Kicking and screaming: Societal consensus will move where it will, like it or not

Societal consensus will move where it will, as always, like it or not.

Wes Ishmael

July 17, 2015

13 Min Read
Kicking and screaming: Societal consensus will move where it will, like it or not

We do not live in a world where people are cavalier about inflicting third-degree burns on baby animals or castration without anesthesia,” said Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., during a recent Animal Care Wednesday webinar hosted by the University of Nebraska and Iowa State University. “Defending the ranch ethic is very difficult when urban people see branding parties on YouTube—basically a good time based on hurting animals fairly significantly.”

Stay hooked.

If you’re unfamiliar with Rollin, he’s widely hailed as a loyal friend to cow-calf producers. He’s a Brooklyn-born, concealed-carry, motorcycle-riding bioethicist who happens to believe the structure of western ranching represents exactly the kind of animal welfare that society is demanding.

Rollin is a distinguished professor and university bioethicist at Colorado State University where he is a professor of philosophy, biomedical sciences and animal sciences.

As a true friend, though, Rollins will share his insight in plain terms, even if that makes you squirm harder than a fishing worm tossed on a hot griddle.

“How many of you think that people advocating for animal welfare or for animal rights are a small group of crazies, malcontents, ingrates or extremists that don’t appreciate the fact that we have the safest food supply in the world, blah, blah, blah?” Rollin asks. “If people in defense of animals were radicals and extremists, they (animal-welfare-based referenda) could not, by definition, pass by a handy majority.”

Rollin explains that state referenda spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States in a dozen states—aimed at things like banning battery cages, veal crates and sow stalls—have all passed by margins of at least two to one.

“Blindness to obvious points like this can hinder your ability to manage issues such as referenda that dictate change to animal agriculture,” Rollin explains.

Battling for society’s soul

“Those who operate America’s highly successful farming systems can’t really afford to laugh anymore at the sometimes poorly informed opinions that outsiders have of what they’re doing because conventional agriculture in the United States is under a strong attack,” says Robert Paarlberg, Ph.D. “I liken it to a kind of culture war. It’s under a strong attack by those who think our conventional food and farming systems are going the wrong way.”

Paarlberg is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wellesley College. His comments are from his Heuermann Lecture at the University of Nebraska last year, “Our Culture War Over Food and Farming.” Paarlberg is also author of the book Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Though Parrlberg’s family has long and strong roots in agriculture, his lecture aimed to neither advocate nor oppose conventional farming. As a political scientist he sought to describe the current balance of power in this culture war, which he says is comprised of three primary battles:

•   Cultural—competition for ideas, values and visions;

•   Commercial—competition for market share;

•   Political—“Competition to control the instruments of policy (taxes, regulations and mandates) that governments use to redistribute resources or to shape social outcomes.”

“I would say, flat out, the advocates for alternative agriculture have already won the cultural war,” Paarlberg says. “Their viewpoint is now dominant.”

Besides teaching at Wellesley, Paarlberg is an associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He has a chance to teach students from all over the world.

“Most of them come to my classes with their minds already made up about our current food and farming system,” Paarlberg explains. “They’ve all seen Food Inc. and read Omnivore’s Dilemma, which expose weaknesses of conventional food and farming systems. They believe our current food and farming system is generating foods that are unsafe and unhealthy, that our conventional food and farming systems are environmentally unsustainable, and producing social outcomes rife with injustice.”

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In fact, Paarlberg says, “Many young people today have been persuaded that the task of completely reinventing our food system from the bottom up is a social cause of significance and worth, comparable to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the woman’s movement of the 1970s. It’s an idealistic goal to correct what they find to be seriously wrong with the existing system. You can risk social ostracism if you dare to put a contrary view forward.”

Imagine that.

When you spend most all day, every day, wrapped up in the cattle business or some other sector of agriculture, it’s too easy to believe that you share a viewpoint with the rest of the world. Conversely, it’s too easy to believe views like those shared by Paarlberg as the warped ravings of some fringe group. It’s too easy to deny that future freedoms to operate in livestock agriculture (how livestock can be produced) will ultimately be determined by a society that is mostly ignorant about production agriculture.

Animal use changed everything

Focusing on the use of animals today, including their use within conventional agriculture, Rollin has an unnerving ability to cut through the fog of emotion and identify practical reality. In this case, it’s easy to understand why society seems to be so enamored with the care and well-being of animals and livestock, after he connects the dots.

It has to do with what he describes as the radical change in animal use during the last half-century or so. Lots more animals started being used in human research, but there were no legal protections for that use. Probably more important, Rollin says, is the change in the nature of agriculture.

First, the research animals.

“Historically, there were no constraints on the use of animals in research, which led to a lot of moral atrocities,” Rollin says. He and colleagues wrote the current animal welfare laws pertaining to laboratory animals that were established in the mid 1980s. As part of that process, he conducted a literature review looking for studies examining the use of analgesics in laboratory animals. He found two, one stating the need for such studies. He found more than 12,000 related papers when he conducted the same literature review a couple of years ago.

Incidentally, during the webinar’s audience participation, conversation turned to cattle pain management. “Face it, veterinarians are hamstrung by bureaucratic regulations,” Rollin said. “There are still no analgesics approved for use in cattle, and that’s really a scandal. I have no problem with making a long period of clearance, but not using any is really a betrayal of the veterinarian’s oath.”

Now, consider the role of animals in agriculture.

“If you look at the history of animal agriculture, it began 10,000 to 11,000 years ago. The key to success in animal agriculture was good animal husbandry. As traditional agriculturists, you took animals and put them in the best possible environment you could, and you augmented their ability to survive and thrive by providing food in times of famine and water in times of drought, medical care, help at birthing. There was an ancient contract between humans and animals,” Rollin explains. “Husbandry was about putting square pegs in square holes, putting round pegs in round holes and creating as little friction as possible. But in industrial agriculture, which has supplanted husbandry, it’s a very different state of affairs. Industrial agriculture tries to squeeze square pegs into round holes by use of technological sanders to force animals into areas where they don’t naturally fit.”

These sanders include everything from vaccines and antibiotics to air handling systems.

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“That’s very different than the ancient contract where animals benefited by virtue of their relationship with us and we benefited by virtue of our relationship with them. It’s very much exploitive now.” Rollin explains. “However, cattle people still practice animal husbandry. Ranchers are the last remaining large group of people who still believe in and practice husbandry.”

According to Rollin, society wants no less than restoration of this animal husbandry contract for all of the animal food supply.

“Proper animal husbandry is no longer a presupposition of animal agriculture and things no longer happen naturally. So, the public wants to see it mandated and legislated, just as in our system of government rights like freedom of speech,” Rollin explains. “Don’t think for a minute that the activists who want veganism and who want society to abandon meat threaten you.”

As property, animals can’t have rights, legally. However, as in the case of laws pertaining to lab animals, Rollin explains, “We can limit property use to the equivalent of having rights. Our federal law says, yes, you own the research animals, however, if you’re going to hurt them, you have to control the pain.”

Filling the ethic void

In 2004, Rollin says there were no fewer than 2,100 animal welfare laws proposed at local, state and federal levels. He explains this legislative largesse has to do with the fact that until recent times, animal welfare laws focused exclusively on animal cruelty.

“Cruelty means the deliberate, sadistic, purposeless, unreasonable infliction of pain and suffering on an animal, which actually constitutes less than one percent of animal suffering,” Rollin explains. “If you want to deal with animal suffering that emerges from non-deviant pursuits like science or agriculture, you need a new ethic for the underlying basis of laws. So, society was faced with the need for new moral categories and laws reflecting those categories in order to deal with animal use in agriculture and science to limit animal suffering, with which society is increasingly concerned.”

Another reason, Rollin says, is the simple fact that half the population produced food for themselves and the other half of the population 120 years ago. Today, less than one percent of the population is actively involved in animal agriculture production.

“At the same time, recall that western society has gone through almost 50 years of expanding the moral categories for humans to people who were morally invisible and disenfranchised—women, minorities, the handicapped, third-world citizens,” Rollin explains. “Rapidly growing societal concern for animal treatment is yet another example of the many social-ethical revolutions we have experienced in the last 60 years.

“To wit, civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, equal opportunity, sexual harassment, consumer advocacy, gay rights, children’s rights, the student movement, the public rejection of biotechnology, and my personal favorite [tongue in cheek], political correctness.

“So, a plausible and obvious move for society is to continue in this tendency and expand the moral categories developed for dealing with people problems, appropriately modified, to animals. That is exactly what has occurred. Society has taken elements of the moral categories we use for assessment of the treatment of people and is in the process of modifying them to make them appropriate for dealing with new issues in the treatment of animals, especially in science and confinement [animal] agriculture.”

Dressing the skeleton

More specifically, Rollin explains that our society strikes a balance between the good of the group and the good of the individual.

“Although most of our social decisions are made for the benefit of the general welfare, fences are built around human individuals to protect their fundamental interests from being sacrificed, even for the good of the majority. Thus, we protect individuals from being silenced, even if the majority disagrees with what they say. We protect individuals from having their property seized without compensation, even if such seizure benefits the general welfare. We protect individuals from being tortured, even if they have planted a bomb in an elementary school and refuse to divulge its location,” Rollin explains. “We protect these interests of individual humans, that we consider essential to being human, from being submerged even by the common good. These moral and legal fences that protect individuals are called rights and are based on plausible assumptions regarded as being essential to being human.”

It is from here that Rollin says, “Society is looking to generate the moral notions necessary to talk about the treatment of animals in today’s world where cruelty is not a major problem, but laudable human welfare goals such as efficiency, productivity, ample food, medical progress and safety are responsible for the mass majority of animal suffering.

“People in society are seeking to build fences around animals to protect the animals and their interests from being totally submerged for the sake of the general welfare of humans, and they’re trying to accomplish this through the law.”

The road ahead

“The important thing to understand about this animal ethic is to understand that it is conservative and not radical, harking back to husbandry animal use that necessitated and entailed respect for the animal’s natures” Rollin says. “It is based on the insight that what we do to animals matters to them just as what we do to humans matters to them. Consequently, we should respect that mattering in our treatment of animals, just as we do in our treatment and use of humans.”

Like them or not, Rollin explains these evolving moral categories for both humans and animals represent changes in the social consensus ethic.

“If you fail to accord with them, no matter how much you may despise them, it can cost you customers, and more importantly, it can cost you freedom,” he explains.

For cattle producers and those serving them, wondering about where the road leads, regarding all of those prickly issues like animal welfare and sustainability, matters less than deciding how to make the trip.

Rollin shares an analogy he learned from the ancient philosophers called the Stoics, relative to social ethics and your agreement with them.

“Living in a society, they said, is very much like being tied to an ox cart,” Rollin explains. “You can plant your heels and resist the ox cart’s journey, and you will be dragged there anyway, battered, bruised and bleeding by the time you get there. Or, you can walk when the cart walks and stop when the cart stops and not be battered and bruised.

“This is the point: When there are societal ethical changes, you can resist them, in which case you’ll be dragged kicking and screaming, or you can work with them and try to make them an advantage. As Plato says, ‘Make a virtue out of necessity.’ ”

Rollin believes ranchers have an advantage in exploiting the necessity of animal welfare, given the ongoing animal husbandry contract described earlier.

“Structurally, western ranching is exactly what the public wants out of animal agriculture—animals living in natural conditions,” Rollin emphasizes. “But, this major marketing point for the beef industry is marred and eclipsed by management practices that make you look bad.”

He’s talking about hot iron branding and castration without the use of anesthesia.

“Take the fact that these practices are no longer acceptable to the societal ethic, announce their abandonment, find a replacement, and that gives you a very powerful marketing advantage that pork and chicken cannot meet because of the nature of the systems they use,” Rollin says.

Rollin’s Animal Care Wednesday webinar is located at

Paarlberg’s Heuermann Lecture is at


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