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Intensification and ethical conflict

Perhaps it is a coincidence of timing, but during the same half-century when animal agriculture was undergoing massive intensification in industrialized countries, a major shift was underway in attitudes towards animals in Western society. In a trend dating back to at least 1700, animals received increasing amounts of attention and sympathy in literature, the visual arts and philosophy (Preece and Fraser, 2003). The change in attitudes may have resulted, in part, from growing scientific knowledge about animals, which has tended to narrow the gap that people perceive between themselves and other species (Fraser, 2001b). Major developments in the twentieth century may also have fueled shifting attitudes: the nature of human exposure to animals changed, especially as a result of the growth of urban living, where people were exposed to pets rather than farm animals; and television and other media made the lives of wild animals accessible to people as never before. Whatever the root causes, the latter half of the twentieth century saw a continuing increase in attention to animal issues and concern over animal welfare. As a result, all institutionalized forms of animal use - in science, entertainment, wildlife management and elsewhere - were subjected to critical scrutiny (Fraser, 2001b).

To some extent, however, the use of animals in agriculture was shielded from such scrutiny in the West by two powerful moral ideas. One is a strong positive attitude towards the diligent care of animals, inherited in part from the Bible. In the pastoralist culture that gave rise to the Bible, the raising of domestic flocks and herds was a major economic activity; hence, it is not surprising that this culture regarded the ownership and use of animals as legitimate activities. Moreover, for pastoralists to prosper, animals had to be given appropriate care: they had to be rested in green pastures, led beside still waters, defended when in danger, nursed back to health when injured. These practical demands of pastoralist life were reinforced by a culture that attached great value to the diligent care of animals. David, who was chosen by God to become a great king of his people, began his career as a shepherd who showed exceptional courage in protecting his family's sheep. The sign that Rebecca had been chosen as the wife of Isaac and ancestor of her nation was her offer to water the camels of a stranger. Indeed, a shepherd protecting a flock of sheep was such a positive image that it was used as a common metaphor for divine goodness. Thus, the biblical culture attached great value to the diligent care of animals, and the production of animals was seen as a legitimate - even virtuous - activity, as long as such care was involved (Preece and Fraser, 2000).

A second important moral idea is a degree of veneration of the farmer and farm family living in a harmonious relationship with the land. As literary scholar Thomas Inge (1969) notes, there is a long-standing belief in Western thought that agrarian living brings out the best in humankind. As early as the fourth century BC, Aristotle proposed that, "The best common people are the agricultural population, so that it is possible to introduce democracy as well as other forms of constitution where the multitude lives by agriculture or by pasturing cattle" (Inge, 1969). In ancient Rome, writers such as Cicero (106 - 43 BC), Cato the Elder (234 - 149 BC) and Horace (65 - 08 BC) extolled agriculture as the noblest of occupations and the most likely to foster virtuous conduct.

Within English literature, Inge argues, "the virtuous, simple life in the country became ... one of the most common thematic motifs". In the New World, the American Thomas Jefferson took up the theme in 1781 in his Notes on the State of Virginia, claiming that, "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people ..." (Inge, 1969).

Animals played a less central role in agrarianism than in pastoralism, but they were still a crucial component. As philosopher Paul Thompson (1998) notes, farm animals were an integral part of the ecology and economy of the farm. They also played a key role in moral education, because children often learned responsibility by caring for animals. And animals on traditional farms, like the agrarian family itself, were seen as living natural and wholesome lives. Thus, the production of animals was seen as a legitimate - even virtuous - activity, as long as it happened within an agrarian context.

The intensification of animal production fell afoul of both of these cherished moral ideas. Because intensification involves far fewer, larger and more specialized facilities, it was perceived as a key element in the decline of the family farm. Although families continue to own and operate many modern units, the scale of operation and the use of seemingly industrial buildings and equipment clashed with the traditional image of agrarian life. Intensification also appeared, at least to outsiders, to be at odds with the ideals of attentive animal care. Instead of a good shepherd diligently seeking a lost lamb, the public pictured livestock producers jamming huge numbers of animals into inadequate cages and stalls in order, as one critic put it, "to make more money more quickly out of their carcasses" (Harrison, 1964).

In summary, the intensification of animal production occurred at a time of growing public attention to animals and growing concern for their welfare. It also clashed with two highly valued images of animal agriculture - images that had arguably given the raising and killing of animals much of its moral legitimacy in the West. Hence, in the case of animal production, agricultural intensification was seen not merely as a controversial and perhaps imprudent or unsustainable shift in food production; it was seen as an affront to cherished moral ideals. As a result it has triggered not so much a debate as a highly charged rhetorical condemnation (Fraser, 2001a).

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