Humanitarianism True and False

The Humane Review,
January 1903

I am a person of an almost excessive tendency to moderation. I am quite prepared, as a matter of fact, to defend moderation, a thing which it requires in these days some audacity to do. The Ibis is always safest in the middle. I am that Ibis. But as a matter of fact the Latin motto is rather unfortunate, for if there is one thing which the moderate man is not, it is safe. Of all the dangerous trades for which humanitarianism seeks the protection of the State, we all know that the most dangerous trade in the world is that of peace-maker.

But before I enter upon a defence of moderation in the true sense of the word, I may be permitted to make a few remarks about the painful parody of moderation which is very current in English affairs. The English idea of moderation, as it is exhibited for instance in leading articles upon some such subject as the South African War, seems to me one of the most extraordinary things that ever existed in the world. The English idea of moderation seems to be that we should be vague in our ideas but violent in our language. We are forbidden by a hundred laws of party necessity and decorum from saying in a clear and dogmatic way what we ourselves think; we are by way of compensation permitted to say anything however silly and indecent about people who think otherwise. It is considered impossible in practical politics for a man to stand up and say that he thinks the annexation of the Transvaal (let us say) bad by an unalterable principle, but he may say that all the politicians who support it are either seeking office or taking drugs. He may not say what is true, that he himself has a principle involved, but he may say what is not true, that his opponents have no principles at all. The Radical journalist is forbidden to say that he personally hates Imperialism. So he consoles himself with saying that Mr. Chamberlain wears very vulgar clothes. He has to be personal in the sense of being rude, because he is not allowed to be personal in the sense of being genuine.

Now real moderation is a very different thing. The current belief is that moderation has something frigid about it, that it is a cold and dehumanised thing. As a matter of fact moderation is by its nature a warm and ardent thing. It is the result of feeling strongly. For if we feel strongly we must tend to feel strongly for good men and bad men, right causes and wrong causes, the more defensible and the less defensible position. It is easy enough for a man to be a headlong partisan, to foam at the mouth, to beat the drums, to call down fire from Heaven, upon one condition that he has not strong feelings. Feelings would make him a little grateful to the kindly old compromises which have kept the world going for so long. Feelings would make him a little compassionate to the treasures of deluded valour which were being swept away by his victorious monomania feelings would make him a little reverent about the riddle of human failure and success. But the bad humanitarian (who does exist, and is like the bad Christian, very horrid indeed) is the man who can contrive to perpetuate in himself a kind of cold anger, an anger of the intellect against certain fashions or facts, or institutions, and who can keep his basilisk eye fixed upon them because he is one who can never be distracted by the bewildering phases and nameless agonies of the million souls of men. The objection to the real humanitarian (if there be any objection to him) may be that he is too emotional or confident or reckless. But the objection to the humanitarian of whom I was speaking primarily is simply the objection that of all the sons of Adam he is the most inhumane.

Let us suppose for instance that in some far-off barbarous country a man wished to shoot a partridge for fun. It is quite easy to take a violent view of such an incident, so long as the man who takes it has the good fortune to be naturally unsympathetic. It is quite easy to say that a man who could deliberately take a scientific iron instrument which spits out lead, to knock the life out of a poor little feathered object a foot long, must be a mysterious fiend with a heart of nether millstone. Logically, indeed, to all appearance he must be, and a silly old fool into the bargain, for the act when seen clearly and from the outside is about as meanspirited and babyish a thing as the imagination can conceive.

But to the man who wishes to take this view of the partridge-shooter there is one thing necessary, that he should not know any partridge-shooters. If he does know any, he is at once disturbed by an inrush of sympathy. His feelings mutiny, and he is driven on the points of their spears, desperately struggling, into the accursed regions of moderation. These men are manifestly not in themselves fiends, and more wonderful still they are not even fools, and no more good can come of saying they are than of saying that fire is cool or that the Irish love the Act of Union. It is easy, that is to say, to take the part of the partridge ruthlessly and to maintain that all who approve of shooting it are murderers, Apollyons, enemies of life. And so in exactly the same way it is possible to take the part of the man ruthlessly, and say that all people who condemn his action are kill-joys, misanthropes, enemies of life.

The opponents of humanitarianism do actually say that the humanitarian is this moral outlaw, this cafut lupinum. They do actually say that the humanitarian is a kind of effeminate Puritan, that he cannot comprehend the energy and good humour of the give-and-take of life. It is easy enough for a man to say this, but here again there is a condition, that he should never have met any humanitarians. If such a man should stray for a moment into a meeting of the Humanitarian League, as I did on an occasion not unconnected with this paper, he would be disturbed to find a great many people there who looked quite as jolly as if they were killing things all day long. And from their deliberations he might learn that many of these people were actually interested in the partridge and thought it prettier and much more amusing without any part of its anatomy smashed up. In other words sympathy is undoubtedly a very dangerous thing, both to sportsmen and humanitarians.

But the true humanitarian (the member of "The Battersea League for the Encouragement of Things in General," which I hope to found) will have no foundation, and will be content with none, except this real and universal and most disturbing sympathy, which comes from touching life at many points. His social hospitality resents the exclusiveness which shuts out either the partridge or the man. The man is quite as silly as the partridge and quite as little aware of what he is doing or why he is doing it, and if the partridge could shoot the man he certainly would.

Now, I am perfectly well aware that there comes in here the obvious reply to all this. It is that nothing would ever be done for the oppressed and tortured children of the earth if we attempted to be on both sides of every question. And of course these rambling remarks are not intended as anything so impertinent as a criticism upon the actual legal and controversial methods of the Humanitarian League. I say nothing about these, first because I feel a profound, an even abject, reverence for them, and secondly because I know nothing about them. This article is intended to point out some of the moral dangers in the moral attitude of the humanitarian; not to suggest that they should alter any particular line of action in connection with any particular grievance.

It is quite evident that there must be a great difference between the practical sympathy extended to one party and to another. We preach to the man (to continue my original parable) firstly because, whatever may be the desires of the two parties, he does actually shoot, and secondly because he is a moral and intelligent being, though he does not always look it. We do not preach to the partridge, first, because he has not yet committed any overt crime, and secondly because any sermon we might preach to him would be received with a degree of inattention verging upon languor. It is quite easy to see, in short, that in practice we must be partisans. But I think we shall be making a very real mistake if we suppose that it does not matter whether we are what I may call partisan humanitarians, or what I may call universal humanitarians. It is exactly that point which will decide whether we are a part of a great elemental movement, having in it something of the greatness of a new religion, or whether we are a knot of intransigeant pessimists, having nothing in our lives but the miserable pleasure of logic.

G. K. Chesterton.

[home] Up to G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web.
Last modified: 5th September 2012
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.