Ethics and Agriculture: A Teaching Perspective

By Diebel, Penelope L. | Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Agriculture: A Teaching Perspective


Diebel, Penelope L., Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics


Ethics and agriculture is a complex debate, but one in which agricultural economics students must be prepared to participate. There are many links between economics and ethic or moral philosophy. Classroom teaching tends to focus on discussion of issues involving behavioral ethics and disregards the teaching of philosophical ethics and its application in agricultural economics. A discussion is presented regarding the ethical context we have inherited in agricultural economics. I offer some broad moral philosophy concepts and an argument for providing students with tools to develop a philosophical ethics perspective of agricultural economics.

Key words: agriculture, economics, ethics, philosophy, teaching

Introduction

"First grub, then ethics"

- Bertolt Brecht, German Dramatist (1898-1956)

Recently I was asked by the Oregon Council of Humanities to provide its summer teachers' workshop with a presentation on agriculture and ethics. Not being an expert in the field and noting the workshop was filled with philosophers, sociologists, and political scientists, I decided to do my homework. My thoughts were focused on understanding a broad concept of ethics in agriculture.

Initially, the term "ethics" evoked a diverse set of possible topics. A quick survey of colleagues resulted in a list of topics from cheating and plagiarism to the philosophical studies of Amartya Sen (Alvey, 2005). Another quick search usingAgEcon Search yielded 95 documents from the keyword "ethics." However, I found most of these used the term as an adjective ("ethical") related to right and wrong, while few defined "ethical" or "ethics." Two articles from a very interesting series of essays on agricultural ethics published in Plant Physiology offered inspiration. Dundon (2003, p. 434) provides an anthropocentric definition of ethics as "the science of those actions that tend toward human happiness." Chrispeels and Mandoli (2003, p. 4) assert that ethics is the adherence to one or multiple ideals, including the spirit and letter of the law, a religious belief, standards, and "my ideas." I think it is fair to state that ethics is about the process of making choices, both individually and collectively (Johnson, 1982).

As this lecture developed, I began to reflect on how agricultural ethics is presented in the classroom. Many agricultural classes focus on current "ethical" issues, but few venture to define ethics or its role in the development of agriculture or economics. Dundon (2003) states that the "multifunctionality" of agriculture (soil fertility, rural living conditions, famine, environmentalism, food safety, etc.) is a complex ethics arena, where agricultural scientists must be able to apply well-developed ethical tools and thinking. In the classroom, student discussions of agricultural "ethics" issues are often defensive and dismissive. As a teacher, I am good at moving students through the typical sides of the debate, but I was beginning to suspect I was not giving them the tools with which to understand or develop a broader perspective of ethics as related to moral philosophy.

My purpose is to present arguments on why and how we should provide tools for our students to understand philosophical ethics. I will describe the ethical context I believe we inherited in agriculture; provide basic ethic or moral philosophical concepts; and conclude with my thoughts about learning and teaching ethics in agricultural curriculums, specifically agricultural economics.

Historical Context of Ethics and Agriculture

Several authors discuss the historical context of ethics inherited by those intimately involved in agriculture, whether they are producer, scientist, or educator. Generally, the presumption is that those who "feed the world" do so from high moral ground or, in other words, with moral confidence. Chrispeels and Mandoli (2003), Thompson (2007), and Zimdahl (2000) all provide historical examples and reasoning about why this moral confidence exists. …

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