to be convinced that humaneness is altogether incongruous and impossible, and that the stronger animals fulfils its natural function in preying upon the weaker and in appealing (by a delightfully humorous inversion of ideas) to that convenient “law of self-sacrifice” which regulates the moral world. Only in that case let us accept the hard facts unflinchingly and have no illusions about them. Let us not imitate the sentimental sportsman who went out hunting “in the interests of the fox.”

It is not the object and raison d’être of the “Humanitarian League” to approach the whole of this question from a fixed and consistent stand-point, viz: that “it is iniquitous to inflict suffering on any sentient being, except when self-defence or absolute necessity can be justly pleaded”—the creed expressed by Wordsworth in his well known lines,

“Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.”

Starting from this general principle, the Committee of the “Humanitarian League” proposes to deal from time to time with such particular aspects of the question as may appear to the especially urgent or seasonable, and to publish thereon a series of pamphlets which shall give all the information that is available up to date. To quote the words of the Manifesto, “the distinctive purpose and guiding policy of the League will be to consolidate and give consistent expression to those principles of humaneness, the recognition of which is essential to the understanding and realisation of all that is highest and best in Humanity.” I trust some of the readers of Seed-time may be disposed to join us in this endeavour.

Henry S. Salt

Seed-Time, July 1891