Jeremy Bentham

Michael Quinn (ed.), The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: Writings on the Poor Laws, Vol. 2

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Diet is a field subjected to two very different sets of laws:—the demands of nature, and the demands superinduced by habit and fashion upon the foundations laid by nature.

It will require to be considered under both aspects: because the community to be provided for consists of two correspondent classes: those who are received into it immediately from the hands of nature: the indigenous and quasi-indigenous; viz: those born in the House, or taken into it at age earlier than the seventh year among the aborigines, and the Successionists, all those who at the time of their reception have passed that age—those on whose constitutions of mind and body the influences of habit and fashion pg 140will have been stamped in characters more or less profound and difficult to erase.

While dealing with Nature, we shall be at our ease: Habit and Fashion are grim[?] tyrants, with strong hands and adder's ears.

§I. Of Diet—considered with respect to physical exigency—habit and fashion out of the question1

The Dietary should be fixed: fixed for the whole system of Industry Houses throughout South-Britain.2 When I say fixed, I do not mean fixed to a single mess: but a list of messes given, the longer the better, with liberty to the Managers in each House to make what choice they please at all times, so as they do not go out of the list: and so as they do not exceed the quantum of expence fixed upon as the expence of some article pitched upon as a standard, and set at the head of the list.3

The framing of this Dietary will be an article of no mean importance: a million or two a year, and what is much more the preservation or the destruction of industry, in a word, the salvation or ruin of the country might depend upon it.

It must not be left to the local authorities. The expence of this article varies from £4 to £10 a year a head or upwards in different places: this shows the loss which the public might expect from a want of concert and consistency on this head. There would be a sort of auction of popularity run between district and district, each Manager shouting[?] to gain the praise of humanity by the liberality of his allowance: each standing in awe of public opinion in his district, and fearful of acceding to that plan of frugality of the propriety of which he might at the same time be internally convinced.

pg 141There can be no reason for committing it to the local authorities: the demands of nature are not different in one County from what they are in another.a One sort of food may indeed be cheaper in one place than in another: in a distant part of the country than in the part of the country taken as a standard in regard to the price: and hence one reason amongst others for the variety recommended in the list of options.

There will be a hardship attendant on this fixation in particular instances: but this hardship is inevitable, and is to be charged not to the account of this part of the plan, but to the nature of things. The quantum pitched upon will be such and no more as is looked upon as sufficient for the satisfaction of the demands of nature according to the measure of an ordinary appetite: but the extent of appetite admitts of great variation. The allowance may be sufficient in the instance of most individuals of the class in question: but if it be so only in the instance of most, and not of all, there will be some in whose instance it will be insufficient. This is a just subject of regret: but it is scarce a possible, much less a proper, object of a remedy. The standard of reference must not be forgotten: the quantum which it is in a man's power to procure by his industry in an independent state.1 This extra-appetite thus doomed to remain unsatisfied in the dependent state, would it have received compleater satisfaction in an independent state? The answer is in the negative. Many a man dies whom a certain quantity of Bark infused in a certain quantity of wine,2 or a Voyage to Lisbon,3 or a journey to the waters of Bareges,4 might have saved. But the population of an English Poor-house can not be pg 142victualled with Bark and Wine, nor sent Cabin Passengers to Lisbon, nor sent post through France to the Spanish Frontiers.1 A workman is paid according to the work he does, not according to the quantity he can eat.

It is natural enough that the amount of a man's wants in this way should be judged of from the extent of his powers in this line: but the measure, though a natural, is not a just one. You may meet with a man who for a wager will eat 8 or 10 pounds of meat with a parcel of other things: and the opportunity of affording to the palate an unaccustomed gratification might have incited him to devour half or three-quarters as much with pleasure: but this very man might perhaps have been relieved from the pains of hunger by an ordinary allowance. The powers and even the desires of appetite have a large scale of variation: but the demands of nature in point of health, strength and freedom from the pains of hunger appear to be pretty uniform. To leave off with an appetite is the advice given to the most opulent man by his Physician: and if in the instance of the poor man maintained by public charity the termination of each meal should be accompanied by a wish for more, whatever uneasiness may accompany that desire may not be too great a price to pay for an exemption from the endless train of inconveniences and diseases of which supersaturation is the cause.

I have spoken in another place of fish as an article of diet that to a certain degree might prove an advantageous and on every account an eligible substitute to the regular dietary composed principally of vegetable food.2 But it is the property of this species of produce to be especially precarious: the success of this part of the plan would at any rate be a matter of experiment: it would take a considerable time ere matters would be in forwardness for the trial of the experiment. The hope of economy entertained on this ground is insufficient therefore to supersede the necessity of furnishing dietaries of which this species of provision will form no part.

§ II. Diet—Habit and Fashion taken into the account

Be the above principles right or wrong, practice has not been governed by them.—Practice has diverged from them in all pg 143manner of ways; but almost in every instance in a manner more luxurious, or at least more expensive.

Hence the question of retrenchment.—Where habit has transgressed the limits set by economy and justice—shall retrenchment take place in any degree, and if in some, then in what degree and in what mode?1


a I except always the case of reform: as explained in the section so entitled reform in the Fundamental positions.5

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 The title is taken from UC cliv. 157v, a brouillon for this Chapter.
Editor’s Note
2 In the margin, Bentham has noted at this point: 'Retrenchment necessary some time or other—as the mischief is continually encreasing.—Therefore the sooner performed, the less the suffering.'
Editor’s Note
3 An abandoned fragment on this subject is at UC cliv. 108: 'Limits of the discretion to be left in the fixation of the Dietaries: an article on which so many hundred thousand a year may depend with reference to the interests [of the] Company, and so much in the way of industry with reference to the interest of the public at large.
'Give a list of Messes taken from Count Rumford's publications singly, or from those and other sources. Require one or other of these Messes to be administered, adding as an alternative in general terms, or any others equally wholesome and nutritive, provided they be not more expensive.
'Such might be the Instructions given by the Company to the several Governors.
Rumford provided several recipes for cheap soups for the poor in Essays, Political, Economical, and Philosophical, 4 vols., London, 1796–[1812], i. 209–20, 292–7. Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753–1814), Count von Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire, American-born loyalist in the War of Independence, social reformer and inventor.
Editor’s Note
1 i.e. the standard supplied by the Neighbour's-Fare Principle, for which see p. 131 above.
Editor’s Note
2 Bark from the Cinchona tree, known as Peruvian Bark, ground to a powder and mixed with wine, was drunk as a cure for malaria fever and as a restorative tonic.
Editor’s Note
3 Lisbon was the port of arrival for invalids travelling to the thermal springs of Caldas da Rainha, fifty miles to the north, a popular health resort founded in 1485 by Queen Eleanor (1458–1525), wife of John II (1455–95), King of Portugal and the Algarves from 1481: see The Lisbon Guide; containing directions to invalids who visit Lisbon; with a description of the city, and tables of the coin, weights, and measures of Portugal, London, 1800, pp. 55–7.
Editor’s Note
4 The warm sulphurous springs of Barèges in the French Pyrénées had been a popular health resort since the visit in 1675 of Françoise d'Aubigné (1635–1719), marquise de Maintenon, and Louis Auguste de Bourbon (1670–1736), duc du Maine, respectively morganatic wife and illegitimate son of Louis XIV (1638–1715), King of France and of Navarre from 1643.
Editor’s Note
1 In the margin, Bentham has noted at this point: 'Charity for sending Patients to bathe at Margate.' Bentham's allusion is to the charity founded in 1791 by John Coakley Lettsom (1744–1815) in order to establish a Sea-Bathing Infirmary for the Benefit of the Poor of London. The Sea-Bathing Infirmary at Margate opened in 1796, and provided poor patients with fresh air, sunlight, sea-bathing, and rest. Prospective patients were examined by a medical board, whereupon the cost of travel by sea to Margate and of board were met by the charity. The Infirmary had a capacity of thirty, with sixteen patients being admitted in 1796, and twenty-five in 1797.
Editor’s Note
1 The text is abandoned at this point. The following related fragment is at UC cliv. 121–2: 'The food administered in the way of relief to persons maintained at the expence of others ought to be of the cheapest kind, provided it be not unwholesome.
'Intrinsic fitness, not fashion and caprice, ought to determine the adoption or rejection of a species of food recommended by economy as eligible.
'The accidental circumstance of the prevalence of a habit of throwing away any substance capable of affording wholesome food to man, or applying it to inferior uses, such as the maintenance of animals, affords no objection to the administering it in the way of food to persons relieved at the expence of others. A species of food in itself fit for man does not become the less fit by being given to animals.
'If I think proper to feed my dog or my cat with chickens, this will not render chickens the worse food: and this is just as true with regard to such articles as blood, entrails, heads and feet which fashion in some instances rejects.
'The parts regarded as delicacies in the instance of one animal are rejected by fashion in the instance of other animals, or even the same animal at a different period of its growth:
'Blood, intestines and fat of the intestines are regarded as delicacies in the instance of the hog, being made into hog's puddings: they are rejected by fashion in the instance of the sheep and the ox species.
'Liver and lights [are] regarded as a delicacy in the hog species at all ages: in the ox and sheep only at an early age: being in both instances rejected by fashion when the animal has attained its growth.
'The same observation applies to the head and the feet.
'The sweetbread, the stomach, the testes afford room for similar observations.
'The womb, regarded one of the first of delicacies among the Romans, never makes its appearance at our tables.
'The calculation of the saving to be made by the adoption in this instance of the parts rejected by fashion would be fallacious, and that probably in a very high degree, if it were supposed that after such adoption the prices would continue no higher than the present rate. The encrease of the demand would necessarily produce an encrease of price: the proportional quantity of such rejected parts is not susceptible of being encreased in any degree by the demand: and the competition depending on the consumption by animals and other inferior uses would continue and enhance the encrease of price. In the long run fewer of those animals would be kept: but a man who had already his dog or his cat, which he was accustomed to feed upon food rejected by fashion say at 1d pr lb, would not immediately destroy the animal to save an additional halfpenny or penny per lb.'
Editor’s Note
5 In 'Fundamental Positions in regard to the making provision for the Indigent Poor', Bentham had recommended that, where it was necessary to exercise caution in the introduction of reforms of diet due to the impact upon established expectations, 'the degree and mode of such introduction should be committed to the discretion of the local authorities': see Writings on the Poor Laws: I (CW), p. 59.
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