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Response to Armstrong’s Article

One of our sustaining members, Paul Hansen, shared with us his response to Dr. Jeff Armstrong, dean of the MSU College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, in regards to his refusal to the animal rights debate with Bruce Friedrich (PETA) on the basis it would not be objective and science based (Civil discourse must be based in science).

As a Christian philosopher who did my M.A. thesis on animal ethics, I can't help responding, however briefly, to the thoughtless opinion written by Dr. Jeff Armstrong in “The State News” at Michigan State. In calling for a debate over "animal welfare issues" that is "objective", "emotionless", and "scientific", obviously Dr. Armstrong is asking for a purple cantaloupe and needs to take a course in philosophy of science.

What exactly constitutes a "scientific debate" over essentially ethical questions? Here is where the fact/value or means/ends dichotomy legitimately applies, a dichotomy that Armstrong fails to appreciate. Inasmuch as Armstrong tries to "challenge producers to abide by science-based guidelines" and claims that "producers, researchers and educators are asking the tough questions and genuinely seeking the right answers," he apparently believes that science can provide the meat industry with ends or goals that transcend mere utilitarian concern for economic efficiency or their bottom line. It cannot. Like "cost-benefit analysis", science and engineering and economics can elucidate conditional relationships and tell us how to achieve certain ends expediently, but it cannot generate the values we cherish or tell us why to pursue them.

For instance, scientists or engineers or economists could say, "IF you want to mine coal most efficiently, THEN you must resort to strip-mining or mountaintop removal." But this sort of cost-benefit analysis will never get you to conclude that "strip-mining ought to be avoided" unless you posit an auxiliary premise that honors environmental integrity in terms of aesthetic appeal and habitat preservation. Merely "doing science" will never generate such value-premises, which typically come from religion and ethics and, indeed, involve beauty, empathy, and human emotions. Cruelty to other sentient creatures will never stand condemned or deplored if one merely solves equations or crunches numbers on a balance sheet, or if one reduces (for the sake of profit) animals to the level of "material to be processed."

This is precisely what the meat industry has done, as the semantics of commonly used terms indicate. Just as the term "pigs" was used in the 1960s by some protestors to dehumanize policemen and thereby justify violence toward them, so terms used by the meat industry tend to de-individualize animals raised for human consumption, thereby reducing them to a generic type of material that may just be "processed." Thus, a consumer does not have to say (or think) that he is eating an individual 'cow' or 'pig', but merely eating 'beef' or 'pork.' So the identity of some higher animals gets commoditized in our language because it seems less offensive to talk of them as material than as individuals. And since the goals of the industry are to earn profits quicker and cheaper, any methods that optimize breeding speed, weight gain, cage size, feeding habits, and slaughter time are readily adopted.

Dr. Armstrong's reluctance to debate PETA follows from his penchant for "objective reasoning." But the very topic of such a debate concerns the question, "Are humans justified in treating 'farm animals' like mere commodities – as means, rather than ends?" Sorry, Dr. Armstrong, but science won't help you with that one.

Paul Hansen .

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