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Hath Not a Cow Eyes? Philosophy Students Tackle Animal Ethics in Public Presentation

November 10, 2012

Culminating a trimester’s worth of intensive study, eleven Carleton College philosophy students led a public presentation last Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Northfield’s Just Food Coop highlighting their findings on the humane treatment of farm animals. The students have been taking a course entitled “Animal Ethics: The Moral Status of Animals,” taught by visiting professor Sarah Jansen, which examines different ethical theories when pondering whether humans have a moral obligation toward non-human animals.

Their findings were presented as a set of recommendations to the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a nationwide group active on the Carleton campus, which seeks to shift a total of $1 billion in spending on food by American colleges and universities to what they describe as “real” food by 2020. The goal of the student presenters was to evaluate the RFC’s current guidelines on humane treatment of animals and to propose their own recommendations.

Leading Wednesday’s presentation, senior Lindsay Guthrie (Woodside, Calif.), who is also active in the RFC at Carleton, described the widespread exploitation that drives groups like hers. Like many Americans, Guthrie said, her image of agriculture was always that of folksy and idyllic family farms, but after learning more about the issue she came to understand that reality, particularly on factory farms, is a bit different.

“There is prevalent animal abuse that in any other context wouldn’t be allowed in our country,” Guthrie said.

The RFC, based in New England but with a presence on campuses nationwide, is trying to spark a food revolution at the college level by facilitating the switch to “real” food. The group provides four different categories that define what makes food “real”—local/community based, fair, ecologically sound and humane—and provides a calculator on its website allowing students to evaluate the food products served at their own colleges. The ideal food, according to RFC, will have the desired environmental impact but will also be realistic and feasible.

“This is where things start to get a little hairy,” Guthrie said. Finding sources of real food that are also economically feasible can be a daunting task.

Focusing on the “humane” side of RFC’s guidelines, three student groups delivered presentations on different aspects of agriculture: transport and slaughter, feed and animal spacing, and physical alterations to the animals. While the groups’ findings differed, the overall goal was the same: to “avoid massive suffering,” in the words of senior Elissa Walter (Frankfort, Mich.). After studying a range of ethical schools of thought, the students concluded that while various philosophers view animals differently, none of the ones they studied offered a case for needlessly lowering animals’ quality of life as often happens in agriculture.

“We don’t think there’s a conceptually strong way to distinguish between humans and animals,” explained junior David Williams (Chicago). Because of this, he said, farmers ought to provide the most comfortable and least intrusive environment possible for their livestock.

At the same time, noted senior David McNeil (Edina, Minn.), “We need to be sure that we’re being realistic about this.” The advantage to the RFC’s approach, he argued, is that the group promotes real change on campuses while making sure not to “bite off more than we can chew.”

Jansen, newly arrived at Carleton this year after completing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that her course was designed to show that “philosophy can be practical” by incorporating aspects of environmental science and practical agriculture into a study of animal ethics.

“I wanted a community engagement component, but I didn’t know the community that well,” Jansen said, adding that the public discussion represented a perfect opportunity to engage Northfield residents while allowing students to apply what they had learned.

While most of those present at the lecture were members of the course, two local citizens who did show up were Diane and Marlene Halvorson, activists and filmmakers who have worked for the Animal Welfare Institute on issues related to farm animals. Both praised the “thorough and methodical” nature of the students’ research, noting the difficulty of tackling such a broad and complex topic in the space of only ten weeks.

“We tend to look at animals as a means to our ends in the United States,” Marlene Halvorson said. “I think your focus is animal-centered, and that’s what animal welfare must be.”

Besides studying the writings of philosophers, McNeil explained, the course also included trips to local farms and discussions with farmers about their methods. A philosophy major, McNeil said that taking Jansen’s class gave him “a much better understanding of ethics,” particularly its practical aspects.

“Philosophers can miss what’s possible and feasible,” McNeil said. When asked what he would take away from the course, McNeil responded that “animal ethics is more than a philosophy, and it’s more than the specifics of farming.”

Student activists affiliated with the Real Food Challenge have worked with dining directors and campus administrators to secure $48.5 million in pledges to purchase more “real” food. Though Carleton has not yet signed on to the group’s new “Real Food Campus Commitment,” Bon Appetit, the food management company that serves both Carleton and nearby St. Olaf College, has attempted to take the initiative in this regard. Carleton’s recent advances in sustainability led to the college being showcased last spring on the National Public Radio program “Humankind,” with the RFC in particular singled out for this work. (The program featured an interview with Carleton RFC leaders including Guthrie, senior Taylor Owen (New York) and senior Winnie Zwick (Northfield).)

“Animal Ethics: The Moral Status of Animals” was offered by the Carleton College Philosophy Department this term. In addition to Guthrie, Walter, Williams and McNeil, other student presenters featured last Wednesday included first-year student Marianna Bible (Rochester, Minn.), senior Ariane LeClerq (Kathmandu, Nepal), junior Naeh Klages-Mundt (Winona, Minn.), senior Alex Lai (South San Francisco), junior Matt Zekowski (Mendota Heights, Minn.), senior Edee Lee (Mayer, Minn.) and senior Cole Stephan (Edina, Minn.).

Written by Jacob Cohn '13