Rebalancing rights

by John Quiggin on April 2, 2019

That’s the title of a collection of papers published by the Green Institute, including one I posted here a little while ago. Lots of people were involved but Tim Hollo was the prime mover on this one.

Over the fold, a statement of my view that property rights, notably the rights of corporationsl are socially constructed. That view isn’t universally shared, to put it mildly, so feel free to respond.

Property rights are a social construction, embodied in law and enforced by the coercive power of the state, represented by police, courts and prisons. This fact is so obvious that it ought to go without saying, but it is routinely denied by many on the right of politics and some on the left.
Nothing illustrates the spurious nature of claims about natural property rights more clearly than the set of rights central to modern business enterprise, centred on the concepts of bankruptcy and limited liability. These rights are not natural in any sense, although two centuries of experience has made them seem so to many. They were created following fierce political debate over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Over the course of the 20th century, the rights of corporations have been expanded and the status of the corporation as a ‘legal person’ has come to be taken for granted by many. Among the most notable expansions of corporate rights are the Investor State Dispute Settlement procedures routinely included in international agreements on trade and investment, and the expansion of ‘intellectual property’ rights such as patents and copyrights.

In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations are entitled to the same rights of free speech as those guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment to the Constitution. The result was to remove most limits on corporate funding of political campaigns, and further enhance the political power of corporations.

With expanded rights and power have come increases in profits. The wage share of national income has fallen. Most of the growth in US income over recent decades has gone to those in the top 1% of the income distribution, dominated by business owners, senior managers and the finance professionals who help them protect their wealth. As Piketty (2014) shows, the same tendencies are present in other countries, though not to the same degree.

The rise of corporate personhood and corporate power more generally, has been in marked tension with the increased regulation of pollution and environmental damage which began in earnest with the UK Clean Air Act of 1956, a response to the catastrophic Great Smog of 1952. Increasingly stringent laws have been implement to prohibit or control the release of pollutants into air and water, the destruction of wildlife habitats and loss of natural amenity.

The effectiveness of these laws has regularly been challenged by the protean nature of the corporation. Corporations can easily shift their operations from one jurisdiction to another with looser environmental restrictions. They can sub-contract smaller firms to undertake polluting or exploitative activities, and thereby avoid responsibility for those activities. If the costs of cleaning up the results of pollution become too great, they can declare bankruptcy, discharge their debts and re-emerge in a new form.

One way to mitigate the tension between regulatory policies would be to grant property rights, and the associated legal standing, to nature. Like corporations, nature is not a natural person and would need to be represented by advocates. These advocates could defend nature’s property rights under tort law, act as creditors in the event of a corporate liquidation, and act to ensure that governments enforced regulations properly.

{ 41 comments }

1

Christopher Herbert 04.02.19 at 11:35 am

‘…nature is not a natural person.’ I get your drift, but somehow this statement seems, well, unnatural. Is there is anything more ‘natural’ than Nature?

2

Rapier 04.02.19 at 11:44 am

Corporations are becoming soverign. Governments are surrendering their sovereignty to them, eagerly. Governments have no desire to grant ‘rights’ to nature and they won’t. Sovereignty over nature was always integral to what sovereignty is. That is the the exact sovereignty corporations want and are getting.

An alternate or parallel conception is that the market is soverign. The market provides the best solution to who has rights at all.

The great conservative task of denying government sovereign rights is in the service of giving corporations and the market sovereignty.

Meet the new boss.

3

reason 04.02.19 at 12:36 pm

…have been implementED to prohibit or control…

4

mpowell 04.02.19 at 1:23 pm

I think both your claim that corporate property rights are socially constructed and that this view is not universally accepted are both absolutely correct and very important facts about (US in particular) society.

In particular, the combination of limited liability, principle of shareholder value uber alles as a governing principle of corporate management and corporate personhood – this triumvirate is very much a mistake. I could accept any 2 of the 3, but not all of them together because what they imply together is that corporations should behave in a completely amoral way (corporate ethics as taught in business school is to be exactly unethical as you get away with), that they should be empowered by the courts to pursue these ends with all possible tools at their disposal (eg. political donations) and that liability for crossing legal boundaries is mainly a civil matter for the corporation and rarely reaches the humans behind the decisions. It should be fairly obvious to all that allowing entities to exist that possess all 3 of these properties is purely a creation of state policy and does not flow naturally, even from a principle of natural individual property rights (how do you restrict your liability towards 3rd parties by forming an agreement with just a 2nd party – it doesn’t make sense).

Limited liability I think we should stick with, but as a condition of it, it would be appropriate to either do away with shareholder value primacy through shared corporate governance or restrict corporate personhood by eliminating the option for political speech. Preferably, we would start with the latter and then begin with baby steps for the former – I think more experimentation is appropriate there.

5

TKA 04.02.19 at 4:44 pm

This recent essay by Marshall Sahlins considering the standing of “Metapersons” in the constitution of acephalous societies may be taken as suggesting that perhaps a contemporary decision to grant property rights to “parts of nature” has precedent:
https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.14318/hau7.2.014

6

ccc 04.02.19 at 5:06 pm

With the whole article available I can now wrap up something from the previous thread: This article only considers how damage to natural assets affect humans. It is thereby an instance of political theory that without argument excludes – in the sense of ignoring i.e. in the text not giving any non-instrumental weight or importance to – the interests of affected non-human sentient beings. The full paper and its references makes that even more clear.

That’s my last word on this complaint for now, some may be glad to hear.

Instead, time for praise. John Quiggin I really like your approach here of putting the case for the legal construct of “rights of nature” in the context the of legal protections that corporations already enjoy. It serves the dual purpose of
(1) working through critical arguments on the growing legal powers of corporations and property rights in general, things that are in popular debate too easily reified, and
(2) showing that legal rights of nature would not really be so different from some constructs we’ve already incorporated in legal systems.
That and the slogan of “rebalancing” could prove useful in debates where some opponents predictably will frame even the tiniest proposal for “legal rights of nature” as some scary, radically new legal experiment.

7

Hey Skipper 04.02.19 at 5:08 pm

In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations are entitled to the same rights of free speech as those guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Wrong.

The ruling stipulated what the 1A clearly states: Congress may pass no law …

The purpose and effect of this law is to prevent corporations, including small and nonprofit corporations, from presenting both facts and opinions to the public.

When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.

8

Ebenezer Scrooge 04.02.19 at 5:12 pm

Of course property rights are socially constructed! What isn’t? But …
Have you ever seen dogs interact? They have a strong sense of property: both real and chattel property. And they are happy to enforce their property rights much the same way we do: threats followed by violence. Dogs are indeed social animals, but they’re not symbolic beasts.
I’m using dogs to show that there is a strong psychological component to property, one which limits the power of social construction. (It also limits the power of social deconstruction–it is hard to avoid tangible metaphors for intangible property, at some cost to the coherence of the law.) And similarly, to the extent that property consists of legal rights, the law itself has some autonomy: again which places limits on the social construction of property.
Social construction is always true, and always too simple.

9

Ebenezer Scrooge 04.02.19 at 5:16 pm

And more on topic: if nature is a person, who is her lawyer? The extractive resources industry? Well, they can hire lawyers, and they’re concerned, and they can do a great job of concern trolling. No sensible person would say that this makes any sense. But judges, in their professional capacity, are not sensible. They follow rules.
If anybody is going to get lawyers for nature, they had better have a workable procedure for determining who the lawyers are, and what their client really wants.

10

Jim Harrison 04.02.19 at 6:05 pm

To a person of my background and vintage it’s amazing that anybody would think of property as a natural fact. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since conservatives have been doing just that for a very long time now, and economists still have to be reminded now and then that economics and physics are non-overlapping magisteria. On the other hand, if being the owner of something is as fictive (= made up) as being somebody’s spouse, it’s no less a part of our reality, which, as it were, takes place on the imaginary plane where everything, including our personhood, has a real part and an imaginary part, a + bi. I get a bit nervous when I read the expression social construction because it sometimes makes people think that the entities and qualities created by cultural postulation are merely conventional signs as if they don’t matter and a perfect and absolute blank sheet is readily available for a new map. Property rights are an invention, but an essential one. They can and obviously have changed over time, but a productive, viable civilization requires some version of property. For that matter, if you’re going to reform property rights, a political action I certainly endorse, you need to evaluate the specifically modern form of property rights to recognize what’s functional about it as well as what’s abusive. Hard to see how you do without something like the corporation, for example.

11

Matt 04.03.19 at 12:00 am

I might rather say that property rights are “conventional” rather than that they are “socially constructed”, but I’m not sure how much turns on this. I like ‘conventional’ more, because it helps show that, while they are not “natural”, they are also open to our control more than “socially constructed” suggests. (Lots of things are “socially constructed” but not easily subject to the direct control of people – think of gender roles, fashion, tastes in art, etc.)

I made the argument in the earlier thread, and am not eager to re-litigate it, but I still think that most of the focus on corporate (legal) personhood here is misguided and unnecessary – that it has the wrong target, and that the completely reasonable goals are better approached through other means, and that extending property rights to nature is at best a cludge to try to achieve these reasonable goals. All of that is compatible with the (clear) truth that legal rights for corporations are conventional, so noting that doesn’t move us very much towards the conclusion.

(I suppose that if some people mistakenly think that businesses have “natural” rights, and that one of those is a right to property of some sort – a double mistake – then this might help, but for anyone not making those mistakes, noting the conventional nature of property rights, and corporate rights more generally, doesn’t help the argument.)

12

Ebenezer Scrooge 04.03.19 at 10:29 am

mpowell@4:
I don’t think that the problem is the triumvirate of limited liability, shareholder value, and corporate personhood. (I view corporate personhood as a mere technical thing, allowing the corporation to go to court under its own name.) The problem is that of corporate political rights that extend beyond mere property and contract rights. If corporations were political eunuchs, we could give them the full triumvirate, and control them through law. But they also have political rights, and a disproportionate power to shape the law in the interest of shareholder value.
The 19th century distinguished between property, civil, and political rights, with property being the most fundamental of these rights, and the state bestowing political rights on those deemed best able to exercise them (white adult men). There is some wisdom to this trichotomy, if not to the way it was implemented.
I view the “corporate social responsibility” movement as an attempt to preserve political rights for corporations, but demand that they act like citizens. A noble goal, but I see no way to operationalize this through law. (Board representation requirements are ineffective.) The only things, IMO, that might work are countervailing power (unions?) or political castration of corporations. I vote for the rusty butter knife.

13

Trader Joe 04.03.19 at 11:43 am

It seems like the main problem with awarding ‘rights’ to Nature is deciding who gets to exercise the inherent agency and what checks and balances can be put around that exercise.

When corporations exercise their ‘personhood’ there is still the check of shareholders, customers, vendors, employees etc. against that organization. Some companies are obviously large enough that they need not care a lot, but there are few that don’t care at all what these constituencies think of their actions and then there are still laws that bind execution beyond that.

By contrast, Nature can’t exactly phone in and say they have a problem with whoever is exercising their agency. Its nice to imagine that a kind and fair minded environmentally focused liberal would always be the one exercising these rights – but we’ve seen countless examples of how this proves to not remain the case and the amount of damage that can be done in a short period of time when the “wrong” person is the one that gets to exercise and/or judge the exercise of these rights (see current EPA and CFPB).

14

M Caswell 04.03.19 at 12:00 pm

1) Does the social construction of rights imply that members of rightful relations must be participants in their construction?

2) Rights of nature would seem to imply that some persons are also property. Does this make sense?

3) Is all of nature to be a single person?

15

Creigh Gordon 04.03.19 at 6:46 pm

It always seemed obvious to me that corporations are property. True, they are a class of property that is by law granted certain rights also held by people, namely the right to own other property and to sue and be sued. But these rights have nothing to do with the Constitution. The only property right mentioned in the Constitution is due process.

16

C Smith 04.03.19 at 8:34 pm

Speaking of legal personhood for nature: Te Urawera – what was until 2014 the Urawera National Park in New Zealand has legal personhood under the Te Urawera Act, 2014. It is represented by a board…

17

cassander 04.04.19 at 1:56 am

Blocked commenter deleted. Nothing from you on any of my threads, please.

18

John Quiggin 04.04.19 at 5:51 am

@ccc Thanks for prodding on the issue of animal rights. The clearest interest of sentient animals is in avoiding pain, and at least in Australia, we have already adopted an approach similar to the one I am advocating for the rights of Nature in general.

The RSPCA is a private advocacy organization, which is endowed with a wide range of powers to act on behalf of animals to prevent cruelty.

https://www.rspca.org.au/animal-cruelty/our-powers

Inspectors are empowered to:

enter property;
seize animals;
seize evidence of animal cruelty offences;
issue animal welfare directions/notices;
issue on-the-spot fines; and
initiate prosecutions under animal welfare legislation.

That’s quite a bit stronger than the rights I’ve been advocating for Nature in general.

Of course, it’s limited to cruelty and excludes some inflictions of pain that are permitted (whipping of racehorses, for example), or even required (branding of cattle) by law.

I had my ineffectual say on whipping racehorses a few years ago https://johnquiggin.com/2015/10/25/flogging-a-live-horse/

19

J-D 04.04.19 at 7:20 am

ccc

With the whole article available I can now wrap up something from the previous thread: This article only considers how damage to natural assets affect humans.

As they have it on Wikipedia, ‘citation needed’, or, as they have it elsewhere on the Web, ‘pics or it didn’t happen’.

John Quiggin

Of course, it’s limited to cruelty and excludes some inflictions of pain that are permitted (whipping of racehorses, for example), or even required (branding of cattle) by law.

I had my ineffectual say on whipping racehorses a few years ago https://johnquiggin.com/2015/10/25/flogging-a-live-horse/

When I read that, I thought it seemed familiar, and indeed, when I checked, there I was in the comments. Apparently I contacted the RSPCA to ask why they didn’t try initiating prosecutions for the whipping of racehorses. I have no recollection of that but the record shows that, apparently, there’s no explicit statutory exception that excludes prosecutions under animal cruelty laws for the whipping of racehorses: apparently, the RSPCA is deterred by the expected practical difficulties of meeting the necessary evidentiary burden (or, at least, they say that’s what’s deterring them).

20

Z 04.04.19 at 8:15 am

One way to mitigate the tension between regulatory policies would be to grant property rights, and the associated legal standing, to nature.

As I said in comments to your recent post on the topic, the important question is to define the set of obligations a human community has towards those (including abstract or non-sentient entities) this human community considers it has a responsibility to care for (this situation encompasses many different but related cases, from dependent elderly to wards in one of the original sense of the terms, to communities, to animals, to rivers, to rather abstract things like cultural expression or the darkness of night skies – and don’t laugh at the last case, it is a serious battle that we are mostly losing, with serious consequences).

This defining task, inducing the hard concrete work of understanding how it translates in direct actions and at which cost, remains largely to be done for the natural ecosystem (but also remains at a very preliminary stage for children, even in the most advanced societies). Once it is done, the outcome can be trivially translated in terms of legal rights granted to the entities in question and arguable before courts, if that is deemed useful within the context of a particular legal system (indeed, progress has often been achieved in this way, so I don’t want to be dismissive of the second step). But we should recognize that the second step is just a second step, and not mistake the prey for its shadow.

To be concrete: there has recently been a string of catastrophic studies on coral mortality in the Great Reef following the heat waves of 2016 and 2017, the last of which in Nature reports a decline of almost 90% in larvae production. What is to be done about this, and at which cost (broadly construed), which should be born by whom? Once we have answered these questions to our collective satisfaction, we can easily decide that this translates in a “legal right” of the Great Reef to reproduce, if need be. But I don’t think we have, even at the level of basic principles, and that is our problem.

21

ccc 04.04.19 at 12:38 pm

J-D @19: “citation needed”

Just when I thought I was out …they pull me back in.

Some evidence for my exclusion claim in #6 above:

– The interests of affected non-human individuals are never discussed in the paper. While I can’t cite something non-existant, I can ask you to simply check this for yourself.

– For instance, the paper’s chapter 1 objections to lockean moral property orgin myths never consider harms to non-humans in the process of appropriation, choosing instead to only cover harms to other humans even though large scale appropriations of “uninhabited” land also involve harming, killing and displacing many non-human sentient animals.

– The author picks as examples of possible advantages with introducing a legal construct of “property rights for nature” only cases where corporations currently evade paying fines and cleanup costs for natural asset damages *that impact on humans*. In the Linc Energy case the negative impact is on human farmers in the region. As the referenced Guardian article states: “Linc was found guilty of five counts of causing serious environmental harm by polluting farmland near Chinchilla with hazardous contaminants”. The concerns of affected human farmers is also what other online newsreports on that case highlight.

22

ccc 04.04.19 at 12:47 pm

John Quiggin @18: “the clearest interest of sentient animals is in avoiding pain” … “Of course, it’s limited to cruelty and excludes some inflictions of pain”

Animals, human and non-human, have a clear interest in avoiding pain but it is implausible to for that reason not consider their other interests. The end of your comment seems to agree with that, but then it goes nowhere. I’m of course glad you’re against whipping horses, I had missed or forgotten that text of yours. I can’t going forward think you consider animal interests worthless then. But still, that is a very narrow case and only focused on pain. A non-speciesist ethical theory will take all animal interests, including their full range of positive welfare, as a an important practical concern in political theory more widely.

The current system of animal exploitation reproduces itself in part by pushing an implausibly thin, negative standard of animal interests. That the industries routinely fail to satisfy even that low standard is telling. Widen the scope to consider all interests and it becomes clear that all current systems of confining and killing animals for food inherently harm animals in many ways.

“The RSPCA is a private advocacy organization, which is endowed with a wide range of powers to act on behalf of animals to prevent cruelty.”

RSPCA has the functional role of humanewashing most of the industrial scale harming of animals going on today. If their purported goals and powers had real macro level bite then all australian animal industries would be permanently shut down. For overviews of harms inherent to the system see
https://www.dominionmovement.com/watch
https://www.aussiefarms.org.au/

This recent talk by activist “Earthling Ed” Winters gives a particular example of RSPCA being complicit with harmful practices, though that example concerns the UK organization.

23

John Quiggin 04.06.19 at 3:05 am

@ccc I’ll declare myself as having a part-ownership in a beef cattle farm. I simply don’t buy the claims presented by https://www.aussiefarms.org.au/ as a justification for not raising beef cattle.

The entire set of painful procedures referred to take about 10 minutes at the beginning an animal’s life, comparable to (for example) circumcising infant boys, and nothing like as painful as unnecessary cosmetic surgery, orthodontic work and similar. Some of this pain (branding, for example) could and should be avoided, as should circumcision, but the idea that cattle would be better off not living at all than going through it is absurd. The same is true regarding transport to sale – it’s no more crowded or uncomfortable than a ride on a Tokyo subway. And well-run abattoirs are pretty much pain free. The cattle don’t know what’s coming, of course.

Apart from those brief episodes at the beginning and end of life, beef cattle on a well run property have an idyllic life by comparison with that of either wild animals or most humans. They don’t have to worry about predators or (as far as can be helped) diseases, always have plenty to eat, and don’t have to do any work at all.

To restate, I honestly can’t see how Australian cattle have an interest in the abolition of the cattle industry, any more than Australian humans have an interest in reducing the human population to zero.

24

ccc 04.06.19 at 8:22 am

John Quiggin @23:

“I’ll declare myself as having a part-ownership in a beef cattle farm.”

Holy moly – this explains a lot!

I think you’re massively mistaken on the prevalence of pain, suffering and other harms in the animal industries. But as Upton Sinclair wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I’ll instead probe a little on the moral theoretic side.

“it’s no more crowded or uncomfortable than a ride on a Tokyo subway”

For human persons the subway riding experience is modulated by knowing the context, the ride duration, the low probability of harm, and so on. But as Peter Singer write in Practical Ethics 3rd edition p52:

“Sometimes animals may suffer more because of their more limited understanding. If, for instance, we are taking prisoners in wartime, we can explain to them that although they must submit to capture, search and confinement, they will not otherwise be harmed and will be set free at the conclusion of hostilities. If we capture wild animals, however, we cannot explain that we are not threatening their lives. Animals cannot distinguish attempts to overpower and confine from attempts to kill them; the one causes as much terror as the other.”

You write

“that cattle would be better off not living at all than going through it is absurd”
… “The cattle don’t know what’s coming, of course.”

Does this mean that you accept the total view in population ethics and the ethics of killing view that there is nothing morally wrong per se with killing an individual if they don’t know what is coming?

If yes to both, do you consistently apply those views also to humans with cognitive capacities similar to those in animals that you do seem to apply the views to? Again Peter Singer, Practical Ethics 3rd edition p52:

“Note, however, that this same argument that gives us a reason for preferring to use human infants – orphans perhaps – or severely intellectually disabled humans for experiments, rather than adults, because infants and severely intellectually disabled humans would also have no idea of what was going to happen to them. So far as this argument is concerned, nonhuman animals and infants and severely intellectually disabled humans are in the same category; and if we use this argument to justify experiments on nonhuman animals, we have to ask ourselves whether we are also prepared to allow experiments on human infants and severely intellectually disabled adults.”

Short test question: Do you think there is nothing directly morally wrong with creating a human child only to raise it for slaughter at age 2? For sake of argument assume away indirect considerations.

25

John Quiggin 04.06.19 at 10:52 pm

@ccc Just to be clear, I don’t make any money out of the farm, and my ownership of it was acquired indirectly. It just means that I have some actual experience. Based on that, I don’t buy the claim that travelling by truck is terrifying for cattle. We move them back and forth between different properties for all sorts of reasons, and they don’t show any sign of alarm.

More generally, I restate the point that, if the only criterion is capacity to feel pain vs pleasure (which Singer seems mostly to rely on), the cattle on the farm do very well, and the total utility of the world’s human and animal population is increased by their existence.

26

John Quiggin 04.06.19 at 11:12 pm

To focus back on areas of agreement, I agree that the suffering of sentient animals is morally relevant and that many animal-based industries, including battery raised chickens, live sheep exports and others cause suffering that cannot be morally justified.

I’ll leave the separate argument about the morality of killing per se for later. I don’t have a precisely articulated view on it, and anything I might say has already been said better by others.

27

J-D 04.06.19 at 11:25 pm

ccc

J-D @19: “citation needed”

Just when I thought I was out …they pull me back in.

If you announce that something is your ‘last word’, and then you decide that it’s not your last word after all, that’s something you did, not something that somebody else did to you.

Although I suppose that may be also one reasonable reading of the Godfather III quote.

… never discussed in the paper … the paper’s chapter 1 … The author … the referenced Guardian article …

It is not clear which paper you are referring to. Hence, citation still needed.

28

David Duffy 04.07.19 at 7:08 am

Perhaps more species could obtain income from intellectual property rights such as licensing brand names – Tiger balm, Koala brand throat lozenges etc. After all, the bilby will be making some profits this Easter.

29

ccc 04.07.19 at 10:56 am

J-D @27: “It is not clear which paper you are referring to.”

The paper by John Quiggin in the anthology linked to in the first sentence of the post we’re commenting under. There is only one Guardian reference in it.

30

ccc 04.07.19 at 12:41 pm

John Quiggin @25-26:

Thanks for the continued back and forth.

Operators of animal exploitation industry, including those with battery raised chickens and live sheep exports, routinely report some version of “*our* animals have it good”, no matter how bad the animals have it. I now hear you, another operator of animal exploitation, firmly report similarly. No one should give such mere reports much credence.

“if the only criterion is capacity to feel pain vs pleasure” … “total utility”

It seems again that you rely on the total view in population ethics. Now combined with simple experiential hedonism about value? Doesn’t those views plus utilitarianism entail Parfit’s repugnant conclusion?

“I’ll leave the separate argument about the morality of killing per se for later. I don’t have a precisely articulated view on it”

Ok, I hope you similarly postpone any planned killings.

“I agree that the suffering of sentient animals is morally relevant and that many animal-based industries, including battery raised chickens, live sheep exports and others cause suffering that cannot be morally justified.”

I’m very glad we overlap on that. Though given the number of individual victims in those industries, it is perplexing how absent that issue is from your writings here and elsewhere. For example your recent vision for 2050 excluded it. Yet if the net experiential hedonic utility in Australia year 2050 will be positive or (perhaps massively) negative seem mostly determined by outcomes for non-humans, simply because they are so many more than the humans.

31

Another Nick 04.07.19 at 12:47 pm

JQ: “the morality of killing”

https://www.mamamia.com.au/i-worked-in-an-abbatoir

“I couldn’t find a way to kill and care, and no-one else could show me either.”

To kill, is to not care. It is inhumane to have to kill repetitively. It very often warps the minds of the people who do, regardless of how well run the abattoir is.

There’s a Christmas crisis going on: no one wants to kill your dinner

In an ideal society, nobody has to do that job.

32

John Quiggin 04.07.19 at 10:58 pm

ccc @30 It’s not something I write a lot about, because I don’t have much new to say, but I do discuss the topic from time to time, for example, in this Aeon article,

https://aeon.co/essays/we-can-end-world-poverty-without-destroying-the-planet

where I write:

Ruminants such as cattle and sheep emit lots of methane (mostly in belches) and are not very efficient at turning grain into meat. This means that a global diet with First World levels of animal protein consumption would require a shift towards chicken, eggs, and pork. That in turn raises ethical questions, especially regarding the factory production of chicken. Evidence is limited here but, at least for eggs, the free-range alternative does not require a substantial increase in feed. Free-range eggs now account for 25 per cent of the Australian market and that share is rising. In the UK, that figure is even higher — around half of all eggs sold are free-range. A utopian vision for humans shouldn’t have to rest on a miserable life for animals.

That’s about all I have to say, so we must agree to disagree.

33

J-D 04.07.19 at 11:50 pm

ccc

The interests of affected non-human individuals are never discussed in the paper. While I can’t cite something non-existant, I can ask you to simply check this for yourself.

I did read the article myself. In the article I do not see anywhere a description of harm done to human animals which omits reference to harm done to non-human animals by the same actions.

The author picks as examples of possible advantages with introducing a legal construct of “property rights for nature” only cases where corporations currently evade paying fines and cleanup costs for natural asset damages *that impact on humans*. In the Linc Energy case the negative impact is on human farmers in the region. As the referenced Guardian article states: “Linc was found guilty of five counts of causing serious environmental harm by polluting farmland near Chinchilla with hazardous contaminants”.

It should be obvious that John Quiggin cannot be held responsible for what is written in an article in The Guardian just because he cites it as a source of information, but I read that article too and your account of it is inaccurate. I read the sentence you quoted and I thought ‘It says “hazardous”, but it isn’t specific about whether that means only “hazardous to human life” or whether it means “hazardous to human life and to non-human life”.’ Taken in isolation, the word could mean either and one can’t tell what’s intended. Then I read on and found this sentence: ‘Workers were told not to drink onsite tank water and advised to drink milk and eat yoghurt to protect their stomach from acid.’ I thought to myself, ‘Ah, maybe ccc is right about that article: it’s describing the danger to humans of contaminated water, but not any danger to non-human life from the contaminated water.’ But then I read on and found that the other sentence in the same paragraph was this: ‘Its operations ultimately left water polluted to the point that it was unfit for livestock.’ So the specific reference to a specific risk of harm to human life is directly paired with a specific reference to the same risk affecting non-human life.

34

J-D 04.08.19 at 12:29 am

Another Nick

Years ago I trained myself to kill cockroaches with my bare hands; recently I have retrained myself. I’ve applied this training also to the killing with bare hands of silverfish, mosquitoes, and pantry moths. It is true, I acknowledge, that I don’t care about these insects: the reason I had to train myself was not that I cared about the insects but that I didn’t like their smashed remains on my hands. Well, one can get used to that, knowing that hands can be washed. Does the repeated killing of insects warp my humanity? It doesn’t seem so to me, but other people are better placed to judge that than I am. I confess further that when the first strike does not kill a cockroach outright, the wiggling legs and antennae don’t inspire me with a compassionate desire to put it out of its misery as swiftly as possible, but a with a purely instrumental determination to make sure the job’s finished.

I’ve never killed a vertebrate with my bare hands, but I expect I’d be capable of learning to do it (although probably not much good at the job, as I’m not much good at working with my hands in general). I’ve set traps for mice and laid baits for rats, without caring about them. Once I came into a bathroom where somebody else had left the bath full of water and discovered a rat treading water, obviously unable to escape. I considered the situation. I didn’t want to save the rat’s life. From my point of view, a speedy death for the rat seemed preferable to a protracted one (I have to reference my point of view, because who know what the rat’s would be, or even if that question makes sense?), but it was clear to me that any attempt at intervention (even a hypothetical one directed at saving the rat’s life) would be a sure way of getting bitten. So I left it there (although I didn’t care about the rat, I had no affirmative desire to witness its dying struggles) and (as I learned later at second hand) it eventually lost the struggle and drowned. I don’t relish the memory, but I don’t feel troubled by it. Whether this is evidence of inhumanity and a warped mind I can only leave to other to judge.

Lots of people kill vermin, both invertebrate and vertebrate: it’s not just me. I think it’s bad, and dangerous, and disturbing, if people learn to enjoy the death of non-human animals and treat it as a kind of entertainment (as people unfortunately have done throughout human history), but it’s not so clear to me that is has to be a bad thing if people become inured to it, as people surely can. I would prefer to live in a world (which I know this one isn’t) in which nobody kills non-human animals (or human ones, for that matter) for fun, but I’m not equally clear about having a preference for a world in which nobody kills animals at all.

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Faustusnotes 04.08.19 at 1:00 am

I just want to pop up here and say wrt a throwaway line of Johns that circumcision should be encouraged not avoided. It has huge public health benefits and everyone should be doing it.

As you were!

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greg 04.08.19 at 8:22 am

It would be simpler just to assign rights to all property. This has already been done in the instance of corporations, in order to enable corporations to exploit their environments more efficiently.

Rights could equally be assigned to prevent wasteful exploitation, needless destruction, and burdening with externalized costs. ( eg a right not to be polluted. Pollution would be a matter of public policy, as, ultimately are all rights matters of public policy, rather than private expedience.)

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ccc 04.08.19 at 10:41 am

John Quiggin @32:

The quote from the Aeon text is speciesist: utopian future for some, merely non-miserable future for others. No argument given for why.

“It’s not something I write a lot about, because I don’t have much new to say”

Unargued exclusion/devaluation of non-human interests has been hegemonic in political theory even decades after strong pro animal arguments solidified in ethical theory. To not any longer silently take that for granted, even if that only means to accept the justificatory burden and try to explicitly argue for excluding and/or devauling non-human interests, would be to do something new.

“That’s about all I have to say, so we must agree to disagree.”

If that means you want this back and forth to end here then I’ll oblige and thank you for the discussion, I appreciate that you’ve taken time to engage with me here.

But I do note that you left for some other time to reply substantively regarding killing and didn’t answer my yes/no test question nor questions about the total view and repugnant conclusion.

Sometimes the phrase “agree to disagree” is meant to convey something more, namely a request to respect the other’s behaviour and live in peace. But I strive to abolish exploiting and killing cows and other animals for food. So while I think I align with you in several areas of human-only policy, here we’re in grim conflict.

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ccc 04.08.19 at 11:05 am

J-D @33: “I do not see anywhere a description of harm done to human animals which omits reference to harm done to non-human animals by the same actions.”

Wrong. See my earlier comment about the paper’s chapter 1 objections to lockean moral property orgin myths.

But what is worse, your comment again miss my basic point. Quiggin’s paper without argument excludes – in the sense of ignoring i.e. in the text not giving any non-instrumental weight or importance to – the interests of affected non-human sentient beings.

Miss the part about non-instrumental importance again and I’ll filter you out.

In the Linc-case pollution that made water unfit for livestock is instrumentally negative to the economic interests of farmers. The text mentions that but is silent on harms to animals not instrumental to human interests, even though unowned animals in the area presumably also faced contaminated water. There is no mention of any fine for harms to such unowned animals, as expected. This only strengthens my point.

Contrast: Quiggin could very easily, if he had wanted, either chosen an additional case or formulated an additional example himself where some animals face harm that doesn’t impact negatively on human interests and for that case still propose that the suggested new legal construct be used to curb such harms. He didn’t.

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Another Nick 04.09.19 at 3:12 am

J_D, I don’t consider what people do to keep their houses free of bugs and vermin as inhuman, because just about every human does those things. I might disagree with certain methods or the necessity, but I don’t regard it as inhuman.

Killing animals repetitively on the slaughter floor in a machine-like factory process, I do regard as inhuman. To spend most of your waking hours repetitively killing things is inhuman. Most humans couldn’t do that, and many that have to end up with psychological issues.

It’s different to say ‘cleaning toilets’, which is unpleasant and underpaid and repetitive and undignified, and something most people wouldn’t want to do – but most humans could do it if they had to, and it’s unlikely to give them nightmares.

Regardless of the stunning of the animal, this is a violent act:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isj-IYeCbnI

We tolerate millions of humans around the world who do not want to do this job – but have no other choice but to do this job – because that give us cheap affordable meat on our supermarket shelves. It’s pure capitalism.

That’s without even bringing in animal rights.

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John Quiggin 04.09.19 at 3:38 am

@ccc As stated above, I’ve had my say on this, and you’ve had yours. Please, no further comments on my posts unless I explicitly raise the issue of animal rights, or unless you want to talk about something else.

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ccc 04.09.19 at 8:31 am

John Quiggin @40: We were only getting started. But ok.

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