Animal Welfare and Animal Rights

One early source of perplexity among farmers and agricultural scientists was the meaning of animal rights, and one of my first experiences beyond the academy came when Ray Strickland, a professor of animal science at the University of Maryland, invited me to talk about animal ethics with a group of Ohio dairy farmers. This was, in many respects, a fairly standard classroom lecture. I went through the difference between legal rights and moral rights, and covered the difference between a rights view and a utilitarian approach to optimizing welfare in ethical theory. I also discussed how usage of the phrase ‘animal rights’ was emerging to indicate support for a social movement urging radical change in the use of animals, irrespective of the philosophical or legal foundations for change. My talk to the dairy farmers emphasized the distinction between ‘animal rights’ as a convenient way of gesturing toward sweeping transformation in animal use, and ‘animal rights’ as a concept intended to stress the ethics of treatment given to an individual, as distinct from ethical concepts of benefit and cost that could be distributed across a population (or herd). Dairy farmers themselves regard the interests of each individual animal as generating obligations of husbandry, and they viewed the population-level thinking typical of utilitarianism with suspicion. In that sense, they were more comfortable with an animal rights view than Peter Singer-style welfarism. But if animal rights meant the abolition of dairying, they were opposed.

I presented all this to the dairy farmers in the spirit of helping them make sense of what was happening around them. I was amazed by two things. One was how quickly they could grasp conceptual points, such as the difference between consequentialism and rule-based ethics, especially in comparison to my Texas A&M undergraduates. This was a demonstration of the crucial difference between a motivated learner and the typical audience that philosophy professors face in their classrooms. The other point was how appreciative they were of simply getting some clarity. They weren’t looking for someone to lecture them on their own practice; they just wanted a better grasp of the social discourse that was affecting their husbandly'.

I did similar lectures at animal science seminars and conferences. Before long, only two American philosophers were working with livestock producers and the animal science community to address the ethics of industrial livestock production. Bernard Rollin was one, and I was the other. Bernie and I played ‘bad cop/good cop’ with the industry for 25 years. Bernie was the philosopher who was able to beat them up a bit without alienating them altogether (see Rollin, 1990, 1995), while I was the guy who would come along and offer terminology that would allow them to undertake their own normative conversation about what changes to pursue (Thompson and Swanson, 1993; Thompson, 2004). If I displayed any philosophical originality throughout this period, it had nothing to do with the moral standing of animals. Rather, I would stress a point in the metaethics of action: an individual farmer is powerless to undertake changes that will make his or her operation uncompetitive. Choosing to do that is choosing not to be an animal producer, in the long run. Hence, to hear the word ‘ethics’ and to think that some personal responsibility is about to be imposed upon them is a mistake. Instead, reform of production systems has to occur through collective, coordinated action on an industry-wide basis.

This work was mostly disseminated through talks and small group discussions, though I did get the metaethical point into print in a number of venues that would be quite unusual for a philosophy professor (Thompson, 2001, 2005). The most influential one was the “Preface” to the National Pork Board’s Swine Care Handbook (Thompson, 2002). Producers did not need a philosophy professor to tell them that there were essentially two ways that industry reform could be effected: cooperation or government regulation. They also knew which option they preferred, and the practical leadership in encouraging cooperative reform passed immediately into the hands of people like Stan Curtis, Jeff Armstrong, and, especially, Temple Grandin. All are animal scientists who have played significant roles in convincing producer groups to make changes based on their ethical obligations to animals. I’ll take some credit for having a personal influence on Curtis and Armstrong, and an indirect influence on Grandin, who was completing her doctorate under Curtis’s supervision when I first met her in his lab at the University of Illinois. Curtis and Armstrong have been quiet but instrumental forces in helping producer associations take up the challenge of reforming their husbandry and production systems to improve animal welfare. Grandin, of course, has become an international celebrity for her work on animal welfare.

There is still both practical and philosophical work to be done in achieving reforms (see Thompson, 2014), and I would not say that cooperation is unquestionably the best option for pursuing industry-wide change. Europe has taken the path of regulatory reform, and there is a widespread presumption that more progress has been achieved as a result. I have discussed some reasons to question this presumption in my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone (Thompson, 2015b), but that takes us back to a very practical application of some basic issues in political philosophy—issues that surely any philosopher can understand and appreciate. Or maybe not. My words from the Swine Care Handbook urging producers to undertake cooperative change in their production system have been read by some pro-animal theorists as defending total inaction on the part of the industry (see Wolfson and Sullivan, 2004). Similarly, some have seen my willingness to work with large scale industrial producers on making changes as an endorsement of their practice. I don’t see it that way, of course, and that points toward some of the challenges for field philosophy that will be discussed later.

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