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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

At the present day, in all parts of the civilised world, the once orthodox pratices of cannibalism and human sacrifice universally are regarded with astonishment and horror. The history of human development in the past, and the slow but sure progressive movements in the present time, make it absolutely certain that, with the same astonishment and horror will the now prevailing habits of living by the slaughter and suffering of the inferior species - habits different in degree rather than in kind from the old-world barbarism - be regarded by an age more enlightened and more refined than ours. Of such certainty no-one, whose beau idéal of civilisation is not a State crowded with jails, penitentiaries, reformatories, and asylums, and who does not measure Progress by the imposing but delusive standard of an ostentatious Materialism - by the statistics of commerce, by the amount of wealth accumulated in the hands of a small part of the community, by the increase of populations which are mainly recruited from the impoverished classes, by the number and popularity of churches and chapels, or even by the number of school buildings throughout the country - will pretend to have any reasonable doubt.

In searching the records of this nineteenth century - the minutes and proceedings of innumerable learned and scientific societies, especially those of Social and Sanitary Science Congresses - our more enlightened descendants (let us suppose, of the 2001st century of the Christian era), it is equally impossible to doubt, will observe with amazement that, amid all the immeasurable talking and writing upon social and moral science, there is discoverable little or no trace of serious inquiry in regard to a subject which the more thoughtful Few, in all times, have agreed in placing at the very foundation of all public or private well-being. Nor, probably, will the astonishment diminish when, further, it is found that, amid all the vast mass of theologico-religious publications, periodical or other (supposing, indeed, any considerable proportion of them survive to that age), no consciousness appeared to exist of the reality of such virtues as Humaneness and Universal Compassion, or of any obligation upon the writers to exhibit them to the serious consideration of the world: and this, notwithstanding the contemporary existence of a long-established association of humanitarian reformers who, though few in number, and not in the position of dignity and power which compels the attention of mankind, none the less by every means at their disposal - upon the platform and in the press, by pamphlets and treatises appealing at once to physical science, to reason, to conscience, to the authority of the most earnest thinkers, to the logic of facts - had been protesting against the cruel barbarisms, the criminal waste, and the demoralising influences of Butchery; and demonstrating by their own example, and by that of vast numbers of persons in the most different parts of the globe, the entire practicability of Humane Living.

When, further, it is revealed in the particular literature, as well as in the scientific books and journals of this nineteenth century, that the innocent victims of the luxurious gluttony of the richer classes in all communities, subjected as they were to every conceivable kind of brutal atrocity, were yet, by the science of the time, acknowledged, without controversy, to be beings essentially of the same physical and mental organisation with their human devourers; to be a susceptible to physical suffering and pain as they; to be endowed - at all events, a very large proportion of them - with reasoning and mental faculties in very high degrees, and far from destitute of moral perceptions, the amazement may well be conjectured to give way to incredulity, that such knowledge and such practices could possibly co-exist. That the outward signs of all this gross barbarism - the entire or mangled bodies of the victims of the Table - were accustomed to be put up for public exhibition in every street and thoroughfare, without manifestations of disgust or abhorrence from the passers-by - even from those pretending to most culture or fashion - such outward proofs of extraordinary insensibility on the part of all classes to finer feeling may, nevertheless, scarcely provoke so much astonishment from an enlightened posterity as the fact that every public gathering of the governors or civil dignitaries of the country; every celebration of ecclesiastical or religious festivals appeared to be made the special occasion of the sacrifice and suffering of a greater number and variety than usual of their harmless fellow-beings; and all this often in the near neighbourhood of starving thousands, starving from want of the merest necessaries of life.

Happily, however, there will be visible to the philosopher of the Future signs of the dawn of the better day in this last quarter of the nineteenth century. He will find, in the midst of the general barbarism of life, and in spite of the prevailing indifferentism and infidelity to truth, that there was a gradually increasing number of dissenters and protesters; that already, at the beginning of that period, there were associations of dietary reformers - offshoots from the English parent society, founded in 1847 - successively established in America, in Germany, in Switzerland, in France, and, finally, in Italy; small indeed in numbers, but strenuous in efforts to spread their principles and practice; that in some of the larger cities, both in this country and in other parts of Europe, there had also been set on foot Reformed Restaurants, which supplied to considerable numbers of persons at once better food and better knowledge.

If the truth or importance of an Principle or Feeling is to be measured, not by its popularity, indeed - not by the quod ab omnibus - but by the extent of its recognition by the most refined and the most earnest thinkers in all the most enlightened times - by the quod ab sapientibus - the value of no principle has better been established than that which insists upon the vital importance of a radical reform in Diet. The number of the protesters against the barbarism of human living who, at various periods in the known history of our world, have more or less strongly denounced it, is a fact which cannot fail to arrest the attention of the most superficial inquirer. But a still more striking characteristic of this large body of protestation is the variety of the witnesses. Gautama Buddha and Pythagoras, Plato and Epikurus, Seneca and Ovid, Plutarch and Clement (of Alexandria), Porphyry and Chrysostom, Gassendi and Mandeville, Milton and Evelyn, Newton and Pope, Ray and Linné, Tryon and Hecquet, Cocchi and Cheyne, Thompson and Hartley, Chesterfield and Ritson, Voltaire and Swedenborg, Wesley and Rousseau, Franklin and Howard, Lambe and Pressavin, Shelley and Byron, Hufeland and Graham, Gleïzès and Phillips, Lamartine and Michelet, Daumer and Struve - such are some of the more or less famous, or meritorious, names in the Past to be found among the prophets of Reformed Dietetics, who, in various degrees of abhorrence, have shrunk from the régime of blood. Of many of those who have revolted from it, it may be said that they revolted in spite of themselves - in spite, that is to say, of the most cherished prejudices, traditions, and sophisms of Education.

If we seek the historical origin of anti-kreophagist philosophy, it is to the Pythagorean School, in the later development of the Platonic philosophy especially, that the western world is indebted for the first systematic enunciation of the principles, and inculcation of the practice, of anti-materialistic living - the first historical protest against the practical materialism of every-day eating and drinking. How Christianity, which, in its first origin, owes so much to, and was so deeply imbued with, on the one hand, Essenian, and, on the other, Platonic principles, to the incalculable loss of all the succeeding ages, has failed to propagate and develop this true and vital spiritualism - in spite, too, of the convictions of some of its earliest and best exponents, an Origen or Clemens, seems to be explained, in the first instance, by the hostility of the triumphant and orthodox Church to the "Gnostic" element which, in its various shapes, long predominated in the Christian Faith, and which at one time seemed destined to be the ruling sentiment in the Church; and, secondly, by the natural growth of materialistic principles and practice in proportion to the growth of ecclesiastical wealth and power; for, although the virtues of "asceticism," derived from Essenism and Platonism, obtained a high reputation in the orthodox Church, they were relegated and appropriated to the ecclesiastical order (theoretically at least), or rather to certain departments of it.

Such was what may be termed the sectarian cause of this fatal abandonment of the more spiritual elements of the new Faith, operating in conjunction with the corrupting influences of wealth and power. As regards the humanitarian reason of anti-materialistic living, the failure and seeming incapacity of Christianity to recognise this, the most significant of all the underlying principles of reformation in Diet - the cause is not far to seek. It lay, essentially, in the (theoretical) depreciation of, and contempt for, present as compared with future existence. All the fatal consequence of this theoretical teaching (which yet has had no extensive influence, even in the way it might have been supposed to act beneficially), in regard to the status and rights of the non-human species, has been well indicated by a distinguished authority. "It should seem," writes Dr. Arnold, "as if the primitive Christians, by laying so much stress upon a future life, and placing the lower beings out of the pale of hope [of extended existence], placed them at the same time out of the pale of sympathy, and thus laid the foundation for this utter disregard of [other] animals in the light of our fellow-beings. Their definition of Virtue was the same as that of Paley - that it was good performed for the sake of ensuring everlasting happiness; which, of course, excluded al the [so-called] brute creatures." (1) Hence it comes about that Humanitarianism and, in particular, Humane Dietetics, finds no place whatever in the religionism or pseudo-philosophy of the whole of the ages distinguished as the Mediœval - that is to say, from about the fifth or sixth to the sixteenth century - and, in fact, there existed not only a negative indifferentism, but even a positive tendency towards the still further depreciation and debasement of the extra-human races, of which the great doctor of mediæval theology, St. Thomas Aquinas (in his famous Summa Totius Theologicœ - the standard text book of the orthodox church), is especially exponent. After the revival of reason and learning in the sixteenth century, to Montaigne, who, following Plutarch and Porphyry, reasserted the rights of the non-human species in general; and to Gassendi, who reasserted the right of innocent beings to life, in particular, among philosophers, belongs the supreme merit of being the first to dispel the long-dominant prejudices, ignorance, and selfishness of the common-place teachers of Morals and Religion. For orthodox Protestantism, in spite of its high-sounding name, so far at least as its theology is concerned, has done little in protecting against the infringement of the moral rights of the most helpless and the most harmless of all the members of the great commonwealth of Living Beings.

The principles of Dietary Reform are widely and deeply founded upon the teaching of (1) Comparative Anatomy and Physiology; (2) Humaneness, in the two-fold meaning of Refinement of Living, and of what is commonly called "Humanity;" (3) National Economy; (4) Social Reform; (5) Domestic and Individual Economy; (6) Hygienic Philosophy, all of which are amply displayed in the following pages. Various minds are variously affected by the same arguments, and the force of each separate one will appear to be of different weight according to the special bias of the inquirer. The accumulated weight of all, for those who are able to form a calm and impartial judgment, cannot but cause the subject to appear one which demands and requires the most serious attention. To the present writer, the humanitarian argument appears to be of double weight; for it is founded upon the irrefragable principles of Justice and Compassion - universal Justice and universal Compassion - the two principles most essential in any system of ethics worthy of the name - even with persons otherwise humanely disposed, and of finer feeling in respect to their own, and, also, in a general way, to other species - can be attributed only to the deadening power of custom and habit, of traditional prejudice and educational bias. If they could be brought to reflect upon the simple ethics of the question, divesting their minds of these distorting media, it must appear in a light very different from that in which they accustom themselves to consider it. This subject, however, has been abundantly insisted upon with eloquence and ability much greater than the present writer has any pretensions to. It is necessary to add here, upon this particular branch of the subject, only one or two observations. The popular objections to the disuse of the flesh-diet may be classified under the two heads of fallacies and subterfuges. Not a few candid inquirers, doubtless, there are who sincerely allege certain specious objections to the humanitarian argument, which have a considerable amount of apparent force; and these fallacies seem alone to deserve a serious examination.

In the general constitution of life on our globe, suffering and slaughter, it is objected, are the normal and constant condition of things - the strong relentlessly and cruelly preying upon the weak in endless succession - and, it is asked, why, then, should the human species form an exception to the general rule, and hopelessly fight against Nature? To this it is to be replied, first: that, although, too certainly, an unceasing and cruel internecine warfare has been waged upon this atomic globe of ours from the first origin of Life until now, yet, apparently, there has been going on a slow, but not uncertain, progress towards the ultimate elimination of the crueller phenomena of Life; that, if the carnivora form a very large proportion of Living Beings, yet the non-carnivora are in the majority; and, lastly, what is still more to the purpose, that Man, most evidently, by his origin and physical organisation, belongs not to the former but to the latter; besides and beyond which, that in proportion as he boasts himself with justness - to be the highest of all the gradually ascending and co-ordinated series of Living Beings, so is he, in that proportion, bound to prove his right to the supreme place and power, and his asserted claims to moral as well as mental superiority, by his conduct.

In brief, in so far only as he proves himself to be the beneficent ruler and pacificator - and not the selfish Tyrant - of the world, can he have any just title to the moral pre-eminence.

If the philosophical fallacy (the eidolon specûs) this vanishes under a near examination; the next considerable objection, upon a superficial view, not wholly unnatural, that, if slaughtering for food were to be abolished, there would be a failure of manufacturing material for the ordinary uses of social life, is, in reality, based upon a contracted apprehension of facts and phenomena. For it is a reasonable and sufficient reply, that the whole history of civilisation, as it has been a history of slow but, upon the whole, continuous advance of the human race in the arts of Refinement, so, also, has it proved that demand creates supply - that it is the absence of the former alone, which permits the various substances, no less than the various forces, yet latent in Nature to remain uninvestigated and unused. Nor can any thoughtful person, who knows anything of the history of Science and Discovery, doubt that the resources of Nature and the mechanical ingenuity of man are all but boundless. Already, notwithstanding the absence of any demand for them, excepting within the ranks of anti-kreophagists, various non-animal substances have been proposed, in some cases used, as substitutes for the prepared skins of the victims of the Slaughter-house; and that, in the event of a general demand for such substitutes, there would spring up an active competition among inventors and manufacturers in this direction there is not the least reason of doubt. Besides, it must be taken into account that the process of conversion of the flesh-eating (that is to say, of the richer) sections of communities to the bloodless diet will, only too certainly, be very slow and gradual.

As for the popular - perhaps the most popular - fallacy (the eidolon fori), which exhibits little of the philosophical accuracy, or, indeed, of common reason, involved in the questions : "What is to become of the animals?" and, "Why were they created, if they were not intended for Slaughter and for human food?" - it is scarcely possible to return a grave reply. The brief answer, of course, is - that those variously tortured beings have been brought into existence, and their numbers maintained by selfish human invention only. Cease to breed for the butcher, and they will cease to exist beyond the numbers necessary for lawful and innocent use; they were "created" indeed, but they have been created by man, since he has vastly modified and, by no means, for the benefit of his helpless dependants, the natural form and organisation of the original types, the parent stocks of the domesticated Ox, Sheep, and Swine, now very remote from the native grandeur and vigour of the Bison, the Mouflin, and the wild Boar.

There remains one fallacy of quite recent origin. An association has been formed - somewhat late in the day, it must be allowed - consisting of a few sanitary reformers, who put forward, also, humane reasons, for "reform of the Slaughter-Houses," one of the secondary propositions of which is, that the savagery and brutality of the Butchers' trade could be obviated by the partial or general use of less lingering and revolting modes of killing than those of the universal knife and axe. No humanitarian will refuse to welcome any sign, however feeble, of the awakening of the conscience of the Community, or rather of the more thoughtful part of it, to the paramount obligations of common Humanity, and of the recognition of the claims of the subject species to some consideration and to some compassion, if not the recognition of the claims of Justice; or will refuse to welcome any sort of proposition to lessen the enormous sum total of atrocities to which the lower animals are constantly subjected by human avarice, gluttony, and brutality. But, at the same time, no earnest humanitarian can accept the sophism, that an attempt at a mitigation of cruelty and suffering which fundamentally, are unnecessary, ought to satisfy the educated conscience or reason. Vainly do the more feeling persons, who happen to have some scruples or conscience in respect to the sanction of the barbarous practice of Butchering, think to abolish the cruelties, while still indulging the appetite for the flesh luxuries, of the Table. The vastness of the demands upon the butchers - demands constantly increasing with the pecuniary resources of the nation, and stimulated by the pernicious example of the wealthy classes; the immensity of the traffic in "live stock" (as they complacently are termed) by rail and by ship, (2) the frightful horrors of which it has often been attempted, though inadequately, to describe; the utter impossibility of efficiently supervising and regulating such traffic and such slaughter - even supposing the desire to do so exist to any considerable extent - and to the inveterate indifferentism of the Legislature and of the influential classes, sufficiently declare the futility of such expectation and of the indulgence of such comfortable hope. It is, in brief, as with other attempts at patching and mending, or at applying slaves to a hopelessly festered and gangrened wound, merely to put the "flattering unction" of compromise to the conscience. "Diseases, desperate grown, by desperate appliances are relieved, or not at all;" the foul stream of cruelty must be stopped at its source; the fountain and origin of the evil - the Slaughter-House itself - must be abolished. Delendum est Macellum.

It has been well said by one of the most eloquent of the prophets of Humane Living, that there are steps on the way to the summit of Dietetic Reform, and, if only one step be taken, yet that single step will be not without importance and without influence in the world. The step, which leaves for ever behind it the barbarism of slaughtering our fellow-beings, the Mammals and Birds, is, it is superfluous to add, the most important and most influential of all.

As for the plan of the present work, living writers and authorities - numerous and important as they are - necessarily have been excluded. Its bulk, already extended beyond the original conception of its limits, otherwise would have been swollen to a considerably larger size. For its entire execution, as well as for the collection and arrangement of the matter, the compiler alone is responsible; and, conscious that it must fall short of the completeness at which he aimed, he can pretend only to the merits of careful research and an eclectic impartiality. To the fact that the work already has appeared in the pages of the Dietetic Reformer, to which it has been contributed periodically during a space of time extending over five years, is owing some repetition of matter, which also, necessarily, is due to the nature of the subject. Errors of inadvertence, it is hoped, will be found to be few and inconsiderable. For the rest, he leaves the Ethics of Diet to the candour of the critics and of the public.



  1. Quoted by Sir Arthur Helps in his Animals and their Masters. (Strahan, 1873.) The further just remark of Arnold upon this subject may here be quoted :- "Kind, loving, submissive, conscientious, much-enduring we know them to be; but because we deprive them of all stake in this future - because they have no selfish, calculated aims - these are not virtues. Yet, if we say a 'vicious' Horse, why not say a 'virtuous' Horse?"
  2. That the indescribable atrocities inflicted in the final scene of the slaughter-house, are far from being the only sufferings to which the victims of the Table are liable, is a fact upon which, at this day, it ought to be superfluous to insist. The frightful sufferings during "the middle passage," in rough weather, and especially in severe storms, have over and over again been recounted even by spectators the least likely to be easily affected by the spectacles of the lower animal suffering. Thousands of Oxen and Sheep, year by year, are thrown living into the sea during the passage from the United Stated alone. In the year 1879, according to the official report, 14,000 thus perished, while 1,240 were landed dead, and 450 were slaughtered on the quay upon landing to prevent death from wounds. - See, among other recent works on humane Dietetics, the Perfect Way in Diet of Dr. Anna Kingsford for some most instructive details upon this subject. The reader is also referred to the Lecture recently addressed to the Students of Girton College, Cambridge, by the same able and eloquent writer, for other aspects of the humanitarian argument.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index