These questions were central during the lustrum symposium of the Dutch Zootechnical Association. “In order to have a good conversation with dissenters, it is in any case important to be aware of your own ‘ethical glasses’ and those of your opponent”, explains philosopher Bas Haring.
Folk philosopher and professor of Public Understanding of Science Bas Haring gave the opening presentation and talked about the three basic forms of ethics, based on some appealing examples. In the United States you can buy the right to shoot an elephant in Africa for a lot of money, with a photo of the hunter with the dead elephant as the ‘reward’. The hunter’s money is used to protect the elephants in Africa.
In the consequence ethics an action is assessed on the basis of its measurable consequences and is this a well-defensible system. Without the money of the wealthy American, it is not possible to protect the African elephant effectively. People who reason from duty ethics may think otherwise. They reason from principles, for example from the principle that you should never rise above another being; in that case they will reject the above system. Reasoning from the principle that humans are in charge of nature, the elephant hunting model may well be acceptable. A third form of ethics is the virtue ethics: “You put yourself in the position of the person performing the action: What is his aim, is he right, is he honest or ‘good’?” explains Haring.
Haring is surprised that the livestock sector has not started the nitrogen discussion from a different point of view
Years ago, when Shell wanted to sink the redundant Brent Spar, it was based on calculations by engineers, who showed with data that immersion was the best solution, both from an economic and environmental point of view. Greenpeace, however, successfully opposed this intention. They forced Shell to tow and dismantle the Brent Spar, resulting in greater environmental damage. Haring explains that Shell and Greenpeace have different ethical glasses on: “Shell reasons from the perspective of consequences ethics, while Greenpeace speaks from virtue ethics. According to Greenpeace, Shell is wrong and Shell’s intentions are therefore ‘by definition’ ‘wrong’.”
Ethics in livestock farming
Most animal scientists look at the world from the perspective of consequences ethics, which makes it so difficult to communicate with dissenters with different ethical glasses: A beta scientist or engineer is inclined to bombard his opponent with data, graphs and tables and evaluates the arguments often described by his opponent as ‘overly emotional’. However, feeling and reason are not opposites, Haring emphasizes: Every person bases himself on both when determining his vision.
For someone with virtue-ethical glasses, the ethics of consequences is not relevant at all: livestock farming is no good, period. “As a follower of consequences ethics, you will therefore have to demonstrate that you are good if you want to convince your opponent; you can never win a debate by wearing your own glasses,” says Haring.
The folk philosopher also gives his view on the nitrogen crisis: “Livestock farming is diametrically opposed to nature conservationists. The latter believe that nature in the Netherlands must be protected at all costs and that nitrogen emissions from livestock farming pose a threat to vulnerable nature areas. Livestock farmers deny the problem, point out the importance of food production or propose technical solutions.”
The question is what – from an animal point of view – is preferable: a short life, in which you are well taken care of, or no life at all.
Entirely in line with expectations, the animal scientists in the room, with their consequences-ethics glasses, jumped into this immediately, with comments such as ‘The nitrogen crisis is only a political issue’, ‘We only have a nitrogen problem in the Netherlands because we use calculation models other than the our neighboring countries’, ‘Ammonia is different from nitrogen oxides’ and ‘Emissions are not the same as deposition’. Arguments that completely miss the point when you approach parties with virtue or duty-ethical glasses.
Haring is surprised that the livestock sector has not started the nitrogen discussion from a different point of view: “If you first jointly try to define ‘nature in the Netherlands’ and link it to goals, then you will make progress”, he expects: “Of course there will be plantations. and animal species disappear as nitrogen deposition increases, but other species return. So you can also focus on a more ‘nitrogen-tolerant nature’ in the Netherlands, which does not have to be less beautiful or diverse than the nitrogen-sensitive nature that is now under pressure.” All ‘nature’ in the Netherlands was in fact created by human actions, such as cultivation, tillage, fertilization, groundwater extraction and so on.
Bas Haring is also a member of the Council for Animal Affairs. At the request of outgoing minister Schouten, the RDA has issued an advisory report on the killing of animals. That advice describes the problem with killing animals: “It’s not about suffering, because if you kill an animal in an animal-friendly way, it doesn’t suffer,” says Haring: “It does apply that by killing an animal you killing makes the animal worth less (the ‘forcing’ of the animal) and that killing is irrevocable.” For livestock farming, if you were not allowed to kill animals, then farm animals would no longer exist in the long run. The question then is what is preferable from an animal point of view: a short life, in which you are well taken care of, or no life at all.
This text is an abridged version of an article that appeared on December 17 in the year-end issue of the Miller.
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‘Feeling and ratio are not opposites’ – Livestock farmer needs different glasses to make his world clear – Foodlog