Prop 2, Animals, & Ethical Philosophy

In the 1970’s I studied Ethics at the University of Southern California and here’s what I remember:

Egotism/egoism: I’m the only person in the world who matters, I and everyone else should do whatever is best for me as determined by what I like.

Altruism: Everyone else’s welfare except mine is important, and I should live my life in a way that benefits others to the max at whatever cost to myself, since I don’t matter.

Utilitarianism (what everyone sort of believes): Everyone matters equally, even me. I’m in the best position to look out for myself because I know what I like, but the ultimate moral measure is the net effect to everyone. Insert harm principle, informed consent, free trade, etc etc.

We called units of utilitarian pleasure/good “utiles” and bad effects were measured in “negative utiles” (I think we were joking, but maybe that was serious). But then the question comes up of if we’re only talking about other humans in the utilitarian calculus, and if so why, and what about plants and animals? I wrote a very thoughtful essay for my Ethics class called “Plants and Animals” which I thought handled this question in a brilliant way and I wound up getting a bad grade on the essay which still bothers me. (And no it wasn’t because of run-on sentences or sentence fragmants or other grammar gaffes which I do on purpose in the blog context together with some subtle alliterations to give my prose some personality and punch.)

Now maybe plant and animal welfare matters in the utilitarian calculus because there are humans who care about the plants and animals, but that sort of utility or disutility can kind of drive you crazy and you need some sort of anti-busybody rule that will discount the malaise experienced by busybodies over things that are none of their business. Unless you own the animal in question, nobody cares what you think.

Which brings us to Prop 2, the initiative that would require certain livestock to have minimal rights to move about and stretch prior to being murdered for food.

The basic facts seem undisputed as between the pros and cons. Current practice in animal husbandry in the State of California is such that egg-laying hens, certain porkers, and calves meant for veal are confined to cages about the size of their own bodies and never get a refreshing walkabout and stretch. The farmers see an economic benefit to such a practice so that some incremental cost or inconvenience and some disadvantage vis a vis neighboring states and countries is beyond dispute, but the PETA types are losing sleep over the horror of this confinement experienced by the livestock as they spend their last days on death row (OK, the chickens are not on death row, but you get the idea).

Note that I am using the word “farmers” to refer to the heartless animal husbanders. This betrays my bias and tips you that this will be a pitch for a “No” vote on Prop 2. If I were a swine-hugger I would use the word “agribusiness” which is a word that combines the Latin word for “field” with the Anglo-Saxon word for “activity” and is used as part of the pinko-socialist consipiracy to find a vile-sounding word for any form of economic activity that is not run entirely by the government. In a blog you might risk redundancy and say “big, greedy, corporate agribusiness.”

So anyway even if I were to give some utile points to the pain or pleasure experienced by animals and plants it would be a discounted number whenever any human utility is implicated, and here you have to keep in perspective that even if these doomed food-providers could stretch out a wing or a hoof once in a while, their overall quality of life is still pretty crappy.

You have my permission to be loyal to our species and vote “No” on Prop 2.

About Ron St. John