Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Timothy Hsiao on Industrial Farming

Industrial Farms are not Rockwellian.  Rockwell's vision of agriculture is, perhaps slightly cloudy.  I've talked about it in a few places, such as here and here, and I've had a little bit to say about Rockwell's own uneasy relationship with the rise of mass culture of the sort we have--the sort that is so easily accepting of things like industrial farming.  But you don't need to think super hard about things to see that Norman Rockwell wouldn't have had anything very nice to say about contemporary factory farming.  And I say this despite my rejection of standard hyper-simplified takes on Rockwell's work.

But enough with my clumsy justification for writing about factory farming on a blog that is supposed to be largely about Rockwell.

Timothy Hsiao has recently published an article defending factory farming.  This article is apparently not very popular among facebooking philosophers.  A couple of months ago I decided to more or less pull the plug on my attempt to get with the world of facebook, so I haven't followed the Hsiao-related postings, but I did see a blog post that criticized (justly, it seems to me) the claim that Hsiao's paper should not be assigned in philosophy classes because it argues for a harmful thesis on a closed topic.


I think Hsiao's paper is pretty valuable, myself, since it defends an unpopular position (unpopular among professional philosophers, anyway) in an intelligent way.  Here's a rough account of how it goes.  The "Basic Argument" against factory farming takes as a premise the claim that "it is wrong to cause pain without a morally good reason."  But there is no morally good reason to cause pain to animals.  (If there were such a reason, it would be nutrition, but we don't need animals for nutrition.)  Factory farming causes pain to animals, therefore, factory farming is wrong.  I've compressed the argument, which Hsiao lays out in 10 premises, but I don't intend to deal with the argument here, so as long as you get the gist, it's good enough.

Hsiao takes issue with premise 1, and argues that animals don't have any moral status: while causing pain to them might well harm them, it does not wrong them.  Again, the details aren't important for my purposes, so I'll leave that point for now.  The next step is the one I'm concerned with.

If it's not wrong to cause pain to animals--if we can, put another way, injure or kill animals for our own purposes without this (necessarily) being a moral problem, that does not in itself establish the justification of factory farming.  Causing pain to animals might be wrong for other reasons: it could be, for example, that torturing animals deforms the character of the torturer (or else shows forth its deformity).  And people with such deformed characters are, among other things, more likely to cause harm to their fellow human beings.  Applying that thought to factory farming, we might say that the practice indirectly causes grave harm to human beings.  Its cruelty causes damage to the workers who are daily involved with the rather vicious practices involved in factory farming--their characters are harmed (or else, they're already morally depraved when they choose to take such a job), and hence the practice should be abandoned.

Hsiao's response to this is to say that whether such a job is really destructive of character is person-relative.  Some people, indeed, might be gravely harmed through working in a factory farm.  Others might not.  The practices involved are not inherently cruel--the various practices that many people think are cruel are not there for their own sakes, they're there for specific purposes.  In themselves, they're neutral practices designed to increase production (or whatever).  A cruel person might enjoy them: a person might become cruel through engaging in them.  But that's a fact about that person, not about the practices.  So factory farming in itself isn't a problem, though it requires some care to be sure its workers are the right kind of people.

Compare, for example, warfare.  It is clear that combat can cause serious damage to soldiers.  (I mean, apart from the obvious physical damage they might suffer.)  As Hsiao writes,

Soldiers may go insane, lose their sense of human dignity, or turn into cold-blooded killers. For these persons, being a soldier may very well be morally hazardous (which is why the military is careful to administer psychological evaluations). But while being a soldier is certainly a risky activity—one that not everyone is cut out for—it does not entail the development of a cruel disposition. It is a well-documented fact that soldiers can fight virtuously, honorably, and even show love for their enemies while on the battlefield… 

We need to take some care in deciding who fights our wars.  Similarly, we need to take some care in deciding who works on our factory farms.  In neither case is a deformed character a necessary result (nor is it a necessary precondition), though in some cases it might be.

Whatever we might say about the rest of Hsiao's paper, I think there's a big problem here.  War is an exception, not a normal state.  More--war is something to be avoided except as a last resort.  Sometimes, we are forced to send young men to war, but this is always something to be regretted.  What makes it worth taking the risks involved in war (these young men may die or suffer grave physical injuries, or them may suffer the harms Hsiao mentions in the above quotation, no matter how careful we are about who we put in uniform and what we do with them while they're wearing the uniform) is that the conditions for just war have been met, and hence we really have no other honorable choice.

Similarly, one might well agree with Hsiao that not every potential farm worker is likely to really suffer moral harm, but still not see that this licenses the practices of factory farming.  For one might say that the risks should only be undertaken if we have no other (honorable) choice.  If we needed factory farmed meat, then perhaps it would make sense to allow those practices.  But we don't need it.
Note that I haven't gone back to an assertion of the Basic Argument.  I've gone along with Hsiao's case against the Basic Argument.  (I think he's right, more or less, in his contention that there's no moral standing without a rational nature--understood in the proper Aristotelian sense.  I note that critics of this kind of position--see, for example, Nathan Nobis's article on the matter, which he linked to in his comment to the Rightly Considered post I linked to up above--generally don't understand the position in its proper Aristotelian sense.  How much of the blame for this lies with Aristotelians, I am not sure.)  What I'm saying, instead, is that Hsiao has drawn a larger conclusion than he's entitled to.  Even if you grant his case against the Basic Argument, you should still put on the brakes when it comes to factory farming.  And not merely for purely contingent reasons like: it's impossible, basically, for factory farms to be picky about employees.  The turnover rate at industrial slaughterhouses is simply enormous, and employers really kind of have to take anyone they can get.  They can't put in place a battery of psychological tests and careful monitoring of their employees to make sure they get decent people who remain decent people.  They don't pay enough to be choosy (the nature of the industry doesn't allow it).

But as I say, these contingent reasons aren't the issue here.  The work is simply horrific.  You don't have to be some kind of touchy-feely wimpy city person to think so.  Even people altogether comfortable with killing, eviscerating and cutting up animals think so.  It's like combat in that way.  (I assume--fortunately, I never saw combat.)  It's genuinely horrific, and exposing people to that horror is just not something to be undertaken unless there's no honorable alternative.  (I'm not saying that it's necessarily cruel, since this would beg the question against Hsiao.  I'm saying it's necessarily horrific.)  Even if we must expose people to such horrors, we're wise to rotate them out of it pretty often, as the military discovered around the Vietnam era.  A person can only take so much.  Industrial farming, just qua industrial farming, goes on at such a scale that it needs a large permanent workforce, and there's just no reason to believe that most of those people won't be seriously damaged by it.

Industrial farming doesn't have the kind of status that I think it needs for Hsiao's case to go through.  It's not the only choice.  There are better choices.

An additional point: Hsiao sometimes jumps between "being a soldier" and "participating in combat," but of course these are two very different things.  I was a soldier, but I never participated in combat.  In itself, I would say that being a soldier just does not carry the kind of risks that being in combat has.  Quite the contrary.  Generally speaking, I think being a soldier is a morally excellent thing, and that many, many more young Americans ought to spend several years being soldiers.  Being a soldier surely exposes you to a greater risk of participating in combat than you'd otherwise have.  But the risk remains, even in our current state of perpetual war, reasonably low for most soldiers.  You could be a cook, for example, or (like me) a photojournalist, or a helicopter mechanic--rather than an infantryman or a bomber pilot.

In fact, the benefits (moral and otherwise) of being a soldier might be great enough to offer a real offsetting consideration to the moral risks posed by being in combat.  In other words, if you elect to become a soldier, knowing you might wind up in combat, you take the risks of combat but also receive the many benefits of military experience.  So quite apart from the fact that we shouldn't be fighting wars outside of necessity, serving in combat has an offsetting set of moral benefits derived from one's service as a soldier.

In the case of being a factory farm worker, there are basically no offsetting moral benefits.  Being a factory farm worker, for the most part, involves thoughtless, mechanical work that requires no truly human contribution from the worker.  It's mindless, moronic, monotonous work, quite unlike the work of actually being a farmer, for example.  If there's some benefit simply from working consistently at a job, that's not a special benefit that comes from being a factory farm worker--it's a generic benefit that would come from any job at all.  For multiple reasons, then, Hsiao's analogy does't hold up.

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