Farm animal welfare: Is a new social contract in order?

January 21, 2008 by Stanley E. Curtis

“Laws are like sausages,” noted the 19th Century German politician, Otto von Bismarck. “It's better not to see them being made.”

Better or not, many Americans nowadays want to watch as laws are being made at all levels of government. And as for sausages – just as for other foods of animal origin – even more people want to know everything there is to know about the history of the foods they eat. Are they nutritious? Safe? Did the farms negatively impact the environment? Were the animals treated humanely?

U.S. animal agriculture now finds itself beleaguered by charges and questions from a growing sector of the American citizenry. Especially regarding the humaneness of animal keeping – farm-animal welfare – agriculturists are finding it difficult to make their self-evaluations stick. Even leaving aside the vegans and vegetarians in our midst – many of whom admittedly are driven by overzealous beliefs, uninformed intuitions or disinformed opinions – a lot of mainstreamers who want to eat animal products now have doubts about how livestock and poultry are husbanded and handled in an industry that has become more closed than open over recent decades. An unfortunate disconnect has occurred between consumer and producer.

Never mind the fact that many animal-production premises are off limits to visitors for biosecurity reasons, due to the very real possibility that visitors can vector infectious-disease agents. Even that sensible precaution is seen by the more cynical of the curious as a convenient ruse meant to prevent the consuming public from seeing what actually is going on behind those shut gates, closed doors and windowless houses.

One part of the explanation for this growing concern owes to the fact that now such a miniscule fraction of the American populace has any first-hand knowledge whatsoever of production agriculture. Suspicion and even fear of the unknown are natural human traits.

Another part owes to the lack of openness that has come progressively to characterize animal agriculture as its business structure has changed from mainly bucolic to mainly corporate. Not that “big is bad.” That, in fact, is a prevalent piece of disinformation. Consumers simply know that the people who make the decisions nowadays as to how livestock and poultry will be treated are only rarely in the animal house or on the kill floor. Moreover, the people who do work directly with the animals as they keep and handle them, no longer hold chattel to their charges.

It was predictable – human curiosity being what it is – that once corporate business entities in a capitalistic, free-enterprise system – with their inevitably competitive and proprietary aspects – took over generating most of the products people put in their mouths three times a day, there would ensue probing questions about the natural history of those products.

Suspicion of the unknown often turns into distrust – and distrust turns into fear – when those who earnestly wonder become discontented by their unsuccessful attempts to get their questions answered. We do, after all, live in a culture of complaint. At the same time, though, discontent is the first step in progress.

In sight it must be right

The fast-food chain Steak ‘n Shake has for nearly 75 years had as its slogan, “In sight it must be right”. The grill in every Steak ‘n Shake restaurant is out front, in full view of customers sitting at the counter. If a raw Steakburger falls off a cook’s fork and lands on the floor, those customers can watch it being picked up and chucked into the garbage can. Founder Gus Belt knew already in the 1930s that people want to know where their food comes from. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was still fresh on people’s minds, Congress had passed the Pure Food & Drug Act in response to that book’s revelations and the notion that “you are what you eat” was enjoying a renaissance.

Now, does that mean restaurants where the kitchen is located behind swinging doors adorned with “employees-only” signs are serving unsafe, unwholesome food?  Of course, it does not. Yet it does cause people to wonder. Those who go ahead and eat food in such restaurants – which is almost all restaurants – without knowing for sure just how safe and wholesome it is, do so in fulfillment of their trust in the restaurateur.

Still, the wondering goes on. Many U.S. consumers of foods of animal origin today seem to be at a stage somewhere between wanting to trust animal agriculture and wanting some third party to verify industry claims that its treatment of the animals is humane.

The ethic of reciprocity

A fundamental moral principle of each of the world’s most common traditional religions is one form or another of the ethic of reciprocity – something along the line of treat others as you would like to be treated. This often has been interpreted in normative terms to mean simply that there should be mutual respect among those who interact with one another.

With human beings what they are, however, the ethic of reciprocity is a goal that is not always – some would say, not often enough – achieved. There is, after all, a dark facet of human nature, something upstanding people must continuously and intentionally try to subdue. George Bernard Shaw recognized this when he criticized the ethic of reciprocity by suggesting as an alternative: “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same (as yours).”

The is-ought problem in philosophy

What ought we do? The fact that the ethic of reciprocity seems to not always be realized in peoples’ dealings with one another brings to mind the is-ought problem in philosophy, namely, that prescriptive statements (about what ought to be) often differ considerably from descriptive statements (about what actually is).

Can we mere mortals learn what ought to be from what is? The 18th-Century philosopher David Hume challenged the derivation of any claim about what ought to be from any claim about what is, thus raising the question as to how humans can know what is absolutely true; the difference between truth and falsity or between right and wrong; or the answer to the question, “What ought we do?”

In the intervening centuries, thinkers have vigorously explored these ideas, leading to the evolution of several lines of thought, including:

  • Relativism, holding that there are no absolute truths but rather that truth is always relative to some specific frame of reference.
  • Postmodernism, along the same line as relativism, holding, says Stanley Gertz: “There is no absolute truth, rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate.” 
  • Pragmatism, holding that any proposition is useful if its use helps solve or understand a problem.

Richard Rorty, a 20th Century pragmatist-postmodernist philosopher, professed that truth is not about representing reality but rather that truth is part of a social practice. Sort of “whatever works so long as everyone’s interests are honored.”

So, then, how can we come to know what ought to be in terms of how we should treat the animals we keep? How can we come to truthfully know right from wrong in the ways we conduct ourselves and our businesses in animal agriculture? 

An implied social contract

The answer boils down to a social contract, to the rules by which two people who are dealing with one another agree to abide.

Contractualism refers to moral theories that argue that what people ought to do is actually determined by any understandings reached between those people before any deal is struck. Such contracts may be implicit as well as explicit in nature.

In context of the topic here – consumer confidence in the practices of animal agriculture and the foods it produces – it amounts to consumers’ implicit expectations as to the safety and wholesomeness of foods of animal origin and, increasingly, to the environmental sustainability of the farms and, importantly for consideration here, the state of being of the animals from which those foods were derived.

In the natural state of being, a person’s actions are bound only by his unique conscience, and altruism is more or less counterbalanced by selfishness with gusts to greed, and that often in disorderly and thus unpredictable fashion. In an orderly society, however, when a consumer plunks down money on the check-out counter in exchange for a piece of meat, he has the right to assume that the people responsible for producing and processing and selling that meat followed the ethic of reciprocity as they did so.

A social-contract theory attempts to explain why it is in a person’s rational self-interest to voluntarily subjugate the freedom of action one has under natural rights so as to obtain the benefits owing to orderly social structures. Orderly business – that is, dealings between two people that are beneficial to both – is founded on a thriving social contract.

A new social contract

The structure of production agriculture has evolved rapidly in recent decades. Fewer of the decision makers in the production of foods of animal origin are wearing pin-striped bib overalls, more are wearing pin-striped vested suits. There are important consequences of this trend. The updating of the implied social contract between agricultural producers and their customers – those hundreds of millions who consume foods of animal origin – has not kept pace with those changes. A new social contract is needed for the dealings between consumers and producers and processors of those foods.

This is especially so in a pluralistic culture such as ours, where people in every walk of life vary greatly in terms of faith and human values. It is also especially so in a dynamic culture such as ours, where some people hold utopian expectations of what is possible and what is not in the husbandry of living creatures in the numbers needed to meet human demands.

Indeed, much is expected of contemporary animal agriculture. But, after all, it is difficult to imagine that many consumers would not want their food to be safe and wholesome and to be derived from animals that experienced a high state of being during their lifetimes and that were kept on farms that damaged the environment as little as possible. It is against this backdrop that the stage is set for the conduct of intentional, sincere negotiations between consumers and producers that would result in a set of new, rational rules by which both groups of contractors could abide in their dealings with one another. In that process, following the ethic of reciprocity, each and every party would be both giving and taking, practicing both altruism and selfishness, demonstrating mutual respect for one another, aiming for a “win-win” understanding.

This article first appeared in Feedstuffs Foodlink blog. To access the original post, click here.