Of Pigs and People

Listener 9 January, 1993.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy

This is about pigs. It could be in honour of Charles Lamb’s ‘A Dissertation on Roast Pig’ from which I learnt of the art of the essay, but I am not going to write about that. Nor am I going to write about Animal Farm where all animals were equal, but pigs were more equal than others. And, while I am: tempted to write about how pigs might fly and the health reforms might work, I leave that to Minister of Health Simon Upton, who also writes essays. As for ‘to market, to market’ the fate of the pigs involved is too painful to write about.

I could write about a previous minister of finance known as ‘Piggy’ and worse – but won’t. Or write about his successor, who became a pig farmer. The farm became insolvent and, in the ensuing litigation, the farm manager said of our intrepid ex-minister: “All along the figures being given were what Roger [Douglas] reckoned could happen and would like to happen, but wasn’t happening.” By even stranger coincidence Douglas’s equivalent across the Tasman is also a pig farmer, despite being promoted to prime minister. Recently an animal rights group picketed Keating’s piggery, objecting that “the pigs spend their lives locked in tiny pens with concrete floors”. But at least the operation is a going concern, as is Australia – its national output (GDP) rose 20 percent between the March years of 1985 and 1992, while ours rose one percent.

Instead I am going to write about John Stuart Mill (1806-73), who was not a pig farmer but one of the most brilliant 19th-century polymaths. He wrote on ethics, philosophy, scientific method, social policy – and was arguably the last great classical economist, challenged only by Karl Marx (1818-83), for after them came neoclassical economics with its more elaborated theory of market demand.

Mill can be a code word for being a member of the New Right. His On Liberty (1859) is an impassioned plea against the totalitarian state in defence of liberalism and tolerance. But he did not stop there. One of his last works was the pro-feminist The Subjection of Women. In between, in 1867? Mill wrote the definitive work on Utilitarianism, in which he developed the theories of his father James Mill (1773-1836), and his father’s mentor Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832),

Utilitarianism is the doctrine that decisions should promote good consequences with Bentham arguing for the promotion of ‘pleasure’ and the prevention of ‘pain’. Ironically, the neoclassical theory of market demand is based upon utilitarianism, and today economists’ public policy recommendations tend to be justified in terms of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ (although ‘greatest’ twice creates a logical problem). This utilitarianism is inconsistent with the extremist libertarianism with which Mill is sometimes associated

However, Mill could see a flaw in the early utilitarian hedonism because it assumed that all pleasures were of the same quality, to be compared on the same scale. This is where pigs comes in for he wrote ‘It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.’

That raises an acute dilemma for public policy. Is our objective to make pigs and fools happier, or is it to help them become humans and philosophers? Economists might say that is not a question they are competent to answer, and they are not even sure who is. But it remains a practical policy problem.

For instance, the Treasury submissions to the Royal Commission on Broadcasting ignored the issue. Despite commission rejection, its approach drove the following broadcasting reforms, moderated only by the then Minister of Broadcasting, Jonathan Hunt. When people complain of the subsequent fall in broadcasting standards, they are not simply advocating elitism but harking back to John Stuart Mill.

The same thing happened when fundamental science was given lower priority in the research. science and technology reforms. Pigs and fools don’t care about the origins of the universe or whatever, humans and philosophers do, even though the answers may not be satisfying.

It also occurs in the populist versus elitist controversy in art which is simmering in a number of centres.

Again, our very education system is being systematically reprogrammed to give higher priority to a vocational education, with a corresponding downgrading of a liberal one. How many of today’s business graduates have studied philosophy?

So often we avoid the quandary of intellectual quality by ignoring it. It is as if we i are committed to producing the happy pigs of Animal Farm – no wonder there is so much unhappiness. In the 1950s Peter Tomoroy, while director of the Auckland City. Art Gallery, said we were “a land inhabited by 60 million sheep and two-and-a-half million Philistines”. Forty years later we have fewer sheep.

Early colonists commented how well pigs adapted here. J S Polack (1838): “These amiable creatures lead a much pleasanter life in New Zealand than in any other portion of the globe I have seen, except in the principal cities of the United States.” George Chamier (1891): “The pig has some distinguishing qualities of a successful colonialists so the race prospered and multiplied.” Seventy years later James K Baxter added:
Love is not valued much in Pig Island
Though we admire its walking parody.