Boycott or engage
A version of this article was first published: ethics.org.au - December 2011
The recent call for a boycott of Pork by Animals Australia raises a number of ethical questions around the use of boycott (named after Captain Boycott, an Irish landlord agent isolated by the Irish League in 1880) as a mechanism for change.
The premise behind a boycott is straight forward. Reduce or stop consuming something so that the economic impact will drive the supplier into behaving differently. Boycotts are one form of economic sanction. Others include such things as bans on sale, punitive tariffs or quotas. We see the use of boycott or other sanctions used in a wide variety situations. As a form of non-violent action, sanctions and boycotts are generally supported as a preferred form of action. Recently, economic sanctions have been used against various Middle Eastern countries. An example of a highly successful boycott was the sporting boycott applied to South Africa during the apartheid era.
The argument against boycott is that it can often impact groups that are not connected to the offender or are groups that the boycott is trying to help. The argument against boycotting oil from Iraq was that those most impacted were the average citizens whilst the leaders of the regime suffered little.
The other issue to address is the motivation of those boycotting. There tends to be two groups of boycotters. Those who believe that the company or regime have conducted some sort of unethical behaviour. This group will be prepared to pay a higher price for a similar product that is produced in an ethical manner. Others who join the boycott may do so because it makes them feel good. This group may be less attached to the actual ethics of the company or regime but wish to be seen as ethical themselves.
Looking at the request by Animals Australia to boycott pork there are a number of questions for consideration.
- Will a boycott be effective? The recent case of the live cattle export clearly shows how effective public outrage can be. The critical issue in this case was that the regulator (The Australian Government) responded decisively and quickly. While there are clearly advances being made in the processing of cattle in Indonesia, it is complex and clearly issues still exist. Of note is that according to a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), approximately 325 people were estimated to have either been laid off or not hired between the start of the suspension and the resumption of trade at the end of June.
- Who will be impacted? If the boycott is effective then all producers and those in the supply chain will be equally affected. The question becomes should there be a generalised accountability for a specific agent failure. In other words, is the whole industry and those associated with it responsible for the actions of one abattoir.
- Is there a compelling reason for a generalised boycott? If we accept that the impact of a boycott will impact more than those responsible for the failure, is there some overriding justification. With the sporting boycott of South Africa, many anti-apartheid individuals were affected. An argument could be made, especially in the sporting arena, that engagement is aneffective way of promoting integration. In the case of a possible pork boycott, the callers for the boycott would need to make the argument that the benefit/utility of boycotting of pork would outweigh the accepted impact on those who are not associated with the specific abattoir.
- Does the principle/doctrine of double effect apply? Could an argument be made that it is acknowledged that there will be an impact on those not associated with the abattoir but that this is not the primary intention of the boycott. This argument used in some medical cases and most often in acts of war requires acknowledgment by those calling for the boycott. In the case made by Animals Australia it seems that no acknowledgement is made of the impact on those outside the abattoir. Again, an argument could be made that the boycott was primarily aimed at improving the welfare of factory farmed raised animals. That to effectively achieve this goal non-factory farmed animals would also be impacted and that this was an unavoidable consequence of the action.
- Are there any alternative actions that could be taken that do not impact those who are in the supply chain that support animal welfare? Boycotts are effective but could they be targeted? What about other non-violent actions such as a campaign to increase transparency on labelling, have everyone ask their waiter the provenance of their pork, petition government on appropriate welfare regulation, engage with industry on animal welfare concerns and so on. The list is endless.
This discussion will raise questions not only about the ethics involved in the pork industry but more broadly the ethics of what we produce, distribute and consume.
Philip Wright is an accredited Educator and Counsellor at St James Ethics Centre and a Psychotherapist in private practice. Using psychoanalytically orientated approaches, he works with individuals, groups and organisations both in Australia and overseas. He is a Member of the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Register Ethics Committee and past Chair of the Australian New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists Ethics Committee. He sits on a number of panels that investigate ethical complaints. Discuss these themes with Philip Wright in the forum