Ethical Eats

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Naughty Or Nice: The Ethical Dilemma of Food

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Countless childhoods unfold under the omniscient ‘gaze’ of a jolly old figure robed in red and white nordic attire, hustling busily around a workshop, keeping track of annual production targets set for some magically productive elfin proletariat. As Yuletide mythology claims, this holiday ‘saint’ knows when you’ve been sleeping, when you’re awake, and even if you’ve been ‘bad’ or ‘good’ — crazy, right?. So holiday tip: if it’s been one of your less virtuous years, there’s still time to make up for it! May we suggest a plate of fair-trade cookies and a frosty glass of organic almond milk, left out before bedtime this coming Tuesday! It might do the trick.

But in all seriousness, what effect does rhetoric like ‘fair-trade’ and ‘organic’ have when used in this particular way, (i.e. moralistically)? Can words like these be breathed out in ways and tones that are oppressive to certain individuals? I’ve noticed that they sometimes seem to rub people the wrong way; at times I even find them embarrassing to use. There is something maybe a little intimidating about any inadvertently finger-pointing moralist. I sometimes wonder why it’s not yet obvious to parents why their children cry uncontrollably when they are forced onto the lap of this all-knowing ‘upholder of justice’ (Santa), as vague platitudes are whispered into their ears. The last thing I’d want is for anyone to hear the acronym ‘LOFT’ and feel the same way. (LOFT is Oxfam shorthand for Local, Organic, Fair-Trade by the way.) Considering something like this blog title: “Ethical Eats”. What actually makes food ‘ethical’, and in what manner does that imply other food to be ‘unethical’? How can one go about constructing some sort of moral framework around food? Are there universally normative morals when it comes to food?

Understanding the way ethics, in general, has shifted historically can be one of many illuminating approaches to framing the way one thinks about the ethics of food, in particular. Philosopher, Hans Jonas, believes technology and the way it has been used to intervene in nature has been the major reason behind a shift in ethics. He claims historically, ethics has been a matter very intertwined with immediate experiences in very local and particular ways. However with the emergence of technology, the consequences of particular actions rapidly expanded beyond effects that could simply be confined as ‘local’, and resulted in a form of ‘long-range ethics’.

Alasdair MacIntyre similarly argues that one of the most significant moments of modernity was when production, which once occurred within the contexts of the household, moved outside the household — and productive work lost its connection to sustaining a specific community. It is in this where production and consumption become extremely alienated from one another, and the growing opaqueness between these two occurrences, MacIntyre feels, pushed philosophers of the Enlightenment to abandon Greek ‘virtue ethics’ in search of new ethical foundations, such as ‘categorical imperative’ (in the case of Kant) or ‘utilitarianism’ (in the case of Bentham).

With the growing distance separating production from consumption, it seems an impossible task for ‘consumers’ to fully understand the consequences of production. This is a tremendous challenge to ethics, and hence shapes the ethical dilemma we face when choosing our food. The enormous gulf that has emerged between production and consumption leaves the consequences of our actions in many ways unknowable or inaccessible to us. It is essentially impossible to be completely certain whether our actions are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, since we don’t really know what ‘succeeds’ what does not, and therefore ‘long-range ethics’ seems like a frustratingly speculative and abstract affair. And, it is in this uncertainty that Jonas claims that knowledge, relative to its ethical role in the past, has become increasingly valuable today for informing the way think about food ethics.

It’s of my own opinion that this gap between production and consumption has become so perfectly parodied, perhaps subconsciously, in popular imagination that we now have Santa’s elves magically producing little toys for our children’s consumption in the desolate North Pole. I would argue in conclusion that a significant aspect in thinking about the ethics of food is addressing this unsettling separation between production and consumption, and inquiring specific points of praxis in which we can engage to bridge this gap.

(Source: Content borrowed somewhat heavily from ‘The Taste for Ethics: An Ethic of Food Consumption’ by Christian Coff)

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2 thoughts on “Naughty Or Nice: The Ethical Dilemma of Food

  1. Great article! Thank you for writing it. It is always good to see different perspectives. I can see why there may be concern regarding consumption. However, what about price being a mechanism to regulate consumption? Not just for food either, for anything.

    Ex) If price of food rises too high, I would not be wasteful with it because of the cost of acquiring it. Similarly, the price of diamonds is high so I would not throw them in the garbage because the price acts as a communication mechanism to consumers (i.e. everyone).

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