Speaker: Morality trumps science in debate

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Wesley V. Jamison, PhD, warned an audience of veterinarians that economic and scientific arguments are not going to be effective when the public decides that an issue is a moral matter.

"When it comes to public policy, science is a mere participant, not a guide," he said.

Dr. Jamison, an associate professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic University, used his presentation March 7 during the American Association of Swine Veterinarians Annual Conference to discuss why some animal rights and animal welfare organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States, have gained public support for, and legislative victories in support of, their animal-related agendas.

He contended that in particular, some of these organizations have gained support from consumers by emphasizing the inconsistent treatment of pets versus farm animals to a public that by and large is familiar only with pet ownership and has little or no direct knowledge of farm animal treatment.

In describing the important role of moral beliefs in these types of debates, Dr. Jamison pointed out that economic and scientific arguments wouldn't have mattered during the mid-19th century debates over slavery in the American South.

"The Mississippi Cotton Growers Association would give a grant to Mississippi State, who would then come out and say, 'You know, there's very little evidence—very little evidence—that confinement causes difficulty. Oh, and by the way, happy slaves pick more cotton. Oh, now you talk about enrichment. We're going to put a soccer ball out in the field and let them kick it around.

"In other words, you would be using scientific debates to justify what is ultimately a moral issue. It really didn't matter that the collapse of the cotton economy meant the collapse of the Old South. Can you imagine, 'Oh, the economies of Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama would collapse if you do away with this system'? Did it matter once it was moralized?" Dr. Jamison asked.

In a follow-up interview, Dr. Jamison said that people scoff at such arguments today, but he thinks similar arguments are being used by animal agriculture to suggest that science supports the use of certain confinement practices or that high productivity indicates that animals are happy and healthy. He said he was using allegory and hyperbole to demonstrate the impact of moral beliefs on debates and to illustrate how ridiculous it is to use scientific and economic arguments in the face of what some of the public perceives to be a clear moral wrong.

"There are voices in the animal rights and the animal welfare movements themselves that would say that the treatment of animals in certain contexts would be equivalent to the treatment of slaves," Dr. Jamison said in the interview. "So my point in the allegory was to say this: Veterinarians may be called on to comment upon practices in animal agriculture that the public has already come to see as immoral. If the public has already come to see those practices as wrong or inhumane or bad, it will be very difficult for the AVMA or veterinarians in general to bring science and economics to bear on the debate."

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the AASV, said Dr. Jamison has long used extreme views and perhaps some shock value in his presentations to grab attention and provoke thought.

However, Dr. Burkgren said, Dr. Jamison wants to move people beyond the comfortable belief that scientific evidence and "doing the right thing" will prevail in an argument. Dr. Burkgren agreed that this is not always true. He noted, however, that Dr. Jamison was not expressing the AASV's position.