John Phipps' on Fair Oaks Farms: Do What's Right Because It's Right
The undercover video of animal abuse at Fair Oaks Dairy and the subsequent actions by the management have been all over the news the last two weeks. Most people probably have formed their opinions on this situation so I don’t think I can add much. I do have some observations.
First, in situations where people have absolute control over captives, behavior tends toward cruelty. Read about the Stanford Prison experiment. This aspect of human psychology is a constant problem when humans are involved, but more so between humans and animals. Controlling those impulses requires enormous effort and discipline.
Second, as businesses grow it becomes harder to ensure the corporate culture of proper conduct is enacted all the way from the boardroom to the bottom-rung worker. This does not mean smaller dairies are necessarily more humane in caring for animals, but that the economic returns to scale for large operations are counteracted by the rising economic risk of incorrect employee actions.
Third, trying to make money off good conduct carries its own risk. If part of the product you are selling is virtuous behavior, mistakes cause more economic damage. Marketing departments need to fold in the cost of failure, because zero-tolerance sounds good but is very hard to achieve. My experience with nuclear power in the Navy taught me rigid adherence to absolute performance standards can only be achieved if drilled into every member of the organization relentlessly and monitored constantly.
Finally, video trumps all other information. You can’t unsee things that trigger disgust or horror. With video technology and data storage so inexpensive, even those of us in rural America should assume someone is watching when we choose to ignore our ethical standards.
There is a case to be made for businesses to avoid public claims of high moral ground even when making strenuous efforts to achieve superior standards. Not in order to indulge in unethical practices unnoticed, but for the simple reason that inevitable mistakes devastate such a business plan. In short, do the right thing because it’s right, not because it’s a sales feature.