Science - September 29, 2011

Philosopher: less talk, more action

Society shouldn't impose ethical animal welfare principles on livestock farmers, argues philosopher Vincent Pompe. It is better to collaborate with farmers to achieve practical improvements.

'In philosophical terms I subscribe to American pragmatism', says Pompe. 'Something is only true if it has an effect in practice. Many ethics philosophers think you first need to consider what is good and only then take action. I turn that around: you first need to do something and then see whether you have improved the situation in practice. If ethics is to play a part in livestock farming practice, it needs to be a constant process of improvements by people in the sector rather than an ultimate goal set by outsiders. Only then will you create ethical practice in livestock farming.'

Pompe analyzed a number of animal welfare innovations in livestock farming. For instance, he assessed Wageningen UR's 'Valuing hens' project in which animal-friendly housing systems were developed for chickens. 'That was a project driven by knowledge in which the farmers were only brought in at a later stage as advisors', says Pompe. 'As a result 'Valuing hens' became a pretentious blueprint for sustainable livestock farming rather than something that encouraged farmers to improve their own systems.'

Pompe argues that meat processing company Van Drie Group and the Society for the Protection of Animals, on the other hand, did manage this. 'The good thing about this project was that the Society for the Protection of Animals had to be more pragmatic about its ethical ideals while Van Drie's calf farmers had to apply ethical values at work. This led to a workplace for ethical business practices, or in other words scope to explore potential improvements together without saying anyone was 'good' or 'bad''. Pompe says this approach gives livestock farmers the space to demonstrate ethical business practices.

Pompe, an Animal Management lecturer at Van Hall Larenstein in Leeuwarden, got some of his insights through teaching. 'Since 1992 I have spent much of my time lecturing students on ethical principles, but the teaching material was too far removed from farming practice. That is why I have stopped doing normative ethics. Now I present ethical conflicts and ask what perspectives there are for improving the situation for stakeholders. I no longer look at what students need to know, I am more interested in what they can do with the knowledge. Even in teaching, ethics must tie in with experiences in practice.'

Vincent Pompe will receive his doctorate on 6 October. His supervisor is Michiel Korthals, professor of Applied Philosophy.

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