Industrial Ethics

April 1, 2012

I think most Americans think of agriculture as just another sector in the industrial economy. The economy has an energy sector, a health-care sector, a manufacturing sector, an entertainment sector and an agricultural sector. When it comes to ethics, there’s nothing special about agriculture either. Every sector in the economy gets evaluated equally when it comes to ethics. And we can break that ethical evaluation down into two parts.

First, the firms in each sector of our economy are supposed to be efficient, which basically just means that the sector as a whole is supposed to be competitive. When the sector is efficient, every firm has to work hard to keep their costs low so that they can keep the price of the goods or services they offer as low as possible. If they don’t, buyers go to another firm and the inefficient firm is out of business. But sometimes the big boys are able to bend the rules so that they get an unfair advantage. That’s why “be efficient” can be thought of as a principle of ethics for an industrial economy.

The sector we worry about most with respect to this rule is probably the financial sector, but this is a food blog. And I do think that one key area for agricultural and food ethics has to do with questioning whether big players have advantages that allow them to be inefficient. That’s the ethical rap against genetically engineered seeds, for example. Big companies like Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta are said to have an oligopoly over seed, and they are using their power to put the squeeze on little guys. Be efficient, fellows!

But there’s a second ethical rule that we also apply to firms in every sector of the economy: Don’t get your advantage by hurting bystanders. In the language of the economists: Internalize your costs! Although we want firms to supply the crap err.. commodities (yeah, that’s the ticket) we want to buy, and we want them to supply it as cheaply as they can, we don’t want them cutting corners in ways that simply pass on costs to their workers, their neighbors and to future generations. So we have rules of the game that they have to follow, and the short-version of these rules is this: Don’t harm third-parties!

This is the rule where the main part of the action in agriculture and food ethics takes place. We don’t like agricultural practices that screw farmworkers, either by exposing them to undue risk or by using their economic vulnerability to short their pay. We don’t like farmers who lower their costs by using chemicals that accumulate in the environment and wind up killing songbirds and causing cancer. We don’t like it when farmers squeeze get the price of that hamburger or bacon down by imposing intolerable conditions on their animals. All these gripes (and they are legitimate) in agricultural ethics fall under the general principle of not harming third-parties.

Now we have some disagreements about how to flesh out these two rules (Be efficient, but don’t harm third parties). Some people have a more robust sense of harm than others, and some people are willing to live with a world in which everyone has a little bit higher chance of coming down with stomach cancer or heart disease so that they can put by a few pennies on lunch and dinner and spend them on something else.  Some people root for the workers and others root for the people who write their paychecks. So we hash these differences out in our political debates and in our philosophy classrooms. There’s nothing particularly unique about the agricultural or food related character of these debates. They just reflect the different opinions that people have about how every sector in the industrial economy should operate.

Which makes my job easy. We don’t really need a philosopher of agricultural ethics at all. Any old crackpot prof from the business school could have already told you everything you need to know.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


One thought on “Industrial Ethics

  1. Huh…and I thought the crackpots were tenured by the philosophy department. Shows me.

    Whether most Americans think of agriculture as industry (as you write) or as something different (as you seem to be saying) or even sui generis, it seems to me that most Americans have schizophrenic beliefs regarding agriculture. I presume that most Americans (well, the 99% anyway) believe Monsanto=evil, but when we go to Meijer’s produce department we imagine that a tomato farmer — not a machine or a human slave — picked those tomatoes. Even when we see a box of bran flakes many of us faintly envision a 6th generation farmer, sunburned where the straw hat doesn’t cover, standing amongst amber waves of grain; we’d even have held onto this vision during the era that Post Foods was controlled by Philip Morris (sorry…’Altria’).

    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking entry.


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