In my blog, Hodgepodge and Food-Gathering, I write about foraging and sustainable living and homesteading. We’ll ignore that it’s a slow-growing blog since I started it late in the fall and it’s not yet spring. My latest entry was about my first fur ‘n’ feather auction, my experience, and why I personally had a difficult time with it. To get a fuller understanding of this post, I recommend going and reading it before you continue on.
Since I’ve been studying ethics this year, I might write a little bit about it.
The idea of ethics is to examine what is right and what is wrong, and how we determine how to act in difficult situations. Often times, obscure situations are concocted as thought experiments to see how and why we would make the decisions we would in these obscure situations. A common example is the tram situation, in which there is an out-of-control tram going down a track, which forks. Down one track, there are five people tied to it, and will be killed. Down another track, there is one person tied to it, who would be killed. You are at a lever which will determine which way the tram goes, to the one person, or two the five. After answering this question, an ethicist might ask if you’d make the same decision of the one person was someone you loved, or someone you hated, or if the five people were people you loved or people you hated. The Ethicist might then extend the thought experiment to the possibility of five people needing five different organs to survive, and there being one person who fits the right criteria for all five people. If you could painlessly kill the one person and harvest their organs for the five to survive, is it ethical? Why? Why not?
These are just examples.
So far, in my classes, we have examined a few thoughts along the lines of ethics, looking at utilitarianism (which looks at creating the greatest amount of pleasure/happiness in the world, creating utility. It works on a “tally” system. One person’s unhappiness might cancel out another person’s happiness. Telling one person a lie for the benefit of the happiness of two other people would out-weight the wrongness of the lie because it would create more happiness than sadness if the person found out they were lied to), we’ve looked at deontology (mostly Kant, who says that we must treat people as rational beings, and that to lie to a person or to do wrong to a person, is to not treat them as rational, and universalise our actions to see the implications of our actions), and more recently, we’ve looked at the works of Peter Singer, who argues that we must minimise the suffering in the world, and that to ignore animals in this is speciesist.
As I made my way through the auction, looking at the caged animals, some four to a very small cage, some on their own, one was a mother hen protecting her chicks, others are just scared by the noise and commotion of bidders, all I could think of was Singer and Kant.
Kant argues that rational beings should never be used as means to an end. This means using slaves – as they are humans, and thus rational beings, and being used for whatever their masters needed them to be used for would be wrong. This means that manipulation would be wrong, this means that lying would be wrong. Furthermore, he argues that we must universalise our decisions. To look at stealing, as an example, when considering whether or not to steal something, we would have to ask ourselves what would happen if everyone stole things? What if this was the norm? Then no one would own anything, because it would be stolen, or about to be stolen. This would eliminate the notion of theft, and thus that would be absurd. Because this doesn’t make sense, it is impermissible to steal.
Singer also believes in not treating beings as an end, though his belief is a little more extreme. His belief extends to animals, and he believes that sentient beings which includes most animals, should be treated with respect, as we would a human, because they are capable of the complex and long-lasting emotional experiences that people are. To treat them as a means to an end is to create more suffering in the world, which seems to me to be a combination of deontology and utilitarianism.
So then how do we apply that to livestock auctions?
My experience was that the majority of the animals being auctioned were going to food, and were going to be slaughtered in accordance with certain religious practices, and were already experiencing discomfort and stress in their situation.
Obviously, Singer would disagree with auctions, and would say that they were just a means of creating more suffering, and aren’t right. However, a utilitarian might pick it apart and consider whether the religious practices created more happiness for those who were slaughtering over the suffering of the animal up to that point. Kant wouldn’t consider the animals rational beings at all, so it wouldn’t matter to him. However, what if we applied the universalization to the practice?
What if we combined Singer and deontology? Obviously, we’re not selling humans any more (not legally any way, but I’m talking about societal norms, rather than the dark underbelly of the black market), so it might not be applicable. But if we’re looking auctioning animals as a means to an end, then we would auction of people as a mean to an end as well, or at least, perhaps their time for their skillset. The money for the bid doesn’t go to the animals, so it wouldn’t go toward the worker, it would go toward whoever was auctioning off the good. Hopefully, it would be the worker who was auctioning their own skills, in which case, I suppose they would get paid.
But then, how would societies get built? For example, if all trade is done via auctioning, then who is establishing the auction? Would it then mean that most trade would be done via auction? No, because if we’re universalising this concept, then everyone would have to be doing this. In which case, it isn’t permissible because there would have to be one person to organise and maintain certain things, and they wouldn’t be able to be auctioned.
So then, by this line of thought, livestock auctions are not permissible.
I won’t lie, while my gut feels like I should be satisfied with this answer because of how uncomfortable I was seeing the animals treated the way they were the other day, as a philosophy student, I don’t feel satisfied. I feel like there are many angles and details and arguments I’m leaving out, that this is just a broad strokes thought experiment.
It’s something I’ll probably keep pondering, and might explore more in this blog or in my own notes. But it was fun to sprawl it out in about a thousand words, and do a little public consideration. What are your thoughts?