Last summer, I enrolled in a philosophy course here at University of Wisconsin-Madison entitled “Contemporary Moral Issues.” The course, as its name suggests, involved students reading academic papers about rational arguments for the ethical permissibility or unacceptability of a number of policies, such as capital punishment, abortion, voluntary active euthanasia and the consumption of meat produced by factory farms. I came into the class with fairly strong beliefs about most of the subjects, with little expectation of having my mind changed.
While this ended up being the case for most of the policy issues we discussed, learning about the ethical arguments for each side helped to clarify the reasoning for my position and helped me appreciate that the moral ambiguity behind an issue may be very different from how it is portrayed in the mass media. The class did, however, cause me to change my views and actions about an important issue: factory farming. Based on the arguments presented in class, as well as subsequent reading, I came to the personal conclusion the consumption of meat produced on factory farms is morally wrong. I have now, after months of stalling, even chosen to become a vegetarian.
When telling friends and family members about my decision, the most common response I received was something along the lines of a shoulder shrug and the statement “I try not to think about where the meat I eat comes from.” I find this response unsettling, particularly because it is so in line with what my inclinations were in the time between taking this philosophy class last summer and choosing to make a lifestyle change.
This column is not going to focus on convincing readers factory farming practices are morally abhorrent, although I believe they are based on the suffering they cause to animals, the brutalizing effects they have on farm workers, the economic effects they have in rural areas as well as the tremendous damage they cause to the environment. I am more interested in the “trying not to think about it” response. This answer seems to betray knowledge that the action in question is wrong, or that upon further investigation one would come to that conclusion but continue to eat meat produced in factory farms despite the evidence.
This leads to a number of general philosophical questions. If, for the sake of argument, one accepts that the practices of factory farming are morally wrong, what are our responsibilities as consumers, voters or individuals with varying amounts of political or persuasive capital? Are these responsibilities dependent on us being informed about the ethical issues of factory farming and/or believing it to be wrong? Depending on the answer to this question, does it then follow that individuals have an obligation to keep themselves informed about ethical issues?
I believe, based on an admittedly limited amount of reading of the relevant philosophical literature, that there are no simple and obviously true answers to these questions. I can, however, share some of my relevant feelings that might help readers to think about them.
It seems there are a multitude of factors that would affect the amount of action that an individual can be morally responsible for. One example might be a person’s resources. Can they financially afford to stop consuming factory farm produced meat? Another example might be the strength of social, cultural or religious pressure on someone to conform to various dietary expectations.
These examples illustrate that people’s varying obligations may be based on their individual circumstances. I think that neither I nor any other individual have the depth of ethical wisdom and personal knowledge to prescribe a minimum level of justice-related activism on any particular issue or group of issues as a whole. I would, however, argue that most people who are privileged enough to attend this university could do more, especially if willful ignorance or refusal to consider the moral gravity of an issue are their main obstacles. I encourage all of you reading this not to excuse yourselves from thinking about or acting on an ethical problem. Nobody is perfect, everybody has limitations on what they can do, but these are not excuses for complacency when it comes to moral issues. We are obligated to at least try to understand these issues.
Do you agree with Aaron about our obligations as students of a great university? What do you personally believe about eating meat produced on factory farms? Aaron will be writing a piece focused on the issues of factory farming at a later date. Please send all feedback to email@example.com.