Vegetarianism As Related To Other Reforms

Vegetarianism As Related To Other Reforms

It is sometimes held by the champions of vegetarianism that reform of diet is the starting point and foundation of all other reform, a panacea for the ills and maladies of the world. This over-estimate (as it seems to me) on the part of a few enthusiasts of an unpopular cause is due, presumably, to a revolt from the contrary extreme of depreciation; for a little thought must show us that, in the complexity of modern life, there is no such thing as a panacea for social ailments, and that, as there is no royal road to knowledge, so there is no royal road to reform. It is impossible for vegetarianism to solve the social question, unless by alliance with various other reforms that are advancing simultaneously—so inter-locked and inter-dependent are all these struggles towards freedom. It has been said by Mr. Kenworthy (in The New Charter) that, “By humanitarians, socialists, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, tee-totalers, 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 great whole.”

Still more mistakes, on the other hand, is that common prejudice against food reform which would exclude it altogether from the dignity of propagandism, and would limit it to the personal practice of individuals. “There can be no objection,” says Dr. Burney Yeo, in his Food in Health and Disease, “to individuals adapting any kind of diet which they may find answer their needs and minister to their comforts; it is only when they attempt to enforce what they practise on others, that they must except to encounter rational opposition.” Unfortunately we have learnt by bitter experience that rational opposition is the last thing we can expect to encounter—as indeed is made sufficiently evident by Dr. Yeo’s argument. For how would individual vegetarians have ever heard of the diet except through the propaganda? And why have vegetarians, as a body, less right than teetotallers, socialists, or any other propagandists, not to enforce, but to advocate their views? This typical professional attempt to class vegetarianism as an idiosyncrasy, and not a system, is as irrational as it is insincere; and what its insincerity is may be seen from the fact that though we are told that “there can be no objection” to individual practice of the diet, yet, whenever individuals do attempt to practise it, they meet with the strongest possible objection from the doctors themselves.

Thus it comes about that in this progressive age, and even among those who label themselves “Progressives,” vegetarianism is frequently regarded as a mere whim and crotchet, with no practical bearing on the forward movement of to-day. It is a marvel that so many “advanced” journals which have a good word for a host of worthy causes that are fighting an uphill battle against monopoly and injustice—social reform, land reform, law reform, prison reform, hospital reform, and a hundred more—are dumb as death, or speak only to sneer, when the subject is food reform; leading their readers to suppose that, whereas on all other matters there has been a great change of feeling during the past half-century, on the one mater of diet there has been no sort of progress! Yet they might easily learn, if they made serious inquiry, that the reformed dietetics, so far from being the outcome of mere sentiment about animals, have a past record based as surely on moral and scientific reasoning as that of any cause included in the progressive programme. Vegetarianism is, in truth, progressiveness in diet; and for a Progressive to scout such ideas as useless and utopian, is to play the part (as far as diet is concerned) of a bigoted reactionist. What is the meaning of this strange discrepancy? It must mean, I fear, that to a large number of social reformers, the reform of other persons is a much more congenial battle-cry than the reform of oneself. They call vegetarianism “impracticable” for the strange reason that, unlike most isms, it asks them to do something which they know they could do, if they wished. It is “impracticable” because it does not suit them to practise it!

To the ethical, no less than to the political school of thought, the question of vegetarianism is unwelcome, obtruding as it does on the polite wordiness of academic discussion with an issue so coarsely downright:—“You are a member of an Ethical Society. Do you live by butchery?” But the ethics of diet are the very last subject with which a cultured ethics of diet are the very last subject with which a cultured ethical society would concern itself, and the attitude of the modern ethicist towards the rights of animals is still that of the medieval schoolman.1 The ethicist does not wish to forego his beef and mutton, so he frames his ethics to avoid the danger of such mishap, and while he talks of high themes with the serene wisdom of a philosopher, the slaughter-houses continue to run with blood. I surmise that the royal founder and archetype of ethical societies was that learned but futile monarch referred to in the epitaph:—

“Here lies our mutton-loving king,
Whose word no man relies on :
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.”

So too throughout the whole field of hygiene, temperance, and plain living, to ignore vegetarianism is to ignore one of the most potent influences for self-restraint, embracing as it does, all the best features of frugality. What is the use of for ever preaching about the avoidance of luxuries and stimulants, if you rule out of your system the one dietary which makes stimulants and luxuries impossible? The relation of vegetarianism to temperance, of the food-question to the drink-question, is that of the greater which includes the less.

But it is when we turn from philanthropy to zoophily, and to the questions more particularly affecting the welfare of animals, that the importance of vegetarianism, in spite of the stubborn attempts of the old-fashioned “animal lovers” to overlook it, is most marked. Here, again, I do not share the extreme vegetarian view that food reform is the foundation of other reforms, for I think it can be shown that all cruelties to animals are the outcome of one and the same error—the blindness which can see no unity and kinship, but only difference and division, between the human and the non-human race. This blindness it is—this crass denial of a common origin, a common nature, a common structure, and common pleasures and pains—that has alone hardened men in all ages of the world, civilised or barbarous, to inflict such fiendish outrages on their harmless fellow-beings; and to remove this blindness we need, it seems to me, a deeper and more radical remedy than the reform of sport, or of physiological methods, or even of diet alone. The only real cure for the evil is the growing sense that the lower animals are closely akin to us, and have rights.

And here we see the inevitable logic of vegetarianism, if our belief in the rights of animals is ever to quit the stage of theory and enter the stage of fact; for just as there can be no human rights where there is slavery, so there can be no animal rights where there is eating of flesh. Vegetarianism is an essential part of true zoophily, and the reason why it is not more generally recognised as such is the same as that which excludes it from the plan of the Progressive—that it is so upsetting to the every-day habits of the average man. Few of us, comparatively, care to murder birds in “sport,” and still fewer to cut up living animals in the supposed interests of “science,” but we have all been taught to regard flesh-food as a necessity. Herein is at once the strength and the weakness of the case for vegetarianism—the strength as regards its logic, and the weakness as regards its unpopularity—that it makes more direct personal demand on the earnestness of its believers than other forms of zoophily do; for which reason there is a widespread, though perhaps unconscious, tendency to evade it.

Yet that such evasion is a blunder may be seen from the outcry raised against it not by vegetarians only, but by the vivisectionists and sportsmen themselves, who are quick to ask the zoophilists why, if they are so eager for the well-being of the animals, they do not desist from eating them. And however insincere this question may be, in the mouths of those who propound it, it is simple truth that, though vivisection is a more refined and diabolical torture, and sport a more stupidly wanton one, the sum of suffering that results from the practice of flesh-eating is greater from either, and by being so familiarly paraded in our streets is a cause of wider demoralisation. The zoophilist loves to quote the famous lines of Coleridge:

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

But what kind of “love” is that which eats the object of its affection? There are hidden rocks in that poetical passage which a sense of humour should indicate to the zoophilist pilot.

Our position, therefore, is this—that while we make no exaggerated claim for vegetarianism as, in itself, a panacea for human ills and animal sufferings, we insist on the rational view that reform of diet is an indispensable branch of social reorganisation, and that it is idle to talk of recognising rights of animals so long as we unconcernedly eat them. Vegetarianism is no more, and no less, than an essential part in the highly complex engine which is to shape the fabric of a new social structure—an engine which will not work if a single screw be missing. The part without the whole is undeniably powerless; but so also, as it happens, is the whole without the part.


This article was prepared for reading at the May 1899 Meetings of the Vegetarian Society, and it also forms one of a series of articles printed in The Vegetarian, and now republished in the Vegetarian Jubilee Library as the “Logic of Vegetarianism.”

1 In a late editorial notice of my pamphlet on “The Sanctity of Life,” the International Journal of Ethics actually took its stand on the old world dogma that there is a deep division between mankind and “mere animals,” and that animals are ... [Bottom line is unreadable.]

Henry S. Salt

The Vegetarian Messenger, Vol. 1 No. 10, October 1899, pp. 339-343