Harm to Others: The Social Cost of Antibiotics in Agriculture

  • Jonny AnomalyEmail author


It has become increasingly clear that the use of antibiotics in conventionally raised livestock contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In this paper, I argue that the harm principle of classical liberalism should guide agricultural policy in general, and the regulation of antibiotics in livestock in particular. After developing an interpretation of the harm principle, and framing the choice to produce and consume animals treated with antibiotics as a classic prisoner’s dilemma, I consider some policy responses to the problem, including a ban on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics.


Harm principle Antibiotic-resistance Conventional agriculture Pigovian tax Food labeling 


  1. Conner, D. (2004). Expressing values in Agricultural markets: An economic policy perspective. Agriculture and Human Values, 21, 27–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Feinberg, J. (1987). Harm to others: The moral limits of the criminal law. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Fishkin, J. (1992). “Justice across the generations”. In J. Fishkin & P. Laslett (Eds.), The limits of intergenerational justice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Gaus, G. (1999). Social philosophy. London, UK: M.E. Sharpe Publishing.Google Scholar
  5. Golan, E., et al. (2001). Economics of food labeling. Journal of Consumer Policy, 24, 117–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gorbach, S. (2001). Antimicrobial use in animal feed––time to stop. The New England Journal of Medicine, 345(16), 1202–1203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Holtug, N. (2001). The harm principle and genetically modified food. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 14, 169–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Holtug, N. (2002). The harm principle. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 5, 357–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Kades, E. (2005). Protecting a precious resource: Rationalizing the use of antibiotics. Northwestern University Law Review, 99(2), 611–675.Google Scholar
  10. Levy, S. (2002). The antibiotic paradox. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.Google Scholar
  11. Lyons, D. (1997). “Liberty and harm to others”. In G. Dworkin (Ed.), Mill’s on liberty (pp. 115–136). Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield,Google Scholar
  12. McEwan, S., & Fedorka-Cray, P. (2002). Antimicrobial resistance in animals. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 34(suppl 3), 93–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Miejboom, F., Cohen, N., Stassen, E., Brom, F. (2009). Beyond the prevention of harm: Animal disease as a moral question. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  14. Mill, J. S. (2002). On liberty. New York: The Modern Library.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Nathan, C. (2004). Antibiotics at the crossroads. Nature, 431, 899–902.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Osterber, D., & Wallinga, D. (2004). Addressing externalities from swine production to reduce public health and environmental threats. American Journal of Public Health, 94, 1703–1708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Pretty, J., et al. (2001). Policy challenges and priorities for internalizing the externalities of modern Agriculture. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 44(2), 263–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Rudholm, N. (2002). Economic implications of antibiotic resistance in a global economy. Journal of Health Economics, 21, 1071–1083.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Sachs, J. S. (2007). Good germs, bad germs. New York: Hill and Wang.Google Scholar
  21. Sachs, J. S. (2008). DNA pollution may be spawning killer microbes. Discover Magazine, 14 February 2008.Google Scholar
  22. Salyers, A., & Amabile-Cuevas, C. (1997). Minireview: Why are antibiotic resistance genes so resistant to elimination? Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 41(11), 2321–2325.Google Scholar
  23. Sen, A. (1970). The impossibility of a Paretian liberal. Journal of Political Economy, 78, 152–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Shah, et al. (2007). Worldwide emergence of extensively drug-resistant Tuberculosis. Emerging Infectious Disesases, 13(3), 380–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2005). “It’s not my fault: Global Warming and Individual Obligations”. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong and R. Howarth (Eds.), Perspectives on Climate Change. JAI Press.Google Scholar
  26. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (S. 549, H.R. 962). Retrieved December 15, 2008, from
  27. Union of Concerned Scientists. (2001). Hogging It!: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock. Retrieved December 15, 2008, from

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations