The Academic Place

Have you been watching The Good Place? For UK viewers, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a very funny and sharp comedy based on exploring ethical points of view about what ‘goodness’ really is. I love it. The latest episode focussed on the Trolley Problem, which I have a particular soft spot for.

I’m a utilitarian, as I’ve said many times on this blog, and for me the trolley problem has limited discussion value. It’s also one of my favourite examples of a flipped classroom (you can use my flipped classroom here on TES Blendspace).

I was really lucky with this classroom that I had great engagement from my students, and there are a few elements of this that have really stuck with me. One of them was one of my students who flatly said no, she could not pull the lever to move the trolley. She could not bear the thought of causing a person’s death. The class had a brilliant discussion, and a truly equal one as well, where I walked away from the class feeling as though I’d stretched my understanding of ethics as well.

The trolley problem hinges, in my opinion, on the fact you know your inaction will result in five deaths. When you know the outcomes, does inaction hold equal culpability as action? I firmly believe that it does, and this is partly an outcome of my atheism. I don’t believe there is a final tally of good acts or evil acts, and the only ‘worth’ is how much you helped other people. It’s my ethical position, and informs my actions, and how I value other peoples’ actions as well.

This brings me to a less happy topic. The #MeToo hashtag has been spreading over social media, a visible way for people to say they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Eventually, I posted too.

There was so many feelings swirling around before I made that post, but in fact it was walking away from a student engagement event that made me think about it. I have said in our Digital Footprint MOOC that I believe my Twitter (and indeed this blog) are a way for me to widen participation in academia, to help engage the public and students with the kinds of science I do. The fact is, I have been sexually harassed in my role as ‘student’, more than once. My feelings on this are very mixed. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty that I ‘brought it upon myself’. I feel relief, and a sense of fraudulence, that these incidences of harassment only made me uncomfortable and shaky, and didn’t physically harm me.

Ultimately, I feel that if a student under my care came up to me and told me they had had a similar experience, I would be furious. I would not be asking them what they’d done to bring it on themselves, even though I ask myself that. I would support them.

Saying #MeToo was deeply uncomfortable. It was frightening. I know other scientists who chose to disclose, and others who didn’t. No one owes someone their disclosure. For me, I wanted to say something because I knew it had happened, and staying silent felt a little like not throwing the lever and changing the trolley’s tracks. As uncomfortable as it made me, staying quiet was worse. It’s my personal ethical stance, and I don’t demand that everyone follows me.

But there’s still more. With the news that Oxbridge is less diverse than it was seven years ago, and the mental health challenges associated with postgraduate study are a terrifying read. I fundamentally think that we are all in this together, and we have to talk about the things that go wrong. We also have to help the people who contribute to harassment, to the stressful culture, who make the choices about who comes in. We’re them too.

Changing an individual person’s behaviour is hard, trust me, I know. Changing a workplace culture is even harder. But it’s worth it. By having the conversations, we might just be able to make the Academic Place . . . the Good Place.

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Digital Pawprint

Our office conversations are usually pretty fascinating (if I do say so myself) but this week we’ve been really been outdoing ourselves in the animal welfare corridor of the vet school.

What rights do people have over their pet’s image?

Our conversation was, as so many of the best conversations are, the result of some interesting coincidences. Our new e-Learning developer at the vet school was the genesis of Edinburgh University’s ‘Digital Footprint‘ campaign, designed to help staff and students manage their awareness of their online presence. We’ve been thinking about this a lot ourselves as we build more and more e-resources (with our YouTube channels too!).

When we take footage of an animal for educational purposes, we get the owner’s consent. But a lot of the animals we record are strays, who hopefully will go on to become somebody’s pet after they get adopted. We also sometimes ‘misrepresent’, in the loosest sense of the word, what might be happening in a piece of footage.

For example, I have a great piece of footage of Athena scratching my hand, seemingly without warning. I use it to accompany lectures/resources of cat aggression. What this piece of footage doesn’t show is that we had been playing boisterously for a few minutes prior to the scratch and I knew full well what was going to happen. I also don’t show much of her reaction afterwards, where she immediately stops her playing and starts a whole host of affiliative behaviours that is a cat’s version of apologising when it knows it’s stepped over the line. The behaviour isn’t really aggression at all, just one component of Athena’s full behavioural repertoire, the same way that if I swear at my friends it isn’t really ‘aggression’ so much as part of our friendship. But I fully believe that as an educator, the clip I show makes my overall message stronger and a facsimile of the behaviour in question is far better than a visual-less description.

I can do this because I fully understand the implications of what I’m saying and what it means to pair that with an image of Athena. Can an owner do the same? For example, if we recorded a dog in the vet clinic and then were later to use that image to imply the dog was in pain (when in fact we know its pain was well managed and these behaviours actually have another cause), has the owner been able to give full, informed consent for this? The answer is ‘no’, and it makes our job really difficult as we try to find images that we have full control over. Which is why you see our animals more than any others in our MOOCs and videos.

It becomes even more complicated when we use images of animals in shelters. They will go on to become somebody’s pet, we hope. Can we use those images when their new owner has never consented? Worse, could we possibly damage a new pet-owner relationship by showing the animal out of context? If somebody watches one of our videos and sees their new dog being the poster child for ‘aggressive dogs’, will they immediately return their new dog? From a risk management point of view, while the risk severity of this is high, the likelihood of the risk is small. It still preys on our minds though. Our best practice is to seek informed consent, and we’re looking at improving this process as we talk with our MOOC team for super secret future projects that just happen to need lots of footage of cats and dogs . . .

But this argument is not just academic. You may have seen the article in the Guardian where the winners of a Thomas Cook selfie competition were contacted by the owners of the horse who featured in their selfie. The horse is performing a Flehmen’s Response (not ‘sticking its tongue out’ as the article claims), but the owners say they trained the horse to do this. While the owners may not be able to control their horse’s image while it is in a public place, do they have the intellectual property rights to the act of training their horse at all?

To go for another example, if I was to relinquish Athena (perhaps because she had jumped on my bladder one last time on a lazy Sunday morning), and one of her future owners then capitalised on her ability to carry out a conversation, could I claim the intellectual property rights as I was the one who had trained her to do that?

Of course there’s another argument, and that is that the animals themselves own their images. Certainly Wikipedia has been contending that the IP of this particular image belongs to no one, as the photographer is the macaque itself! Animal Rights groups, of course, disagree. (Check out my post ‘Value‘ if you want more chat about the ethics of animal use).

Finally, if I am aware of all of this, and the contention of ownership over image, and I post it on my blog anyway . . .

Monkey takes selfie

By Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female. See article. [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons

 

. . . have I just lost all my ethical street cred?

Ethical Eating – Quality of Human Life

If you’re based in the UK, you will have heard about the problems facing our dairy industry due to the plummeting price of milk, and even if you’re not, you’ll have seen me talk about it in the Ethical Eating Introduction. The welfare of our producers is another thorny issue.

The archetypal story here is the middle class handwringing buzz around Bolivian quinoa farmers. Is it true that the Bolivian can no longer afford their staple grain because it’s suddenly the green food of choice in the west? The Slate has an interesting article explaining some of this but I’m not going to focus on this particular example (I confess I don’t think I’ve ever tasted quinoa). Instead I’m going to talk about the ubiquitous symbol of buying ethically, ‘Fairtrade’.

The Fairtrade Foundation (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/) describes their mark thusly:

When you buy products with the FAIRTRADE Mark, you support farmers and workers as they work to improve their lives and their communities. The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects 

Do you look for the Fairtrade mark when you shop? I do, particularly for the equitorial products like coffee and chocolate, which made this paper (Beuchelt & Zeller, 2011) depressing reading. From the abstract:

Certified producers are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers. Over a period of ten years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fairtrade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers. We conclude that coffee yield levels, profitability and efficiency need to be increased, because prices for certified coffee cannot compensate for low productivity, land or labor constraints.

How can this be so? There’s another paper (Dolan, 2010), whose abstract contains the most amazing piece of writing:

the paper explores how certain neoliberal rationalities are emboldened through Fairtrade, as a process of mainstreaming installs new metrics of governance (standards, certification, participation) that are at once moral and technocratic, voluntary and coercive, and inclusionary and marginalizing

Holy Hera, how is anyone supposed to know what to buy? “A process at one voluntary and coercive, inclusionary and marginalising” – I mean I love it as a piece of prose, but as a communication piece it only tells me that I’m still confused.

Oh, and wine isn’t receiving a pass either, with the Argentinian Fairtrade wine market ‘further marginalising’ the sector (Staricco and Ponte, 2015

I should say that not all papers are critical, Fairtrade cotton in West Africa was found to empower women (Bassett, 2010), the same was also possible for coffee farmers in Mesoamerica (Lyon et al, 2010).

It may be that it is our supermarkets influencing the Fairtrade market that is causing the ethical problems (Smith, 2010), which is interesting because some of the researchers think that Fair Trade only works when building communities and empowering the community’s interactions (Renard, 2003). Something that many of us would say supermarkets really lack.

I am not a social scientist, though I am interested in the discipline, and I can’t review these articles as thoroughly as I can the animal welfare ones. But it’s interesting the path that a relatively cursory scholar search of Fairtrade has brought us to. Particularly when you think about the dairy issue from the introductory post. Monopolies have a staggering amount of bargaining power, and in some cases (such as nationalised health care) this works to the community’s advantage. But is it working to our global advantage here?

In my perfect, Pinterest lifestyle, I’d be shopping at farmers markets and growing my own carrots on my windowsill, and I’d also spend less money on frivolous items, make all my dinners from scratch, and stick to the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended intake of alcohol units in a week. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be the person you are on Pinterest?

But the person I am on Pinterest isn’t also on a quest to snap a selfie with a cow in GTA V online.

On the scale of personality responsibility to nanny state, I tend to fall on the Big Brother side of the spectrum. I fully support Scotland’s minimum alcohol unit pricing for example, and I tend to think the problem of encouraging individual to eat in a globally friendly way should be tackled through legislation.

But I know I’m on the extreme side of that spectrum, and I’d be interested to hear what more liberal readers might think. How would you solve this issue?

Ethical Eating Month – Meat

The Ethical Eating month doesn’t start easily. We begin with the thorny issue of eating meat.

 

When I wrote the first draft of this post it was extremely long because I wanted to outline the ethical process that led to my personal decision to eat meat. After writing it and re-reading it, I couldn’t help feeling like I was lecturing people on why my life choices are superior to everyone else’s. I mean they are, obviously, because I’m awesome, but that’s not what you come here to read about.

So that blog, and the question of ‘should we want to eat meat’ has been shelved for now, and instead I’m going to focus on the ethics of meat production. If you don’t want to eat any meat at all, that’s your choice dudes, but this is for those who enjoy a steak now and again. How can we eat ethically?

There is a Coursera course, The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida, which many of my students have recommended. And this is really a topic that we could discuss for months on its own, so I’m going to cram a lot into this little blog post.

We’ll discuss the effect meat production has on our climate in a few weeks, today we’re concentrating on the process of producing meat. How do the most common meats end up on our table?

I often hear people saying how far removed we are from our food, or say something that either has a very idyllic picture-book idea of farming, or a gross misunderstanding based on pressure group videos, outdated or misrepresented. In the age of YouTube, there’s no excuse for not knowing what a real farming environment looks like because not only are our supermarkets, levy boards and colleges putting videos up, but so are actual farmers. I’ve cherrypicked some good resources that really demonstrate what I think of as good and realistic farm environments.

 

Chicken (Broiler Systems)

The broiler chicken is the breed we eat and they have been heavily selected for, so much so that most breeds can be patented. They grow exceptionally quickly and in intensive systems are packed into sheds without much in the way of environmental enrichment to stimulate them, which may be a good thing because they often break their bones because of their quick-growing physiology. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made a really good program on this a few years ago, and here you can see a pretty damn good free range broiler system

 

The fact I call this a ‘pretty good’ system might surprise you, but it is. These birds are clean, active, and don’t look damaged. I agree completely with what Hugh says, that this should be the bare minimum standard for chicken production in the UK. A £1 extra per chicken, at the time of filming, that’s what you buy for it.

 

I try really hard not to buy chicken. It is the meat I am probably most squeamish about because I think their quality of life is pretty poor.

 

Which brings me neatly to . . .

 

Beef (Beef Cattle Systems)

If you were to reincarnate me as a production animal, I’d like to be reincarnated as a beef cow in Scotland. MrScottishFarmer on YouTube has a video showing the living conditions of beef steers (the castrated males we eat), and it’s a decent system I’d say. The steers aren’t too muddy, the straw is relatively clean, and they’re all calm and curious about the human.

 

The beef cows (remember ‘cow’ means female cattle) you’ll see out in the fields with calves are the mummys, who keep their calves with them until weaning age, typically around 7-8 months (although earlier weaning is a thing). Then the boys are grouped together and fattened up until slaughter. Beef cows will then have their next calf and the system starts again for them. The big welfare problems that have occurred in British beef farming systems have largely been man made.

 

Feedlots, which are what we call the area steers are raised, change country to country. Particularly in the Americas you’ll find much larger and more intensive systems.

Another video, which does contain some mild images of abbatoirs, comes from Quality Meat Scotland (and features quite a few SRUC researchers under our former ‘SAC’ banner). What you can see here is a very good beef handling system, watch how calm the steers are in handling. That’s a great sign.

 

 

Pork (Pig Production Systems)

Pig farming in Scotland has a large proportion of outdoor farming compared to many other countries producing pork meat, but we still have the intensive indoor systems.

 

You’ll be able to see examples of both in this QMS video

 

and in this great video from an Australian producer, showing a more intensive system:

 

 

Lamb (Sheep Production Systems)

Lamb is the meat of a sheep less than a year old, while mutton is the meat of a sheep older. Lamb is probably my least favourite meat (versus pork, which I would until the cows came home if I could).

 

We’re going travel south for this video, because in Scotland we tend to fling our sheep out into the hills and forget about them (gross exaggeration). Southern systems tend to be more intensive.

 

The girl who explains the lamb production system is very engaging (maybe Hugh should hire her). But how about a truly intensive system? Canada has us covered here:

 

Fish (Aquaculture)

And of course we can’t forget our fish! Fish are a hard one because it’s a huge range of species that you’re trying to cover, and we’re not so au fait with our understanding of their ability to feel pain, etc. (although note that our EU legislation considers all vertebrates to be sentient)

 

The Ethics of Meat?

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the ethics of eating meat – well this is the welfare of how these animals live. While welfare at death is undeniably important, overall it’s a much shorter component of the animal’s overall experience. I’m more concerned about the welfare-at-life of my meat animals.

 

Farm assurance schemes such as Freedom Food  and Red Tractor  have some, possibly basic, welfare standards.  Those are two schemes that I look for when I’m buying meat as a bare minimum. There’s also the Soil Association’s animal welfare standards  if organic is a priority for you. Just as you would check calorie information, we really should be checking farming methods too before we buy.  Take a look at the welfare standards of these organisations and decide if that’s the welfare you want your meat to have experienced when it was alive, because that is what we meat eaters must understand – these burgers were animals at one point.

 

Is meat too easy? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (such a great name to type out) used to do a show where he took a number of bad cooks and got them to re-engage with the source of their food. In this clip, he makes the point of taking responsibility for the life and death of his chickens. Definitely worth a watch:

 

I would love to live in a world where my tenement block looked after a number of chickens in our garden, but my tenement block can’t even look after our garden. Our lifestyles encourage cheap, butchered meat. The last meat I ate was pollock  steaks that I buy frozen and keep by to make curries with when I need to make a quick cupboard meal. It’s hugely convenient.

 

Reducing the number of animals we need to farm would greatly improve the overall welfare of production animals (the welfare of the farmers however is a topic to come . . . ) But is it realistic? What about people under financial pressure? Can we ask them to stop buying cheap meat? Well, yes, we can. A Girl Called Jack blogs about cooking on a very tight budget, and the majority of her recipes are meat free.

 

These are all strangely complicated questions, featuring a lot of human behaviour and many interconnecting issues that we’ll discuss later in the month.

 

But I think the biggest step in helping production animal welfare is showing people what farms are really like, and as you can see from this post, the internet is a vast repository of resources. Really, neither side of the ethical debate has any excuse to be ignorant about what real farming is like. 

Ethical Eating Month – Introduction

For someone who works in an agricultural college, I struggle with how to eat ethically. As we know, ethics are a personal thing, and my ethics may not be yours. My version of ethical eating is one that provides a good quality of life for the animals I eat, provides a good industry and quality of life for the people involved in the food chain, and minimises my carbon footprint.

So how do I try and eat ethically with these three goals? Well it’s surprisingly hard. In part this is because I am a deeply lazy person and the lure of pre-processed and delightfully packaged meals is hugely appealing, even if it as detrimental to my waistline as it is my world. In part, it’s because I’m also a hedonist (and I believe most people are). I don’t derive much joy from cooking and would rather skip the process entirely, and I get a lot of joy from the taste and smell and process of eating meat.  And in part because I’m a single person household, preparing food ahead of time is not always easy, and I do end up wasting food.

I’m an awful person.

You might have seen in the news further discussion of the price of milk in the UK, especially as Morrison’s has announced they will sell a milk brand ‘for farmers‘, that will pay them what the milk is worth. There was also Monbiot’s latest Guardian column about the difficulty of treating the obesity epidemic. I thought there was a curious parallel in these two stories. In the first, Sean Rickard, former National Farmer’s Union chief economist said:

“I think it’s unrealistic for anyone [receiving £28,000 per annum from the tax payer] to expect us just to pay them whatever price they think is needed to cover their cost of production.”

In the second, after Monbiot details the scientific evidence behind why obesity is so difficult to control, Guardian commenter ScottMa says:

“But for the majority it is entirely controllable. <ore [sic] difficult for some than others due to genes, maybe, but by no means impossible.

Monbiot has just absolved the overweight without a medical cause of all responsibility for their situation. Why does the Left have such a problem with that concept? Always someone else’s fault, everyone’s a victim.”

 

I have got to stop reading Guardian comments. But I think both of these comments share a few elements. Firstly, a great lack of sympathy for the people actually affected by the problems, and secondly, that food really does go hand in hand with opinion.

So many of us have been lectured at by bystanders, well-meaning family members, that one person in work, that we instinctively get riled about food discussions. Just this week I was saying that the ‘One Hour After a Coke’ Infographic that was going around had me rabidly proclaiming Coke as a health drink before I checked myself. We just don’t like being told about food.

I’m not going to tell you about food, but I am going to devote this month to the ethics of my eating, and giving myself time to refresh my understanding of my evidence. Welcome then to Ethical Eating Month, and I hope I don’t enrage you as much as food posts enrage me . . . .

Bon appetit!

Cecil the Lion and Trophy Hunting

This week’s horrible animal welfare story comes courtesy of a certain American dentist, yes we’re talking about the trophy killing of Cecil the lion.

I won’t name the gentleman (the Guardian has no such qualms), but according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, he . . .

  • Paid $50,000 for the privilege (Cecil is a well known personality of the park thought to bring in thousands of dollars annually, at a conservative estimate)
  • Spotted the lion in the park and then lured him outside of the park with bait
  • Shot the lion with an arrow, failed to kill it
  • Followed the lion until were able to shoot it with a gun, killing it.
  • Did so with no permit
  • Removed the lion’s radiotracking collar

The Telegraph rightly points out that locals who had been found guilty of hunting without a permit would be imprisoned if found guilty. I sincerely hope rich hunters have to abide by the same legal systems.

I’m not totally against hunting. In cases of overpopulation, a skilled hunter able to kill an animal quickly and humanely in its natural environment is what I would consider a ‘good death after a good life’. The hunter needs to kill the right animals (this is never the big males) and I would prefer if the animal’s body was used after death, but I’m okay with this.  I’m not even necessarily against culling lions, but I want there to be valid conservation reasons behind it. My ethical viewpoint, which is a pretty common one, is that animal use needs to be justified, and one person’s enjoyment does not allow me to approve of the painful and prolonged death this lion suffered. (I talk more about animal use in the Value post).

For a humane death we need to be using the right kind of gear. While it’s very impressive shooting things with a bow and arrow, it’s not the cleanest kill-method. Take the Makah people who live in Washington State. When they were allowed to hunt grey whales again, as part of their traditional hunting, they chose to use high powered rifles to make as quick a kill as possible. I really like the Makah’s story for a number of reasons (and frequently contrast it with UK fox hunting with my students, to varying degrees of success), including that the not all of the tribe were keen on the idea of starting up their hunting again.

A modern bow and arrow is a fearful weapon, but still not one that kill as quickly and reliably as a gun. Guns are extremely effective weapons, and short of being stunned prior to killing, a high caliber bullet to the brain is a quick and painless death.

Despite my disagreements with the method, what’s happening to this hunter right now isn’t right. We protect animal welfare because we want to be better, we should protect human welfare for the same reason. This guy should be prosecuted in a court of law, protected from the internet’s mob-happy vengeance.

Bacon Double Down

There was an interesting pair of articles in io9 last week, the report of double muscled pigs being bred by researchers in South Korea and China, and differences between how American scientists and the American public view science related issues.

Seeing these two articles so closely together was interesting.

The first thing that jumps out is that in America, there is a 51 percentage point gap between scientists and the public regarding whether or not it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. You can play about with the day at the Pew Research Centre’s site where they have a fun inforgraphic to demonstrate how this changes with gender, age, science knowledge, etc. The story of the double muscled pigs then should evoke some concern in these people, no? Scientists meddling where they don’t belong?

But of course double muscling is old news – in fact we understand it pretty well. It’s a genetic mutation that inhibits the production or uptake of myostatin, a muscle growth regulator. So these animals have big muscles. There are a few breeds of cattle that have been selected for this mutation, such as the Piedmontese breed, and it’s a mutation that occurs in some whippets too. Deliberately adding the gene in a line of pigs is cool, but we also have pigs that glow in the dark.

The concern about double muscled pigs might come from the idea that humans shouldn’t genetically manipulate animals, but seeing as we’ve been doing it for a long time, I think it’s more the tool that some people object to. This innate distrust of the mad scientist.

But what really interested me in the double muscling article was the assertion that this development might help feed the world. I agree that it could, but not because we’re suddenly doubling down on our bacon production. After all, the world’s beef production isn’t purely carried by the Piedmontese and Belgian Blue (although they are important breeds). But the technical capacity we have to engineer our animals, with appropriate ethical supervision, really will help us in one of the theatres of world food production.

We just need to overcome that 50% point difference between us and the public to help us get there.

Pig’s For Dinner

One of the things that was raised during the MOOC was scientists’ usage of euphemistic language (and also, my dislike of provocative language when I’m trying to promote animal welfare). It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while too.

I was browsing reddit over the weekend and came across this interesting factoid:

On a farm you see a cow, chicken, deer, sheep, etc. In a store you find beef, poultry, venison, mutton, etc.

It’s a divide between Germanic and French words in English.

nickdim

…The english speakers were the ones who raised the animals, and the normans (french speakers) were the ones who ate the meat.

roastpotatothief

I, like a lot of animal welfare people, had just generally assumed this language divide came from a sort of prissiness about naming the foods we eat. I had an idea of a 1950s housewife getting marketed to, Man Men style. In reality, I know this is silly. I have a Mrs Beeton cookbook (one of my favourite vintage books I own) that talks about poultry, mutton, beef, etc., and I have an assumption that these words were used in medieval times (based mainly on Karen Maitland and George RR Martin books). And if I think about it in more detail, I realise that my vague idea about housewives is nonsense. Another of my favourite books, Nella Last’s War, shows me that our lack of connection with our food is far more recent than the 40s or 50s.

This is a very good example of how I will start researching a problem. I start with “What do I know, and where do I know it from?”

The next question on the list is “is this the case?” and so I turned to google to explore the initial hypoethesis.

Google: etymology “pig” = old English (picbred which apparently meant acorn), middle English (pig)

Google: etymology “pork” = latin (porcus), old French (porc), middle English (pork)

Google: etymology “chicken” = Germanic, old English (cycen), English (chicken)

Google: etymology “poultry” = Old French (poulet, pouletrie), English (poultry)

So far, so interesting. There does appear to be a divide where the old French and German words are used for food, while the old English words are used for the producing. While this appeals to my inner class warrior, who is never too far from the surface, I am also aware that English is a language that “pursues other languages down dark alleys to beat them unconscious and riffle through their pockets for spare vocabulary“. I’m also vividly aware that there are some very strange quirks in the way we name and identify animals. Did you know that cattle are the only species that do not have a non gendered singular noun? In English you can’t refer to a single member of the species Bos without implying something about gender or function (cow vs bull, ox vs steer). I wrote a 60000 word thesis on the personality of beef steers and dairy cows, I am deeply aware of how awkward this little linguistic quirk can make life.

The point is that my google exercise breaks down here. We call it beef (old French) and veal (anglo Norman French) when it’s a steer (Germanic through to Old English) or a calf (Germanic through to old English), its oxtail when it’s ox (Germanic through to Old English) and milk (Germanic to Old English) when it’s a cow (Germanic to Old English).

Assuming that Google is pretty good at etymology, and at the very least I can confidently say it knows more about etymology than I do, I am reasonably confident that at least for some foods in the English language, the division of animal and food may be down to class. Now this is far from a theory, that is to say something that we would widely accept to be true, but it’s a pretty solid hypothesis.

And it’s certainly made me think differently about my old assumption. It’s a nice hypothesis, I like it, and I think it’s interesting that from an animal welfare point of view, we’ve all moved to the landed gentry – and we use the posh language, the language that provides a line of demarcation, between us and the fields.

The Utilitarian Suffering

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

This is a simplistic understanding of utilitarianism – the ethical stance which we more formally say ‘maximises utility’. That is, we do what is best for the largest number of people (or animals). The greatest benefit with the smallest cost.

Utilitarians will tolerate the suffering of mice in a cancer research trial, for example, because the benefit of being a step closer to curing cancer is greater than the suffering of the mice, especially if we actively try to guarantee those animal a good quality of life through environmental enrichment, etc.

Of course life is never quite that straightforward. We call this kind of thinking ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The benefit is worth the cost. But who puts value on the cost, and who puts value on the benefit? Economics is a notoriously elastic thing – driven by motivation, need and demand. The utilitarian shopper may buy free range organic eggs at the start of the month, and barn eggs at the end of the month (and I should probably do a post on that conundrum later because the shopper, and most people, tend not to have the right welfare assumptions in these situations).

Most western societies are utilitarian, in countries where we consider animal welfare and have animal welfare laws, we allow animal use because it benefits most of us. But one of our MSc students asked a very interesting question recently that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

Does the utilitarian accept that there will always be suffering?

 

This is a philsophical, thinky kind of question. The kind that I, as a scientist, am not good at but that I, as an animal welfare scientist, need to consider.

If you are a utilitarian, like myself, and you accept that animals are used (i.e. will be farmed, etc.) for human good. You  might accept different levels of this. For example, you might accept the use of animals for cancer research, but not the use of animals for beefburgers. Or you might accept the use of cows for beefburgers but think it’s wrong to make kebabs from dogs. We all have differing ideas on what it acceptable and why.

I don’t think this is a question that can be answered by debating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Instead I think you need to turn to the assumptions in that statement.

 

Always Is a Very Long Time

What is ‘always’ in this statement? I expect I’ll be eating lab grown meat in my old age, and with the reduction of food animals and the increase in replacement and reduction of laboratory animals, there will be less suffering of animals in the system we currently live in. But I also foresee a future where the system we currently live in is no more, there will be other animals, unimaginable to us, and we ourselves will no longer exist in our present form. What is the ‘always’ we discuss?

If we consider it in terms of recognisable ecosystems, so a world where humans aim to maintain or improve this standard of living, but are recognisably human with recognisably human needs and failings. We need the biological machine to test biological pathways for drugs, to produce organic materials that we like – but does that biological machine have to be attached to a system that can perceive its environment, process that, and come out with emotions? Does the sentient part of the biological machine have to be there?

I am a sci-fi nerd, as we know, and I can see a possible future where we are able to create biological machines that have no sentience, and therefore animal welfare is completely circumvented. They have no suffering because they are not sentient. Some people, people who have a strong respect for nature, will find that abhorrent.

But the ‘always’ in this statement isn’t very helpful, is it?

 

The Suffering

So what is ‘suffering’? Some people say that it was advertisers who invented this belief that humans should always be happy. I often find myself thinking about this. As a scientist, I believe in the Normal Distribution. That is to say, the average is a good description of the population.

I believe the average height of a woman in the UK is a pretty good description of the height of women in the UK. Most women will be around 5″9. Now I’m 5″2. I am ‘noticeably’ short, according to my friends, so I already know that there are fewer people of my height than the average, but I also see people shorter than me. When I see someone very much shorter than me, say by a foot, I’m surprised, because they are at the very tail end of the normal distribution.

I think emotional state follows the same normal distribution. Most of us are ‘ok’. We have moments of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, but for the most part we’re floating around in the ‘ok’ feelings. In any normal system, the normal distribution appears.

What about suffering? What we’re really trying to do is make the tail end of ‘extreme suffering’ shorter, and to push the overall feeling closer to ‘good’. This is the whole idea of the Quality of Life concept of animal welfare – we want animals to have a life worth living, where the good things outweigh the bad things. The animal’s average emotional state is pushed closer to good, so there are fewer bad times.

The Scottish Government recently went a step further and said they wanted animals in Scotland to have a Good Life, not just a life worth living. They want to push that whole normal distribution further towards ‘good’ feelings.

But even if they are successful, that tail end will still exist. The capacity for suffering will still exist and where the capacity exists, it will occur – even if only in very small incidences.

 

 

The Utilitarian Suffering

So, yes. I think the Utilitarian accepts that there will always be suffering within a given system. What we’re trying to do is move the average up, and make the animals happier in general. HOW we do this is an entirely different question – and that’s where the ‘rights’ and the ‘wrongs’ come into play.

Ethics is a messy, messy subject. So I’m going to go have a cup of tea and discuss it with Athena.

Value

I like when current events in the media combine to illustrate animal welfare in our society. This week’s blog post was impossible to resist.

Recently there was a bit of hubbub over a group of scientists discovering what they described as … a freaking puppy sized spider (emphasis mine, extra Raid cans also mine).

The scientists released a blog and the media picked it up and ran with it (because it was a freaking puppy sized spider. It wasn’t even chihuahua sized, this is a decent sized puppy we’re talking about. No I’m not linking to a picture. Google that yourself. Go on. Type ‘puppy sized spider’ in there. I dare you).

But here comes the twist in the tale (the puppy sized spider tail . . . wait, that doesn’t really work, does it?). Our intrepid scientist started to receive death threats and abused because he collected a specimen. And ‘collected’ in this sense means in the more Victorian sense. There is one less puppy sized spider in the world.

Piotr, for that is our scientist’s name, has written an excellent blog post describing the necessity of biological sampling, and the danger of assuming that any of us lead a guilt free life. I strongly encourage you to read it, but I’ll include this quote:

We kill thousands of organisms without realizing that we do it. Look into the light fixtures of your house or the grill of your car, they are full of dead insects and spiders. 

It is all but impossible to live a life that does not harm animals in some description, and for the most part (legally, and culturally) we often excuse ourselves by protect vertebrates. I’m really fascinated by the outrage that has come up around a spider.

This week, TV presenter Chris Packham penned an open letter to the presenters Ant and Dec asking them to put a stop to the ‘animal abuse’ in their show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. The show typically features ‘celebrities’ eating live bugs on screen as a challenge, or in one memorable case, a contestant caught, killed and ate a rat. Packham says:

“I can guarantee that some animals are harmed during production, because they are fragile or easily stressed. Or simply killed, as they are in your bushtucker trials.”

Are we heading toward a new age of invertebrate animal protection?

 

I have a visceral reaction to that spider. It makes me feel unwell. Yes, I am an arachnophobe (I’m not fond of any insect really), even the cute ones like the Peacock Spider are only tolerable when they are an image on a screen. When I see a spider the space between my shoulderblades begins to twitch and my heart begins to pump. Fear this, my body tells me, and even when I’m trying to be cool in front of other scientists, I cannot bring myself to approach. I have never held a tarantula, even though I’ve had copious opportunities to do so, because I simply would not be able to control my muscles long enough to do so.

It’s Okay To Be Smart did an interesting vid on this recently, but that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to discuss whether we, as a society, think it’s acceptable to harm invertebrates.

I have beliefs about the way you should treat animals. This set of beliefs arises from my experiences, my knowledge, my culture and my society. This is my ethical viewpoint. You can explore the most common ethical viewpoints and how you stack up on the excellent Animal Ethics Dilemma website.

My ethical viewpoint has changed over the years, as has yours no doubt. Our ethics can even be formed by different thought processes. Some people will describe their ethics based on how things make them feel. As a utilitarian, I try to remove my feelings from the process of making an ethical judgement (interestingly, a small study of 38 students showed that the way they reacted to images of humans experiencing injustice and unfairness influenced the way their higher-order ‘computational nodes’ of the brain – in essence it was the logical parts of the brain that react in cases of injustice, Yoder & Decety (2014). It would be fascinating to repeat this with other age groups, and with animal scenarios too. The point being that your desire for social justice does not necessarily have to be based on the emotional centres of your brain). Regardless of how your ethical viewpoint was formed, you believe it to be right. When people act against their ethical values, they can be deeply distressed.

Now some people believe you should harm no animal at all. They believe that animals have an absolute value and that we have no right to use them. To live in such a way that upholds the absolute value of all animals is very difficult. The kingdom ‘Animalia’ (the simplest way to define animals, really) encompasses a huge range of beasts: do the sponge and the jellyfish have the same absolute value as the elephant and the tiger? Every time you swat a fly, uproot a worm, or even tell a dog not to eat the cat’s food you could be violating that absolute value.

This is a difficult (though not impossible, see Jainism) way to live. But most people begin to take a more centrist position by believing that animals have an intrinsic value. We must justify their use in some way. Some justifications are easier than others. I always find the fish eating vegetarian to be a fascinating example of this. Many species of fish (which is an arbitrary group of animals anyway) have very sophisticated nervous systems and are capable of pain and suffering. Killing them humanely is difficult and catching them humanely even more so. But for many people, their ethical viewpoint can accept the death of a fish, but abhors the death of a chicken. This often comes from a relational viewpoint, where animals are prized for the way we interact with them. Most people have fewer interactions with a fish than they do a chicken or a cow, and the life of a fish is more unimaginable.

And then on the other side, some people believe that animals have an extrinsic value, that we may use them as we wish.This is more common than you might think. The cat owner who takes his cat to the vets to be euthanased because he no longer wants it is assigning its life extrinsic value. When the owner no longer takes value from the animal, the life becomes disposable.

This scale of values exists in conjunction with the various ethical viewpoints we have. I myself am a utilitarian who believes animals have an intrinsic vale. I use animals. I am also rather broad in my description of animals. For example, I’ll eat any animal so long as I can be satisfied of two questions: “Did the animal have a good quality of life/human death?” and “Will eating this animal negatively impact my health or welfare?” Now that doesn’t mean I question every animal product that passes my lips, I am more than sure I have eaten poor welfare meat (as we discussed in our kosher post), but this ethical standpoint and my view of animals’ values guides my actions.

 

However there is an element of the ‘relational’ ethical viewpoint for me. I don’t have good relationships with invertebrates, and I don’t have the same emotional reaction to their injury that I do to a vertebrate’s injury. With that being said, we describe invertebrate harm as ‘cruel’ and ‘worrying’ in several cultural contexts. Imagine the cat playing with the spider, batting it from paw to paw, tearing it limb from limb. We frequently stop our cats from doing this, in part because we are disgusted, but in part because we recognise that must be an unpleasant experience for the spider. Cats are cruel and toy with their prey (probably because they don’t recognise their prey as sentient, but with cats you never know . . .)

And then there is the case of the little boy burning ants. It’s a short hand we use for unthinking cruelty in our media, or to indicate that a character will go on to become cruel. And yet invertebrate experimentation like this is a common experience for many of growing up.

 

What is the difference, ethically speaking, in killing a spider for entertainment (I’m a Celebrity) and killing a spider for science (the puppy sized specimen). In  both cases, a spider dies, surely the ethical line is one drawn in the sand?

Well, no, I don’t think so. It’s often tempting to write off ethics as nebulous and personal, but there are many, many reasons to support both the collection of the puppy sized spider and the banning of invertebrate eating on I’m a Celebrity…

  • The ‘greater good’ of media vs science. How much does the entertainment of seeing people eat spiders benefit society?  Not a huge amount, the trials could be replaced by something equally disgusting and memorable (smelly tofu springs to mind, indeed what one of the previous winners of I’m a Celebrity ate as a vegetarian). Indeed you could argue that the destruction of animals for entertainment is an overall negative for our society, as Packham outlines.
  • By contrast, the ‘greater good’ we get from understanding the physiology of the Goliath spider is a scientific contribution to  our understanding of the world. I prize knowledge over entertainment.
  • Which brings me on to volume – the number of spiders which die for this scientific need is less than the number which die or are fatally injured for this case of entertainment.
  • And this brings me to the method – the method of killing on I’m a Celebrity is one which we might reasonably consider to be a high-stress environment, even for what we know of spider perception. Whereas we  might expect the passionate scientist to have a calmer, more human approach.

At the end of the day, if you feel animals have an extrinsic value, neither of these spider deaths will upset you. If you feel they have absolute value, both these deaths will upset you.

But most of us lie in the middle zone, where intrinsic value must meet the benefit our society gets from either entertainment or knowledge. And it is here that the great ethical debates come in.

Regardless, threatening the scientist is not going to help anyone.