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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Here we have another impressively hirsute Victorian gentleman, now sporting what were called “mutton chops” or sideburns. He was nothing if not comprehensive in this writing and here he turns to a philosophical analysis of eating and drinking. It is possible that he had in the back of his mind the anti-alcohol temperance movement which tried to place government enforced limits on what people could drink. This quote appeared between Thanksgiving and Christmas when eating and drinking are on many people’s minds.

29 November, 2004

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As if in answer to Erasmus’ prayer, Spencer does become a Philosopher of the Kitchen arguing that “if there is a wrong in respect of the taking of food (and drink) there must also be a right” (1897)

Read the full quote in context here.

In The Principles of Ethics Spencer has a section in which he has something to say about the ethics of nutrition and the preference of many to denounce the excess swallowing of liquids rather than of solids:

  1. Except perhaps in agreeing that gluttony is to be reprobated and that the gourmet, as well as the gourmand, is a man to be regarded with scant respect, most people will think it is absurd to imply as the above title does, that ethics has anything to say about the taking of food. Though, by condemning excesses of the kinds just indicated, they imply that men ought not to be guilty of them, and by the use of this word class them as wrong; yet they ignore the obvious fact that if there is a wrong in respect of the taking of food there must also be a right…
    Mention of these facts is a fit preliminary to the question whether, in respect of food, desires ought or ought not to be obeyed. As already said, treatment of this inquiry as ethical will be demurred to by most and by many ridiculed. Though, when not food but drink is in question, their judgments, very strongly expressed, are of the kind they class as moral; yet they do not see that since the question concerns the effect of things swallowed, it is absurd to regard the conduct which causes these effects as moral or immoral when the things are liquid but not when they are solid.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

210. Except perhaps in agreeing that gluttony is to be reprobated and that the gourmet, as well as the gourmand, is a man to be regarded with scant respect, most people will think it is absurd to imply as the above title does, that ethics has anything to say about the taking of food. Though, by condemning excesses of the kinds just indicated, they imply that men ought not to be guilty of them, and by the use of this word class them as wrong; yet they ignore the obvious fact that if there is a wrong in respect of the taking of food there must also be a right.

The truth appears to be that daily actions performed in ways which do not obviously deviate from the normal, cease to be thought of as either right or wrong. As the most familiar mathematical truths, such as twice two are four, are not ordinarily thought of as parts of mathematics–as the knowledge which a child gains of surrounding objects is not commonly included under education, though it forms a highly important part of it; so this all-essential ministration to life by food, carried on as a matter of course, is dropped out of the theory of conduct. And yet, as being a part of conduct which fundamentally affects welfare, it cannot properly be thus dropped.

How improper is the ignoring of it as a subject matter for ethical judgments, we shall see on observing the ways in which current opinion respecting it goes wrong.

 

211. Already, in section 174, the extreme instances furnished by the Esquimaux, the Yakuts, and the Australians, have shown us that enormous quantities of food are proper under certain conditions, and that satisfaction of the seemingly inordinate desires for them is not only warranted but imperative: death being the consequence of inability to take a sufficient quantity to meet the expenditure entailed by severe climate or by long fasts. To which here let me add the experiences of Arctic voyagers, who, like the natives of the Arctic regions, acquire great appetites for blubber.

Mention of these facts is a fit preliminary to the question whether, in respect of food, desires ought or ought not to be obeyed. As already said, treatment of this inquiry as ethical will be demurred to by most and by many ridiculed. Though, when not food but drink is in question, their judgments, very strongly expressed, are of the kind they class as moral; yet they do not see that since the question concerns the effect of things swallowed, it is absurd to regard the conduct which causes these effects as moral or immoral when the things are liquid but not when they are solid.

[More works by Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903)]