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Ethics is a jealous God: self-regulation vs self-sacrifice

Late one night recently I got a very frustrated email from a close friend. He’d just spent the evening arguing with investors about whether they needed to take ethics into account in their investment decisions…

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas or the ethical underpinning of self-regulation. AAP/RSPCA

Late one night recently I got a very frustrated email from a close friend. He’d just spent the evening arguing with investors about whether they needed to take ethics into account in their investment decisions.

Oh no, his colleagues had said: after all, we’re in the business of making money, not value judgements. Besides, no-one can agree on what’s morally acceptable anyway, so such decisions should be left to individuals.

This is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately, both in class and online: the assumption that because there is disagreement over the content of ethics, then ethics itself must be a wholly subjective matter, a matter of individual choice – personal taste with a self-righteous sheen.

So, I pounded out a quick response to the email: ask these investors what they’d think about someone taking all their money off them. Would they merely feel annoyed at the inconvenience, or actually wronged, as if someone had unjustly violated their rights?

Moral relativists, at least of a certain stripe, tend to retreat pretty quickly at that point. More often than not they tacitly subscribe to, and indeed rely upon, a liberal framework according to which everyone should be allowed to pursue their own conception of the good, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. That liberal framework is explicitly put together to accommodate disagreement about right and wrong, but it is nonetheless at least minimally moral.

This liberal principle of non-interference is precisely what makes the idea of self-regulation so attractive. We want industries, companies and individuals to minimise the harm their activities cause while pursuing their rational self-interest. If they can do this without coercion from government, then so much the better, no?

The obvious rejoinder when a given industry or sector claims authority to regulate itself is that they don’t always do a particularly good job of it. There’s an obvious tension between self-interest and self-regulation that’s only partially dealt with by saying it’s in a business’ interest to play nice, if only to avoid reputational risk.

Immanuel Kant famously gave us the image of a shopkeeper who never over-charges his customers simply because doing so might give him a bad name and hurt his trade. Kant insists such a merchant is not, in fact, acting morally at all. Still, you might say, surely a person or business acting honestly from selfish motives is better than their not acting honestly at all?

But the problem goes deeper than this. The irritating thing about ethics is that its demands are categorical in a way that other kinds of norm aren’t. No amount of beauty, convenience or benefit can outweigh a moral claim. You can’t make enough profit out of doing something morally impermissible to make it okay again, unless, perhaps, the profit itself provides a better moral outcome for some other reason.

This would be fine if what is in our interests and what is morally right always coincided, but they don’t. Ethics often requires us to act against our overall self-interest, not just defer short-term rewards (immediate profit) in order to secure greater long-term goods (reputation). Indeed, ethics can even require us to sacrifice everything up to and including our very existence. The right and the good are jealous gods, and they can demand self-sacrifice in a way wholly incompatible with an “enlightened self-interest” model of self-regulation.

Being prepared to set aside self-interest in this categorical way may simply be expecting too much of any company. A public company’s legal duty, indeed its very reason for being, is to generate profit for its shareholders. It will of course operate within legal parameters, but what’s legal and what’s right frequently don’t map onto each other perfectly.

“We should stop doing x because x-ing will make us unpopular and reduce profits” may be good business, but it’s a prudential rather than an ethical norm. “We should stop doing x just because x-ing is wrong” however clearly is an ethical norm – and just for that reason can’t be fit into a framework that takes self-interest as its overriding value.

And acting ethically might involve more than just saying that some practices are unacceptable. It might involve acknowledging that some companies, organisations and industries simply should no longer exist.

Recently the farming lobby managed to shut down a major component of an anti-factory farming campaign by Animals Australia. The various farmers groups have sought, both in their public statements and in a social media campaign, to claim the ethical mantle of “animal welfare”:

Let’s be very clear: Australian farmers are committed to animal welfare. Our farmers raise, care for and nurture their stock and care deeply about what happens to them. We understand that improvements need to be made, but farmers, working with respected animal welfare groups, the community and governments, will be the ones who make them.

The claim here is that farmers are already acting ethically – indeed are motivated by concern and a desire to nurture – and should be trusted to regulate and improve their own practices.

The statement goes on to say that Animals Australia’s “real agenda” is “to end animal agriculture in this country". No further comment is added; the subtext seems to be that, to the NFF, such an outcome is simply unthinkable. The very suggestion is, in their mind, self-refuting.

To use a metaphor that I’m quite sure will never be used this appropriately ever again: turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

What ethics may demand (and I stress may here, as I’m not actually arguing one way or the other about the legitimacy of animal farming, or any other industry or practice for that matter) is not just upping standards, but shutting down. There’s an argument to be had there, justifications that need to be offered, objections to be countered. But by insisting on self-regulation, the NFF is effectively calling the outcome of that argument ahead of time. Its own survival as an industry – precisely what ethics might ask it to give up – is non-negotiable.

Can self-regulation ever work? Quite possibly. But only if the parties are prepared to put ethics in its rightful place as the highest demand, instead of making it, at best, one priority among others. Morality cannot be a mere marketing tool or cultural ethos, respected and lauded but ultimately subordinate to self-interest and indeed to survival.

Self-regulation demands turkeys that can vote for Christmas. That’s one species we don’t seem to be raising many of these days.

Join the conversation

60 Comments sorted by

  1. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    One might suggest - then - that all ethics are motivated by the protection of one's perception of self-interest.

    In isolation, its easy enough to have ones own rational; but cause and effect is, IMO, a big decider in the choice if comprehended. Example: Orica in Newcastle and the gas leaks; investors demand the maximum return on their investment; cost saving measures set in place, causative to leaks, see gas leaks causing respiratory problems and the local investors have to spend more money on…

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  2. Darron Wolf
    Darron Wolf is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Analyst

    Thank you, Patrick, for a very interesting article. The interplay between ethics and morals is well explored in A. C. Grayling’s recent work, The God Argument. I do recommend this work to all interested in the relationship between ethics and morals.

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    1. Chris Richardson
      Chris Richardson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Doctor

      In reply to Darron Wolf

      I have heard it said, by a philosopher, that the difference between "morals" and "ethics" is entirely semantic. Define what you mean by either, then continue your arguments, so enlightened.

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    2. Darron Wolf
      Darron Wolf is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Analyst

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      Chris, Hi.

      A fair question.

      I am not a philosopher, so if I may quote AC Grayling (and without damage to his intent):

      ‘Ethics is about ethos, about the kind of person one is, about the manner and character of one’s life and activity. A central part of one’s ethos concerns morality, that is, the obligations and duties, the constraints and parameters that apply in one’s relationships with others. But although one’s ethics will shape one’s moral behaviour, it is a much larger matter than morality.’

      Later: ‘Ethics is about one’s character.’

      And later: ‘The principal subject matter of morality is human relationships’.

      So, if I understand adequately, ethics is an internal matter and morality is how those ethics are expressed throughout the interested community.

      Again, I’m not a philosopher, and I know I’m prone to accepting a well presented argument that agrees with some personal bias or perspective (aren’t we all?) but this seems rational to me.

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    3. Chris Richardson
      Chris Richardson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Doctor

      In reply to Darron Wolf

      So "morals" are about what we should do, and "ethics" are about what we do do....? I guess it's as good as any arbitrary and unnecessary distinction needs to be. Although it seems a little internally inconsistent as presented.

      By the way, you're wrong that you're not a philosopher...even asking these questions makes you one. I take your point though that you have not acquired any formally recognised "qualification" in philosophy. Me neither.

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  3. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Brilliant Article, Thanks for posting.

    Self regulation will never work because corporations are not people, they are profit making machines, their only purpose is to increase profit margins. Once you have shareholders this becomes especially true and you effectively loose all control of the company - boards can replace CEO's instantly if they feel they are not doing the best for their shareholders

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  4. Peter Campbell

    Scientist (researcherid B-7232-2008)

    My personal anecdote comes from my role as an executive committee member for a set of town houses. We had a problem to do with allocations of covered parking on common property that we thought had been done correctly for years but then we received legal advice that it was not correct and we had a serious problem to fix. We needed an unopposed resolution for the negotiated and legally-advised remedy. All who had previously had invalid parking allocations would have them reinstated correctly and all…

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  5. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    Just for the record: the paragraph beginning "Let's be very clear" isn't me - it's a quote from the NFF statement I linked to. Something's gone wrong with the formatting; I've asked the eds to try and fix it. Sorry for any confusion.

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  6. Clifford Heath

    logged in via Twitter

    Old-growth forests don't vote to be cut down either. Some industries need to actually die - for ethical reasons - and the workers moved to sustainable employment, such as in plantation timber.

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    Ethics are fine for us guilt-laden folks who have inculcated a few "Christian" values over the years - or Karma if you will.

    Obviously many others have no sense of ethics when it comes to one issue or another. I think we all pick and choose what we will be ethical about.

    One person's guilt is another person's profit.

    If there is no "moral gene", then we all inherit our sense of ethics from nurturing and environment - and that obviously can be a confusing affair.

    If mum and dad are career criminals, or the local vicar, it will have an impact on the kids growing, and their perception of what is ethical and what is convenient.

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    1. Ramon Erispe

      Scientific Publishing

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      In this brave new world of relativism this article is a timely reminder of the immense value that philosophical/ethical reasoning can bring to many spheres in life. A great article Patrick.

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  8. Paul Reader

    independent researcher

    If turkeys could vote they would vote for Christmas. It is their raison d'être. Who would have heard of a turkey if it wasn't for Christmas. If you want evidence see how many Australians will put aside both ethics and self interest and vote for major parties in the forthcoming September election.

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  9. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    So if I refrain from killing someone is it an ethical or prudential decision? Ethical because I would be ending a human life? Or prudential because I would go to gaol (or his relatives would kill me)?

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      You have to answer that Mat ...observers will consider the mitigating circumstances and reach their own conclusion/s ...

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      except you said you "might".......

      either do it or don't talk about it - for mercy's sake.

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    3. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I am otherwise occupied and therefore too busy to address your (listless) dissatisfaction with my comment/s

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      I have no dissatisfaction with your comments - it's just I'm not too sure what you are saying.

      But to me there is only so much hypothetical wankery I can bear.

      There are more practical issues to be discussed I'm sure.

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    5. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      well we Do agree on that then Stephen ... its all too much hypothetical wankery ...

      [students in Middle Eastern studies at Deakin University must scratch their heads as well]

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    6. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      It can certainly be both. FWIW, Kant said you can never really be 100% sure you are in fact acting from proper motives, but it's more likely to be the case if you *really* want to kill the person and if you could get away with it, but still refrain from doing so.

      But then I've never been a big fan of Kant.

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    7. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      No much worse, Mat: he was punctual. Like, ridiculously punctual. The story that people in Königsberg set their watches by when Kant left for his daily walk is almost certainly apocryphal, but still.

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  10. Frances Collins

    Former Rural Dweller

    Great article : )
    If farmers (or any other business) may not be trusted to regulate their own industry who will and with what outcome? Keep in mind there are existing Model Codes in place for animal welfare (http://www.daff.gov.au/animal-plant-health/welfare) with further development ongoing. Substantial legislation surrounding business already exists in Australia. Has legislation has been implemented and found to be ineffective? What percentage of perfect is one expecting?
    Will cost of regulation…

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  11. Ian Fraser

    Independent researcher

    Because we argue about the comparative ethical status of our business practices - farming animals vs Animals Australia; logging old-growth forests vs preservation - we have the law as an attempt at societal agreement on what we can accept and what we reject as unlawful, often on the basis of perceived ethical status. The law in many nations has developed within the "liberal framework according to which everyone should be allowed to pursue their own conception of the good, so long as they don’t hurt…

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Ian Fraser

      Before you go too far down the track, IMO, we could all consider the ethics of taking more than we need ... just as example: you cut a few trees down to build a home and use the off-cuts for cooking food etc and then consider the transition of ear-marking several thousands of acres of trees (standing for many generations) to turn into fancy writing paper or toilet paper ... but with disproportionate profits, and the restitution to the environment is non-existent (unless you call species specific plantations and poison all wild-life to protect seedlings and continuing to do so for many long years, despite the environmental degradation) but don't consider that primary ethic ...

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  12. Chris Richardson
    Chris Richardson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Doctor

    Interesting that though you find it distasteful that "ethics itself (might) be a wholly subjective matter, a matter of individual choice"...your happy with the kind of relativism that turns ethics into a democratic process ("Self-regulation demands turkeys that can vote for Christmas").

    Perhaps I'm missing your point.

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      Maybe you are; maybe I am ... as a collective, living in a finite world, perhaps we are distracted by being asked to focus and comment on ethics, while the real issue (to my mind) is - dare I call it - holistic ethics ...

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    2. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      Not actually suggesting voting determines right or wrong, I was just sticking with the expression. If you prefer, read it as "Turkeys don't volunteer for Christmas."

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  13. John Foley

    Various ...

    Is ‘enlightened self interest’ a primitive form of ethics or morality? Something that does not translate well to a larger complex society? While I’m highly skeptical of concepts such as ‘enlightened self interest’, I’m equally skeptical of a position that is expressed in purely moral terms. Be that an animals rights group or some mug looking to the upcoming election.

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  14. Andrew Gaff

    logged in via Facebook

    Nice article, Pat.
    By way of interest, my turkey objects to smoking cigarettes from plain packages. It thinks that what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
    This argument has been going on for a while, but will be resolved round about Christmas, I expect.

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  15. Stephen S Holden

    Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

    I think (not surprisingly!) that this is a great topic. I like the point that ethical goals must be primary. However, as noted in the article and in some of the comments, this requires access to 'intentions' and this it seems, is blessedly difficult to resolve. It especially difficult to resolve at the individual level (is the person lying or telling the truth, they may even be self-deluded), let alone the aggregate level where a bunch of turkeys choose to follow the gobble-gobble of one big turkey or another.

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  16. Alan O'Neill

    Freelance Consultant / Inventor at freelance consultant

    Excellent article but I beg somewhat to differ..

    Self-regulation does its job well.. it is deliberately recognized and intended to capture the shared business imperatives of being seen to do the right thing.. it just must not act alone..and it does not because the resulting behaviours are still exposed to public and state scrutiny

    Ethics meanwhile are indeed too individualistic to wrap into short term business and regulatory processes.. and the second guessing that diverse and/or rapidly evolving…

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    1. Paul Reader

      independent researcher

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      More evidence that turkeys will in fact vote for Christmas, at least until some other farm dispenses with it first, or an unsubsidised credible alternative to Christmas is found that does not upset their lifestyle.

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  17. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    I'm very interested in this statement:
    ' then ethics itself must be a wholly subjective matter, a matter of individual choice – personal taste with a self-righteous sheen.'
    I think that as distasteful as this is that there is an element of truth within it.
    Before the first human was there ethics? If every human was to die is there still ethics in the universe? My point being that; is there an objective ethical standard; and, if not then it does appear to be wholly relative.
    If this is the case the best we can hope for is to have reason as the prime mover of ethics - which has a relativism all of its own.

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Very quick response (for which sorry, but under the pump today): replace "ethics" with "colour" in those two questions you ask in your third paragraph there and see what happens. You could argue that without any vision-capable beings there would be no colour in the universe (so it depends on being subjectively experienced in order to exist), and we can disagree about whether something is, say, royal blue or navy blue. But that doesn't mean that nothing is *really* blue at all.

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    2. Chris Richardson
      Chris Richardson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Doctor

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Nope - you can't get away with that!

      If you mean "colour" as subjectively experienced by human beings then, no, in that sense, there would be no colour if there were no humans. Wavelengths of light though - another matter entirely!

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    3. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Chris Richardson

      Yes that's just my point: without subjects to experience colour there would be no colour in the experiential sense, just wavelengths of light. Colour thus depends on subjects to see it. But that doesn't mean that colour isn't an intersubjective reality. I suspect moral properties may well turn out to be like that. If that sounds vague that's because it is; I'm a very long way from working out a full position here.

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    4. Chris Richardson
      Chris Richardson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Doctor

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      If by "intersubjective reality" you mean that humans can describe their experience of the universe to other humans in way that those other humans can understand, because they are humans (in other words, we have a shared, human experience - we know what it's like to be human) then in that sense I agree that we can nut out some principles that might serve to increase the quality of the human experience. That will not satisfy those who wish to argue that moral rules are written into the fabric of the…

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  18. Peter Hindrup

    consultant

    Farming practices; self interest, practical, ethical, vs the uniformed, misinformed, or untutored.
    If the vote is that farming is unethical, then game over. If not . . .

    Taranaki hill country has ‘bogs’ or ‘swamps’ — god knows what they might call them these days — in the bottom of most gullies or valleys. They have a ‘skin’ a foot to fifteen inches thick, over ten or twelve feet of ‘slush’. I know, I drained more ‘n a few in my young days working a dragline and the only living thing…

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  19. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    I won't clog up everyone's inboxes by replying to each comment but thanks everyone for your comments, much appreciated. There's a couple of comments here I do owe a proper reply to; will try to fit that in around the wave of essay marking that's about to hit at 11:59pm tonight...

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  20. peter davson-galle

    academic philosopher

    quite right: mere moral disagreement does not entail meta-ethical subjectivism.
    however, good luck with getting any version of objectivism flying satisfactorily - it's a failed meta-ethical enterprise in any version, however much it would be nice nice to have known moral truths, or even moral truths at all.
    Peter

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  21. David Collett

    logged in via Twitter

    "ask these investors what they’d think about someone taking all their money off them. Would they merely feel annoyed at the inconvenience, or actually wronged, as if someone had unjustly violated their rights?"

    Ask philosophers who work for universities in Australia how they would feel if all their funding was taken away and their employment contracts were canceled. Would they merely feel annoyed at the inconvenience, or actually wronged as if someone had unjustly violated their rights?

    Ask…

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  22. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Patrick, thanks muchly for yet another brilliantly thought-provoking piece! Perchance when you take a break from marking you might assist me with why you consigned the conditional clause 'so long as they don’t hurt anyone else' to a very lengthy but ultimately subordinate foot-note on a theme addressed so extensively by such philosopher luminaries as Mill, T H Green and Patrick Devlin (a law lord, if ever there was one, who was also a philosopher).

    My quibble here is to illustratively ask whether…

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  23. Andrew Brown

    M. Professional Accounting, B. Arts (Public Policy & Sociology)

    Interesting article Patrick, probably more so given that I started working towards a Social Work degree and one of my bug bears that saw me quit was the way ethics was dealt with.

    The question/ issue I have is are ethics absolute or relative?

    What I saw were relative ethics rather than an absolute standard.

    There is arguably the problem with the relativistic position, there is is always someone worse than oneself with whom to compare and validate ones actions and choices; "I'm not as bad as them".

    When one is working with people who hold such a framework, how do you critique what people do or do not do? Who determines what good bad or indifferent practice is?

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  24. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    A friend living in Thailand generates his entire income from dividends and sales of shares in BAT (tobacco). His reasoning is that people choose to smoke so it's their problem not his. Tobacco is clearly a crop with ethical problems. Livestock may become one too if philosopher and vegetarian, Peter Singer's opinion gains sufficient support.

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  25. Sharon Hutchings

    logged in via Facebook

    Great article Patrick, thanks.

    Empathy is the key element, and although I don't subscribe to any particular religion, the "do unto others" mantra is one I try to live by and teach my children.

    On the question "Can self-regulation ever work?", in relation to business and industries, absolutely not, and it should never be tolerated or accepted, especially in those industries that rely on growth in sales and profit primarily through reduction in costs and quality. Animal agriculture is a prime…

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Sharon Hutchings

      Useful 'easy-to-understand- and-therefore-to-identify-with' principle to uphold in bringing up children, Sharon, but reciprocity and mutuality ain't exactly self-sacrificial. Cartels, based on a fundamentally utilitarian principle, are essentially self-regarding and those who refuse to join or are excluded reduce their ethical substance.

      Kant's categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as…

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    2. Stephen S Holden

      Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

      In reply to Sharon Hutchings

      I'm curious - you reject 'self-regulation' by an organisation completely out-of-hand: "absolutely not". But claim to operate with the "do unto others" mantra.

      You expect ALL pig farmers to keep an open house so that everyone might be able to inspect, every week of the year.

      So is your house an open house? I'm not saying you have anything to hide, but are you happy to maintain an open-house for anyone in the public to tramp through to ensure you are meeting their (varying!) standards on all matters of interest to them?

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    3. Sharon Hutchings

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen S Holden

      What a strange question. Aha, just noticed you're in Marketing. Obvious answer, but I'll respond for clarity.

      I am not producing any product for sale in my house, let alone one that involves the breeding, confinement and slaughter of animals. Disturbingly these industries tend to treat the source of their sales as inanimate profit-generating widgets rather than the sentient creatures they in fact are. In Australia, I would be prosecuted for cruelty if I treated dogs the way that pigs and hens…

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    4. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Sharon Hutchings

      Sharon, I don't wish to quibble or take sides, but you repeat the same mistake, viz, " we had nothing to hide - do unto others". Unfortunately, the term ''we had nothing to hide'' has almost no ethical meaning alongside "do unto others".

      In ethics discourse, ''nothing to hide'' is just about at the most self-sacrificial and unconditional end of the scale, whereas ''do unto others (as you would have them do unto you)'' is all about reciprocity, as in ''I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine…

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  26. Paul Downey

    Plant Operator

    A long time ago, I read a book ... ... about existence. The right thing is the right thing - motive is irrelevant. Self-interest or self-sacrifice - motive is irrelevant. Standing up against evil or base revenge - motive is irrelevant.
    The right thing is the right thing. There is a duality to our existence which often cannot be reconciled.
    There are demands of ethics and morality which often cannot be reconciled.
    Don't fret about it, don't be incapacitated by it - just accept it and do the the best you can.
    I believe this is applicable in business dealings as much as in private life.

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