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How should burdens and benefits be distributed?

Utilitarian evaluation, as described previously, is notoriously insensitive to the distribution of benefits and harms across society. As a result, the question as to how burdens and benefits are distributed is raised in acknowledgement of the widespread feeling that improvements in efficiency and general welfare can come about in a very unfair manner. One possible response is simply to argue that, in questioning whether intensification is fair, we are calling for the methods and processes to be evaluated in terms of their consistency with a concern for human freedom (e.g. an appeal to human rights), or with respect to their impact on traditions and community integrity (e.g. an appeal to virtues). Thus, one might say that utilitarian thinking provides a basis for saying why, other factors being equal, intensification is a good thing, while rights and virtue approaches sensitize us to the other issues that must be attended to in order for intensification to be fully justified.

However, it is also possible to address the question in more classically consequentialist terms. Doing so requires one to develop and defend criteria that can be applied to the way that costs (or burdens) and benefits that are the outcome (or consequence) of intensification are distributed among those affected. The standard utilitarian view suggests that distribution is not important because it is the net or average impact that matters. Yet one could argue that only outcomes in which no one is harmed are ethically acceptable. Another possibility is to minimize the chance of the worst possible outcome, an approach that may reflect the implicit decision strategy of poor societies trying to fend off the risk of total starvation. Another view, adapted from the philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002), is to recommend the option that has the greatest expected value[5] for the poorest group within society. This approach allows one to develop ethical justifications that favour the interests of poor or marginalized people over those who are better off.

Although rights theory is sometimes offered as an answer to questions of distributive justice, difficulties also arise within the rights-based approach. In particular, rights-based thinking is occasionally confronted with situations where rights seem to conflict. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes that all persons have a right to food. If one encounters a situation in which the only way to secure this right is to violate other rights, such as property rights, which rights have priority? As in the case of establishing the validity of rights, resolving conflicts among rights will require use of philosophical arguments that support rights-based views. Henry Shue’s Basic rights argues that rights have an internal principle of order that can be used to resolve conflict. Some rights (such as the right to education or to vote) would not be meaningful unless more basic rights (such as the right to food and personal security) were already secure. Shue argues that basic rights should be secured for all before less basic rights are secured for a few. Shue’s approach does not rely on cost-benefit thinking as a “tie-breaker”, yet few would resist combining principles from utilitarian/ consequentialist thinking with approaches from rights theory.[6]

Intensive livestock farming provides food for growing populations but raises food safety, equity and animal welfare issues

FAO/20065/C. CALPE

Intensification: implications for livestock

Intensification in the livestock sector could produce more food for growing populations, but there are ethical issues relating to livestock’s resource use, food safety and quality, equity and animal welfare. Pollution of land, water and air from intensive livestock production and processing in both developed and developing countries has become a widespread phenomenon, often acting as a vehicle for disease transmission. Moreover, there are direct issues associated with the transmission of diseases and general food safety. Overconsumption of animal products also carries a number of human health risks. While an increase in the consumption of animal products in developing countries would be highly desirable in combating malnutrition, it would not necessarily be wise for these countries to follow the dietary practices of wealthy nations. Livestock consume about one-third of total grain production, with associated pressure on land and other natural resources, and use of fossil fuel. It is possible to ask whether this grain should be fed to animals rather than people. These environmental and food safety risks represent a catalogue of the possible costs that must be weighed against the benefits associated with the intensification of livestock production. However, it is also possible to address these questions in terms of rights and virtues. Do people have a right to eat what they want even if their diet is found to be risky? Do people have rights to be protected from environmental and food safety risks and, if so, should this protection stress constraints on producer behaviour, or informing and educating consumers as to the nature of the risks? Do traditional dietary practices thought central to people’s cultural identity ever override the risk/benefit comparisons conducted in a utilitarian manner?

There are, furthermore, ethical issues about the distribution of benefits. While growth in demand for animal products seems to offer opportunities for the rural poor, to date the large majority of these rural people have not been able to take advantage of such opportunities. Thus, there are important ethical issues about the fairness of efforts to intensify livestock production, and the effects that such efforts have on traditional rural communities. Intensification in the livestock industry also involves a set of issues that concern animals themselves. If unregulated, intensification of livestock production is associated with animal management practices that do not allow the expression of natural behaviour. Should these issues be addressed in terms of welfare trade-offs between human beings and animals, or is it plausible to argue, as some have, that duties and constraints on human behaviour should be recognized as amounting to animal rights?

Virtue-based approaches typically address distributive issues either through the idea of community - so that community solidarity comes into play when a few individuals may be put in a position where unreasonable burdens are placed upon them - or as components of a specific virtue, such as charity. In some settings, culturally sophisticated mechanisms for sharing burdens can be imbedded in social norms that would be articulated in the standard terminology of cultural identity, community and personal virtue. However, some articulations of virtue have been particularly insensitive to social inequalities. Virtue-based thinking (often with religious backing) can be used to rationalize enormous inequalities in defense of a given social order. It is no accident that the word “aristocracy” derives from “Aristotle”. ·

[5] Consequentialism is frequently used in connection with analytical techniques that allow one to assign a probability to several different possible distributions of benefit and harm that might ensue after the selection of a given act or policy alternative; thus, an expected value can be prospectively associated with each act or policy in the opportunity set.
[6] Indeed, one of the most sophisticated versions of utilitarian thinking (R.M. Hare’s two-level utilitarianism), argues that the traditions of rights provide important sources of moral insight; only when we are very sure that the consequences of our actions are fairly narrow and can be predicted accurately should cost-benefit considerations be allowed to override a traditional rights-based claim. (See Henry Shue. 1980. Basic rights. Princeton University Press. 2nd ed. 1996.)

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