Free range ‘debate’ puts the egg before the chicken

[Originally published at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Today’s announcement that Woolworths will phase out the selling of cage eggs seems like pretty good news.

But let’s not get carried away.

The “free range” label on a carton of eggs can mean densities of anywhere up to 20,000 birds per hectare (as opposed to the recommended 1,500), and it’ll be five years before the phase-out is complete. Cage eggs have reportedly declined from 70% to 50% of egg sales since 2009, so the financial grenade Woolworths is selflessly throwing itself onto doesn’t look like it was all that explosive anyway.

Even so, on the face of it it’s a pleasing example of a company acting ethically. Not everyone is likely to be impressed though.

Just a few days earlier, Tom Joyner, writing for Fairfax, suggested that those who buy cage eggs have been unfairly stigmatised:

Seriously, though, apart from the obvious reasons of animal cruelty (unaided by confusing industry regulation), why is there so much stigma around buying cage eggs? They are a lot cheaper and I honestly find they taste little different to their free-range counterparts.

Sure, they’re cruel and all, but they’re so cheap! And just as tasty!

As I’ve pointed out here before, ethics simply doesn’t work like that: you can’t outweigh moral disvalue with any amount of nonmoral value. You don’t get to do something horrible just because it’s convenient, or fun.

Of course, consequentialists, such as utilitarians, might reply that the pleasure of saving money is itself a morally relevant factor. For a utilitarian (and I’m oversimplifying horribly here), we’re morally required to take the course of action that would produce the highest possible net pleasure.

But I’d be amazed if there’s a utilitarian argument that shows the pleasure of saving about 50 cents per 100g outweighs the suffering of cage hens.

The cost of eggs for lower-income earners might be a legitimate issue, but that doesn’t mean we face a stark either/or between protein-starved kids and hens who spend their whole lives wedged into a cage with the floorspace of an A4 sheet of paper.

Joyner goes on to ask:

Why should we so selectively expend moral capital championing a triviality of the poultry industry, when about 1100 deaths in a factory collapse in Dhaka (a disaster like others just waiting to happen) changes little in public discourse on our complicity in the exploitative measures employed by clothing manufacturers in developing countries – do we really care more about chickens than we do Bangladeshis? […] Australians would sooner bicker over the ethical implications of their omelet than they would demand greater transparency from major retailers.

The suffering of battery hens is certainly no “triviality”, but there’s a reasonable concern here. We do often direct our moral attention selectively and inconsistently. Perspective is important, and for beings like us with finite time and resources there may be a case for a sort of “outrage triage.”

But surely as consumers we can care about two things at once here? Conditions on poultry farms and in foreign clothing factories seems like a case where we can walk and chew gum at the same time (actually “fart and chew gum” in LBJ’s original phrase, but the bowlderised version seems to be the one that’s stuck).

It’s true, no doubt, that in our consumer behavior we consistently fail to do that – that our actions suggest we care more about where our eggs come from than where our clothes do – but doesn’t mean we get a free pass on caring about the hens too.

Joyner is hardly the only pundit to indulge in sloppy moral reasoning about nonhuman animals. At the height of the live export controversy last year, another Fairfax columnist, Nicole Flint, complained that in the ABC’s reporting, “Animals are segregated from their true purpose […] animals are food.”

There’s no further argument offered in support of that claim, so it seems Flint is doing one of two things. Either she takes it that it’s simply self-evident that animals exist for the purpose of us eating them, or she’s trying to answer a normative question (“Should we eat animals?”) with a descriptive fact (“We do eat animals!”). Replace “eating animals” with, say, “enslaving orphans” and you’ll see pretty quickly why that argument doesn’t work.

You might think this sort of philosophical analysis is overkill when we’re talking about ephemeral newspaper opinion pieces, piled atop the internet’s remorselessly growing mountain of content (Hey, I can see my house from up here!).

But as Plato has Socrates say in the Republic, “These are no small matters we are discussing, but how we are to live.” Moral reasoning matters, if anything does – and we’ve been doing it for long enough that we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

The problem with articles like Joyner’s and Flint’s isn’t that the positions they defend are wrong, necessarily. It’s that they treat moral reasoning as if we can simply make it up as we go along. They smuggle in controversial assumptions without argument, or reduce questions of ethical value to matters of personal taste. It might make for good clickbait, but it’s poor moral philosophy.

That doesn’t mean every columnist has to memorise Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals before we let them near a keyboard. But as writers, as citizens, and simply as human beings concerned to live well, we need at least some basic familiarity with the concepts and methods of this vital form of philosophy. These are no small matters.

Ethics is a jealous God: self-regulation vs self-sacrifice

St Olaf College, June 2013
St Olaf College, June 2013

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Late one night recently I got a very frustrated email from a close friend. He’d just spent the evening arguing with investors about whether they needed to take ethics into account in their investment decisions.

Oh no, his colleagues had said: after all, we’re in the business of making money, not value judgements. Besides, no-one can agree on what’s morally acceptable anyway, so such decisions should be left to individuals.

This is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately, both in class and online: the assumption that because there is disagreement over the content of ethics, then ethics itself must be a wholly subjective matter, a matter of individual choice – personal taste with a self-righteous sheen.

So, I pounded out a quick response to the email: ask these investors what they’d think about someone taking all their money off them. Would they merely feel annoyed at the inconvenience, or actually wronged, as if someone had unjustly violated their rights?

Moral relativists, at least of a certain stripe, tend to retreat pretty quickly at that point. More often than not they tacitly subscribe to, and indeed rely upon, a liberal framework according to which everyone should be allowed to pursue their own conception of the good, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. That liberal framework is explicitly put together to accommodate disagreement about right and wrong, but it is nonetheless at least minimally moral.

This liberal principle of non-interference is precisely what makes the idea of self-regulation so attractive. We want industries, companies and individuals to minimise the harm their activities cause while pursuing their rational self-interest. If they can do this without coercion from government, then so much the better, no?

The obvious rejoinder when a given industry or sector claims authority to regulate itself is that they don’t always do a particularly good job of it. There’s an obvious tension between self-interest and self-regulation that’s only partially dealt with by saying it’s in a business’ interest to play nice, if only to avoid reputational risk.

Immanuel Kant famously gave us the image of a shopkeeper who never over-charges his customers simply because doing so might give him a bad name and hurt his trade. Kant insists such a merchant is not, in fact, acting morally at all. Still, you might say, surely a person or business acting honestly from selfish motives is better than their not acting honestly at all?

But the problem goes deeper than this. The irritating thing about ethics is that its demands are categorical in a way that other kinds of norm aren’t. No amount of beauty, convenience or benefit can outweigh a moral claim. You can’t make enough profit out of doing something morally impermissible to make it okay again, unless, perhaps, the profit itself provides a better moral outcome for some other reason.

This would be fine if what is in our interests and what is morally right always coincided, but they don’t. Ethics often requires us to act against our overall self-interest, not just defer short-term rewards (immediate profit) in order to secure greater long-term goods (reputation). Indeed, ethics can even require us to sacrifice everything up to and including our very existence. The right and the good are jealous gods, and they can demand self-sacrifice in a way wholly incompatible with an “enlightened self-interest” model of self-regulation.

Being prepared to set aside self-interest in this categorical way may simply be expecting too much of any company. A public company’s legal duty, indeed its very reason for being, is to generate profit for its shareholders. It will of course operate within legal parameters, but what’s legal and what’s right frequently don’t map onto each other perfectly.

“We should stop doing x because x-ing will make us unpopular and reduce profits” may be good business, but it’s a prudential rather than an ethical norm. “We should stop doing x just because x-ing is wrong” however clearly is an ethical norm – and just for that reason can’t be fit into a framework that takes self-interest as its overriding value.

And acting ethically might involve more than just saying that some practices are unacceptable. It might involve acknowledging that some companies, organisations and industries simply should no longer exist.

Recently the farming lobby managed to shut down a major component of an anti-factory farming campaign by Animals Australia. The various farmers groups have sought, both in their public statements and in a social media campaign, to claim the ethical mantle of “animal welfare”:

Let’s be very clear: Australian farmers are committed to animal welfare. Our farmers raise, care for and nurture their stock and care deeply about what happens to them. We understand that improvements need to be made, but farmers, working with respected animal welfare groups, the community and governments, will be the ones who make them.

The claim here is that farmers are already acting ethically – indeed are motivated by concern and a desire to nurture – and should be trusted to regulate and improve their own practices.

The statement goes on to say that Animals Australia’s “real agenda” is “to end animal agriculture in this country”. No further comment is added; the subtext seems to be that, to the NFF, such an outcome is simply unthinkable. The very suggestion is, in their mind, self-refuting.

To use a metaphor that I’m quite sure will never be used this appropriately ever again: turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

What ethics may demand (and I stress may here, as I’m not actually arguing one way or the other about the legitimacy of animal farming, or any other industry or practice for that matter) is not just upping standards, but shutting down. There’s an argument to be had there, justifications that need to be offered, objections to be countered. But by insisting on self-regulation, the NFF is effectively calling the outcome of that argument ahead of time. Its own survival as an industry – precisely what ethics might ask it to give up – is non-negotiable.

Can self-regulation ever work? Quite possibly. But only if the parties are prepared to put ethics in its rightful place as the highest demand, instead of making it, at best, one priority among others. Morality cannot be a mere marketing tool or cultural ethos, respected and lauded but ultimately subordinate to self-interest and indeed to survival.

Self-regulation demands turkeys that can vote for Christmas. That’s one species we don’t seem to be raising many of these days.

A Horse is a Horse: Sexism vs. Speciesism

‘Year-in-review’ articles are meant to get people talking. Or, fill out column inches during a quiet time of year. Either way, I doubt the Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield and Darren Hadland were expecting the backlash they received just before Christmas, when they declared racehorse Black Caviar the Tele’s ‘Sportswoman of the Year.’

Not surprisingly, Twitter rounded on Rothfield almost immediately, with media figures such as Wendy Harmer and Tara Moss weighing in on what clearly looks to be, at best, obliviously sexist. Rothfield telling Harmer to ‘pull her head in’ on the basis that ‘Caviar is a girl’ didn’t help.

The astute observer may have noticed that whatever else she is, Black Caviar is not a woman. She is female, but she is not a woman (or a girl for that matter). To horribly oversimplify, ‘female’ refers to the biological category of sex, while ‘woman’ refers to the social category of gender. A horse has a sex, but it does not have a gender. ‘Woman’ is a specifically human category, one that involves situation in a network of meanings that simply aren’t available or applicable to nonhuman animals.

And this is why awarding the title of ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ to Black Caviar is so galling: it reduces women to their female bodies. The decision suggests there were no actual women worthy of the title, so we’ll just pick the nearest deserving female as if that’s the same thing. That, in turn, collapses ‘woman’ into ‘female’ and thus essentialises gender. This is the old trick of sexism: women come to be defined by their biology, men do not. As Simone de Beauvoir noted, both men and women secrete hormones, but men are never accused of thinking ‘hormonally’ no matter how much testosterone is involved.

In the context of the position of women in sport, the Tele’s decision looks tin-eared at best and sinister at worst. Harmer took to her blog to point out how insulting this decision looks given “the utter bullshit [sportswomen] have to cope with – year in and year out.” I’ve no doubt she’s right. The effect of the article is clearly belittling, playing to the idea that women’s sport is necessarily boring, secondary, less legitimate. In sport as in other aspects of life, women are, as de Beauvoir put it, made into the ‘other.’ The defaults of the species are implicitly set to ‘male.’

What was interesting though was the sheer incredulity displayed by many at the very idea that a horse could even be considered as competing with humans. ABC journo Jeremy Fernandez, for instance, tweeted that Australia II also ‘stopped a nation’ as Black Caviar had done, but that didn’t make it a sportswoman. No-one, as best I can tell, pulled Fernandez up for comparing a sentient nonhuman animal to a yacht, equating a horse with a mere object.

Given the perfectly valid focus on gender, no-one, it seemed, stop to ask: why shouldn’t a horse be in the running (sorry) for recognition alongside human sportspeople? If we’re going to laud extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, why must the only animals to be so rewarded be homo sapiens? Perhaps there are valid answers to that question, but what struck me was that no-one even thought to raise it.

We find ourselves caught here between sexism and speciesism. We’ve finally come to a point where we can recognize the former, though clearly we still have a very long way to go. Speciesism, however, barely even registers.

The moral progress of humanity has been largely a process of coming to see the wrongness of discrimination on the basis of morally irrelevant differences – gender, race, sexuality, and so on. With regard to how we treat nonhuman animals, the question is basically this: which features that distinguish humans from animals are morally relevant and therefore justify differential regard? What is it that humans have that animals don’t that justifies putting our interests ahead of those of nonhuman animals, in what ways and to what extents?

As the last few decades of animal ethics has shown, these turn out to be deeply complex questions, to which there have been no shortage of answers put forward. I’m not denying there are such relevant features, by the way, as if human and nonhuman animals are morally equal. The capacity for rationality and self-reflection, for instance, seem to make a vast difference morally. But is it an absolute difference? And does it matter in the same way in all contexts?

Let’s stick to what we’re rewarding here: sporting performance. We’re not talking about ‘best and fairest.’ We’re simply talking about who can run the fastest or score the highest. Of course most sports involve a degree of conceptualisation that is not available to nonhuman animals – but if we’re going to laud individuals for doing physical things that almost no other individuals of their species can do, doesn’t Black Caviar fall into that category? Why is a human running really fast around a track qualitatively different, in a morally relevant way, from a horse doing the same thing (with ‘really fast’ relative to species-average in each case)?

Perhaps the simplest, most elegant solution for the Telegraph would have been to declare Black Caviar “Athlete of the Year.”

That would have done the Tele’s Sportsman of the Year out of his award too. But if Black Caviar trumped every human sportswoman in 2012, I dare say a good argument could also be made for her beating Rothfield and Hadland’s pick, Michael Clarke.

Mind you, I’m not much of a cricket fan. Though if Clarke had to play with someone sitting on his back, whipping him every time it looked like he was about to be run out, I’d probably watch. And I quite like the idea that Ricky Ponting is now living out his days in a nice paddock somewhere, with all the apples and sugar cubes he could wish for.

So this solution would have avoided the obnoxious sexism of the Tele’s conflation of ‘female horse’ with ‘woman’ whilst simultaneously taking Black Caviar seriously as an athlete, regardless of her species. Win-win, no?

Of course, maybe we’re not prepared to take nonhuman animals seriously as athletes. If that’s the case, perhaps we should stop forcing them to perform athletic feats for our entertainment? Just a thought.