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Chi Xin Ci Heather


The need for an agricultural ethics that would provide strong moral foundation for an equitable food system is imperative given the alarming food crisis facing our current generation: despite record harvests and some US$930 million dollars provided by the United States and European Union in agricultural subsidies annuallyi, an estimated 823 million people or 20.3% of the population in developing countries remain undernourishedii and prices of all the major grains (corn, wheat, rice, soy) escalated from 2005 to 2008,iii resulting in riotous protests in poor countries worldwide.iv It is indeed shocking that a US$6.4 trillion industry that provides a necessity of life impoverishes more people than any other economic sectorv and is responsible for 20% of severely degraded land across the world, thus undermining the resource base required for the sustenance of future

In the context of this crisis, the claim that the “best ethical foundation for all of agriculture…(is) to produce food and fiber” (Day, 1978) has come under intense scrutiny by authors such as Danbom (1997), who highlighted five objections that he feels we should consider: (1) that production has been achieved at the expense of the environment and our natural resource base; (2) that increased production with industrial agriculture has resulted in the loss of family and community values and the rise of selfishness and materialism; (3) that modern production practices cannot be sustained in then long-term due to their intensity; (4) that abundance has been accompanied by a deterioration in food quality and healthfulness, and (5) that abundance has been obtained without regard for effects on small farmers, tenant farmers, and the rural and urban poor who have paid a disproportionate share of the price for higher productivity. Advocates of these views, such as Pais (1982), argue that the high productivity of modern agriculture has been achieved by “extensive use of technologies that often contribute to depletion of a non-renewable resource base”. Putting aside issues of the inequitable distribution of food and the profit-seeking motive of the agribusinesses who control the food production system, the underlying justification for valorizing production as the highest ethic in agriculture is the simple


Chi Xin Ci Heather fact that there are people in the world that need to be fed immediately. Such pressing circumstances have given agricultural producers, and those who support them with technology, the moral confidence that “so long as they increase food availability, they (should be) exempt from the constant process of politically negotiating and renegotiating that is the foundation of the modern democratic society” (Thompson, 1998). However, given the gradual broadening of society’s conception of values over time to encompass that of other species, future generations and the environment itself, as well as our deeper understanding of agricultural impact’s on the environment in both the short and long terms, the urgent need for developing and debating a professional ethics to instruct this “most noble of human endeavors” is unquestionable today (Zimdahl, 1998).

As noted by Chrispeels and Mandoli (2003), the critical ethical dilemma in agriculture is “the need to balance feeding the world’s expected 9 billion people with the need to preserve the food-producing capacity and natural ecosystems of the Earth for future generations”. Underlying the dilemma is the central question of whether or not we have moral obligations to future generations and should take their needs and interests into consideration when constructing an agricultural ethics. This will pose a direct challenge to the moral foothold that pro-production agriculturalists currently have in contemporary agricultural ethics discourse.

In this paper, I frame the agricultural dilemma as a special case of the paradox described by Derek Parfit in his 1982 essay Future Generations, Further Problems and, through a close analysis of the assumptions underlying both, question if the methods by which we prioritize our moral obligations towards future generations and indeed define the scope and target of our ethical concerns towards them are valid and appropriate in the context of agricultural production.

Derek Parfit, in his 1982 essay Future Generations, Further Problems, presents a number of problems regarding the issue of whether we, as active moral agents of the present generation, have obligations to future generations or not. The Parfit paradox, which is premised upon the fact that any actions we take now, including environmental policies, will affect the identities and numbers (and not merely quality of life) of future generations, essentially revolves around the question: is there any 2

Chi Xin Ci Heather moral objection to a choice that causes someone to be badly-off if that person (a) has a life worth living and (b) would not have existed if the choice had not been made?

To illustrate this paradox, Parfit raises three examples in his essay: that of the Wretched vs. Happy Child, Risky vs. Safe Policy and Conservation vs. Depletion. As the latter two are related to environmental issues, I will describe these two to explain the paradox, and present parallel case studies relevant to agriculture to show how agricultural dilemmas can be considered special cases of the Parfit paradox.

The Risky Policy’ (Parfit, 1982): Suppose that, as a community, we have a choice between two energy policies. Both would be completely safe for at least two centuries, but one would have, for the further future, certain risks. If we choose the Risky Policy, the standard of living would be slightly higher over the next century. We do choose this policy. As a result there is a catastrophe two centuries later, which kills and injures thousands of people.

The Risky Policy’’ (amended): Suppose that, as a community, we have a choice between two agricultural policies – the risky policy (to use a certain pesticide T that is toxic only at quantity P, an accumulation that requires two centuries, but results in much higher yields in the short term) and the safe policy (to use a certain pesticide U that is not toxic in any quantity, but results in much lower yields in the short term). Both would be completely safe for at least two centuries, but one would have, for the further future, the risk mentioned above. If we choose the Risky Policy, the standard of living would not only be slightly higher over the next century but also satisfy an urgent and present need within the community. We do choose this policy. As a result there is a catastrophe two centuries later, which kills and injures thousands of people in the community.

Assuming that the risky policy has far-ranging effects over both time and space, it is clear that the risky policy, in both examples, (a) would affect the identities of future individuals (X) due to the cumulative effects it would have regarding the time and nature of conception of these individuals, and (b) would affect the quality of life of these individuals directly as the explosion or pesticide poisoning, which is a direct result of our actions and hence an event that we are morally accountable for (Hanser, 1990), causes a significant decline in their quality of life. However, should we have


Chi Xin Ci Heather pursued a safer policy and the explosion/poisoning not occurred, the cumulative effects of the policy would mean that a totally different set of individuals (Y) would have come about instead. Hence, even though X could be said to have been made worse off as a direct consequence of our actions, the fact that they were conceived and that their lives, collectively (both before and possibly after the explosion/poisoning, in the event of mitigating factors such as the availability of medicines), can be considered worth living, implies that they should in fact be grateful to us.

As proposed by Kavka (1982) in his Future Individuals Paradox, if indeed “Wrongs Require Victims”, the fact that we cannot define the victims in both Same Number Choices and Different Number Choices means that we cannot give any ‘personaffecting’ explanation for why the Risky Policy is morally objectionable. We can thus be said to have done X a benefit merely by causing them to be brought into existence and allowing them to live lives worth living, clearly a paradox considering the great harm that we did in fact cause them.

The force of the paradox is even stronger in the case of Risky Policy” because it can be argued that, given the pressing needs of the present generation for food, it is immoral not to pursue the riskier policy and use pesticide T. Surely the immediate needs of a conscious human being in closer proximity to oneself demands greater moral consideration that that of an imagined being (perhaps, not even strictly human, nor with the same appetite and vulnerabilities as present humans) who has not even been conceived? This dilemma hits the crux of Parfit’s paradox: that priority of moral obligation is intuitively determined on the basis of proximity to the entity making the moral choice.

Parfit’s proposed solution to the paradox presented in his essay only addresses a situation where neither choices (the risky and safe energy policies) faces pressure from an urgent moral concern and where the number of individuals in X and Y are the same. According to Parfit, the objections to our choice of the risky policy cannot be a consequentialist one “if the consequentialist principles are stated in ‘person-affecting’ terms” (Hanser, 1990). Instead, he proposes a Same Number Quality Claim; namely that, if we have prior knowledge of the outcome of two choices, we should select the 4

Chi Xin Ci Heather outcome in which “those who live are better off, or have a higher quality of life, than those who would have lived”. Viewing the situation in this context implies that we have a moral duty to implement policies that would more likely bring about Y rather than X, regardless of the identities of X and Y. Indeed, in the context of agricultural policies, such considerations, which focus on positively enhancing and minimizing the degradation of the environment (including food abundance) in the future, should be incorporated into evaluations of the long-term impacts of various modes of food production, given that we cannot know the individuals who will exist. However, these considerations fall short in two key respects: (1) in situations where X and Y are of different numbers, which is likely to be the case if food production is substantially increased in the short-term and a larger population ensues and (2) when one choice has greater moral weight at present (namely, the risky policy which will produce more food for the currently hungry). Hence, the framework of Parfit’s paradox in fact reveals a key assumption that Parfit presents and wishes to challenge – that when presented with a dilemma regarding the needs of two groups of individuals, our moral obligations intuitively lie with the group that is in closer proximity to us in all definitions of the term: physical and mental form, space, and time. Beginning with this assumption, we can then begin to question if the criteria of proximity is indeed valid for an equitable and holistic agricultural ethics.

There is also an apparent inconsistency in the nature of the moral subject under consideration in the cases of present and future generations: for the present generation, (hungry) individuals can be defined distinctly, and hence the moral subjects under consideration are clearly individuals; in contrast, in the case of future generations, we have established an inability to frame moral considerations in personaffecting terms due to the Future Individuals Paradox. Hence, the moral subject under consideration is necessarily the entire ecosystem wherein future individuals live and interact as posited by the Same Number Quality Claim. Could these differences between the nature of moral subjects under consideration in the cases of present and future generations be another cause for the tension within Parfit’s paradox and an obstacle to developing a consistent moral theory applicable to all generations – present and future? This inconsistency suggests there we might need to establish an alternative moral framework in order to weigh our moral obligations to present and future generations on fairer terms. 5

Chi Xin Ci Heather A similar paradox to The Risky Policy is present in the situation of Depletion vs. Conservation, and can also be contextualized in agricultural terms to highlight an additional dimension of the agricultural dilemma:

Depletion (Parfit, 1982): Suppose that, as a community, we must choose whether to deplete or conserve certain kinds of resources. If we choose Depletion, the quality of life over the next two centuries would be slightly higher than it would have been if we had chosen Conservation, but it may later be much lower. At this much lower level people's lives would, however, still be well worth living.

Depletion” (amended): Suppose that, as a community, we must choose whether to pursue agricultural policies that would either deplete resources completely in two centuries or conserve these resources, enabling agriculture production to be sustained (albeit at a lower level) indefinitely. If we choose Depletion, the quality of life over the next two centuries would be higher than it would have been if we had chosen Conservation, but it may later be much lower. At this much lower level however, it is unclear if people's lives would still be well worth living.

The situation of Depletion vs. Conservation highlights, aside from the Personal Identity problem raised in the example of Risky vs. Safe Policy, another paradox – that of the Repugnant Conclusion: “For any possible population of at least ten billion people with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living” (Parfit, 1984). In general, depletion is appealing in the short-term as the quality of life for individuals conceived as a result of our choice (X’) would indeed be higher in the short-term than for the individuals conceived (Y’) if we had chosen Conservation. However, even though Depletion may result in a lower quality of life for individuals in the long term, this may not necessarily be considered ‘worse’ if there are more individuals conceived as a result of Depletion (X’ > Y’) and the quality of life of each individual is of a minimum level such that, collectively, the total “goodness” experienced by X’ is equal to, or more, than that experienced by Y’ (even if the quality of life of each individual in X’ is substantially lower than each individual in Y’).


Chi Xin Ci Heather When the situation is contextualized in terms of agriculture however, objections to the Repugnant Conclusion are even stronger; it is conceivable that an increase in agricultural output with high-productivity systems that would result in depletion would also directly boost population numbers in the short term and perhaps long term (for at least two centuries). However, as a result of depletion, the quality of life for this much larger population would be much lower as there are no longer any resources for food production left and it is inconceivable that any minimum quality of life can be enjoyed by any number of individuals such that, in totality, the total amount of happiness enjoyed by the entire population is acceptable, even from a utilitarian standpoint. Hence, in contrast to Parfit’s original example wherein the natural resources to be depleted or conserved may have been beneficial, but not essential, for human survival, the moral objections to the policy of depletion are even stronger in the case of agriculture as food is necessary for human survival. Indeed, they reveal another dimension of the core assumption that Parfit’s paradox aims to highlight and challenge: namely, that the way we conceive of moral considerations towards present and future generations differ; for the present generation, which is composed of discrete and unique individuals, our moral obligations are couched in terms of securing the quality of life (including subsistence) for every individuals; however, for future generations whom we are unable to individualize, our moral considerations are necessarily couched in the utilitarian terms of maximizing and/or equalizing welfare for a given population. Such a utilitarian conception is problematic both because it assumes there is a minimally-acceptable standard of living for any given population (which may be impossible if there is no form of sustenance for them) and because it absolves us, the current generation, from the responsibility of considering the effect of our policies on future population numbers, as well as future individuals who may very well come into existence. Parfit’s eventual solutionvii to this problem is to propose two thresholds (1982):

Positive Threshold Principle: If the number of people living at any time is at least N. the existence of a larger number of people with the same (or worse) average levels and distribution of happiness, suffering, and other goods and evils would not be better.


Chi Xin Ci Heather Negative Threshold Principle: If the average levels and distribution of happiness, suffering, and other goods and evils among the people living at any time are not too bad, the existence of a larger number of people with the same average levels and distribution of happiness, suffering, and other goods and evils would not be worse.

As analyzed by Adams (1989), this implies that “there is a quantitative threshold beyond which mere quantity of good does not count, and a qualitative threshold beyond (better than) which mere quantity of suffering does not count in determining the overall value of states of affairs.” The implication of the solutions proposed by Parfit are significant; they suggest that we should evaluate environmental and agricultural policies with a population threshold in mind beyond which no claims of “further benefits to a larger population” (such as that sometimes extolled by politicians) would be morally justifiable. It also suggests that policymakers need to set down an explicit agenda for ‘safe minimum standards’ regarding the quality of life to strive towards and exceed such that, no matter what further policies are pursued in the political, social or economic spheres, these policies will not result in any additional suffering that would be morally considerable.

The special characteristic of agriculture as an environmental activity directly critical to the sustenance of human beings makes the quest to define such ‘safe minimum standards’ all the more pressing. The above analyses of the key assumptions of Parfit’s paradox highlight several issues we should consider in the process of developing a truly equitable agricultural ethics: (1) the use of species, spatial and temporal proximity as the basis for prioritizing subjects of moral consideration; (2) inconsistencies in defining the objects of, and nature of, moral considerations towards present and future generations, and (3) the problems of qualifying moral obligations towards future generations in non person-affecting terms (i.e. non-individuals) when there is competition between their interests and the interests of presently-living individuals.

In conclusion, framing the agricultural dilemma in terms of Parfit’s paradox not only enables us to gain a better understanding of the tensions inherent in dilemmas involving moral obligations towards present and future generations, but also highlights the core issues we need to address in order to resolve these tensions;


Chi Xin Ci Heather namely, the ways we conceive our relationships with present and future generations, as well as our views on what qualifies as moral obligations to them. Through evaluating the solutions proposed by Parfit and others in the context of the agricultural dilemma, we can also gain insight into the challenges inherent in balancing the need to feed the hungry today and the hungry tomorrow, and hence be better equipped to develop ethical frameworks and practical strategies to address this dilemma.

References Adams, R.M. (1989), “Should Ethics be More Impersonal? A Critical Notice of Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons”, in The Philosophical Review, 98(4), pp. 439-84 Chrispeels M.J. and D.F. Mandoli (2003), “Agricultural Ethics”, in Plant Physiology, 132, pp. 4-9. Danbom, D. (1997), “Past visions of American agriculture”, in W. Lockeretz (ed.) Visions of American Agriculture, Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. Day, B.E. (1978), “The morality of agronomy”, in J.W. Pendleton (ed.) Agronomy in Today’s Society, Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy Special Publ. 33, pp. 19-28. Hanser, M. (1990), “Harming Future People”, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 19(1), pp. 47-70 Kavka, G.S. (1982), “The Paradox of Future Individuals”, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11(2), pp. 93-112 Pais, J.D. (1982), “Ethical dimensions of agricultural research” in R. Haynes and R. Lanier (eds.) Agriculture, Change and Human Values – A Multidisciplinary Conference, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida. Parfit, D. (1982), “Future Generations, Further Problems”, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11(2), pp. 113-72 Parfit, D. (1984), Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thompson, P.B. (1998), Agricultural Ethics, Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. Zimdahl, R.L. (1998), “Ethics in weed science”, in Weed Science, 46, pp. 636-39.


Chi Xin Ci Heather

Endnotes i

Agricultural Subsidies – Global Policy Forum: Accessed on: 18/11/2008. ii Food and Agricultural Organization (2006), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006. iii Paul, J.A. and K. Wahlberg (2008), A New Era of World Hunger? The Global Food Crisis Analyzed, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Briefing Paper, July 2008. iv Globe and Mail, 15 February 2008. v Lang, T. (2008), “The Death of Food as We Know It”, in The Ecologist, March 2008. vi FAO/AGL – TERRASTAT. Accessed on: 18/11/2008. vii Prior to proposing these thresholds, Parfit (1984) presents a solution to resolve the paradox, namely to impose an upper limit on the quantity of good that can be increased by increasing the sheer number of people, so long as their lives are worth living. He rejects this conjecture and considers instead, the positive and negative thresholds.


Intergenerational Agriculture Ethics  

A philosophical case for practicing sustainable agriculture here and now. By Heather Chi, for the University Scholars Programme.

Intergenerational Agriculture Ethics  

A philosophical case for practicing sustainable agriculture here and now. By Heather Chi, for the University Scholars Programme.