What is agricultural ethics and why does it matter?

Paul B. Thompson, Michigan State University, USA

Excerpt from “What is agricultural ethics and why does it matter?” in Key issues in agricultural ethics, edited by Professor Emeritus Robert L. Zimdahl http://dx.doi.org/10.19103/AS.2023.0125.01

Chapter taken from: Key issues in agricultural ethics, edited by Professor Emeritus Robert L. Zimdahl http://dx.doi.org/10.19103/AS.2023.0125


The title of this chapter illustrates the curious grammar of the word ethics. Native speakers of English commonly speak of ethics as something that people have or lack. In this sense, ethics are rules of behavior or patterns of conduct. Readers should notice the shift from the plural ‘are’ in the previous sentence to the verb ‘is’ in the title of the chapter. The meaning of the word ‘ethics’ changes from naming a collection of related practices, activities or principles to indicating a singular practice or activity. While this might seem like a trivial observation, it is indicative of a deeper confusion that has dogged the reception of Robert Zimdahl’s important work on agricultural ethics. This explains why there is a need for a chapter called ‘What is agricultural ethics?’

This chapter will work through some meanings of the word ‘ethics’ as it might be applied in the context of agriculture and food systems. Readers will arrive at my answer to the question ‘What is agricultural ethics?’ at the endpoint of this journey, but here is a start: Agricultural ethics is a specific discipline for inquiry into the myriad normative issues that interpenetrate every aspect of agricultural production and food systems. As understood in the specific sense developed here, agricultural ethics matters because some unique features in the institutionalization of agricultural science and education have created gaps in the thought processes that support policy and the innovation process for agricultural technologies. The chapter concludes with some remarks on teaching agricultural ethics.

2 Key concepts: ethics and common morality

The twentieth-century philosopher R. M. Hare (1919–2002) recognized a distinction between what he called common morality and philosophical ethics. Common morality, Hare said, is what your grandmother knew to be ethically correct. One does not need a philosopher to explain this. Everyone, Hare wrote, internalizes a set of rules or norms for regulating their own behavior and correlative expectations for the conduct of others. These norms are communicated and socially reinforced through words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and through legal and religious institutions that codify and promote shared practice revolving around concepts of justice, virtue, honesty and loyalty. It is surprisingly difficult to account for the sources of these norms, but we should not doubt their existence or their binding authority over many domains of personal and social conduct. Similarly, the generally small cultural variations in a community’s normative expectations should not obscure the core of shared norms in virtually every known human society. That is common morality (Hare, 1981).

Hare was hardly alone among philosophers and social theorists in holding such a view, but his understanding of the relationship between the cultural form of common morality and the activity of moral philosophers is helpful in the present context. As noted, most elements of common morality are stable across different cultural groups. These include norms of truth-telling and prohibitions against stealing, robbery and physical violence against others, except in well-specified contexts. However, there are both differences across cultures and change over time within any given society. As an example, slavery was seen as morally justified for a considerable period in Western history. By the time chattel slavery was the dominant source of labor in the agriculture of the American South, it was viewed as a dubious and regrettable but necessary practice. The perspective shifted finally to the judgment that slavery is morally unacceptable. This transition marks a change in the common morality that was of particular importance for agriculture. Hare argued that philosophical ethics plays a special role in these transformations. It is an activity that assembles and curates intellectual resources for questioning common morality on specific points. A philosopher or social critic deploys these resources to offer rationally based assessments of how or whether changes in common morality are warranted.

Many contemporary philosophers would accept the notion that there is little point in questioning those aspects of common morality that seem to raise no disagreement, but they would also agree that philosophical ethics can be helpful both in challenging problematic aspects of common morality and in resolving that challenge in a manner that is ethically progressive. Hare used complex reasoning to support his judgment that there is one best way to pursue questions at the philosophical level (a form of utilitarianism). There is continuing debate among philosophers on this matter. Some agree that a well-specified ethical theory should rule over analysis at the philosophical level, whether or not they agree with the specifics of Hare’s approach. Others, including myself, think methods in philosophical ethics cannot be specified much beyond a general commitment to the exchange of reasons and a good faith effort to understand and then accept, modify or rebut the views of those with whom you, at first blush, disagree. (A more detailed discussion of methods follows later in the chapter.) In either view, progressive approximation of the morally correct response is possible, and fallibility is a pervasive feature of the human condition.

Other philosophical views create barriers to the critique and evaluation of common morality in agricultural universities and research institutes. The influential economist Glenn L. Johnson (1918–2003) thought many agricultural scientists had adopted a flawed positivist philosophy of science. In this view, normative principles have no place in science, so agricultural scientists simply refuse to discuss ethical norms bearing on their science or the practice of agriculture (Johnson, 1976). The view is flawed because the statement ‘normative principles have no place in science’ is a normative principle. Scientists cannot follow it without doing what the principle itself says that they should not do (Thompson, 2004). Alternatively, the training of applied scientists (and I would add, especially social scientists) encourages them to adopt a stance of critical disengagement from disagreements about the ethics of farming practice. There may be good reasons for adopting this stance, but the model proposed by Hare shows that an ability to withhold the expression of one’s moral commitments in certain instances does not imply that moral inquiry is impossible. Like any inquiry, moral inquiry can be frustrating and end in failure, but one would hope the practice of science would equip practicing scientists to deal with the possibility of this kind of disappointment.

By this point, readers may have guessed where this is all leading. On the one hand, people who work in agriculture and its supporting industries are subject to the expectations of common morality. They can be said to fail ethically when they do not meet these expectations. On the other hand, agricultural ethics is a form of philosophical ethics. It is the deployment of the analytic, argumentative and discursive tools of philosophical ethics to questions arising in agricultural practices and in the science and policy domains that support the production, processing and distribution of food and fiber. As such, it differs from the ways in which common morality functions to regulate the conduct of farmers, researchers, public officials and others who fill various roles in the food system. Those of us who aim to practice the form of inquiry that constitutes agricultural ethics do not mean to suggest that our work is, in any respect, a replacement for common morality. Much of the time, talk of ethics in agriculture is going to advert back to common morality. No one needs a philosopher to come in and endorse the proscription of lying or theft. However, before considering why agricultural ethics matters, it will prove helpful to provide some examples of how common morality functions in agricultural situations.

Want to keep reading? Read the full chapter here.

This chapter features in Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing’s new book, Key issues in agricultural ethics.


The book explores key ethical debates surrounding agriculture and agri-food supply chains, including issues such as animal welfare, use of labour, the effects of new technologies and the overall impact of agriculture on the environment.

Use code ETHICS20 at checkout via www.bdspublishing.com to receive 20% off your purchase of the book.

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