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Utilitarianism and rights-based ethics: further issues

Local scientists at a training session on the collection of germplasm in vitro


The basic tension between utilitarian consequentialism, on the one hand, and rights-based ethics, on the other, underlies many issues associated with agricultural intensification. For decades, researchers from developed countries have harvested germplasm from farmers and local markets in the developing world. These researchers have used the germplasm in breeding programmes to develop higher-yielding varieties as well as searching for other valuable genetic traits. Many of those who collected seeds were shocked when critics suggested that their work failed to respect the rights of people from the developing world. From a utilitarian viewpoint, the increased yields of new varieties more than justified the collection of germplasm, and researchers saw no ethical issue in using seeds they had collected this way. However, critics asserted that researchers had failed to show proper respect for the rights of indigenous farmers whose forebears had saved seed for centuries. Purchasing seed in village markets, critics affirm, gives the buyer an implied right to use the commodity good for food, or possibly for replanting, but farmers could not be interpreted to have given up rights to further development of their germplasm without a careful and explicit process to inform them of its true value and to ensure that they had given consent. Some critics argue that because of the collective and collaborative nature of seed development in traditional agriculture, only someone who represents the collective interests of all growers would be in a position to undertake such a negotiation.

Today, some opponents of genetically engineered crops argue that individual consumers should not be forced to eat these crops against their will. Advocates of genetically engineered crops see them as a safe and effective tool for increasing the efficiency of farm production and believe that their opponents’ claims are an unjustified barrier to adopting them. While this debate often involves factual disputes about the safety of these crops, the underlying ethical structure of the debate pits the rights-based claims of the opponents against the utilitarian reasoning of the advocates. Why? Irrespective of the safety or risks associated with genetically modified (GM) crops, opponents are claiming that the companies promoting these technologies have placed food consumers in a position where they have no opportunity to reject them. Rather than rebut the claim that consumer rights are at stake on its merits, advocates have often argued that if the crops are safe (as they claim), then consumers have no basis for rejecting them, since rejecting GM crops is an action with real costs but no real benefit. Thus, opponents try to meet a rights claim with a utilitarian argument, and the ethical issues fail to be enjoined.

A similar point of tension arises in debates over the green revolution technologies. When higher yields are associated with purchased inputs, those with access to capital will have an advantage over those without. One can interpret losses experienced by poorer farmers as additional costs and weigh these, too, against benefits from higher yields. The study New seeds for poor people by Michael Lipton and Richard Longhurst (1989) is a particularly exhaustive and theoretically sophisticated attempt to assess the green revolution varieties from a utilitarian standpoint. The authors conclude that, over time, these technologies have been, on balance, beneficial to poor people. However, these arguments do not necessarily address concerns that rights may have been violated, or that cultural traditions may have been lost as a result of green revolution strategies. How might rights be affected? It is possible to see any transition from a situation in which people can feed themselves and meet their needs to one in which they cannot as a violation of their rights. Even if such transitions have benefits that outweigh the cost, they would not be seen as justified if there are even a few individuals whose rights to subsistence are jeopardized as a result of the changes.

This is only a cursory introduction to the way that rights arguments should figure in an overall evaluation of the green revolution. Yet one of the problems that has arisen in debates over the retrospective impact of green revolution varieties is that those who draw their ethical norms from utilitarian thinking seem to be ignoring ethical claims that draw upon the language of rights. In doing this, people create an impression of, at best, insensitivity to the full range of ethical concerns relevant to intensification (which should also include virtues, discussed later) and, at worst, arrogant dismissal of arguments that are inconvenient for the case they wish to present. When people who hold influential positions for future attempts to meet food needs dismiss alternative arguments in this way, they engage in a use of power that is itself ethically questionable. As such, it would be valuable to launch retrospective studies that make an explicit attempt to acknowledge the full range of concerns that have been or might be brought to bear on evaluating green revolution intensification, in part as preparation for more open and informed debates on the questions that must be addressed if world food needs are to be met in the twenty-first century.

These cases are complex and deserve a more careful analysis than these summary statements can provide. The point here is simply to note that, in both cases, a utilitarian/consequentialist rationale is met with counterclaims that assert rights. Someone assuming that utilitarian models are appropriate will respond to these assertions with further arguments reciting the costs and benefits of alternative arrangements, but to the extent that these rights are thought to be moral rights, rights protecting the dignity of involved parties, recitation of further costs and benefits will simply miss the point. What is being claimed is that there is a need to respect affected parties by involving them fully and non-coercively in the process of intensification. From the perspective of rights-based ethics no recitation of costs and benefits will justify a failure to do this; what is needed is a justification that addresses how the process of intensification influences the freedom of all persons affected by it. If freedom is being constrained, it must be shown that this constraint is justified, perhaps because it is required in order to show proper respect for the rights of less fortunate people, or perhaps because the people agree to the constraint of their own free will. ·

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