Is Animal Cruelty Illegal but Ethical?

Canadian’s largest independent chicken-processing company, Maple Lodge foods, was recently slapped with no fewer than 60 criminal charges related to inhumane treatment of chickens in transport.

This is a nice example to use to continue our exploration of the relation between ethics and the law. (Two weeks ago we discussed why what’s legal isn’t always ethical; last week we explored why following the law can be hard and hence breaking the law sometimes ethically forgivable.)

The Maple Lodge case is still before the courts, but let’s make a leap and assume, for sake of argument, that the company’s treatment of its chickens does turn out to be criminal. (I should add that my non-expert sense of things is that these charges are far from making Maple Lodge unique — legal violations seem pretty common in the business of processing animals for food.)

So let’s accept for the sake of argument that ML’s behaviour is criminal. Is it unethical?

I’ll apologize if it strikes you as crazy to ask whether inhumane treatment of animals is unethical, but we can often learn something by asking questions the answers to which seem obvious. There is, on the surface, broad consensus that animals are ethically significant — that they ought not, for example, be abused or tortured — but that consensus papers over an enormous number of differences of opinion with regard to exactly how animals should (and should not) be treated and exactly why.

The ethical basis for the presumption against animal cruelty, as it turns out, is far from clear and far from being a matter of consensus. Is animal cruelty bad because all suffering is bad? Because animals are part of our moral community? Because God made them? Because cruelty to animals engenders cruelty to humans?

And there are indeed respectable philosophical points of view that hold that animals don’t have any (direct) ethical significance at all, though the philosophers who hold such views are often at pains to reconcile those views with common human sympathies. The point here is that it’s not clear that inhumane treatment of animals is unethical per se. It’s clear that all ‘normal’ people feel sympathy for animal suffering, but that’s not the same thing.

The point here is not to pull the rug out from under the idea that hurting animals is unethical. The point is to say that, with regard to particular behaviours, we need to make an argument rather than just attempting to subsume all such behaviours under the general heading of “unethical behaviour.”

There’s another way to get at the ethics of animal welfare, and that’s to point to the general ethical obligation to follow the law.

In a reasonably-well-governed democracy, we all have a basic obligation to obey the law. There are, of course, a few well-understood exceptions. Speeding to get an injured child to the hospital can be ethically justified. And civil disobedience can be ethically OK (or even ethically obligatory) if done right. But such exceptions are rare, and it remains true that most of us should — ethically — follow the law, most of the time. If you disagree with the law, you should try to get it changed; wanton failure to comply isn’t activism, it’s just lawlessness. In a large democracy, there are an enormous number of differences of opinion, and there are always going to be a few laws that you, in particular, don’t really agree with. But you still — generally — need to follow the law. And that goes for corporations, too.

And so there’s a sense in which Maple Lodge’s behaviour may have been unethical, even if we set aside the thorny issue of the moral status of animals, if the company failed in its ethical duty to treat animals as it is legally required to treat them. But of course, that just brings the philosophical question full-circle: laws themselves stand in need of moral justification. And as I argued above, the moral foundation for animal cruelty laws is far from clear. So, question for discussion: in order to justify passing a law, is it enough to have broad social consensus that a business practice is wrong, or do we need to have agreement on the underlying moral principles?

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