The Real Thing

May 24, 2015

Blogging again this week from Schiphol. It seems I’ve missed two of the great denouements of the decade. One would be David Letterman and the other would be Don Draper. Of Dave I could say that his decision to drop watermelons from great heights back in the 1980s was my inspiration to get into food ethics. It wouldn’t be strictly true, but I could say it. Of Don Draper I could say that although I didn’t catch the last episode of Mad Men, I did hear that it ended with the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola commercial. Now that does seem like a tie in to food ethics.

If school were in session (and I weren’t in Amsterdam) I’d poll my MSU undergraduates to see how many of them have seen this iconic bit of advertising. Coca-Cola will gladly play the thing again for you at the website attached to this link. For the link challenged, I’ll say that it starts out with a girl singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love. Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle dove.” It goes on with some ideas about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony before getting to the point, to wit: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”

We could say something about the racial make-up of this assembly of young people that Coca-Cola put “on a hilltop in in Italy”. They’re not ALL white but they are assuredly disproportionately white. But perhaps that would be an ungracious way to remember the 1970s.

After some nice counterpoint repetitions of this, this mostly-white crowd of twenty-somethings breaks into the more familiar “It’s the real thing.” Coke jingle. At least it was more familiar back in 1971. The way I remember it going was “It’s the real thing. In the back of your mind, what you’re hoping to find is the real thing.” Although it would not be true to say that Dave dropping watermelons inspired me to do food ethics, it might indeed be true to say that listening to those Coke jingles sparked my interest in ontology. Both readers remember ontology, don’t you? That riff we did last year about whether small farms are real farms?

Although it might well be true that my entire generation was inspired into their respective career choices by 1960s food and drink advertising, the advice that what I was hoping to find was the real thing (so go study philosophy, you idiot) would have had a totally subliminal effect. I didn’t actually realize how strongly I had been affected until I started watching Mad Men.

But when I went back and played the famous hilltop commercial (the link is still there above, if you’re curious), there was none of this “what you’re hoping to find” stuff, at all. Rather it goes like this: “It’s the real thing. What the world wants today … is the real thing.” Not just what I’m hoping to find, mind you. It’s what the entire world wants today!

So hopefully I’ve inspired you, now, too, if only subliminally. Go out and have a Coke if you must, but for that weekly ontology fix, keep on coming right on back to the Thornapple blog. We will probe the textures and folds of reality and all its simulacra. We’ll do it weekly and we’ll fill the back of your mind with all the tasty bits that will satisfy your longings for thingness. Count on it! And hey, can somebody fll me in on the Letterman show?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Badges Redux

May 17, 2015

It’s 5:37 as I write this. Getting late in the day for a blog this Sunday in May. And I’m tired. … Tired of playing the game… Ain’t it a shame? I’m soo tired….Dammit I’m exhausted!

Those are about the only lyrics I feel good about quoting from Madeline Kahn’s send-up of Marlene Dietrich. I’ve come off another semester of teaching kids who haven’t seen Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles and who would have absolutely no idea who Dietrich was in the first place. The only good thing here is that they can indeed find both of them on U-tube if they are inspired to figure out what the old geezer in the front of the room might be gassing about today.

And I’ve just come from a weekend at the “Food Justice Workshop”—a student organized activity at MSU that deserves high praise. But for some reason—no good reason mind you (other than, as I’ve already noted “I’m pooped already!”)—hanging out with all these young and idealistic kids (I know, I know…people in their mid-twenties don’t like to be called kids, but give me a break) makes me, well, you know, tired. Like explaining to the astonished student who took the bus in from Boulder, Colorado that I had seen the Airplane there back in ’69. She probably thought I meant that a saw an airplane there back in 1869.

I’ve got some colleagues (not quite as young as these kids in their twenties) who are working on a project to create a list of tasks that will promote food justice. (I know, I know. Don’t make fun of this stuff. Just cut me some slack this week. I’m tired!). The idea is that you sign up on a website, and then when you’ve checked in enough to report on your activity, you’ll earn a “badge”, just like you do when you eat at three vegetarian restaurants on Yelp!

Actually, there are already some real badges for more significant activities that are already given out by the Boy Scouts of America. Great stuff. I’m not knocking it. I’m just in that state of mind where the whole world is my voodoo doll. I’m just going with Blazing Saddles again, this time when Mel Brooks was lampooning not Marlene Dietrich but Alfonso Bedoya from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Earning badges for food justice?

We don’t need no stinking badges!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Vocabulary Builder

May 10, 2015

I spent a good hour and a half this morning struggling over a blog for the Oxford University Press website, and now I’m pooped. I don’t even know whether they will take it, so I feel like I’m letting both of my regular readers for the Thornapple blog down. I’m sworn off of my usual insouciance for the Oxford effort, and that (I think) is what made it so exhausting. Of course I can use words like “insouciance” in the Oxford blog, even if I’d be well advised to avoid them here. Oxford is the oldest university in the English speaking world, and their press is the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary—definitive source for English usage. They will be happy when people use the English language to its fullest potential, if anyone will.

However, I’ve been warned that unsuspecting lawyers, city councilmen and the occasional sociology professor find their way over to the Thornapple Blog only to be put off by a word like “ontology” or “catachresis”. There for a while I took to provide links to Dictionary.com. But today I’m persevering.

A pretense of unlettered naiveté to the contrary, I’m sure that both of my regular readers know full well that insouciance is a style of cooking that was originally perfected in Provence during the last three decades of the 18th century. This was a century after the suicide of François Vatel over the late arrival of the fish at his banquet for Louis XIV at Chantilly, but the French were still searching for a mode of preparation that would make the timing of distant ingredients a bit less crucial. It would be another century before the opening of Japan, but recent contacts with the East had made chefs in Nime and Aix-en-Provence aware of the gustatory and preservative properties of the fermented paste from boiled soybeans.

It was not until the 19th century that American naval hero Matthew Perry visited Provence and the Langdoc-Roussillon. Having only recently completed his inaugural voyage to Japan, he was well situated to appreciate the fine flavors of this new mode of food preparation. Perry later made a number of contributions to the English language as a result of his travels. One of them was the word “denim”, which he began to use in reference to any sturdy, cotton twill fabric that reminded him of the textiles he had seen in southern France. He would call them “de Nimes,” (e.g. “of Nimes”). And whenever he would encounter a food that had been allowed to marinate in an inky-brown sauce before being served he would refer to it as “insouciance” (e.g. in soy sauce). Perry’s neologisms (another one the lawyers out there may need to look up) caught on, and there you have it.

Of course you may not care for soy sauce. If that’s the case, you can always maintain that posture of erudition and sophistication that you associate with the Thornapple blog when you are among gourmands and epicures by insisting that your fish or fowl be served “sans souci” (e.g. without sauce). Just take it from me and your dining can be carefree and without worry.

You may be wondering what the connection to food ethics is today, so I’ll fill you in. While doing my “research” for today’s blog I looked up the map for Provence on Google. Then a stray click on my mouse took me directly to the website for Hormel meats “Pepperoni Minis”. They come in something called a “pillow pack”. That’s about all I have to say about it. I’m sure the robots know what they are doing.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Passionate Knishes

May 3, 2015

Taking a break from all that “serious” food blogging for a shout out to Lucinda Williams for giving us this:

Is it too much to ask?
I want a warm bed that won’t hurt my back.
Food to fill me up,
Warm clothes, and all that stuff.

“Shouldn’t I have all this?” she goes on to ask (three times, mind you) before adding “AND passionate knishes (who oh oh oh) passionate knishes from you.” Or something like that.

Neal Young also asked “Are you passionate?” and I must say that I’m asked that frequently. Usually when I’m headed into a meeting with a bunch of people I hardly know. We are all there (it’s presumed) because we are passionate. Passionate about helping people, passionate about food deserts, passionate about little babies and puppy dogs, passionate about the pink boll worm, passionate about gluten-free, passionate about ending the tyranny of logocentrism and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Come right in won’t you please. Fill out a name tag (labeled “Call me…”). I’m always tempted to write “irresponsible,” “unreliable” and to throw in “undependable,” too. But then you get the little index card and the instructions, “Tell us about your passion.”

Well my passion is sarcasm.

THE THORNAPPLE BLOG: Proudly injecting irony, sarcasm and obfuscation into food ethics since 2009.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Nutritional Density

April 26, 2015

This week’s blog has nothing to do the ratio of calories to vitamins, minerals and the other weenie bits in our food that make it healthy (or not, as the case may be). Today I’m wrapping up an unusually long trajectory of musings on the connection between explaining the uptick in obesity and taking some ethical responsibility for doing something about it. We set this up with some desultory blogs on the broader moral significance of eating—hospitality, marking time, comfort food—that sort of thing. But then we dug in on dieting and weakness of the will. That was probably obvious to everyone except the philosophers. The trajectory really took off on March 29 when I brought up the idea that a fat person has only himself (or herself) to blame. Moral responsibility for obesity resides in the bad decisions that are made by individuals.

We’ve spent the entire month of April defending some alternatives to this. The most popular substitutes blame the food industry. Not only have these evil geniuses figured out how to use our propensity for eating more and more to get us to buy their stuff, they’ve crammed their stuff with increasingly less and less healthy ingredients. (Maybe the blog does have something to do with nutrient density, after all!) Along the way we made note of a third hypothesis: the medical model. We’ve gotten fat because of the interaction between these new concoctions of the food industry and our basic biology. We didn’t emphasize how the medical model warps the ethics, however. If it’s our basic biology that’s to blame, the moral responsibility for doing something about obesity resides with doctors. Let them figure it out.

Last week we noted that the food industry can’t really be blamed for what they have done because they are, after all, acting just like the profit-seeking, soulless corporations-existing-in-the-social-milieu-of-ruthless-capital-accumulation that they are. Again, we didn’t really emphasize how this left-leaning diagnosis warps the ethics of diet, but wasn’t it obvious? If we can’t blame the food industry for doing what any red-blooded American self-interested maximizer would do in a heartbeat, we have to blame the government. The problem has to be addressed through changes in public policy. Maybe deep changes in the structure of our social institutions. Moral responsibility becomes social and the primary agent to effect change is going to be whatever political regime happens to be running the show at the moment.

There are some other candidates we haven’t considered. To wit: let’s blame technology. It’s all those afternoons spent staring at screens and playing with robots instead of going outside to walk the dog, play a game of catch or plant pansies in the flower garden. If we would just jiggle our bods around some, we might not get so fat in the first place. And here again, the moral of the story changes: It’s not our social milieu that’s the problem, it’s our technological milieu. So instead of blaming the food industry, we blame Apple, Microsoft and Sony. I hope you are getting the picture that I could go on like this indefinitely, but when next week rolls around, it will be May already and I really need to think about something else for my own sanity, if not yours.

But I want to close with this thought: It seems pretty obvious that all these possible explanations are partial and mutually compatible. It’s not either or. It’s individual decision making and the actions of the food industry and some facts about our biology and our public policy and declining physical activity together that are causing the dangerous increase in obesity and the rise in heart disease, diabetes and other bad nasties. So why is it that when we shift the conversation toward ethics, toward who or what should be taking some responsibility for this situation, we suddenly become blame shifters? We assume that if individuals are even partly to blame, the food industry (or the video game industry) is totally off the hook? We think that if there is some kind of policy change needed, it’s a purely governmental responsibility and no one else in the whole mess has any reason to do anything at all?

Now that’s what I call nutritional density.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

But Can We Blame Them?

April 19 2015

We’ve been exploring how the Evil Empire (e.g. the food industry) can be held responsible for the increase in obesity and the decline of public health for the last two weeks. This week we pause to remind ourselves that the food industry has done all these things because they are trying to make a buck. However much we might despise a real living and breathing human being who allows greed to overcome his or her moral sensibility, we pause to remind ourselves that “the food industry” isn’t a real living and breathing human being. Sure, there are real living and breathing human beings who work in the food industry, but their jobs involve figuring out how to make a buck for the firms they work for. And they are very good at their jobs, as the blogs of the last two weeks attest.

I come back to this in the context of food ethics because my lefty friends are deeply troubled by it. The rightwingers in my social circle hardly think about it at all, and that’s their problem. But this week we are ministering to the outrage and blistering vituperation that only a properly exercised leftwing radical can generate. Sure, they’re usually focused on social justice—the fact that poor people go hungry or the way that workers in the food industry are exploited and underpaid. But just mention that food industry firms have been working hard to figure how to make us eat more and more of stuff that we should be eating in high moderation (to the extent that we should be eating it all) and you will be met with a sputtering, exasperated desultory philippic about the venality and irresponsibility of profit seeking firms. It’s like the smell of napalm in the morning (God! How I love it!).

Of maybe they won’t, and that’s what I wanted to blog about today. No one is actually better at telling the story of why we shouldn’t expect anything other than pure profit seeking behavior from the commercial sector than a committed lefty. Or perhaps I should say that no one is better unless it would be a radical lefty. Any sociology major you happen to meet on the street can give you a very convincing explanation of why the capitalist system rewards—and because of that perpetuates—organizations that devise new ways to increase the ROI. This includes for profit firms, to be sure, but it’s not limited to them. The beauty of capitalism is the way that other organizations—schools, churches, government agencies—can be situated so that they, too, ensure that no opportunity to increase the return to financial or fixed capital can be upped a little bit, even when it means taking food out of the mouths of babies (or what amounts to the same thing, depriving future generations of the quality soil that they will need to grow their food). When you’ve got this kind of system in place, you expect food industry firms to find ways to make you eat more, like concealing the amount you are actually consuming in a big fat juicy beefsteak. You expect them to find ways to make a bigger dollar by substituting whatever cheap crap they can for higher quality ingredients, and to use both advertising and chemical additives to make sure you don’t notice it. If the system is what is making them do that, how can we blame them?

So the moral of this story is that if you are a leftwing radical who was about to write your own blog about how Thompson is just an apologist for the Evil Empire when he says in the Thornapple Blog that “Well, duh! Food industry firms aren’t such a candidate for being held morally responsible for obesity after all,” remember this: I got it all from you in the first place.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Chemistry

 

April 12, 2015

Oops! Unless you are one of the two readers who frequent this locus on bi-weekly to monthly basis, it seems that a random web-search may have landed you right in the midst of a long stream of consciousness rant on ethical dietetics. It began with some thoughts on being hospitable, but turned quickly to the overriding concern that we (and by “we” I mean humans) have with the effect of what we eat on ourselves. We are, it seems, predominantly self-interested when it comes to what we are and are not putting into our mouths. And then we veered over to emphasize the impact of dietary choices on our personal health. Moving right through the obvious thought that what we eat is primarily up to us (and hence it’s oneself you should blame when things go badly), last week we looked at the equally obvious thought that the food industry’s constant exhortations and inducements for eating more, more, more provide an alternative hypothesis for assigning blame.

We said then (and by “then” I mean last week) there was not one but two ways that the food industry could be held accountable for the bad dietary decisions that people have been making of late. And the other one, the alternative to making us eat more, more, more, has to do with what it is that we are eating. I think (and by “think” I mean suspect) that this hypothesis is a bit less obvious than the “more, more, more” hypothesis, but in the wake of dietary exposes by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Marion Nestle (Food Politics), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma & In Defense of Food) and David Kessler (The End of Overeating) mentioning it in the Thornapple blog may be yet another instance of futile redundancy. Everyone already knows.

Neither of my regular readers will be surprised to find me saying that this turns out to be a more complex hypothesis than might at first appear. First, it overlaps with “more, more, more” quite a bit in that the shift in what people eat coincides with the food industry’s promotion of a “cheap, cheap, cheap” dietetics. They had allies here, not the least of whom would have been Calvinists who believed that spending money on something so base as food was just a form of showing off. Piety is to be found in penny-pinching and in avoiding the display of wealth or good fortune. But that’s a story for a different blog. For now we are maintaining that laser-beam focus on the food industry. In that context, “cheap, cheap, cheap” meant potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, as well as cooking absolutely everything you can in the deep fat fryer.

The more interesting ways in which the food industry changed what we eat have a basis in science. To wit, a good half century or more of research in flavor chemistry, augmented by studies of bizarre things like “mouth-feel”. I’ll bet you can take an entire course on mouth-feel at my university, but I’m too lazy to sort through the catalog looking for it. All the authors listed above talk about this, but Kessler is particularly good on the way that food science searched for that perfect combination of the sweet-salty-crunchy-fatty goodie that would be absolutely impossible for a creature with the evolutionary history of homo sapiens to resist. I blogged about this a few years back in connection with a donut special I happened to pass during one of my too-frequent visits to a large metropolitan airport.

The take-home point here is simply that the food industry has deployed the tools of chemistry, medicine and behavioral science to figure out recipes that are going to pull our chains. It would have been comparatively rare for humans to encounter these combinations of tasty and appealing foodstuffs during the caveman days, or even in 1952, for that matter. It might have even made sense to put on a bit of fat when the chance is right in front of you when human societies were encountering food shortages once or twice in every decade. How can we possibly be expected to do anything but consume these products today?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

The Fires of Mordor

April 5, 2015

We’re right in the middle of a multi-week theme here at the Thornapple Blog, so if you are just dropping in you might find it helpful to go all the way back to February if you want to get the full treatment. But the synopsis is that we’re taking a dive into moral dietetics: the ethics of what you choose to eat, and we’re focusing especially on the way that what you choose to eat affects you, rather than someone else. This points us directly to overeating (though we should probably come back and do undereating sooner or later). I’ve been trying to resist the idea that overweight people have no one to blame but themselves.

So let me just make things easy this week by pointing to the most popular alternative. If obesity is not just a problem of poor decision making by individuals, we need to find some other way to explain why people are getting fat in unusually large numbers. If we find that the increasing rate of obesity has been caused by something other than a lot of spectacularly bad behavior by people acting one by one on their own initiative, then we can replace the individualistic theory of ethical responsibility for unhealthy eating habits with some better account.

And the most popular alternative is: THE FOOD INDUSTRY! This would be a theme we’ve touched upon many times in the Thronapple Blog. People are getting fat because the conglomeration of industrial farming, industrial scale milling, slaughtering, processing and distribution companies, the food manufacturers and finally the retailers (in the form of grocery and restaurant chains) are doing things that cause people to eat badly.

I think there is absolutely no doubt that this is true, but the tricky part comes because there are many rather different ways in which it is true. And here’s a warning: it’s going to take me a couple of more weeks to tire of this theme, and even then I won’t really have exhausted things.

So for this week—again with the idea of keeping things simple—let’s just start out that there are two big lines of thought to follow through when we probe how the food industry is the cause of people eating badly. The first is that people are eating the wrong food, the second is that whatever they are eating, they are eating too much. My sense is that food activists have sort of picked up primarily on the first line of thought. We’ll come back and revisit that in another blog down the road, so for now let’s just close off this week’s entry by noticing some dead obvious things about eating too much.

First, eating has become incredibly convenient of late. A few weeks back we noticed that the auto industry had to accommodate their product line to the convenience of food by adding cupholders to their vehicles. Even the French and Germans have done this, at least on the models that they sell in the United States. If it were not so incredibly easy to pull in and scarf a taco, some fries or shake, it’s entirely reasonable to think that people might not do it with such insane frequency.

Second, the food industry itself is maniacally proud of how inexpensive food has become. Back in 1965, a McDonald’s hamburger cost 15¢. It was 240 ready calories for nothing but pocket change, and certainly marked a step in the direction of eating more for less. If we just take inflation into account, the McDonald’s hamburger should cost $1.13 in today’s money. It’s actually more than that now, but you do have some choices at the Golden Arches. In 2015 the McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” boasts four hot food items. The McDouble with 340 calories, the double cheeseburger with 380 calories, the McChicken sandwich with 370 calories and an order of chicken McNuggets with an astonishing 940 calories. The healthiest thing on the Dollar Menu would be the soft baked oatmeal raisin cookie at only 150 calories.

In 2015, you’ll have to spend more to eat less. I know, I know. It’s obvious, but our love of obscurity notwithstanding here at the Thornapple blog, it doesn’t hurt to state the obvious now and again.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Dietary Impulses

March 29, 2015

I have an ongoing disagreement with one of my friends at work about incontinence. It usually comes up in connection with the question of how we should think of obesity as an ethical problem. There are some important tangents that could be pursued here—like the sense in which being overweight is really a moral problem or a matter of personal prudence. But I’ll try to resist the tangents this morning, even at the risk of being even more boring than usual. At least you know that in the Thornapple Blog the tedium does not go on for long.

So to put the point as directly as I can, my friend thinks that being overweight is no one’s fault but one’s own. Everyone has a duty to pursue a healthy diet. This implies eating the right foods—a balance of fruits and vegetables, with (in my friend’s case) moderate portions of animal protein. She’s not opposed to vegetarianism, by the way, but that would be another tangent. More to the point, that nutritional category she describes as “sweets and snacks” should be consumed only as the occasional treat. My friend is actually a biochemist, by the way. The fact that “proteins,” “fats” and “carbohydrates” can be given good scientific definitions, while “sweets and snacks” cannot does not deter her. She knows a sweet or a snack when she sees one. When some fool brings a whole tray of sweets and snacks to a business meeting and incontinently throws them out in front of everyone, well that’s precisely when a strong food ethic should intervene and prevent the virtuous person from taking more than the tiniest portion. An ethical person might have a pretzel or an M&M or two just to acknowledge the hospitality implicit within such an otherwise inappropriate gesture, but an ethical person would never indulge in an entire brownie on such an occasion.

We move on from this basic picture to a more general social ethic by inferring that the rise of diet-related disease (heart disease and diabetes, especially) is the result of a widespread moral failure on the part of individuals. People are just not living up to their basic responsibility to resist the urge to get up and get that bag of Fritos out of the cabinet when they are watching late-night TV. Or maybe their moral failure comes when they fail to resist the urge to put that bag of Fritos in their grocery cart, in the first place. On my friend’s view both types of failure are all of a piece. What’s called for in either case is a strong moral will, and evidently fewer and fewer people have it.

I’m not so sure, but as usual my tendency to recognize complicating factors comes at the cost of directness and clarity. In the spirit of resisting tangents this morning, I will confine myself to just one complicating factor, and I will warn you that this may not be very convincing.

My friend’s picture just doesn’t square with the basic phenomenology of dietary impulse for me. Now here I can’t avoid one tangent: explaining what I mean by the phenomenology of dietary impulse. It’s simply this: a detailed and disciplined attempt to describe the experience of getting that bag of Fritos out of the cabinet, or if you prefer, putting it into the cart. One reason why I think my friend’s account doesn’t stand up is that I would describe these two impulses quite differently. I had that impulse to eat some Fritos just last night, for example. One key feature is its constancy. Some would call it a craving. It’s not a momentary thought, “Gee, some Fritos would taste great right now.” Nope. It’s more like a drive that doesn’t actually require any thought at all. The shopping cart thing, in contrast, is a momentary thought.

That get up and eat something impulse is different from the shopping cart impulse because it lingers. My body knows how to find Fritos and I don’t really have to think about it. The effect of conscious thought is to interrupt that habit. (This does, by the way, have something to do with Aristotle’s notion of incontinence—but that’s a tangent). One important feature of that drive is that even if there are no Fritos in the cabinet, I’ll find myself eating something, anyway. Usually it’s something even more disgusting—like that little bag of crusty marshmallows that’s been sitting stuffed back in the corner for seven years.

In fact, last night (and this doesn’t always work out so nicely, I’ll admit) I got up, had two or three Fritos and put the bag right back where it came from. Craving satisfied and no serious damage done. Crusty marshmallows never entered the picture and the impulse to buy those Fritos was vindicated. At least for this time.

(I warned you it wouldn’t be convincing.)

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Incontinence

March 22, 2015

Well, I spent a few hours reading Aristotle this week, and you know that spells trouble for both readers of the Thornapple blog. I just couldn’t resist Googling ‘incontinence’. It turns out that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for ‘incontinence’. Who knew? One link refers to a 1981 album by Fad Gadget. I’m sorry, but even in 1981 I was not hipster enough to be into Fad Gadget. In 1971 I probably would have been attracted to an album entitled ‘Incontinence’, even if I had never heard of the band that put it out. I remember once when I came across an “all whistling” album by Pat Boone in the bargain bin at Peaches. Somehow, I resisted that one, and today I wish I hadn’t. I bet it’s worth a fortune. By 1981 I already had other types of incontinence on my mind.

So I picked the title for this week’s blog to lure my readers into the suspicion that I was going to make some sophomoric observation between food ethics and the link on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page that takes you to ‘fecal incontinence’. But not so fast, Chucko! There are four (count ‘em, four) types of incontinence identified by the astute and inquiring authors of Wikipedia (e.g. you, me and Bill). In addition to the two already discussed there is also urinary incontinence, which might also suggest sophomoric tangents, but is also not where we are headed this Sunday. Today it’s Wikipedia’s fourth possibility which (and I quote) takes us to the Wikipedia page entitled “Incontinence (philosophy)”. Once there one finds an entire three sentences under the heading “Aristotle”. Proving that I’m not the dumb cluck you might have thought I was.

This rather short article in Wikipedia also includes references to St. Augustine, Spenser and Jane Austin. In each case incontinence means allowing oneself to be overcome by a controlling passion, especially with respect to bodily enjoyment. Incontinence is thus a fairly basic problem for ethics and you really shouldn’t be surprised to see it coming up in connection to food. Being overcome by the temptations of sumptuous (or even just physically present) food is a pretty familiar experience in the food rich environment of 21st century post-industrial society. Having the feeling that you really shouldn’t indulge in that blueberry donut, those chili cheese fries or that crème brûlée must have occurred to the majority of people with a readily available Internet connection. Although there are definitions of ethics which would suggest that resisting those feelings is a matter for prudence rather than morality, we’ll just ignore the fine points of that distinction this morning in order to say a thing or two about dietary incontinence.

Incontinence is supposed to be a problem in some quarters of philosophy because the incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but just doesn’t do it. “How is that possible?” ask some of my professorial colleagues, scratching their heads in puzzlement. Now I should add right away that such philosophers are not the dolts that this kind of behavior might lead you expect. Their puzzlement is derived from a reading of Aristotle (or possibly Socrates) which suggests that knowledge of the good normally and naturally inclines one to simply do it. In fact, I don’t think that Aristotle thought that at all. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Aristotle thinks simply following one’s bodily inclinations is pretty normal for an immature consciousness. It’s also clear that he thinks we get enculturated into our understanding of the good through practice and habit. Like with bowling, Sudoku or cake decoration, we can’t abstractly understand the attraction or pleasure that one might take in virtue until we actually learn to practice it. Once you’ve mastered the practice, the enjoyment comes so naturally that one is never tempted to do otherwise. But it’s not clear that Aristotle supposes such mastery to be achieved very often. Incontinence occurs in that middle case where one has enough experience to feel the pull of virtue, but has not yet taken it so thoroughly to heart that no contrary feelings pull in other directions. Maybe that middle case applies to most of us.

If that crème brûlée is still staring you in the face after this somber exercise, take this consolation from William James: “But as I have enough trouble in life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle.”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University