Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head and other guidelines to ethical eating

I love what Art Caplan has to say about shopping in the supermarket in this Washington Post article entitled, "Is there anything left to eat?": Caplan believes there's no need to have "a moral aneurysm" every time we go to the supermarket. Every person, he says, needs to establish a scale of ethical priorities. Is taste most important to you? Cost? The environment? Your health? Animal suffering? Pick one thing that matters most and let that drive your decisions.

For Caplan, No. 1 on his list is whether suffering was involved. "So I want happy chickens, no veal, no foie gras. After that comes environmental impact, and then labor. I have an ethical guide in my head that helps me through the store."

He also points out that, in a way, we should be grateful we are even considering all these ethical questions. "These are the dilemmas of abundance," he says. "If we were living in Darfur, the only answer to 'what to eat?' would be 'anything I can find.' "

1 comment:

Kevin T. Keith said...

I have some sympathy for Caplan's suggestion that we have a certain amount of freedom to set ethical priorities. I am very concerned, however, by his suggestion that you can set those priorities any way you want - including by putting "taste" ahead of "suffering".

Taste - here, the literal taste of food - is by definition the quintessential "matter of taste", or personal preference. You are free to make what choices you like in such matters. Moral obligations, however, have compulsory power. Normally, we think moral issues override matters of taste, including, well, taste.

Caplan may simply have made an ill-considered choice of examples, but if he really thinks taste can be prioritized over suffering, health, or the environment if you choose to do so, then he has surrendered the leverage that allows us to say that certain choices are morally better than others and therefore should be made as a matter of priority. This, I think, is the fundamental premise of ethics - that some things are optional and others obligatory.

I was surprised and disappointed by Caplan's quote. I had more to say about it here, if I may be forgiven the self-reference, but the bottom line is I think he got it wrong.