The Sanctity of Life

The Sanctity of Life

A Reply to Sir Henry Thompson

In an article which appeared in the Fortnightly Review in September, 1896, entitled “The Humanities of Diet,” I laid stress on the fact that the chief motive to which vegetarianism owes its progress during the past half-century is the humane one, and that the real issue between vegetarians and flesh-eaters, in their discussion of the food question, has been the disuse, not of all animal products whatsoever, such as milk, cheese, and eggs, but of the flesh-foods in particular, which necessitate the slaughter (under very horrible conditions) of sentient animals. I pointed out at some length, and with a detail which must excuse me from here repeating myself, that the outcry  which is raised from time to time against the name “vegetarian” is based on the quite erroneous assumption that “vegetarians,” in using that word, are deliberating sailing under false colours, and while pledged to abstain from all that is of the animal, are so foolish as not to know, or so dishonest as to ignore, that milk and eggs are not products of the vegetable kingdom. Incidentally, too, in alluding to certain crass fallacies put forward against vegetarianism, I remarked that the most entertaining of these sophisms is “what may be termed the metaphysical argument, beloved of learned men, which urges that it is better for the animals to live and be eaten than not to live at all”; and I added that, though I did not think that any explanation of this fallacy was required for ordinary persons, I was quite ready to explain it to any distinguished metaphysician or philosopher who might be unable to see it.

I regret to say that this generous offer has not availed to prevent certain eminent specialists committing themselves to this particular fallacy. Mr Leslie Stephen, some time ago, in his “Social Rights and Duties,” expressed the opinion that “of all the arguments for vegetarianism none is so weak as the argument for humanity,” because “the pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon”; and Professor D. G. Ritchie, in his work on “Natural Rights,” took the same line. Now, more recently, Sir Henry Thompson, in an article entitled “Why ‘Vegetarian?’” which appeared in the Nineteenth Century for April, 1898, has developed the argument at some length.  For which reasons, while still holding to my belief that ordinary persons, like myself, are well able, by the use of such brains as nature has given them, to avoid this pitfall, I am moved, as a humanitarian, to come forward to help those distinguished thinkers who cannot help themselves.

Now one would have thought that, before writing his attack on the “vegetarians,” Sir H. Thompson would have at least have tried so far to view things from his adversaries’ standpoint, as to see what they were really aiming at, instead of arbitrarily crediting them with purposes and opinions which they entirely disavow, and thus doubly confusing the issue in the public mind. But not a bit of it! He has repeated in his last article nearly all the old misunderstandings which did duty, thirteen years ago, in his essay on “Diet,” and were fully answered at the time; from which we must conclude that he regards “vegetarians” as outside the pale of civilised controversy. “Vegetarianism” means living on vegetables; milk and eggs are not vegetables; therefore “vegetarians” who use these are impostors–that is the alpha and omega of his reasoning. To such an extent has he got this “vegetable” idea on his mind, that he gravely urges as an objection to “vegetarianism,” that milk, an animal product, is a necessity from the young of mammals, apparently forgetting that he is thus equally impugning the “vegetarianism” of the frugivorous apes.

There is, however, one point on which Sir H. Thompson seems to have apprehended that his position is an untenable one. In his article of 1885 he absolutely ignored the moral basis of vegetarianism, and while discussing the chemistry of diet, wrote as if morality of diet were a thing unknown to him. In his new article he so far rectifies this omission as to notice, even as “an important aspect of the vegetarian question, which may not be passed over without some consideration” (as he passed it over before!), that instinctive horror of the slaughter-house which, as he might have added, has been felt and expressed by many notable men, from Plutarch to Tolstoy. For this “amiable sentiment” (that is what he calls it) he avows appreciation and respect, and it is “not without a degree of reluctance,” presumably as loth to shatter a fond illusion, that he undertakes to show that we are not doing an unkindness, but a positive kindness, to the animals in breeding and slaughtering them for food. The explanation will, he trusts, bring “relief to many kind hearts.” If there are people who can be relieved by the considerations adduced, their hearts must be better than their heads, for the reasoning is a follows.

In the first place, as if to screw up his readers’ minds to the required pitch of enthusiasm, Sir H. Thompson launches into an eloquent rhapsody on the happiness of Life, an enjoyable possession which, he fervently surmises, is not confined to this our planet alone. Life, in spite of its risks and accidents, “is almost universally accepted by man [note the word accepted] as a precious heritage, and very rarely is it relinquished without infinite regret, or if threatened, without a severe struggle: ‘skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.’” Here the “kind hearts,” for the alleviation of whose sorrows Sir H. Thompson is so solicitous, my wonder why, if life is such a blessing, it is a kindness to kill and eat the hitherto fortunate possessors thereof; but now comes in the full felicity of Sir H. Thompson’s assurance.

“The mixed feeder,” he says, “in a civilised society at all events, ought to be aware that he is not the mere occasion of death to animals, but is on the other hand promoting life by propagating them for the purpose of food, and that he may conscientiously feel pleasure in the fact that he plays a humble part in promoting the great scheme which has associated joy with life. For the breeding of animals of all kinds for human food confers life on millions of beings possessing considerable capacity for enjoyment in their own way, on the best conditions attainable, conditions far superior in point of comfort, freedom from pain, accident, etc., to those which govern the wild breeds inhabiting the prairie or the forest.”

Now before proceeding to a consideration of this remarkable theory, let me note that it seems, on the face of it, to lead to certain suspicious conclusions which might well give pause to the “kind hearts” before they accept such consolation. For obviously if Sir Henry Thompson’s reasoning justifies the practice of flesh-eating, it must equally justify all breeding of all animals for profit or pastime, when it can be pleading that “acceptance” of life involves corresponding acceptance of death. The argument is frequently used by fox-hunters, on the ground that the fox would long ago have become extinct in this country had not they, his true friends, “preserved” him for purposes of sport. It was advanced by Sir Herbert Maxwell, on behalf of pigeon-shooting, in the debate on March 7th, 1883, when he held that a “blue rock” would surely prefer to live and be shot at, than not to live at all. Vivisectors also have used the argument, and they have as much right to it as flesh-eaters, for how, they may say, can a few hours of agony be set in the balance against the enormous benefit of Life on which Sir H. Thompson is so eloquent? In fact, if we once admit that it is an advantage to an animal to be brought into the world, there is no treatment that cannot be justified by the supposed terms of such a contract.

Also the argument must apply equally to mankind. It has been the plea of the slave-breeder in all ages, and it is logically just as good an excuse for slave-holding as for flesh-eating. It would justify parents in any ill-usage of their children, who owe them, for the great boon of Life, a debt of gratitude which no subsequent service can repay. In spite of Sir H. Thomson’s limitations of his principle to a “civilised society,” we could hardly deny the same merit to cannibals, if they were to breed their human victims for the table, as the early Peruvians are said to have done. “Garcilasso de la Vega,” says a writer in Rees’ Encyclopœdia, “mentions a people in Peru who were accustomed to fatten and eat the children produced by their female captives, whom they kept as concubines for that purpose.” Such eating of infants must obviously be as much justified by Sir H. Thompson’s theory as the eating of lambs. I presume Sir H. Thompson would condemn the Turks for their massacres of Armenians, because their reckless cruelty has diminished the sum of total of life; but what if some future more philanthropic Sultan should take to breeding Armenians for the slaughter? In that case our distinguished scientist would be compelled to award him his praise.

But here it will be objected that what is true of animals is not true of mankind, because animals’ last hour (so Sir H. Thompson says) comes “happily unforeseen, unsuspected, without the anxiety or dread it often brings to man.” But, as a matter of fact, are the human victims of cannibalism a prey to this terrible anxiety from which the animals are exempt? I commend to Sir H. Thompson’s attention the following significant passage of Prof. Flinders Petrie’s article on Cannibalism (Contemporary Review, June, 1897):–

“To our ideas of the sanctity of human life the notion of using men and women for food seems the greatest crime. Not so, however, to those who have not the clinging to life which is so general among Europeans. It is an old common-place how a Chinee will be willing to change place with a criminal, and be executed in a few days’ time, if he may have unlimited pleasures and feasting meanwhile. The idea of death does not make him shrink. The same indifference is shown in Africa. . . .  When men regard the personal question so lightly as this, we should certainly misunderstand them if we were to attribute to them all the aversion that we might have to a similar end.”

Moreover Sir H. Thompson is in absolute error in assuming that the life of domesticated animals bred for food is happier than that of the free wild species, and on this point he is in direct conflict with the authority of such leading naturalists as Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace and Mr. W. H. Hudson.

“I take it,” say Mr. Hudson, “that in the lower animals misery can result from two causes only–restraint and disease; consequently that animals in a state of nature are not miserable. . . . The ‘struggle for existence,’ in so far as animals in a state of nature are concerned, is a metaphorical struggle; and the strife, short and sharp, which is so common in nature, is not misery.”

Thus too Dr. A. R. Wallace: “The poet’s picture of nature red in tooth and claw is a picture of evil of which is read into it by our imagination, the reality being made up of full and happy lives, usually terminated by the quickest and least painful of deaths.”

Nor is Sir H. Thompson more accurate when he says, with reference to the slaughter of animals for food, that “the stroke of death is arranged to take place almost instantaneously and without pain.” On the contrary, the suffering inflicted on the victims of the slaughter-house is very protracted and severe, and (be it noted) is much increased under civilisation, owing to the longer distances that have to be traversed by ship and rail. It would be easy to quote perfectly trustworthy eye-witnesses, whose evidence completely disproves Sir H. Thompson’s optimistic fancies; but it is not necessary, because, as it happens, he has himself given away his own case. For immediately after his assurance that the stroke of the slaughterman is painless, he makes this delightful reservation: “Or it should be so, for this can always be accomplished if ordinary care and skill is employed.” The “kind hearts” afore-mentioned must be filled with a very accommodating sort of loving-kindness, if it can content them to know that the animals butchered for their enjoyment might be killed painlessly! If we were all free to indulge in habits which might be devoid of cruelty, but are not so, the science of Ethics would be an even more parlous state than it is at present!

I have now said enough to show that there are good grounds for viewing with grave suspicion the ingenious plea for the Canonisation of the Ogre (for it really amounts to that, if we imagine an Ogre scientific enough to breed as well as to devour), to which such thinkers as Mr. Leslie Stephen and Sir H. Thompson have given their approval. It now remains to deal more closely with the sophism itself, and mark precisely wherein its error consists. It is on record, in no less authentic a work than Hansard (March 7th, 1883), that when Sir H. Maxwell argued in Parliament that a “blue rock” would prefer to be sport for pigeon-shooters than not to exist at all, Mr. W. E. Forster satirically remarked that what we have to consider is not a blue rock before existence, but a blue rock in existence. There, in brief, is the key to the whole matter. When Sir H. Thompson speaks of “accepting” life he begs the question in a word. There can be no “acceptance” without free option; and as consciousness only begins with life itself, it is impossible to “accept” what one must perforce acquiesce in. Acquiescence is not acceptable.

The fallacy lies in the confusion of thought which attempts to compare existence with non-existence. Of existence it is indeed possible to predicate certain qualities, good or bad, happiness or unhappiness, as the mood may be; of non-existence we can predicate just this–nothing. Therefore when we “bring a being,” as we vaguely express it, “into the world,” we cannot claim from that being any gratitude for our action, or drive a bargain with him (and a very shabby one) on that account; nor can our duties to him be evaded by any such quibble, in which the wish is so obviously father to the thought. Nor, in this connection, is it necessary to enter on the question of ante-natal existence, because, if such existence there be, we have no reason for assuming that it is less happy than the present existence; and thus equally Sir H. Thompson’s argument falls to the ground. It is absurd to compare a possible pre-existence, or non-existence, with actual individual life as know to us here. All reasoning based on such comparison must necessarily be false, and will lead to grotesque conclusions.

From whatever point one looks at this sophism, it is seen to be equally hollow. For even apart from the philosophical flaw which vitiates it, there is the practical consideration that a far greater number of human lives can be supported on a grain and fruit-growing district than on one which rears cattle; so that if Sir H. Thompson’s suggestion were adopted, and a larger area of England were devoted to the rearing of “live-stock,” we should actually be lessening human life that there might be more beef and mutton, that is, we should be increasing the lower existence at the expense of the higher. It is worth noting, too, that the life of animals doomed to the slaughter is of a far lower quality than it would be if the same animals were either entirely wild, or domesticated to some rational purpose by friendly association with man; the very fact that an animal is going to be eaten seems to remove it from the category of intelligent beings, and causes it to be regarded as mere animated “meat.” “To keep a man, slave, or servant,” says Edward Carpenter, “for your own advantage merely, to keep an animal, that you may eat it, is a lie; you cannot look that man or animal in the face.” The existence of bullocks, for example, can scarcely be called life; they are “live-stock,” but they do not live. Can the pig, in the filthy state to which civilisation has reduced him, be compared with the free, clean, wild animal from which he has been degraded? And what would Sir H. Thompson say of the “fat beasts” that are yearly exhibited at the Agricultural Hall, and elsewhere, at the season of peace and goodwill? Are these wretched victims of human gluttony to be grateful for the boon of Life? Are crammed fowls and Strasburg geese to be grateful? And the calf and the lamb—are they to be felicitated on the rather short term allowed them in the ghoulish contract, or does Sir H. Thompson except the eaters of veal and lamb from the list of animal benefactors?

Let us heartily accept what Sir H. Thompson has written of the joyfulness of life. But what is the moral to be drawn from that fact? Surely not that we are justified in outraging and destroying life, to pamper our selfish appetites, because forsooth we shall then produce more of it! But rather that we should respect the beauty and sanctity of life in others as in ourselves, and strive as far as possible to secure its fullest natural development. Sir H. Thompson philosophy is the very negation of a true reverence of life; for it implies that the real lover of animals is he whose larder is fullest of them:–

“He prayeth best, who eateth best
All things both great and small.”

It is the philosophy of the wolf, the shark, the cannibal. If there be any truth in such an argument, let those who believe it have the courage of their convictions, and face the inevitable conclusion. The Ogre has hitherto been a much misunderstood character, but now at last Philosophy and Science, as represented by Mr. Leslie Stephen and Sir H. Thompson, are doing justice to his beneficence. His organization has been defective, perhaps, but his spirit has been wholly commendable. He is par excellence the zoophilist, the philanthropist, the saint. The Canonisation of the Ogre is at hand.

Henry S. Salt

The Vegetarian Society, 1898