Thursday, August 30, 2012

Discussion: Is Ethics a Luxury?

To most people the answer is obviously no, ethics isn't a luxury. Ethical behavior is what keeps humanity from ripping itself to pieces. But really, beyond the knee jerk reactions let's look at it for real. For this post I'm going to confine it to, are ethical choices about food a luxury?

First things first, as with any discussion of ethics let's start with what ethics is.


  [eth-iks]  Show IPA
plural noun
used with a singular or plural verb a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particularclass of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.:medical ethics; Christian ethics.
moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.

Ok, now that we have a definition for Ethics we need to define what Moral is.


  [mawr-uhl, mor-]  Show IPA
of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules ofright conduct or the distinction between right and wrong;ethical: moral attitudes.
expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct, as a speaker or a literary work; moralizinga moralnovel.
founded on the fundamental principles of right conductrather than on legalities, enactment, or custom: moral obligations.
capable of conforming to the rules of right conduct: a moralbeing.
conforming to the rules of right conduct ( opposed to immoral): a moral man.

Alright, with those definitions out of the way let's move on to talking about whether ethics relating to food choices is a luxury.

First of all we are looking at a complex thing when we talk about ethics, and I think the answer to the question is different based on which definition we are looking at. So let's narrow down what we are talking about a little more than just Ethics as a monolithic whole. Let's talk about on an individual level as with definition three.

"Moral Principles, as of an individual"

The immediate response is that thinking ethically about food is a luxury, plain and simple. Food is a need, and in many cases people have to worry where their next food will come from. To start thinking ethically about food requires the luxury to not be simply needing to eat. It in fact assumes you have the privilege to have an education, and ample food, as well as free time to think about whether your choices are ethical instead of just subsisting.

If it was as simple as that I probably wouldn't do a whole post on it.

So What If I Can Think About Where My Food Comes From?
Ok, obviously the Lady of the House and I do have the privilege to have an education, enough food access to not have to worry every day about whether we will have food, and enough free time to think about whether our choices are ethical. Within that context, I believe that thinking about the ethics of food is not a luxury, it is an important responsibility of being in that privileged position.

Before people start screaming, what do I mean by privileged?


  [priv-uh-lijd, priv-lijd]  Show IPA
belonging to a class that enjoys special privileges; favored:the privileged few.
entitled to or exercising a privilege.

Ok, so now we need the definition of privilege


  [priv-uh-lij, priv-lij]  Show IPA noun,verb, priv·i·leged, priv·i·leg·ing.
a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the veryrich.

That seems clear enough to me. The Lady of the House and I aren't rich, in the context of the USA where we live. What we are though is privileged enough to live in a system where food is plentiful, education is the norm, and on a normal day we won't have to worry about being shot and killed. It isn't something inherently bad, but given that we are in that situation our ethics have to be different.

I think that it is not a luxury for people in our position to think about the ethics and source of their food because in a very real sense we are taking time today to try to insure we can eat, and maintain the position of food security in the future. If we don't take the time that we have due to our position of safety and security now, continuing to have that position could, and likely will end. Part of maintaining our position of food security is ethical choices, and insuring the food security of others.

I actually think that as people in the privileged position we live in it is a responsibility to try to protect and enhance the resources that allow the survival of everyone. Given that, when in a position of privilege it is not a luxury, and is in fact unethical to not think about the source and ethics of our food choices.

Well, Consider it a First Draft
I am reminded of why when ever writing ethics papers I tended to do it in multiple drafts instead of the single draft work format I have with this blog. I've got the basic ideas out there in this post, but there is a lot left to nail down and discuss. For instance, responsibility versus ethical choices. Is it ethically right to do a responsibility, and why?

Jump in and discuss this please!


  1. My immediate impression is that there are degrees of ethics, just as morality is almost never clearly black and white.

    For instance, there are numerous factors to consider when discussing the ethics of food, including individual circumstances and alternatives.

    In general, I tend to believe that our biggest ethical draw is actually in ensuring our survival, the survival of our family, and by extrapolation the survival of human civilization. Everything sort of stems from there. When you look at it from this perspective, handling food ethically tends to make it safer, healthier and keeps it around longer, thus contributing to our own survival.

    However, a draconian interpretation of food ethics may not make sense for folks in poorer situations, as you intimated. As such, I would argue that it is MOST ethical for them to behave in such a way that ensures their survival in the least harmful manner. Even if the same practices may be less acceptable in other parts of the world.

    Just my quick thought. Great post btw.

    1. Thanks for chiming in.

      The point about circumstances and alternatives is very important. There are huge areas in the USA where no matter what you want to do you are stuck with virtually no choices for food. You eat what is in the supermarket from the big agribusinesses. In that case, you can think all you like about ethics of food, it is nigh on impossible to eat more ethically. Sure you can lobby for more choices, and for those companies to do better with food, but not everyone has the time or money to influence the political process.

      That points to the fact that as with ethics, you can't really look at it just on an individual level as much as I focused on that because it is something that ends up being on a cultural level in the end, and has to be to make any sort of sustained and long term change.