Philosophy prof works to improve animal bioethics teaching across disciplines

Gary Varner

Gary Varner, professor and head of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, has been awarded a three-year USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant to develop course materials on animal bioethics for use in college-level classes. Varner is one of the principal investigators on the project, which totals more than $400,000.

Varner states that the rationale for the grant is to help agriculture faculty address important animal ethics issues in a philosophical manner. The grant seeks to create freely available “modules” that will help faculty incorporate discussions of animal agriculture ethical issues in their classes.

“Studying what philosophers study and write about ethics and agriculture can help people understand in more detail what the issues are and what alternative considerations might be,” said Varner.

Varner anticipates producing modules regarding ethical argument and analysis, controversies surrounding animal welfare standards, and environmental issues related to animal agriculture.

“Animal science faculty with no background in philosophy often feel ill-prepared to discuss issues in animal ethics in their classes, even as it seems increasingly important to have such discussions. In this grant, two philosophers are teaming up with four animal scientists to produce and make freely available materials that will help such faculty incorporate ethics discussions in their classes,” said Varner.

In the final year of the grant, faculty will be invited to participate in workshops at which the curricular materials will be introduced.

“Going forward, we plan to have two workshops at which people from around the country who aren’t philosophers would come together. We would introduce them to the materials, do mock classes and class discussions, and get their feedback on how we can fine-tune the modules so they will be most useful,” Varner explained.

One of the main benefits of this project, according to Varner, is that it allows for the spread of ideas across disciplines. The value is twofold: not only can agriculturalists benefit from interacting with philosophers by learning how to better articulate their positions, but philosophers can improve their ways of thinking by sharing ideas with others outside the field.

“You can’t get the facts in a philosophical ivory tower. You have to go out and learn about the agricultural practices and cultural practices,” said Varner. “Too often philosophers have thought that they don’t need to be interdisciplinary in that way. That’s beginning to change, I think. The interdisciplinary approach improves the philosophy.”

Varner has been a member of the Texas A&M philosophy faculty for 22 years. His research specialties include Harean two-level utilitarianism, animal welfare and animal rights philosophies, and environmental ethics.