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The ethics of nudging

Write the right thing

Wright thingSay you're a speechwriter for a large animal health company and your CEO calls you into his office. He wants you to put together his remarks for an upcoming speech to the 10,000 attendees of the Future Farmers of America annual convention.

He lays out the main point he wants to make: "The world’s growing demand for meat, milk, and eggs is a more urgent priority than American consumers’ desires for food that is organic, antibiotic-free, or pasture-raised. Industrial farming is not only necessary but also a moral imperative to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. We don’t need more animals. We need productive animals.”

Corporate speechwriters are often in this position, though their clients' direction is not always as crisp and articulate. And as they leave their CEO's office, if they aren't auditioning opening lines in their head, they're probably running through the resources they can tap to flesh out the speech with gee-whiz factoids and heart-warming anecdotes. 

How many consider the ethics of what they've been asked to do?

Speechwriters often joke they make corporate policy with the words they put in their clients' mouths. In reality, few CEOs are meek enough to simply read what's put in front of them in 14-point Arial type. And once they review, edit, and approve a speech, they own it even if they didn't come up with any of the clever turns of phrase themselves.

But speechwriters should be more than wordsmiths; the good ones are also guardians of the corporate character and values. And that is a decidedly ethical responsibility.

The "client input" above is based on a BusinessWeek story about Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal health division. Except for the last two sentences about not needing more animals, he didn't say those exact words, but it's representative of his perspective. And he definitely sees his business in a moral dimension.

Meanwhile, food activists as well as some scientists and regulators oppose the use of some of the antibiotics and growth enhancers his company makes. Consumer sentiment seems to be moving away from food grown on industrial farms towards more "natural" and "organic" versions. Fast food chains like McDonalds are moving towards using largely antibiotic-free beef, chicken, and milk. 

Does that mean animal health companies need to get in line?

In some ways they have. Both Elanco and competitor Zoetis have agreed to the Federal Drug Adninistration's voluntary guidelines on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. They recognize the ethical importance of keeping human antibiotics out of the food supply to avoid the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In fact, Elanco is applying the FDA guidelines worldwide.

But the ethical implications of giving human antibiotics to animals falls into the category of settled science, meaning there's a scientific consensus that the preponderance of evidence indicates it's dangerous to human welfare.

There is no such consensus on other issues -- like the development of animal-only antibiotics and genetically modified seeds, the use of muscle growth drugs, or indeed tconsuming animal meat itself. 

As long as Elanco  doesn't fudge facts or tell lies, respects those who hold opposing views, and doesn't try to undermine people's ability to consider all sides of the issue intelligently, it is perfectly ethical to present its perspective as forcefully as it can. And that includes framing it as a moral issue.

Which is what a good speechwriter would do.




The dilemma you outline here is an old one. How to provide plentiful and affordable food that is healthy and nutrutious. Upton Sinclair wrote about the same problem in 1906 with publication of The Jungle. The answer is that both organic and factory foods are needed as long as the factory foods do no harm. In wealthy countries that have the resources to make organic food and the people can afford it, by all means make and sell that kind of food. In poorer countries where people have difficulty affording food, make it as cheaply as possible as long as it is healthy.

Veterinary medicines, selective breeding and animal modification has improved the quantity and quality of food. Dairy cattle give almost twice as much milk per cow today than in the past (about 8 gallons per cow per day) due to selective breeding, better feed and veterinary medicine. The result is fewer cows in the U.S. with more production. Thus less feed is diverted from animals to humans and less waste is produced by herded cows.

In some cases veterinary medicine is crucial. The prices of eggs and poultry have been rising for the past year due to a variant of H5N2 influenza that is infecting flocks. Without vaccine for chickens and other farm birds, there would be no eggs or poultry at any price.


Excellent, as always, Dick. Fully agree. Ethics and morality come into play every single day. Maybe not on every interaction, but on most. I love your conclusion. Absolutely right on.

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