Category Archives: Ethics

A Reply to Rodney Harrison on the GCSB Bill

One of our members, Colin Hunter, presents an opinion piece and reply to the talk we had by Rodney Harrison QC on the GCSB bill.

The following is my reply to a talk given by Rodney Harrison QC, who was discussing the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill. What I want to do is flesh out a few of the technical points Harrison referred to and also discuss some of remedies and ethical questions he posed.

For those that are not familiar with the ramification and specifics of the bill I would recommend this article from Tech Liberty.  From what I can tell it seems to accurately describe the issues. I would also encourage people to read the actual legislation and bill that amends it here. In my opinion the Tech Liberty article accurately describes the amendment bill, but for those who really want to read, go ahead and read the actual bill text.


One of the key questions around the GCSB bill is about how the courts will interpret the legislation. This is because the law is not just what the bill says, it is how the courts interpret it. I asked Harrison about some of these issues, which you can see in the question and answer part, but what I wanted to do is explain how this actually works in the context of a bill.

The Courts are the interpreters of law. They have a number of mechanisms at their disposal that allow them to determine what a statute actually means. Generally speaking the ordinary meaning of a statute is a good guide, so non-experts should be able to read the statute and determine what it means, most of the time. However when it comes to legislation that violates a fundamental right, the courts tend to interpret that law differently than they might any ordinary statute.

Law comes from two places (primarily); from statute law and there is the common law, which is the law that judges make. It is important to understand that in New Zealand there is a doctrine called Parliamentary Supremacy and that means that when push comes to shove, the intent of Parliament always triumphs, which is to say, statute law is superior to common law. Paradoxically, Parliamentary Supremacy is itself common law (but lets not think too hard about that). Some common law has to do with interpreting legislation (statute law). The “Principle of Legality” is one such mechanism and it says that so far as the courts are able they assume that Parliament did not intend to override a fundamental right. This means the courts will try to limit the meaning of section of a statute that breaches a fundamental right, when they interpret that law, as long as it does not frustrate the purpose of the act.

Statute law is important here too. Perhaps the most important statute to be aware of is The New Zealand Bill of Rights 1990 or NZBORA (here). That is the document which outlines many of our basic rights and freedoms. Included in the NZBORA is “s 21 Unreasonable search and seizure Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure, whether of the person, property, or correspondence or otherwise.” This is the primary right that is argued has been breached by the GCSB. So the courts have developed a method of dealing with rights breaches in R v Hansen.

The first thing the court does, is it looks at whether on the ordinary meaning of the statute there is a conflict with the right. It seems this is the case here.

If that is the case they adopt the Oakes test that Harrison referred to determine if under s 5 of the NZBORA whether it is a reasonable and justified limit. “ Justified limitations Subject to section 4, the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

There are actual criteria that you can go through to determine this. They are, as outlined in R v Oakes, as restated in R v Hansen: 1. “The objective of the impugned provision must be of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom; it must relate to concerns which are pressing and substantial in a free and democratic society before it can be characterized as sufficiently important. 2. Assuming that sufficiently important objective has been established the means chosen to achieve the objective must pass a proportionality test; that is to say the must: 1. be ‘rationally’ connected to the objective and not be arbitrary, unfair or based on irrational considerations; 2. impact the right or freedom in question as ‘little as possible’; and 3. be such that their effects on the limitation of rights and freedoms are proportional to the objective.”

The answer must be yes to all these questions, that is if it fails a single step then it is not a reasonable limitation on that right. Now obviously such things are subjective, although judges will look at past judgments and various sub criteria for determining this, but it is important to understand, that most professionals other than Attorney General and the Crown Law office think that at least one of these answers is no, if not several. While Harrison was guarded in the talk about speculating too much with regards to the Supreme Court’s likely stance, I think it is likely that the legislation would fail a s 5 Oakes test.

Once this is established the next stop is s 6 “Interpretation consistent with Bill of Rights to be preferred Wherever an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning.” This where the courts have the most room to manoeuvre. If they can read the offending provisions down, which is to say give them less meaning, they are required to do so. Remember that “Principle of Legality”, well here it is written into statute, it is best power our courts have to limit rights infringing legislation. I asked Harrison about how likely the courts would be to read down the legislation. He was guarded, as it is pure speculation, but he mentioned the court is generally conservative and places a lot of weight on that aforementioned Parliamentary Supremacy. However in cases like R v Poumako the courts have been willing to read down, significantly, legislation which is particularly egregious. In my opinion though, the GCSB bill is nowhere near as bad in terms of violating rights and principles of law as the home invasion legislation contained in that case.

If the courts cannot reasonably give the section a meaning consistent with the rights, then s 4 will apply. “Other enactments not affected No court shall, in relation to any enactment (whether passed or made before or after the commencement of this Bill of Rights),— (a) hold any provision of the enactment to be impliedly repealed or revoked, or to be in any way invalid or ineffective; or (b) decline to apply any provision of the enactment— by reason only that the provision is inconsistent with any provision of this Bill of Rights.”

This will mean that the enactment will be given effect despite the fact it is an unreasonable restriction on a right.

Section 4 of the NZBORA is the reason that the courts cannot actually strike down legislation, unlike many other common law countries. As such we have no defence against a bill other than the power conferred in s 6.

The Problems

Harrison pointed out I think correctly, that the issue is knowing your right is infringed. You see it may be that the courts will take a look at the legislation and might even read the enactment down, but given that the actions of the GCSB are secret, there is no ordinary way to know whether a right is infringed or not and whether you could get the courts to even read down the provisions. So it may well be that the courts would be willing to read down a provision, if a case came before them, but if you never know if your right is infringed and are never able to bring a case before the courts, they will not be able to rule (and thereby direct the GCSB in future cases) on the issue.

There is one potential solution to this problem and that is that a interpretive judgment could be pursued in the High Court. Someone (presumably a wealthy private citizen) could pay for such a judgment, which would then give instructions to the GCSB about how their powers under the act. I am not sure how plausible this is, but Harrison did discuss the possibility.

Warrants and Judicial Review

One of the other aspects that is worth considering is the issue of Judicial Review. This is when the courts examine the decision making powers of the executive, more specifically here the issuing of warrants. There are various grounds for such action illegality, procedural impropriety and irrationality. This allows the court to potentially overturn warrants and directions issued by the Minister and appropriate executive members. While this is not an ability for the courts to overturn any old decision, it can mitigate against the harshest and most flagrant abuses of power. Technically Judicial Review is not supposed to look at the content of such decisions, merely whether proper procedures have been followed. In practice there is a very limited ability to look at content, if ‘no reasonable decision maker could have come to that conclusion’. However courts are very hesitant about using this power unless it is obvious the decision maker is acting outside the scope of the power conferred.

Again however the difficulty here is getting Judicial Review, because everything is secret, there is no ability to know if a warrant has been obtained or not. So it makes it difficult to prevent in theory. Furthermore Judicial Review cannot give damages, it can only quash decisions and order them to be reviewed. This means that if a decision has already been made and your private communications were already looked at, nothing can be done. It is worth noting a couple things here. The warrants are the most worrying aspect of the whole bill, they are issued jointly by a former High Court Judge and the Minister, but given there is no real ability for oversight I think this is a major concern.


This is a popular topic at the moment. The difficulty is that the law is incredibly unclear with regards to this, there is not much to say, again we can hope the courts will give clarification.

Political Issues

Harrison brought up a few a few political issue that bear some consideration. The first of these is the idea that the s7 report from the NZBORA requires that there is a report issued with regards to right breaches in legislation. “ Attorney-General to report to Parliament where Bill appears to be inconsistent with Bill of Rights Where any Bill is introduced into the House of Representatives, the Attorney-General shall,— (a) in the case of a Government Bill, on the introduction of that Bill; or (b) in any other case, as soon as practicable after the introduction of the Bill,— bring to the attention of the House of Representatives any provision in the Bill that appears to be inconsistent with any of the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights.”

Harrison brought up the problem that while a bill is prepared it is not independent as the Attorney General is a member of cabinet and also there is no binding nature on Parliament to implement its recommendations. He pointed out that in this case no report was issued, because it was determined there were no unreasonable breaches of rights. While I agree with Harrison that this seems odd in this context, it is not true that the reports are always in favour of the government’s position. In fact the Attorney-General does enjoy some independence in this role. Having said that in this case I would bet serious money, that it was made known that given the politically contentious nature of the decision, that it should be viewed as not breaching rights. Anyway that is just conjecture, but it is worth noting.

Furthermore Harrison also discussed that Parliament itself is bound by the NZBORA, when legislating. This is true in a technical sense, but there is no ability to review this. The courts have turned their face from interfering in the matters of Parliament because of the doctrine of Separation of Powers and Parliamentary Privilege (which prevents the courts looking at Parliament). This means that functionally Parliament is not bound by the NZBORA, since there is no one to hold them accountable. I believe Harrison was more making the point that Parliament is ethically obliged, rather than legally, which I would not dispute.

The issue of MP’s voting against their parties was brought up. MMP government has meant MPs have less power to do this, although traditionally it has been very rare when such action has been taken. This is a wider question for discussion and not one I hold an opinion on, but it is worth considering I suppose.

Other Questions

Some of the questions were of interest as well. One of the considerations was whether an entrenched constitution without s 4 of the NZBORA would alter the landscape. It seems likely that an entrenched constitution with courts that have an ability to strike down laws, might indeed help prevent abusive laws such as the GCSB Amendment Act. However this is a greater constitutional debate. I personally am not in favour of an entrenched Constitution, as I think rights based approaches are themselves ethically bankrupt, because they end up still resulting in hierarchies of legitimacy. Having said this if your desire was to safe guard a right to privacy, then I think an entrenched constitution with a corresponding power allowing the courts to strike down laws would probably offer protection from bills such as this. One thing to consider is whether we would in such a scenario have a constitution similar to the USA, where rights were absolute or one where we had a set of “reasonable” rights, such as what exists in Canada, where rights are allowed to be infringed, so long as they are reasonable. This is closer to what we currently have.

My Opinion

As I alluded to above, I am reticent about discussions of rights. This stems from a more fundamental ethical basis, that I think absolutism, is not a good way to make policy. I do not want to have that whole debate here in this article, but I think there are a few issues that are worth considering. It is all well and good to appeal to a right and attach some moral worth to that right, but at what point should that right over come arguments of utility? Is it really that rights are simply a short hand way of maximising utility anyway? Or is it the case that rights have some moral worth beyond the utility the provide? Is it possible that having a structure of rights, end up being oppressive, as it outline various default positions, that exclude those who fall outside the definitions of rights? If your moral object is not classified as a right, should that give it less force? Does it make it any less wrong? What I want to think about is whether rights discussions are even the best way for us to engage with the issues. Clearly that is how our established institutions deal with them, so perhaps we have little other recourse, but I see danger, even in the need to appeal to such institution for us to determine what is and is not ethical.

Furthermore I think that even if we were to accept a rights discourse as a legitimate way of discussing such things, there seem to be far more serious breaches of rights, that we stay silent about. I do not mean that we should not complain about the GCSB bill, far from it, but what I would encourage us to do, is think about some of the other Acts that the current government have passed or are intending to pass that seems to be far more egregious, or at least as questionable.

This is probably the best example, other than perhaps the Canterbury Recovery bills, that really were much more objectionable from a rights perspective.

The Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013 Legitimises a discriminatory practice of paying people less if they care for family members who are disable, even if doing the same job of some one who is paid more and not a relative. – Breaches right to be free from discrimination s 19 NZBORA. See Ministry of Health v Atkinson for a fuller discussion on this. Removes access to the courts to challenge any of the provisions – Breaches Right of Natural Justice and access to the courts – NZBORA s 27 – considered one of the most important of all rights (along with freedom of torture, double jeopardy, right against retrospective legislation and right to life) – see Ex Parte Witham for a fuller discussion on right to access the courts. There are many other rights infringing bills that have been passed and it is something that is not as rare, perhaps as it should be, but if you have an interest in such things, then I would suggest looking hard at such legislation, particularly anything that prevents challenges in court.

I personally do think the GCSB legislation is a bad idea, but I do not think it is quite as important as is made out. I just do not care that much ultimately, I am much more concerned about legislation that is discriminatory to those on benefit (such as the recent changes to the benefit scheme making it mandatory for parents to register children with doctors) or the Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013 or the proposed changes around child abuse and those with sexual convictions. I would must rather see us focus on other issues. None of this of course makes this legislation right and I guess I am glad at least that people have taken notice of something, but I must admit, my heart just is not in this one.

– Colin Hunter, RSS Member

Open Culture – Why it matters and why you should care

Open Culture: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care,

Monday, August 5th.    Case Room 1, OGGB,        6pm to 8pm.

Peter Harrison, president of the New Zealand Open Source Society, will discuss the resurgence of open culture: open source software, creative commons, and open research.



Paul Rishworth on Same sex marriage and religious exemptions

On Tuesday 26th March we had a presentation by Paul Rishworth on Same-Sex marriage and Religious Exemptions: how New Zealand law and international human rights law interact.

This talk gave an overview of how international human rights law has developed since its origins in the aftermath of World War II, and how that body of law now interacts with New Zealand’s own law. Against that background, the current debate about same sex marriage, and the case for religion-based exemptions from solemnising same-sex marriages, will be explored.

Speakers Profile:
Paul Rishworth joined The University of Auckland Faculty of Law in 1987. His research interests are in the field of human rights and comparative constitutional law, and South Pacific legal studies. His work on the New Zealand Bill of Rights has been widely cited by peers, practitioners and judges. He has worked over the years as a consultant and advisor for government agencies and groups, including the Human Rights Commission, in New Zealand and overseas, on issues ranging from restrictions on hate speech to the autonomy of religious organisations to hire and ordain leaders.
Paul was the Faculty Dean and the Head of the Department of Law 2005-2010. He remains involved in the litigation of civil rights issues in the higher courts and in community organisations. Most recently he presented in person the NZ Law Societies submission to the same same-sex Marriage Bill. 
Details of this submission and the NZ Law Societies position can be found here:

A law allowing same-sex couples to marry was passed on Wednesday 17th April

UPDATE: Here is the video from this talk.

David Attenborough, Population and Resources

On the Tuesday 9th October we didn’t have a guest speaker planned, so we watched a David Attenborough documentary and then discussed issues of population growth and the earth’s resources.


Considerations FOR same sex marriage

On the 18th Sept we hosted a debate on legalizing same-sex marriage. 

Here is one RSS member’s considerations FOR. 

“Marriage has been a traditional social institution in multiple forms predating reliable recorded history and our current limited definition by a considerable period of time.  Some of these traditions included marriages of same sex couples which were overwritten by a limited Judaeo-Christian derived definition conceived in a period of extreme homophobia.  That tradition should now be overwritten by an egalitarian one that recognises a relationship on its own merits.  The truth is that marriage was a legal contract used for commercial gain and/or power consolidation between the upper classes.  It progressed into an expression of love that provides legal rights for those in it; it is simply time that it progresses further.

“Gay marriage equality parallels that of the struggle of interracial couples in USA in the 1960’s.  Many of the arguments against selectively extending this right to include interracial couples are the same, including it being unnatural and children are worse off in interracial families.  All are based on a combination of irrational fear, logical fallacies, appeals to tradition and empty claims about the public good.  The data does not back any of these arguments, if it did the opponents to gay marriage would be able to produce independent studies supporting their point but just the opposite is true. The legal option obtained by opponents to the current bill has been thoroughly debunked.  There is no risk that ANY individual or Church will be forced to recognise or hold same sex unions, just as they are not forced to hold or recognise interfaith or racial unions now.

“The average gay relationship is identical in every way to the average straight relationship with the sole exception that the couple cannot have heterosexual sex, so cannot produce children.  If we are going to legislate policy on the bases of what type of sexual acts a couple preforms in the privacy of their own bedroom we are on very shaky ground. Additionally many straight relationships do not produce offspring, either by choice or by infertility problems; if this was to be the reasoning then these relationships should be excluded from marriage as well.  Furthermore, gay couples have the same desire to be parents and do so via the same means as many couples with an infertility barrier.  There has been no evidence that they are unfit parents. If marriage between loving couples provides the best environment for children then we should not be punishing those with gay parents.

“Same sex couples share their lives as completely with each other as straight couples do and with that comes the need for legal protection. Civil unions were a step forward but they are not a copy/paste of all the rights and privileges of marriage nor are they recognised globally.  Even if they were, “separate but equal” is not a message we want to send.  Due to all of this it is in the public good to be egalitarian unless we can find an objective reason why we should not.  Harm is caused by discrimination while there has been no evidence presented of actual harm in extending marriage to be inclusive of gay couples.”

Michael Walker on Tuakana: History, Results, and Affirmative Action

Mike Walker will be giving a talk on the Tuakana program at the university. The program has helped to improve equity and equality at the university and yet is often accused of representing ‘reverse racism’.

In this talk, Mike Walker will explain why such claims are inaccurate and will talk about the success the program has had in creating a fairer university for students involved.

This event will take place at 7:00 in room 206-209 of the Arts 1 building on Tuesday 25th September and, as always, all are welcome.

UPDATE: This talk can be viewed here:



Justice with Michael Sandel. Arguing Affirmative Action.

Same-sex Marriage Debate – For and Against

We will be holding a group discussion on whether to legalise gay marriage. Speaking against the law change will be Zachary while supporting gay marriage will be Joshua. The discussion will be moderated by Talia.

Each side will give a 10 minute opening statement and 10 minutes of questions for the opposing side. There will then be a general group discussion or question time until 7:00.

This event will take place at 5:00 in room 206-209 of the Arts 1 building on Tuesday 18th September.

All welcome!


UPDATE: You can view the debate here:

The Last Supper

It is finally the last week of posts so Kevin and Blair are going to provide closing statements and a little bit extra for those newly interested in the topics covered. On a side note both Kevin and Blair are curious as to whether there are been any recent Veal purchases or any enrolments into Vegan Academy. Most importantly Kevin and Blair wish to recognise that core to this discussion is thinking critically about our lifestyle choices and how they affect our health, the environment, and other beings (like carrots says Miles).

Kevin’s closing statement (Vegetarian/Vegan)

In the past four weeks both Blair and I have discussed some of the issues surrounding diet and meat consumption. From the Vegetarian/Vegan perspective I have tried to get across that:

1)      Vegetarian/Vegan diets are healthy, and contrary to popular belief they are neither difficult nor risky.

2)      Meat based agriculture has a significant impact on the environment through contribution of greenhouse gasses and contamination of local ecosystems with hormones, antibiotics, and viruses which would otherwise have not occurred naturally. Also meatless agriculture has much more potential to alleviate hunger and malnutrition throughout the world.

3)      People have it in them to treat animals with the dignity and respect they deserve, but whilst we eat meat we further contribute toward a food system that disregards real suffering.

From these points it seems if we as consumers suffer no significant hardships from a meatless diet and if there are large benefits to ourselves, others, and the environment, then we might find ourselves obliged to become Vegetarians or Vegans.

Diet is such an intimate part of our lives as it constitutes not only our nutritional intake but also our culture and social interactions. But it also has a profound effect on the rest of the world and as such our food choices will not always be simply a personal decision independent of other factors. Again, thinking like this is not new as there are many restrictions on how we satisfy other basic needs that we have (think sex).

New or ‘wholesome’ nutrition understands this and as such recommendations extend beyond what is immediately healthy for the individual and help build a framework that is healthy, culturally and socially acceptable, and of course sustainable. Meatless diets are not only compatible with this framework but I would argue that they are what wholesome nutrition should set to attain.

But Kevin! Is it really culturally appropriate for everyone to abstain from meat? I would say yes. With a few exceptions (inuits being one), most cultures around the world include substantial portions of plant foods in their cuisine and as such plant based dishes can provide culturally and socially appropriate sustenance. Furthermore whilst taking meat out might be a small disruption toward some cultural practices (such as removing turkey from Christmas dinner), culture transcends meat and can be expressed just as well without it. This is evident in the many vegetarians and vegans that still hold their culture dear without meat being a part of it.

The following is a list of interesting sources for anyone who wants to know more about Vegetarian and Vegan diets, or just diet in general:

Amato, P.R., & Partridge, S.A. (1989). The New Vegetarians: promoting health and protecting life. New York: Plenum Press. (The detailed findings of a large scale study of vegetarians/vegans, easy and interesting read).

Hursthouse, R. (2000). Ethics, humans and other animals: an introduction with readings. London: Routledge. (good overall look at treatment of animals)

Lappe, F.M. (1982). Diet for a small planet: tenth anniversary edition. Now York: Ballantine books. (An older book that is still very relevant today).

Leitzmann, C. (2005). Wholesome nutrition: a suitable diet for the new nutrition science project. Public Health Nutrition: 8(6A), 753-759.

Mason, J., Singer, P. (2006). The ethics of what we eat. Melbourne: Text Publishing. (Has been published many times under similar names, very extensive and up to date, provides an interesting narrative style of academic writing).

Messina, V., Mangels, R., and Messina, M. (2004). The Dietician’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications (2nd ed.). Jones and Bartlett Publishers: Boston. (Good for detailed nutritional information).

Nestle, M. (2006). What to Eat. North Point Press: New York. (Anything by Nestle is interesting, she writes allot about food politics, this book brings diet and food choices into the wider context).

Ost, D. E. (1986). The Case Against Animal Rights. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 24(3). (Interesting counter argument against Regan’s animal rights approach).

Regan, T. (1988). The case for animal rights. London: Routledge. (A rights based approach).

Sanders, T. (1988). Growth and development of British vegan children. In American Journal of Cinical Nutrition, 48. 822-5. (Just an interesting article that looks at raising vegan children).

Singer, P. (1990). Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review of Books. (Easy reading).

Website for PETA:

Website for Vegetarian Society New Zealand:

Movie: ‘Earthlings’ (documentary on animal abuses in our food choices and beyond).

This list is by no means exhaustive, there are many more interesting sources of information out there that are sure to provide information and more.

Blair’s closing statement (Pro-meat/Primal)

So we have discussed plant or meat based diets with respect to the health, sustainability, and ethics of each. I have tried to show that:

  1. A meat based diet is not unhealthy as many would claim; in fact meat is an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. So much so that one could survive (and live well) on a diet of only meat.
  2. Animal products (such as meat) can be sourced sustainably, particularly free range or pastured animals. And that pastured land has a much higher level of biodiversity than a mono-culture grain crops.
  3. It is morally permissible to eat meat and in doing so we accept our place within nature, and do not attempt to live outside of it to enforce our mastery over nature.

Some people make a choice to move towards a vegetarian or vegan diet based on sustainability, ethics, and their love of animals or simply to pull hot hippy chicks (Robb Wolfe outlines this stage of his life in the Paleo solution diet). They then attempt to justify the health of this diet and the evils of meat by finding ways to claim that meat is unhealthy.  From here we get claims against the saturated fat, increases in cancer or that meat leaches calcium from the bones leading to osteoporosis in meat based diets. This last one has been proven wrong so many times it has now been dubbed the vampire myth as it never dies. So many of these claims are misconceptions had half truths thrown around constantly to undermine the place of meat in the diet, when instead they should be looking at their own diets which can be extremely unhealthy unless care and attention are taken.

This kind of argument (conclusion followed by searching for evidence) is reminiscent of religious thinking. Richard Nikoley of free the animal points out that the vegan diet (in particular raw foodies) have all the underpinnings of religion. The guilt, sin and shame (from having eaten animals) which can be saved or absolved with a life of abstinence (from meat) and struggle with a restrictive diet. Don’t allow yourselves to be sucked into this kind of backwards and extremist logic.

Those last two paragraph will have seems rather harsh on vegetarians and vegans but I meant for it to be aimed at particular corners of the vegetarian/vegan camp and not across the board. A vegetarian or vegan diet can, with great care and attention be healthy (or at least resemble health). But claims for health should only be made after an examination of all the choices and evidence on diet and health alone. Considerations of sustainability and ethics should not drive someone to say their diet it healthy. If you make your choice of diet based on sustainability and/or ethics that’s fine, but don’t then spout off about meat leaching calcium from bones and other anti meat myths to justify yourself.

Given my own research an omnivorous diet or meat, vegetables, fruit, huts and seeds (but no grains) appears to be the optimal human diet. This diet is backed up by science as a healthy modern diet. It is easy to follow and gives people amply vitamins, minerals and energy. For more information on primal/paleo eating and lifestyle here are my top 5 sources (alphabetical order):

Good calories bad calories By Gary Taubes

The paleo solution diet by Robb Wolfe

The primal blueprint by Mark Sisson

That wraps it up nicely. For everyone who continued to read and put off their exam study, we appreciate it and hope that you will continue to keep and eye out for future dialogues. Hopefully the RSS will be starting another conversation with an equally interesting topic mid July. Hope you have all passed your exams.

Kevin and Blair

Week 4: ‘Counterstrike’

After writing on the topics of Health, Sustainability, and Ethics; Blair and Kevin have a chance to respond to some of the concerns that were bought up in the comments and criticisms of previous weeks. This means that there isn’t a specified topic but rather a series of interesting takes on unanswered questions, including speciesism, evolution, surviving vs. thriving, and vitamin B12. Keep an eye out for more questions that need asked and be sure to make some noise in the comments so that Blair and Kevin have content to address.


Blair’s Response (Pro meat/Paleo/Primal)

Firstly an issue was raised with my assumption that the diet of modern hunter gatherers reflects the diet of early humans over the past 2 million years (on Facebook). This is a fair point to bring up, as we cannot know specifics about past diets (in evolutionary time), and we cannot know how well modern hunter gatherers reflect this. However given the state of time travel technologies at present, modern hunter gatherer populations will have to suffice as a reasonable approximation.

Another related issue wasthat wording “evolved to eat” sounded somewhat teleological (In a comment on the post). What I meant was the diet which produced a selective pressure and drove evolution (even that wordings not very good, but let’s not get bogged down on that). He suggest that we do experiments on modern humans to find what makes a healthy diet (reasonable), and that historical conditions are less important (depends what you call historical). He suggests that using evolution to suggest a diet is like using past fashion trends to choose what to wear. This is ridiculous as evolution has shaped our physiology in the ways that we use a process food, to disregard this would be to disregard important hypothesis generating processes.

A related suggestion is that if a sci-fi algae food pill was made then the diets of the past would be irrelevant. This is simply not true. The current mainstream suggested diet contains a lot of grains (and therefor a lot of carbs), if the algae pill is modelled after this several questions arise. Do we include the same level of anti-nutrients as found in grains? No that would be stupid. Should we include the same amount of fibre since they say it’s good for the heart? Is it really good for the heart? What’s the mechanism? Could that be an artefact of the data? (I would say defiantly). Should it include 300 grams of carbs per day as suggested currently? Research shows that’s probably too much, research independently done on modern hunter gatherers (a diet based on evolution?) and modern humans with physiologies shaped by evolution. My point is that evolution has shaped our physiology; this is what we must think about, not today’s cheap, grain heavy diet.

That took a lot of words; I’ll be brief from here on.

Kevin suggested that B12 needs could be met partially by unwashed vegetables, but it is often an unwise suggestion to eat unwashed vegetables due to chemical sprays (both conventional and organic) and possible contamination by unwanted bacteria. This levels many still requiring supplementations which is less than ideal. Wild animals don’t require supplements, why should we? – Primal/paleopropaganda.

In his second post Kevin showed that a grain based diet is more sustainable than a meat based diet even when the meat is pastured. There’s no contending that, it’s much more efficient to grow grains than meat, BUT a big question remains “Is more better?” Well more protein, carbs and fat from grains than meat, it sounds good. But the grain also has vastly more anti-nutrients than meat. A serving of grain will be produced on less land than a serving of meat – that does not mean that it’s better for you. The serving of grains contains too many crabs for most people, too many anti nutrients and not enough protein when compared to the meat. Sure you can survive on this grain diet, but you can thrive (be very health, useful and enjoy life) on meat.Also meat and dairy can be more sustainable on marginal lands see –

Lastly I will bring up the again the issue of feeding the world. It is often touted that there is not enough land to feed the world with meat, particularly in the future due to increasing populations. While true, people are looking at this the wrong way around. There are too many people for the land to support on a healthy (meat containing) diet. If an environment does not contain enough food for the species it supports we do not say there is not enough land, we say there are too many animals. (I mean environments unaffected by humans, and areas where humans have reduced the normal range).

Kevin’s Repsonse (the Vegan/Vegetarian)

The issue of surviving and thriving came up in the first week. From a purely nutritional angle, M., M., and M. Show that vegetarians don’t consume much less protein, in order of omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan the values are 16%, 14%, and 12% of total diet, so really the difference isn’t that great. Amato and Partridge (1989) note that studies comparing the self reported health status of health vegetarians and other vegetarians show that their positive health claims are not simply placebo.

But from a social perspective we find that for many people being a vegetarian/vegan can become a form of thriving. For example Amato and Partridge (1989) note that some vegetarians find their lifestyle choice helps them grow and achieve their full potential, some people even became vegetarian as a as an exercise in discipline, using diet to help in other areas of their lives. Just to note, Husrthouse (1996) stated clearly that vegetarianism is not a virtue, this is grammatical though since vegetarianism is a practice and not a character trait. However Hursthouse does describe virtues that are associated with ethical vegetarianism (honesty, compassion, and temperance). From all of this we can understand that Vegetarianism/Veganism can help some people flourish and thrive.

In week three Blair showed us his animalistic side by reminding us that we are still animals and as such we can’t just transcend our nature. It is interesting that this was bought up, since there are many animals that are not carnivorous. I would suggest that whilst humans are able to digest meat, to abstain from it would not be to remove oneself from nature.

But even if it was more ‘natural’ for us to eat meat, we would have to confront how ‘unnatural’ animal agriculture has become. Think of the life which some animals lead, cramped in cages and extremely limited in their movement (some never feeling natural earth below their feet), or the use of hormones and antibiotics which facilitate such an existent. There is little left that is natural in many sectors of modern animal agriculture.

But even for areas of animal agriculture that are still natural, we have to remember that just because something is, doesn’t mean it ought to be. This distinction made by Hume (cites IEP, 2011) can help us understand that we are animals, and animals can be raised for food in a manner that is not cruel. But that no ‘ought’ statements can come from this.

Some people in the last post questioned the relevance of speciesism; stating that when you compare discrimination of species with racism and sexism you devalue the latter two. The claim that speciesism is different is a common retort, and in some ways I agree. Racism and Sexism are both examples where there is very little difference, if any, between the groups involved. Speciesism on the other hand involves groups of beings with a diverse range of features that make mediation a much larger project. But at the heart of all are the same values that would not allow us to discriminate based on morally arbitrary facts such as skin colour, sex, or species.

Singer (1999) argues that there are morally relevant differences between humans and other animals that can allow for differences in treatment, but species itself isn’t one of these differences. Furthermore the differences that we do count as relevant don’t allow us to treat animals with the malice that we see on the modern farm.

With regards to the specific point that we should be solving our own human problems before we focus on animals, Singer(1990) states that there is no incompatibility between helping people and animals and that the many people that do good to others can easily make the change to less cruel diets without taking their focus from human wellbeing.

From all of this, the main point I’d like to make is that Vegetarian/Vegan Diets aren’t at all incompatible with the values expressed in the criticisms or values that we all hold in general. As you may have observed in the previous posts both sides criticise the newer industrialised model of farming and monocultures, both sides agree that animals are a concern and that arbitrary discrimination is bad. It is not a huge difference of values, merely a difference in how they are acted upon.


Amato, P.R., & Partridge, S.A. (1989). The New Vegetarians: promoting health and protecting life. New York: Plenum Press.

Hursthouse, R. (2006). Applying Virtue Ethics to our Treatment of the Other Animals. In J. Welchman (Ed.) The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Virtue Ethics (pp.136-154). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (2011). Evolutionary Ethics. Retrieved from

Messina, V., Mangels, R., and Messina, M. (2004). The Dietician’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications (2nd ed.). Jones and Bartlett Publishers: Boston.

Singer, P. (1990). Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review of Books.

Singer, P. (1999). Equality for Animals? In R. Hursthouse (Ed.) Humans and Other Animals (pp. 211-221).Oxford: The Open University.

With one more week to go, be sure to ask any questions or make any points before it is too late. Discussion on the facebook page is usually quite intense through the week so be sure to check us out. Remember if no body posts anything, then it just gives  Kevin more chance to talk about his sappy feelings and Blair more chance to talk about eating animals, rather than any interesting intillectual material.

The Final Re’Veal’ – Ethical Considerations

So far Kevin and Blair have covered health and sustainability, but like most things (star wars being an exception) they have saved the best for last. This week, they put on their moral hats and address whether there are any ethical considerations associated with diet. So prepare yourself to read the ultimate ethical showdown between vegetables and veal.

Question 3: Are there ethical considerations around choosing a meat based diet? If so what are they?

Kevin’s Repsonse (the Vegan/Vegetarian)

Whilst there are many ethical considerations surrounding diet (we have touched on some in the previous post), out of sake of interest and limited word space I have decided to take the tofu-bull by the horns and simply address considerations around eating animals. This section will skim over the applied ethical arguments that accompany animal liberation pieces, it will also contend with common intuitive counter arguments that seemingly hold weight.

Singer and Regan both make the accusation of speciesism toward our treatment of animals. Singer (1999) invokes the principle of “equal considerations of interests” by acknowledging suffering without preference to what abilities or features a being possesses, but we would have to measure suffering in a meaningful way. Singer highlights the case of the man and the mouse both with cancer, stating that the man suffers more as he is more aware of what is going on than the mouse. This will be discussed further in the post.

Regan (1999) states that there is a fundamental wrong in the way we treat animals, the system that allows us to think of and use animals as OUR resources is this wrong. Regan argues against using the capacity to suffer and asks us to recognise the inherent value of beings regardless of species. This inherent value requires us to recognise and fulfil rights.

Basically, the element doing the work here is expanding our sphere of concern toward other beings that we know experience pain and anxiety. Beings which as stated in the documentary Earthlings are strong, intelligent, industrious, capable of growth and adaptation, seeking comfort and freedom from pain and suffering. The rest of the work (appealing to pain and suffering and fulfilling rights) is something which we do within our spheres already.

Hursthouse (1999) uses a virtue ethics approach; she asks whether we can be honest and deny animal suffering? Can it be anything but callousness to just shrug it off? Can we deny the cruelty in modern farming practices? The answer to these questions is no and Hurthouse urges us to employ temperance over greed and self indulgence.

Authors such as Ost (1986) have argued against Regan’s rights model by stating that it can be problematic to recognise animal rights given that they would be moral patients (worth moral consideration but with no moral responsibility) rather than moral agents (who have moral worth and responsibility). This becomes a problem when the agent’s life is threatened by a patient. But to recognise animals as moral patients would not be a new feature of our moral landscape as we currently hold children and otherwise incapacitated people to be moral patients without the same concerns.

In a previous post someone commented by stating that anyone serious about being a vegetarian must also not eat vegetables since they are alive and will feel direct injury and stress. This at first seems like a silly argument but reveals an important part of eating ethically. Of course a carrot won’t feel the pain and anxiety that a human or a pig feels (I can address multiple realisability next week if anyone is interested). But neither will a mouse feel the immense spectrum of complex emotions that a human feels. For many it becomes a safeguard to think of animals as ‘like us’ and prescribe our thoughts and feelings onto them, but this anthropomorphism is dangerous and can even be considered offensive.

Last week Thomas Pogge visited the University of Auckland to talk on the harmful effects of the global order. He made a point that future decision making should not be made based on reducing harms, but rather based on justice. Sure, no one from a hundred years ago could have imagined or predicted the gross exploitation of animals today, but it is no longer sufficient to praise innovations in rearing that are less harmful, or we might just find that we fall into the same justifications that Pogge cited for nineteenth century slavery (“that slaves are enjoying great lives now that we don’t whip them”). Instead we should take Pogge’s advice and ask what is just and how we can create a just system of food production.

As a last point, I urge any readers to remember that there may be ethical forms of animal agriculture; in fact many third party organisations endorse the more animal friendly products. But the animal products you buy in the supermarket or restaurants may not meet those standards. Don’t ask ‘if’ animals can be reared without suffering; ask ‘are’ they reared without suffering and in a way that fits with your conceptions of justice. If the answer is no then vote with your food basket and avoid supporting animal cruelty and injustice.


Singer, P. (1999). Equality for Animals? In R. Hursthouse (Ed.) Humans and Other Animals (pp. 211-221).Oxford: The Open University.

Regan, T. (1999). The Case for Animal Rights. In R. Hursthouse (Ed.) Humans and Other Animals (pp. 211-221).Oxford: The Open University.

Hursthouse, R. (2006). Applying Virtue Ethics to our Treatment of the Other Animals. In J. Welchman (Ed.) The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Virtue Ethics (pp.136-154). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Ost, D. E. (1986). The Case Against Animal Rights. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 24(3).

Blair’s Response (Pro meat/Paleo/Primal)

The way in which I try to live my life is based on evolutionary thinking. When I consider the best way to live my life I look back at how my ancestors would have lived, not just my Neolithic ancestors but the paleolithic ancestors as well (hence the paleo diet).  When we think in this way we must accept that we are animals ourselves, living within the environment, not outside it, and not exerting some warped sense of mastery over it. I accept that I am an animal; I look at my current physiology and how evolution that has formed this. Given this outlook I can explain the ethics of why I eat meat.

When considering whether to eat meat or not we often encounter the utilitarian argument that animals can suffer so we should seek to minimise this; or that animals are experiencing subjects of life (Tom Regan). This argument seems reasonable, but what about the millions of animals that die every day not at the hands of humans, but at the hands (claws, teeth etc.) of other animals? The death of these animals often involves far more suffering than the methods most humans use. Should we not also seek to minimise this killing? We cannot do this, and it would be arrogant to suggest that we should. We do not sit outside of nature, we are a part of it, and we are animals.

Another common argument is that of virtue ethics, that we should have a proper “attitude of respect towards nature”. The idea is that we flourish if we live in awe of nature, and so we should seek to minimise our effect on the world. I see the vegetarian/vegan response to this as being backwards. For the most part their diet consists contains large quantities of grains. These are grown as mono culture crops, on fields where all other plants and animals have been removed. This to me is not respect of nature; it is an attempt at mastery or control over it. My diet on the other hand contains pastured meat. While a pastured field has much lower biodiversity than the bush that once stood in its place, the pasture still has more (biodiversity) than the field of grain.

So if we are to think of ourselves as animals and as part of nature does that mean that we can kill without regard for the suffering of other animals? The answer to this is emphatically no. We can feel empathy for our fellow animals and we should seek to minimise their suffering, and give them the most natural life possible. The animals we farm should have room to roam, a natural diet to eat, and the suffering in their life and their death should be minimised. (Note – meat prepared in this way is also tastier and more nutritious).  We should be connected to what we eat, feel bad for killing it, and show respect to those that we eat. To do this is to accept out place with in nature and to cultivate the proper attitude of awe and respect towards nature.

So what about a moral obligation to eat meat, is there ever a time when we must eat meat? I can think of a few situations where someone with a respect for life and nature should feel obligated to eat meat. One would be hunting or fishing for sport (I personally do not like the notion of killing simply for the sport of it), where animals are hunted for sport, their meat should be utilised (all parts of animals should be utilised such as organ meats). In this way the death of the animal takes on meaning, it has been used as sustenance for someone (or something). Another related situation would be in pest control. I have shot, cleaned and eaten rabbits in an effort to keep numbers down on a farm. I felt obligated to make use of the meat so that it did not go to waste.

The third situation is a much more controversial one which I do not have the space to give full credit. Veal has been considered taboo for many years now since people realised than many veal calves were kept in cruel and confined conditions. There are now several different veal options available, with varying ethical considerations.

Veal is most often produced from male dairy calves which have no use in the dairy industry, and are less productive to the meat industry. So there exists a problem – 50% of all calves born in the dairy industry are considered without use. The options I consider the best and most ethical when dealing with these calves is either too kill them within the first 2-3 days to allow the mothers to be milked for industry, or to allow the calf to life for longer on mother’s milk an pasture before being killed for meat (sometimes labelled as calf, not veal). There are other options such as grain and substitute milk feeding, but I consider these and inferior options. If the calves are not used for meat they would be shot, or otherwise disposed of by the farmer and their meat would go to waste. I would suggest that we are morally obligated to make use of this meat so that the death of the calf is not meaningless.


No references sorry, my thoughts and feelings are sufficient for me and I hope they can fuel your own thoughts.


A big thank you goes to Mathew Goode, who despite being a vegan was gracious enough to help me in preparing my response. Without his help my response might have been little better than “man like meat”.

This is the last of the structured questions which Kevin and Blair will be answering. During the next two weeks (13th/20th June) they will be providing answers or more detailed discussion on points that came from the first three posts. So be sure to leave comments/complaints/questions in the comments section or on the Reason and Science Society’s Facebook wall.

Good luck with exam study.