Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 4.: Nutrition - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 4.: Nutrition - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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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.
Adaptation goes on everywhere and always, in the human race as in inferior races, and, among other results, is the adjustment of the desire for food to the need for food. Even were this not shown us by the extreme instances above given, it would be an inevitable corollary from the law of the survival of the fittest. Every maladjustment of the two must have been injurious, and, other things equal, the tendency must ever have been for maladjustment to cause the dying-out of individuals in which it existed. On the average, then, there must be a fair balance: what there is of deviation from the normal, bearing but a small ratio to what there is of normal.
Some deviation doubtless occurs. We still see inheritance of traits appropriate to the primitive wild life and inappropriate to settled civilized life; and among such traits is that tendency to take food in excess of immediate need, which was good in the irregularly living savage but which is not good in the regularly living European. Further, it may be admitted that men who lead monotonous lives, as most do, presenting much to bear and little to enjoy are apt to prolong unduly the few actions which are pleasurable; and of these eating is one. When the occupation to be entered upon at the end of a meal is pleasurable, there is comparatively little wish to eke out the meal.
But the more or less of excess apt to result from these causes, is consequent not upon obedience to the sensations naturally arising, but rather from solicitation of the sensations: a perverting factor made possible by that imagination which has evil effects as well as good effects. It is not that an immediate desire prompts the action, but that the action is prompted by the hope of experiencing the agreeable feeling which accompanies fulfillment of a desire. There are kindred evils arising from sitting down to table when appetite does not suggest–partaking of periodically recurring meals whether hungry or otherwise. Very often people eat as a matter of course, not in conformity with their sensations but notwithstanding the protests of their sensations. And then, oddly enough, there comes from these transgressors the assertion that sensations are not fit guides! Having suffered from constantly disobeying them, they infer that they are not to be obeyed!
It is doubtless true that those who are out of health occasionally entail on themselves mischiefs by eating as much as they desire; and some who are not in obvious ways unwell, now and then do the like. But a demurrer drawn from these experiences is not sustainable. In such cases the adjustments between all the various needs of the organism, and the various sensations which prompt fulfillment of them, have been chronically deranged by disobedience. When by persistent indoor life, or by overwork, or by ceaseless mental worry or by inadequate clothing, or by breathing bad air, the bodily functions have been perverted, guidance by the sensations ceases to be reliable. It then becomes needful either, as in some cases, to restrain appetite, or, as in other cases, to take food without appetite: an abnormal state having been brought about by physiological sins, artificial regulation is called for to supplement natural regulation. But this proves nothing. After prolonged starvation, satisfaction of ravenous hunger by a good meal is said to be fatal. The prostration is so great that any considerable quantity of food cannot be digested, and administration in small quantities is needful. But it is not thence inferred that satisfaction of appetite by a good meal will ordinarily be fatal. Similarly is it throughout. The evils which occasionally arise from taking as much as appetite prompts, must be ascribed to the multitudinous preceding disobediences to sensations, and not to this particular obedience to them.
While there is recognition of the evils resulting from excesses in eating, there is little recognition of the evils consequent on eating too little. The ascetic bias given by their religion and by their education, leads most people to think themselves meritorious if they do with as little food as possible and tempts them to restrict the food of others. Disastrous effects follow. Inadequate nutrition, especially while growth is going on, is an unquestionable cause of imperfect development, either in size, or in quality of tissue, or in both; and parents who are responsible for it are responsible for invalid lives. No cattle breeder or horse breeder dreams of obtaining a fine animal on a stinted diet. No possessor of a fine animal expects him to do good service on the road or in the field unless he is well fed. Science and common sense unite in recognizing the truth that growth and vigor are alike dependent on a good supply of the materials from which body and brain are built up when young and repaired when adult. The taking of an adequate quantity of food is insured if appetite is obeyed, while if the supply is restricted spite of the demands of appetite, there will inevitably be more or less of defect in size or in strength.
Speaking generally then, we may say that there is an ethical sanction for yielding in full to the desire for food: both because satisfaction of the desire is itself one element to be counted among the normal gratifications life offers, and because satisfaction of it indirectly conduces to subsequent fullness of life and the power of discharging all the obligations of life.
212. One who complains of the monotony of his meals and is thereupon reproached for seeking the enjoyments which change of diet gives (I name a fact), is, by the reproach, tacitly condemned from a moral point of view. Whence the implication is that a doctrine of right and wrong has something to say respecting the propriety or impropriety of yielding to the wish for variety. Everyone, therefore, who does not agree in the opinion of the pious Scotchwoman just referred to, must hold the opposite opinion: the desire for variety of food should be gratified–has a sanction like that of the desire for due quantity of food.
This is of course not a fit place for entering on the topics of variety, quality, and preparation of food–topic the mere mention of which will seem out of place to those who have not accepted the doctrines implied in the first chapter of this work, that every part of conduct which directly or indirectly affects welfare has an ethical aspect. Here, what has to be said or hinted under the three head-named, may come under the one general head of satisfaction of the palate, as distinguished from the satisfaction of the appetite–distinguished in a measure but not wholly since the one serves as a normal stimulus to the other. Partly as a further sequence of asceticism, and partly as a reaction against the gross sensualism which history occasionally records from Roman days down to recent days, it has come to be thought that the pleasures of the table are to be reprobated; or, if not positively reprobated, yet passed over as not proper to be regarded. Those who take this view are, indeed, like others, discontent with insipid food; and are no less ready than others to dismiss cooks who cannot prepare enjoyable dinners. But while practically they pursue gastronomic satisfactions, they refuse to recognize their theoretical legitimacy
Here, I cannot imitate this uncandid mode of dealing with the matter; and find myself obliged to assert that due regard for the needs of the palate is not only proper but disregard of them is wrong. The contrary view involves the belief that it matters not to the body whether it is the seat of pleasurable feelings, or indifferent feelings, or painful feelings. But it matters very much. As asserted in an early chapter (sec. 36), pleasures raise the tide of life while pains lower it; and among the pleasures which do this are gustatory pleasures. There are two reasons why, when food is liked, digestion of it is furthered, and when disliked is hindered. In common with every agreeable sensation an agreeable taste raises the action of the heart, and, by implication, the vital functions at large; while simultaneously it excites in a more direct way the structures which secrete the digestive fluids. It needs but to remember the common observation that an appetizing odor makes the mouth water, to understand that the alimentary canal as a whole is made active by a pleasurable stimulation of the palate, and that digestion is thus aided. And since on good digestion depends good nutrition, and on good nutrition depends the energy needed for daily work, it follows that due regard to gratification of the palate is demanded.
Those who have had any experience of invalid life, know well how small a quantity can be eaten of food which is indifferent or distasteful, and how trying is the digestion of such food, while the converse holds of food which is grateful: the resulting adequate meals of such food better digested, being a condition to recovery and the resumption of responsibilities. And if the benefit of such ministrations to the palate is made thus manifest where the vitality is low it unquestionably exists, though less manifestly where the vitality is high.
Of course, as in respect of quantity so in respect of quality and variety, there may be, and often is, excess: the last kind of excess being conducive to the first. But no more in this case than in any other case is abuse an argument against use.
213. Before ending this chapter, which I must now do lest it should become a chapter on dietetics, I must say something on the altruistic bearings of the conclusions drawn; only making, in further repudiation of the ordinary ascetic view, the remark that the Hebrew myth which represents the eating of the apple by Eve as prompted by the serpent, seems in many minds to have been expanded into a general theory of our relations to food: their asceticism tacitly implying that gustatory promptings are suggestions of the devil.
Of the altruistic bearings to be noted, the first concerns the indirect effects of excess, suffered by those around, from the occasional illness and more frequent ill-temper which it produces: injuries to others the prospect of which should serve as a deterrent, no less than prospective injury to self. And then a more remote altruistic bearing is seen in the effect wrought on the community if excess is general. Remembering that the stock of food which a community obtains is a limited quantity, it results that if its members consume more than is needful for complete self-sustentation, they diminish the amount of human life proper to the inhabited area. Clearly, if people at large eat, let us say, one-sixth more than is required for full life and vigor–if ten millions of people eat as much as would satisfactorily support twelve millions; then, assuming human life to be a desideratum, a wrong is done by thus preventing its increase. The share of each individual in the wrong may be inappreciable; but the aggregate wrong–preventing the existence of two millions of people–is appreciable enough.
The remaining altruistic bearing is that which concerns offspring. Chronic innutrition of parents injures children. In the case of mothers the inevitableness of this result is clear. Building up of the fetus has to go on simultaneously with the carrying on of material life, and nutritive materials are used up for both processes. Though, in the competition between the two, the first has a certain priority, and is effected at great cost to the second; yet, where the supply of nutritive materials is inadequate, fetal growth is checked, as well as maternal enfeeblement caused. A stinted development of the infant and a subsequent falling short of full life are the consequences. Regard for posterity thus peremptorily demands good feeding.