Ethics & Animal Farming


A review of The Question of the Farm Animal: Welfare, Ethics, and Public Policy in Modern Animal Agriculture, by Jes Harfeld.

Jes Harfeld’s dissertation explicates the normative significance of the social nature of farm animals for the field of bioethics, and, thereby, agricultural policy and animal production practices. Drawing on a varied corpus of empirical evidence and ethical theories Harfeld attempts to address three basic and interlinked questions: i) what is it to be a farm animal; ii) what is animal welfare – how can this be both measured and theorized; and, in light of this, iii) how do institutional norms shape our modes of thought and actions towards agricultural animals. Harfeld’s concept of welfare is teleological. Incorporating the Aristotelian idea of eudemonia and utilitarian approaches to the common good, welfare is to be understood as what is a good for life for the animal as an individual, a normal member of its species, and as a member of the broader community.

The meat, so to speak, of the dissertation consists of four articles published in peer-reviewed journals ordered around the questions outlined above. These are preceded by an introductory essay and overview of the central themes and arguments. In Article 1 (“Philosophical Ethology”) Harfeld sets out to establish an empirical basis for his subsequent analyses. Building on Bernard Rollin and Frans de Waal’s “reasonable anthropomorphism”, Harfeld outlines how he will attempt to capture and describe a farm animal’s “being-in-the-world” through a philosophical ethology that steps beyond standard biogenetic descriptions of animal life. The crucial insight is that most types of farm animal are multilayered social beings, and therefore conceptions of welfare must include the social context that animals inhabit, whereby the welfare of these “wholes” is more than the sum of the welfare of its individual members, and more than the standard philosophical reference points of species typical function and reproduction.

In Article 2 (“Telos and the Ethics of Animal Welfare”) Harfeld situates his archetypical farm animals within modern agricultural systems. Rollin’s account of animal nature is developed to explore the welfare implications of the boredom (lack of choice) and loneliness (lack of social bonds) produced in farm animals by industrial agriculture. The example serves to reinforce the argument that standard rights-based and consequentialist approaches to the ethics of farm animal welfare are inadequate unless the definition of welfare includes the “good life of the group alongside the good life of the individual” (p. 92). The outcome of this analysis leads Harfeld to conclude that the promotion of practices of animal husbandry, rather than the current market-drives systems of agricultural production are a necessary step if we are to be mindful of farm animal welfare.

In the last two articles Harfeld begins to look at possibilities for solutions. Article 3 (“From Husbandry to Industry”) describes the effects of free market philosophies, positivism and the techno-scientific mindset on how farm animals are valued, and, therefore, treated ethically. At first Harfeld’s account appears to fit within traditional description of animal commodification. However the arguments defended in the previous two papers now serve to make the claim that animal welfare ethics is a political philosophy, whose substance is contingent upon the ideologies and institutions of the market-based state. It is here that Harfeld shows how the estrangement of people from the source of animal products both thwarts animal flourishing and constraining consumer’s phronetic abilities – their capacity to make judgments that reflect their underlying values. The implications of this and possibilities for action are discussed in Article 4 (“Rights, Solidarity, and the Animal Welfare State”) by exploring and then rejecting concept of liberal animal rights. Instead Harfeld offers the communitarian features of the Nordic welfare state, typified by an ethos of solidarity and a strong ethic of common justice, as a point from which a society more sympathetic to the welfare of farm animals could evolve in the face of the otherwise countervailing free-market forces that shape current farming practices.

In taking what he calls a “being-to-welfare-to-politics” (p. 12) approach Harfeld deliberately directs the investigation towards new and interesting areas of ethical and biopolitical inquiry. Across this corpus the reader is rewarded by a carefully constructed ethical theory for animals in agriculture, founded upon a systematic synthesis of relevant materials from biology, ethology, political science, ethics and metaphysics. While Harfeld pays close attention to the nexus between these different disciplines, recent findings from ethology are the central focus for normative analysis. In this regard the work provides an interesting counterpoint to Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s recent exploration of animal morality (see: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Despite its ethological focus, the thesis is situated in the field of applied ethics – somewhere between the different neo-Aristotelian arguments put forward by Bernard Rollin and Martha Nussbaum. Thus the argument is firmly couched in the traditions of analytic philosophy. In this Harfeld conceives himself as doing “welfare ethics”– founded on the dual premise that “animals are beings… whose welfare matters to them” (p. 20), and that concern for the active flourishing of animal lives is an essential element of any discussions of how we should regard and act towards other species. It is not surprising therefore that feminist philosophers such as Midgely and Haraway are often referenced to contextualize the normative arguments that unfold from this thesis. Given the restrictions imposed by the dissertation, Harfeld, somewhat reluctantly it seems, restricts his analysis to the language and modes of thought established within modern eudemonistic virtue ethics.

Harfeld’s larger concerns are the increasing estrangement of people from farm animals, the industrialization of agriculture, and the consequent erosion of the place of farm animals in broader society. His goal from the outset is to present well substantiated reasons to care what happens to these animals, and indeed to us as a society. In this he succeeds admirably. His work has implications for the epistemological aspects of welfare science, and ethical theory more generally. The message is that efforts to substantively improve to lives and welfare of all farm animals are not simply a matter of adjusting current market systems or more cogent forms of ethical reasoning. Animal welfare is an exercise in biopolitics embedded in the political philosophy of our most fundamental intuitions. For Harfeld the return to animal husbandry from animal industry requires nothing less than social revolution.

Chris Degeling, PhD
Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine
School of Public Health
University of Sydney

Intellectual Sources

Paul Feyerabend
Martha Nussbaum
Bernard Rollin
Michael Sandel

Dissertation Information

Aarhus University. 2010. 153pp. Primary Advisor: Ulrik Becker Nissen.


Image: “Compassion in World Farming’s founder, Peter Roberts, campaigning for farm animal welfare” (1967), Wikimedia Commons.

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