At which point are ethical boundaries transgressed?

Whose freedom is increased?

Ethics is based on the assumption: that which increases the freedom of as many living creatures as possible is good, and all actions which curtail the freedom of living creatures should, in principle be judged on their ethical merits. This is the departure point of this article. That is not to say that all things that curtail freedom are wrong, no, rather it raises the question: "is this correct"?
There are so many situations thinkable where curtailing freedom is a good thing; think of prison sentences for criminals or medical situations where temporary limitation of a person's mobility is necessary for the healing process (plaster of Paris, bandages, diet etc.).
There are no situations imaginable where increase of freedom of as many individuals as possible is a bad thing. When it is unclear as to whether a particular action would lead to increase of freedom for those concerned, or whether that freedom would actually be curtailed, compromises are often made. In the relationship between man and animal, it's about how a farmer treats his livestock.

The freedom to lead a natural life

The farmer needs to set boundaries for his animals. In other words: the freedom of the animals needs to be curtailed, otherwise the farmer's life would not be worth living, nor would that of his neighbours and the safety of the animals themselves would be at risk. This in itself is not a problem, but it would be in the event freedom of movement and living a natural life would be limited too much. The big, bad example of animal-unfriendly restrictions on freedom is intensive livestock farming. In the context of this situation, the following question will be examined here. Profit-making from keeping animals: at which point are the ethical boundaries transgressed?
Firstly, let us stop and think for a minute of the importance of the concept "freedom" when setting ethical boundaries and let us make that more transparent. Ethics, or the science of morals is the philosophy of proper actions. Actions towards fellow humans, animals or nature in general. Descriptive ethics are concerned with the study of morals without taking a moral viewpoint itself. They are also concerned with more general questions such as "did the purpose 'we have to feed people' ever justify a means such as factory farming"? In prescriptive ethics, ethicists themselves are able to voice and defend their viewpoints.

Ethics are at their most pregnant when the dignity of the human person is concerned

It is quite possible to carry this through to the situation of animals. The animal itself will not readily feel that its dignity has been violated and inform us of this in a comprehensible manner. It's not about the dignity of the animal, although many Dutch animal protectors have tried to prove so during the course of the past 30 years, by introducing the insipid concept of "animals' intrinsic value". No, what it's really about is loss of dignity, and even more so - generally speaking - about loss of quality of life. This loss is a symptom of the underlying lack of respect for animal interests. In order to command this respect it is important to know whereupon animal rights and animal welfare are based.
The following is a list of 5 basic freedoms which should be afforded to animals in captivity. These 5 points are, however, never a discussion point amongst farmers, animal protectors, animal rights crusaders or welfare researchers.
  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst direct access to fresh water and food in order to remain healthy.
  2. Freedom from discomfort by affording comfortable housing and sufficient rest.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and illness through prevention or timely diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to behave normally by providing sufficient space, facilities and company of its own sort.
  5. Freedom from fear and stress by providing conditions where suffering is avoided.
Of these five points, most animals are afforded the minimum requirements in four cases. Point 4, however, is never applied nor in some cases point 5. The majority of animals in captivity are not sufficiently facilitated to behave normally (read: naturally). Point 4 can best be effected by affording animals free access to a clean, sufficiently sized outdoor area (on a farm: a meadow) and with a minimum and maximum number of its own sort. As far back as 2001, a "Dutch think tank" led by Herman Wijffels presented the report "Future of livestock farming". The standards incorporated in this report are: "free-range" possibilities for poultry and facilitation of the need of pigs to root in the earth and cows in the grasslands". Unfortunately, realisation of these plans is glossed over by stakeholders in the agricultural sector. This requirement, in particular, would increase the cost price of livestock farming in The Netherlands and sufficient outdoor space cannot be provided due to the oversized number of livestock kept. Even though this is a minimum requirement, all stakeholders in the agricultural business tamper with it, which is deplorable.

From quality to quantity and back again

In the past, from the time that humans started keeping animals up to just after the Second World War (when plans such as Mansholt were brought into practice) animals in livestock farming were able to enjoy all 5 freedoms. To be clear: that was often more a case of luck than wisdom. Things weren't always better in those days, think for example of the cows which were tied up all winter in old fashioned stalls. An animal that formerly had had access to grassland was easier to care for than an animal which was kept indoors all its life. Not to mention large groups of animals. Modern livestock farming is totally geared to housing and feeding mega numbers of animals. By keeping the animal indoors at night, at the least, also makes it easier to collect manure, just as in earlier days in the sheep pens. The disadvantage here, is that the outdoor area is neglected from a scenic landscape point of view. Unsightly buildings and barren plains are the result. The countryside is, as it were, monopolised by 0,5% of the population which uses almost 60% of the land to realise profits on foreign markets. In the years following the Second World War, Dutch livestock has increased to numbers which are no longer intended to feed the Dutch population sufficiently, which was the aim of the Mansholt project, but who's only purpose is to conquest foreign markets. To make this conquest possible, the cost price of animal produce needs to be lower than that of the competing colleagues from abroad. In order to bring down the cost price, what happens in practice is, that animal welfare is violated or the animal suffers injustice on the point already mentioned above: the freedom to behave normally in relatively natural conditions.
pigs and piglets in a meadow
A Dutch farmer wanting to make a profit in the future will need to look for it in quality, as some ecological farmers try to do, for example, or in quantity as the majority of farms do. When the agricultural sector shifted the purpose of their production from that of providing sufficient food for the native population to that of export for profit, Dutch livestock farming transgressed ethical boundaries. Pig and poultry farmers in the Dutch provinces Gelderland, Limburg or Brabant who are geographically nearer the Ruhr valley than to the greater Amsterdam area, are correct in saying that their export to that part of Germany does not transgress an ethical boundary. But when the sector then wonders why you shouldn't be able to feed the rest of the world from our country, assuming that the rest of the world has the freedom to compete on the same market under the motto "free global trading", a number of non-freedoms are swept under the carpet.
In free global trading ethical boundaries are sometimes transgressed (e.g. by France, The Netherlands and the United States). Some countries are grossly over productive, such as The Netherlands, where of each 3 pigs or chickens bred, 2 are sold on foreign markets. Not only is controlling the cost price of their gigantic mass production a disadvantage to animal welfare in these countries, but they also need to import livestock fodder from third world countries. On a global scale, this leads to an increase of the greenhouse effect (think of the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore and "Meat the Truth" by the Dutch Party for the Animals. Production of our livestock fodder in Third World countries leads to loss of rain forests and arable land which cannot be used for food for the local populations because the economic powers dictated by us are the deciding factor. The surface area used for agriculture in The Netherlands (almost 60%) is proportionally high. This percentage is 30% worldwide.
Most people know that lack of food is not the major cause of hunger in the world. The main problems lie in getting food to the place where it's needed. This is why I want to emphasise further that by their disproportional use of our own land, the Dutch agricultural sector prevents others form using it.
Many Dutch people would like to see this land used for Ecological Connection (EC) tourism and recreation. In that context there would be much more freedom of space and not only for recreation, but also to counteract the effects of climate changes in a win-win situation.
A limit should therefore be set for factory farming's need to expand. This would benefit man, animal and environment. As soon as the agricultural sector - duly contained - can prove on the consumer market that profits can be made in a responsible and justifiable fashion, with a scaled down livestock herd, ethical approval could become possible. To verify this, a check will need to be done as to whether sustainability has been attained, which affords more freedom than there is at present to all living creatures in our country and beyond (think of The Third World).

logoThis page describes one aspect of the influence that man has on the quality of life of an animal. We wish to promote the (in other countries as well) growing of awareness, that freedom is also important for an animal. An animal is not a thing, but a being that has the right to quality of a natural way of life. If you want to do something to help animals, click here for our suggestions.

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