The Present Position of Humanitarianism
SUCH being the course of humane progress in the past, let us now consider what is the present position of humanitarianism, its purpose, and its scope. It is founded, if I understand it rightly, on the instinct of compassion, an instinct which, if not original in our nature, is an acquisition of such an early date as to be practically original – while closely allied with this compassion is the kindred sense of justice. The object of humanitarianism is to prevent the perpetration of cruelty and wrong – to redress the sufferings, as far as is possible, of all sentient life; to effect which, it must attempt to educate and organize this innate instinct into a definite and rational principle. I say as far as is possible; for I do not, of course, deny that compassion, when it assumes a practical form, must experience, for a time at any rate, restrictions and limitations. We cannot always give effect to our compassionate
promptings, since in some cases they may be curtailed or negatived by the other and still more powerful motive of self-preservation, or by a rival and countervailing impulse of compassion itself. But such limitation, so far from rendering the duty of humaneness nugatory and void, seems, on the contrary, to emphasize its urgency and importance in all cases where there is no obstacle that is confessedly insurmountable.
There can be no doubt whatever as to the immense amount of present suffering which claims the attention of the humanitarian. Indeed, one is inclined to believe that as the virtue of compassion becomes more conscious, rational, and pronounced, so too does the corresponding vice of cruelty or indifference become more malignant and incorrigible, retreating stubbornly as it is driven back, point by point, from argument to argument, and ever ready to fortify itself anew in some remaining stronghold of intellectual sophistry. The demon of misery, like the Proteus of Greek legend, takes new forms as we strive to bind him with the bonds of reason and humanity; the curse of one age is physical violence – exorcise it, and it rises up again in the shape of plutocratic ascendency. Human life, which is now so carefully safeguarded against pillage and slaughter, is ever being slowly undermined by the insidious ravages of poverty, which at the present time is probably the cause of tenfold more human misery than any other plague whatsoever; we are aghast at the notion of open bloodshed, but meantime starvation is doing its fatal work in our great cities, more quietly perhaps, but with none the less deadly effect. So, too, with the sufferings of animal; we have left far behind us the cruelties of the old religious sacrifice, the Roman amphitheatre, and the medicinal nostrum; but we tolerate,
or even applaud, the professions of the butcher, the sportsman, and the vivisector; the rage for “killing something” is one of the most popular fashions of modern times – “everywhere,” it has been well said, “it is absolutely a capital crime to be an unowned creature.”
The saddest fact of all is that our class-supremacy is so largely and directly based on class-degradation, and that the society of to-day, in its frenzied hunt for wealth, has so completely lost sight of that old Roman adage – “one man’s profit is another man’s ruin.” (1) It is the simple truth that our ordinary, average, well-to-do Englishmen, through no individual fault or special hard-heartedness of their own, but through the callous indifferentism of the society of which they are a product and a part, are in great measure fed, clothed, sheltered, and amused by a long-continued series of human and animal suffering; it may be said of them, in the words of Keats:
“For them the
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turned an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.”
Against these and other forms of human and animal suffering the humanitarian protests, appealing to that common instinct of humanity and justice which he assumes, and rightly assumes, to be inherent, however imperfectly developed, in every human heart. And if the appeal is too often made in vain,
the cause of such failure is to be sought in the lack of any well-defined and unmistakable standard of humaneness, which might form the basis of a mutual understanding, since in so complex a society more is needed than the mere appeal to the original instinct of compassion. For here it is that infinite mischief is done by the too common confusion between sentiment and sentimentality. Much of our so-called “charity” and “philanthropy” is purely sentimental, succeeding only in diverting interest and enthusiasm from these enterprises in which some thoroughly humane purpose is at stake. It is only by the adoption of some broad and rational principle that the energy at present absorbed into this partial and short-sighted philanthropy can be reclaimed and turned to good account in the service of humanitarianism; and the same remedy is indispensable if we are ever to overcome the cruelty, or let us rather call it indifference, with which the well-to-do classes too often reject the appeals that are made to them on behalf of the victims of social injustice. For, putting out of consideration the active vindictiveness which may be engendered of anger or malice, cruelty, in nine cases out of ten, is duo to a want of sensibility and sympathy – in other words, of imagination; the cruel man is cruel because he cannot put himself in the place of these who suffer, cannot feel with them and imagine the misfortunes from which he is himself exempt. The cure for cruelty is therefore to induce men to cultivate a sympathetic imagination; but the difficulty of effecting this is enormously increased by the fact that the duty of humanity, as at present preached and understood, is so very vague, partial, and intermittent. As long as certain favoured aspects of humaneness are exclusively insisted on, as long as pity is felt and expressed for this or that particular form of human suffering,
while others of equal or greater importance are neglected or ridiculed; as long as the compassion which is claimed for men is denied to animal or extended only to certain classes of animal – so long will it be difficult to appeal successfully from the narrow selfishness of personal interests to the higher and nobler sentiment of universal brotherhood.
That a lack of humanity in any particular direction tends ultimately to produce an indifference to humanity in general, is, I think, indisputable. I do not mean, of course, to assert that all individuals who are cruel in one instance are thereby, to any perceptible degree, incapacitated from being humane in others; on the contrary, it has been part of my object to show that the inconsistency of men in this respect is a real and honest inconsistency, and for that very reason the more difficult to cope with; the human mind possessing an extraordinary faculty for seeing one fact very plainly, while it overlooks others that are equally within its scope. Hogarth, in his Four Stages of Cruelty, depicts his villain, Tom Nero, first as a boy torturing a dog; then as a coachman ill-using his horse; then as the murderer of his sweetheart; and, finally, as the corpse of a hanged criminal undergoing surgical dissection. This is certainly a very remarkable and appalling chain of events; but I doubt if the Tom Neros of real life could ever “be greatly impressed by it, for it savours too much of that inventive school of morality which, in defiance of real facts, inculcates the pious theory that Don’t-care comes to a bad end. There is far more truth in Lecky’s statement that human affections are so capricious that the same man may be both kind and cruel without conscious self-contradiction. He instances Spinoza, who, being one of the gentlest of men, used nevertheless, to amuse himself by putting flies into spiders’-webs; and
Marat, who, though of a contrary disposition, used to keep doves. A “humane sportsman” is, properly speaking, a contradiction in terms; and when Izaak Walton remarks, “I am not of a cruel nature; I love to kill nothing but fish,” one is reminded of Byron’s utterance concerning a certain “old cruel coxcomb.” Yet, in a narrower sense, gentleness and ungentleness (such is the inconsistency of human nature) are often observed to be alternate inmates of the same mind; humane torture there cannot be, but the torturer may, at other times, and under other aspects, be humane. “There are unquestionably,” says Leigh Hunt, (1) “many amiable men among sports men, who, as the phrase is, would not ‘hurt a fly’ – that is to say, on a window; at the end of a string the case is altered.”
But while admitting the existence of this duality of temperament in individual cases, I cannot doubt that familiarity with the sight of suffering, whatever that suffering may be, must insensibly, in the long run, affect and weaken the operation of the compassionate instinct, and that humaneness, as a general, principle, must suffer from being confined to certain favoured objects. “The legislator,” says Bentham, (2) “ought to interdict everything which may serve to lead to cruelty. The barbarous spectacles of gladiators without doubt contributed to give the Romans that ferocity which they displayed in their civil wars. A people accustomed to despise human life in their games could not be expected to respect it amid the fury of their passions. It is proper for the same reason, to forbid every kind of cruelty towards animal, whether by way of amusement or to gratify gluttony. (...) Why should the law
refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes. We have begun by attending to the condition of slaves; we shall finish by softening that of all the animal which assist our labours or supply our wants.”
The moral of the whole matter appears to be that, if we are to study
humanitarianism with profit either to ourselves or to the objects of our
benevolence, we must study it rationally, as a definite branch of moral science,
and not as a dilettante, fair-weather amusement, to be taken up here, and let
alone there, according as may suit our passing whims and inclinations. A year or
two ago there was an account in the newspapers of a pathetic sermon addressed by
Again, can we wonder, all things considered, that,
in spite of the outcry raised about “slaughtered songsters,” women still persist in wearing feathered corpses, and fragments of corpses, in their hats and bonnets? And who shall blame them for doing so, unless he is able to refer them to some unmistakable standard of humanity, under which such hideous ornamentation would be impossible? There are a number of futile cries that are raised at times on these matters, as, for instance, the desperate appeal to the tender mercies of women. “I think women could do a great deal in this question,” says Sir Arthur Helps, in his Animal and their Masters. What can women do, where men fail? And how can either men or women do much, unless they know their own minds and have thought the matter out with some approach to consistency? So, too, with the equally impotent plea for mercy to the lower animal because they are “dumb.” “What an immense exhortation,” says Sir Arthur Helps, “that is to pity.” But in reality it is men who are deaf, rather than animal who are dumb, and it is to be feared that epithets and names of this sort, so far from being an incentive to kindness, have a precisely contrary effect. Richard Jefferies characteristically denounced the term pauper as an “inexpressibly wicked word”; and in like manner there is a sinister influence in the nomenclature which has invented such phrases as “brute beasts,” “live-stock,” and “dumb animal.”
In thus pointing out how a partial and one sided humanitarianism may retard the progress of a rational philosophy of compassion, I do not, of course, forget that many noble deeds have being done, and are still being done in the service of humanity, by men who have singled out some particular form of cruelty for exposure and reprobation. Whatever short-sightedness may at times be
detected in philanthropic endeavour, there is a far greater inconsistency in the attitude of most so-called “men of the world,” who, while practically admitting the validity of the instinct of compassion (for there are very few who do not in some way practise or appeal to it), not only refrain from cultivating it in their own characters, but are often ready to ridicule and withstand the humanitarianism of others. If compassion be not in reality a virtue, or do not possess the importance attributed to it by philosophers and moralists, then by all means let the fact be avowed by these who hold this opinion, and let them frame a programme for the future guidance of society in which pity shall have no part. But if we still believe in the efficacy of sympathy, love, and the link of universal brotherhood, then I submit that this compassionate instinct demands from us a more systematic study than it has hitherto received: it deserves better than to be rejected with cold indifference or advocated with ill-balanced enthusiasm. Why should we drift on without a guiding principle – saving life with one hand, only to take it with the other; asserting the sacredness of human existence, while we know that fellow-creatures all around us are worse than dying under the death-in-life of penury and distress; sentimentalising, when we walk abroad, about our love for the beasts and birds in meadow and woodland, and then returning home to display our still stronger liking for them, as they appear on our dinner-tables in their other and more familiar aspect? Instead of fostering that dull insensibility which is closely allied to cruelty, we must cultivate the higher and more imaginative moral instincts, so that the immense power of habit, which has hitherto been uniformly opposed to humaneness, may now be enlisted in its behalf. But the humaneness which we advocate must, if not wholly
consistent, be at least consistent enough to harmonize with our compassionate instincts, so far as they are yet developed.
I make this limitation, because it must be conceded that in humanitarianism, as in other branches of ethics, absolute consistency is impossible. Morality being progressive, there is no given point in our moral development where we can hold a perfectly logical and unassailable position; there are always indications of a further forward movement and an expansion of the whole moral horizon; so that it may be prognosticated that our sympathies, as they advance, will embrace a wider and ever widening circle, and there will never be a final and absolute standard of humanitarian ethics. For this reason, humanitarians need not be greatly concerned, if, in advocating the further extension of the scope of benevolence, they lay themselves upon to the time-honoured argument which usually begins with the formula, “Where will you draw the line?” Let the line be drawn – if where all is shifting and progressive there can be said to be a line at all – at the point indicated by human compassion, provided always that this compassion has been allowed free growth, and has not been artificially stunted and crippled by prejudice and habit.
It must be granted that there are certain complex and difficult questions (as, for instance, the right of civilized nations to interfere with savage tribes, or the right of mankind to enslave the lower animal), the full solution of which must be left to some future generation, the time being not yet ripe for the moralization of subjects which at present do not evoke any definite moral feeling. But because the whole journey cannot be accomplished at one stride, it does not follow that no step should be taken; the humanitarian should attack the worst
abuses first, and decline to be led astray from the path of reform by the reproach that he has not attained to an absolute and impossible consistency. But that other incongruity, of attacking minor abuses, while he leaves the grosser ones unchallenged, he cannot afford to overlook; for if he do so he cuts the ground from under his own feet, and retards the very movement of which he desires the advancement. These gradations of humanity, which, if not logical, are at least natural and unavoidable, are indicated, as I have already said, by the instinct of compassion, which is excited in proportion, not only to the amount of the suffering, but also to the nearness, and, above all, the sensibility of the sufferer. The more keenly the agony is felt, the greater is the duty of the humanitarian to relieve it.
At the same time I venture to surmise (at the risk of being thought too fanciful) that the scope of humane feeling will gradually be expanded until it includes much that is at present held to be outside the pale of sympathy. “There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity,” says Montaigne, “that ties us not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and grace and benignity to other creatures that are capable of it. There is a natural commerce and mutual obligation betwixt them and us.” This suggests the further reflection, that humaneness bears a close affinity to the love of beauty, there being a natural connection between the horror with which we witness human or animal torture and the disgust excited by the wanton desecration of any beautiful scene – the destruction of a growing tree, or the pollution of a clear river. There could scarcely be a better profession of the humanitarian faith than that contained
in one of the rules of Ruskin’s Society of St. George. “I will not kill nor hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing; but will strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and perfect all natural beauty upon the earth.” Which is to prevail – the humane instinct, which has been developed, step by step, into this doctrine of humanitarianism, or the savage instinct, a relic of prehistoric barbarity, which prompts us to a cruel self-aggrandisement without regard to the sufferings of others? It is no exaggeration to say that the answer which history shall give to this question will largely determine the future course of civilized society.
The present age is confessedly one of transition, in religious and moral belief; the old faiths are dying or dead, and we look for some new motive-power to take their place in the future. This coming creed, which shall interpret and reconcile the Babel of conflicting utterances by which we are now bewildered, seems likely to be none other than a religion of humanity – humanity in no narrower sense than compassion, love, justice for every living creature; for in proportion as such gentleness is more and more inculcated and practised shall we be drawing nearer and nearer to a true civilization, a society in which all harmless and healthy life shall be free to develop itself unrestricted and uninjured. It has been the object of this paper to show that there is a natural and necessary correlation between the various phases of humane sentiment, and that, if one be recognized, it is unreasonable to refuse acceptance to the rest.
What has been said of humanitarianism as a saving and guiding faith is no mere supposition. Great changes cannot
be effected in a day, and the existence and strength of the contrary tendency to that which I have advocated, must be admitted and reckoned with. But in Compassion, whether we regard it as a primary instinct or an acquired faculty, there is a solid and incontrovertible basis, on which may be founded, and indeed has been founded, an ethical creed, which has the advantage of being at once popular and philosophical, appealing unmistakably to the sympathy and the intellect of the wisest and the simplest of mankind. Humanitarianism has done much in the past to alleviate misery and suffering, in spite of the many obstacles by which its progress has been retarded: it will do still more in the future, if its leading principle, once deliberately adopted, be followed out, rationally and fearlessly, to its just and inevitable conclusion.
NOTES (to Part II)
(17:1) Lucrum sine damno alterius fieri non potest. Publius Syrus.
(20:1) Table Talk.
(20:2) Principles of Penal Law, chap. XVI.