In this post, Rubén Marciel (UPF and UB) and Pablo Magaña (UPF) discuss their article recently published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethical legitimacy of misleading commercial speech for ‘green’ or ‘ethically produced’ animal products.

Photo by Mae Mu with Unsplash Licence.

Walk into your nearest grocery store, carefully peruse the shelves, and you are likely to find images of happy cows, and labels advertising “climate-friendly,” “humanely made”, or “humanely raised” meat products. At first glance, you might deem this a morally praiseworthy and highly commendable effort to reduce animal suffering, environmental degradation, and unhealthy habits. The problem, however, is that these labels are quite often inexact, misleading, or plainly false. Indeed, many of the animal-based products advertised as green or ethically produced come from the industrial agricultural system, which is neither climate-friendly, nor particularly humane. A tremendous effort it may be, but one aimed at hiding from customers, or perhaps helping us willfully forget, the environmental, moral, and health-related costs of the animal industry. In a recent paper, we explore how such forms of misleading commercial speech, which we label “happy cow messages”, harm consumers’ autonomy and what could be done about them.

Against happy cow messages

Some argue that commercial speech is always morally objectionable because its main goal is to persuade us to buy things, even if, like Melville’s Bartleby, we would prefer not to. We do not hold such as strong view. What we argue is that, regardless of what we think about the morality of commercial advertisement in general, happy cow messages have two features that make them particularly objectionable on autonomy grounds. 

First, happy cow messages are likely to increase the so-called value-action gap—that is, an inconsistency between our moral concerns and our behavior. People repeatedly report being concerned with animal welfare, human health, and the environment. By obscuring the link between the animal industry and environmental degradation, animal suffering, and health issues, happy cow messages, make it harder to close the gap between our concerns and our actions. On the one hand, happy cow messages make it harder to detect whether our market choices mismatch our values. On the other, they provide us with easily accessible and highly comforting rationalizations, thus making it easier to defuse any annoying cognitive dissonances that may push us to align our actions with our values.

Second, happy cow messages also hinder our ability to think about our moral obligations. It is widely accepted that we have a general obligation not to contribute to causing unjustifiedharm. Determining whether, in practice, this general obligation entails that we should refrain from purchasing certain animal-based products requires a large amount of moral deliberation and, importantly, considering relevant empirical facts that happy cow messages obscure. By misconstruing these facts, happy cow messages make it harder for us to deliberate about what we should do in particular circumstances (e.g., in the supermarket).

In a nutshell, our argument is that happy cow messages thwart our capacity to live according to our own moral convictions, and to adequately deliberate about our moral obligations. Note that this argument does not appeal directly to the moral worth of animals, as it is primarily grounded on the value of human autonomy. This should make it appealing even to the most avid and unrepentant meat-eater. Note also that our argument may apply beyond animal-based products, for instance, to sweatshop-produced textiles or blood diamonds whose advertisement presents the two problematic features of happy cow messages. Although we are open to discussing these cases, our article concentrates in the animal industry.

What about free speech?!

See those raised eyebrows? “Perhaps”, our objectors will say, “your argument explains why happy cow messages are objectionable. Indeed, it might even give us pro tanto reasons to regulate commercial speech more strictly, or to enforce existing regulations more robustly. But surely these reasons are easy to defeat! After all, restricting, or even regulating, happy cow messages would violate a fundamental liberty: freedom of speech.”

In our paper, we reject this objection. Freedom of speech is usually justified in three ways. First, as a building block of a well-functioning democracy. Second, as an essential requirement of individual autonomy. Third, as a precondition for truth to prevail in the free marketplace of ideas. None of these rationales, we hold, lets happy cow messages off the hook.

To begin with, happy cow messages are an instance of commercial,not political,speech. This renders the democracy rationale inapposite. Second, regulating happy cow messages would not throw human autonomy under the bus, as humans would still be perfectly free to reflect about, endorse, or even work on, the animal industry. What we argue is that the animal industry is not entitled to convey misleading commercial speech that harms the autonomy of others and setts back their interests as audiences. But anyone could still write books defending the animal industry, or buy shares from Tyson Foods, if that is an essential element of their life plan. Finally, the truth rationale only works when ideas are the target of reasoned debate and careful deliberation, pursued by honest truth-seekers. Commercial speech, though, is quite different from (and often detrimental for) deliberation, and its emitters’ main goal is to maximize sales, not the pursuit of truth. Thus, the truth rationale is also inapplicable.

If we are right, none of the main justifications for free speech warrants happy cow messages protection. Since we also have compelling reasons to regulate them, or make the enforcement of existing regulations stricter, the next question is: how could consumers’ autonomy be protected?

A detailed answer to this question would require considering a lot of contextual and empirical factors, such as the possibility of abuse from authorities and similar slippery-slope risks. Our article – which aims to inform public deliberation, but not to replace it – cannot get into these intricacies, so we just offer a brief discussion of several alternatives, which range from the most stringent measures – such as legally banning happy cow messages, in general or in specific settings (e.g., in TV advertisements during family hour) – to softer ones – such as mandating the disclosure of relevant information, as currently done in many countries with nutritional values.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.