Industry forum looks for common ground

Industry forum looks for common ground

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Discipline chair of philosophy at The University of WA, Nin Kirkham.

Discipline chair of philosophy at The University of WA, Nin Kirkham.

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ETHICS was at the heart of this year's Industry Forum, held at The University of Western Australia (UWA) recently.

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ETHICS was at the heart of this year's Industry Forum, held at The University of Western Australia (UWA) recently.

Titled Finding Common Ground: Bringing food, fibre and ethics to the same table, the six presentations centred on understanding some of the ethical issues that arise in agriculture and potential strategies to manage and perhaps overcome them.

Building relationships and trust with others who hold opposing views was discussed by AgCommunications managing director and South Australian farmer Deanne Lush.

Professor Alan Tillbrook from the University of Queensland's Centre for Animal Science and Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food spoke about how having a common goal - to improve the welfare of animals - could open the conversation with people from all areas of agriculture and food production, with views of animal welfare spanning both ends of the spectrum.

Austral Fisheries chief executive officer David Carter provided a case study on how the company established a relationship with veteran marine conservation society Sea Shepherd, based on the shared value of animal welfare.

From The Sheep Collective, director Holly Ludeman and managing director Nicole Jenkins spoke how transparency could increase trust, awareness and education in the live export trade.

Keynote speaker Nin Kirkham, who is the discipline chair of philosophy at UWA, provided an in-depth understanding of one of the main arguments behind the veganism movement.

Dr Kirkham then expressed how the argument has no true relevance regarding the ethical treatment of animals.

She said that one of the main arguments put forward by animal activists is that, "If humans of limited capacities - babies, the severely disabled or senile - have moral status, then animals with the same or more capacities should have moral status," Dr Kirkham said.

"It's important to note the rhetorical role that this argument is playing here - it is intended to convince someone on the appeal to consistency that the sort of moral status that is had by the marginal human cases must all be had by some animals."

In order to be consistent, the argument claims one should think that the same moral rights had by human babies, the senile and severely disabled should be had by some animals.

"The question we need to ask with respect to this formulation of the argument is what reason would there be for accepting that particular relationship as efficiency for anyone who didn't believe the conclusion, as it would only convince people who already believed the conclusion," Dr Kirkham said.

"And the way that it is framed of putting forward the argument makes it look like that in order to reject the premise, you'd need to have a prejudice against animals, you'd have to be a speciesist.

"That term speciesism has a great deal of rhetorical force, especially in arguments given by vegans about how we should treat animals."

Dr Kirkham said this common argument of animal activists confused the two concerns of welfare for animals and humans with limited capacities and made them one.

She said the argument doesn't hold because species were accorded rights based on the sort of being that they are, not their capacities.

"Animals are owed a certain kind of treatment in respect to the kinds of beings that they are - it is relevant to the nature of that animal as much as the way humans are treated is relevant to that kind of being," she said.

This argument likens species membership to the membership of a race or sex, which Dr Kirkham said was not only problematic but inaccurate.

"The analogy between racism and sexism does not hold when it comes to different species," she said.

"You can't oppose racism or sexism on the fact that their capacities are equal - there are differences and it is not good enough to do that.

"To oppose racism and sexism, you have to point out that women and allegedly human races are humans and they should be accorded rights just as humans are accorded rights.

"So they should be treated like the kind of thing they are - a human being."

But she said the case of speciesism was different because the argument used capacities to do the work to give things moral standing, which might include being deserving of a particular kind of treatment.

"If you think that being deserving of a particular kind of treatment depends on your capacities, not your membership of a particular kind of being, then you end up with very strange consequences," Dr Kirkham said.

An example she gave was if a child fell into a gorilla enclosure, because these two being have similar capacities with respect to rationality, it would be acceptable to kill the gorilla and "that seems wrong".

It's widely known that people are inundated with information about the ethical treatment of animals, much of which is misinformation.

Ensuring that the information available to people is correct and used in the right way to make decisions has been, and still is, a major challenge for agriculture.

Dr Kirkham said that with an overload of information, people might be tempted to react in one of two extreme ways.

"The first is a kind of overwhelmed despondency - like 'it's too much, I don't care, I'll just eat whatever I want and not worry about it'," she said.

"The second is to seize on one of the issues and turn it into a personal crusade and that's what I think we are seeing with the rise of the vegan movement."

In trying to understand the animal activist movement, Dr Kirkham said it was important to try to be charitable and empathise with them to understand their point of view, which could then help to inform them and others.

"Understand that these people are really worried about what they are seeing and the information they have been given about animal welfare," she said.

Dr Kirkham likened the animal activist movement to the existential crisis of her generation - the threat of nuclear warfare - and many people developed strong views on nuclear power based on their experiences.

"The current generation has grown up under a different existential threat - from a young age children in our society have been taught to be really worried about climate change and environmental devastation," Dr Kirkham said.

"Animal Activists may seem like dangerous extremists and perhaps they are, but I think it's important to keep in mind their different perspective, which might seem like they persecute their agenda about these things."

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