Restrictionists and Abolitionists

Restrictionists and Abolitionists

In saying a few words on a question which is always more or less rife among reformers, and is unfortunately (and, as we think, unnecessarily) a cause of dissension among some humane workers today, we must disclaim any intention of speaking dogmatically or as partisans. So, far from wishing to lay down any hard and fast principle, we hold that the acceptance or refusal of compromise—the adoption or rejection of what are called “lesser measures”—is a matter of policy, not principle, and must he settled by each individual, or each society, according to conditions and circumstances, since what is advisable in one case may not be so in another. What we deprecate is not diversity of methods (for that, in the long run, may even be beneficial to the cause), but the misunderstanding which is apt to arise between “restrictionists” and “abolitionists”, when the advocates of “lesser measures” are viewed on the one hand as merely tinkering at reform, while on the other hand the “all or nothing” party is pronounced unpractical and extreme. There is need, we think, of clearer and more dispassionate judgement on this matter, usually discussed in far too heated a spirit; we propose, therefore, to set down a few reasons why, as it seems to us, the two parties should regard each other not as rivals but as allies.

It is frequently assumed that, in battling against some great cruelty or injustice (vivisection, for example), one has to make one’s choice, definitely and sharply, between a policy of mere restriction and a policy of total repeal; and that the one course must be as entirely right as the other is entirely wrong. This, however, we make bold to say, is erroneous; for there is not the least reason, in most cases (there may, of course, be exceptions), why one and the same person, or one and the same society, should not advocate both restriction and abolition, according to the light in which the question is viewed—that is to say, the light of the nearer future or of the more remote. For, as reform usually comes not in the lump, but by installment, the practical reformer must fix his eyes not on one horizon but on two; and while he guards against the error of sacrificing the far goal for the near one, he must equally beware of missing the near one in his anxiety to arrive at the far. In a word, there is need not of restriction or abolition, but of restriction and abolition; the earlier reform being not the alternative, but the introduction and gateway, so to speak, to the latter.

The shrewdest mind is that which can look both to the present and to the future, the actual and the ideal, and, while partially satisfied with the “half loaf”, is fully satisfied with nothing less than the whole one.

To illustrate what we mean, let us quote the words of one who assuredly cannot be charged with any lack of thoroughness or devotion —the poet Shelley: “You know my principles incite me to take all the good I can get in politics, forever aspiring to something more. I am one of those whom nothing will ever fully satisfy, but who are ready to be partially satisfied in all that is practicable.” It is because we believe that this is the golden rule for humanitarians—to take all the good they can get, while forever aspiring to something more—that we regret to see the friction that has arisen, for example, in the anti-vivisection movement, between those who would “restrict” and those who would “abolish” the cruelties of the laboratory. It is well that those who are so minded should work for complete prohibition; hut it is absurd to speak, as some do, of the policy of lesser measures as a danger to the anti-vivisection cause. Such apprehension rests, no doubt, on the idea that an acceptance of the proverbial “half-loaf” as better than no bread involves a sacrifice of all claim to the other half of the loaf; but this of course is a misunderstanding. On the other side, it is scarcely less unjust to represent the abolitionists as mere dreamers and doctrinaires; for the further horizon, as well as the nearer one, must be kept well in view if any real progress is to be made.

Turning from the question of vivisection to that of butchery, we find the same differences of opinion. The Order of the Golden Age, for instance, has lately decided that, whatever other societies may do, it can in no way “advocate the substitution of abattoirs for private slaughterhouses”, or aim at any lesser measure than the disuse of flesh-food. The Order presumably knows its own business best. But it is quite possible for humanitarians to advocate (and practice) vegetarianism, as the only full solution of the food question, and yet work for some more generally acceptable reform, such as those improved methods of slaughter which abattoirs would secure. This is done by the Humane Diet Department of the Humanitarian League, and it has not been found that such action involves any loss of principle or self-respect.

A similar policy has been followed by the Sports Department of the League, which, while condemning, on moral grounds, all so-called sports that inflict suffering on animals, has confined its legislative demands to the prohibition of certain more debased pastimes, such as stag hunting, rabbit coursing, and the shooting of birds from traps. The department, in fact, is restrictionist as regards the present, and abolitionist as regards the future; and here again the policy of lesser measures, plus far reaching principles, is seen to have excellent results.

In conclusion, let us clear up a certain confused notion, prevalent in too many quarters, that those who reject compromise, and aim only at abolition, are necessarily taking the higher and more arduous course. It is usually quite otherwise. There are numerous cases where it is a far higher and more difficult task—demanding much greater capacity of brain and character—to be able to keep one’s faith in the future as active and undimmed as that of the most ardent enthusiast, and yet (like Shelley) to be willing to accept the humblest installment of reform. On the other hand, it is no sign of genuine shrewdness to aim merely at what is called the “practical”; the shrewdest mind is that which can look both to the present and to the future, the actual and the ideal, and, while partially satisfied with the “half loaf”, is fully satisfied with nothing less than the whole one.

For our own part, we have no quarrel with those who are abolitionist only, or with those who are restrictionist only; it is for each to do what he or she can. But we hope that members of the Humanitarian League will strive, wherever feasible, to adopt the fuller and wiser policy—that is, to be both restrictionists and abolitionists at once. Humanitarians have a hard fight before them against the power of cruelty and oppression, and they cannot afford to refrain from using their intellects as well as their hearts. Stupidity, in such a contest, will retard the noblest cause. And the recrimination that goes on between the advocates of greater and lesser measures strikes us, if we may say so, as just a little stupid.

Henry S. Salt

Humanity, November 4, 1900