• An ethos of responsibility
    November 07,2012
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    Green Mountain College’s oxen Bill and Lou have plowed the fields of our organic farm for a decade, almost as long as I’ve plowed the academic furrows of the college as a professor of philosophy and environmental studies. As shareholders in the college’s CSA (community supported agriculture), it’s hard for me and my family to envision our farm without this team. Sadly, Lou twice injured a rear leg this summer and can now barely support his own great weight.

    Vegan activists in Vermont and beyond have sought a photogenic target for a campaign against what they call “happy meat” of small-scale animal husbandry. Human slavery had to be abolished wholesale, not incrementally toward better and kinder masters. Just so, animal rights abolitionists believe the system that transforms sentient beings into products for human consumption is wrong. Period. No further discussion allowed.

    It doesn’t matter whether the culprit is a massive-scale industrial operation or a down-scaled sustainable family farm. Vegan utopians like the VINE sanctuary (Veganism Is the Next Era) are correct, at least, that the economic sustainability of small-scale animal husbandry, as with the large-scale animal “factories” that provide almost all meat in the U.S., drives a thorny logic of culling. Green Mountain College’s recent decision to slaughter our oxen team presented abolitionists with a convenient target. And so our small liberal arts college stepped unwittingly into an international spotlight.

    Green Mountain College is home to students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators whose values on animal ethics are widely varied. We explore all of these perspectives in our core curriculum, a twist on traditional liberal arts education that we call the “environmental liberal arts.” Far from shying away from complex tensions, we seek them out and welcome them. We strive to be a community that listens to, responds to, and thoughtfully incorporates different voices.

    When the issue of Lou’s injury arose this summer, my colleagues and I argued that a final decision should wait until fall so we could engage in classroom and campuswide dialogue about the ethical issues involved. In early October, I moderated an advertised “open class” formal campus dialogue of around 80 students, joined by our farm managers and provost, which focused in part on whether to pursue a sanctuary option in lieu of slaughter. Support from the college’s administration required dialogue with stakeholders beyond the farm, and they were willing to ask the farm to rethink its decision. The forum, however, resoundingly supported the decision.

    On complex ethical matters, thoughtful and well-informed people may reasonably disagree. My own family’s default diet is vegetarian, and the idea of giving Bill and Lou a living retirement has an intuitive “pull” for me. So it will come as no surprise that my “sent mail” box contains internal rationales along those lines. But this doesn’t mean I should set myself up as a moral czar for whom inclusive deliberation inconveniently gets in the way. Democracy requires a keen ear to other voices. In this respect, the decision-making process at Green Mountain College was markedly more democratic than would be expected by most of my academic friends at other colleges and universities — indeed, it could be held up as something of a model.

    In addition to the inaccuracies and inflammatory rhetoric of their “end justifies the means” approach, vegan abolitionists suppose, wrongly, that there’s a single right way (theirs) to reason about this vexing ethical matter, that they (and not the teamsters who have worked with Bill and Lou for a decade) are obviously the best-positioned proxies to speak for the oxen’s interests, and that inclusive deliberative processes are irrelevant to determining what, all things considered, we ought to do.

    For the sake of human health, sustainable living, and animal welfare, we need to take several steps back from a level of meat consumption that demands the slaughter of over 9 billion animals annually in the U.S. alone. But abolitionists believe they possess a universal moral compass and that my colleagues over at our college’s farm have thrown theirs overboard. On the contrary, unlike take-no-prisoners salvos for a vegan revolution, our farm offers a culturally realistic, workable option for producing meat from humanely managed sources. It’s at any rate an ethos that aspires to responsibility for the systemic impact of our behaviors, and it’s due to our farm that our students have lifted the veil that separates consumers from the source of meat and other animal products.

    To paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the worst approach to decision-making, except for all the rest. Green Mountain College’s decision-making process regarding our oxen team might have engaged a wider array of stakeholders and elicited a wider range of voices, but for a decision normally reserved to the farm alone it was surprisingly democratic. I stand with the college in this decision.

    Steven Fesmire is professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Green Mountain College. He regularly teaches courses in animal ethics and environmental ethics.
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