21 May 2008

Henry S. Salt (1851-1939) on the Fallacious Appeal to Nature

Of the many dense prejudices through which, as through a snow-drift, Vegetarianism has to plough its way before it can emerge into the field of free discussion, there is none perhaps more inveterate than the common appeal to "Nature." A typical instance of the remarkable misuse of logic which characterises such argument may be seen in the anecdote related by Benjamin Franklin, in his Autobiography, of the incident which induced him to return, after years of abstinence, to a flesh diet. He was watching some companions sea fishing, and observing that some of the fish caught by them had swallowed other fish, he concluded that, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we may not eat you"—a confusion of ichthyology and morals which is ludicrous enough as narrated by Franklin, but not essentially more foolish than the attempt so frequently made by flesh-eaters to shuffle their personal responsibility on to some supposed "natural law."

(Henry S. Salt, The Logic of Vegetarianism: Essays and Dialogues [London: The Ideal Publishing Union, 1899], 36)

Note from KBJ: Here is Franklin:
I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider'd, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
Never underestimate the human capacity for rationalization!

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