Chemical Ethics

October 28, 2012

We had a workshop of “socially relevant philosophy of science” at Michigan State about 10 days ago. Not to bother my extensive readership with the academic trivia, I’ll cut to the chase. What this means is that people who work on the logic and methods of science need to get engaged with questions that matter to real people. And here’s a couple of “for instances” that tie in directly with food ethics:

  • Focus on “cutting through the bullshit” when it comes to evaluating the evidence of harm in the case of exposure to dangerous chemicals (like some of the most toxic pesticides used in fruit and vegetable production)
  • Align with social movements promoting justice and fairness (like social movements in support of farm workers who are exposed to dangerous levels of those pesticides)

These bullet points come together nicely (or so it seems) with respect to a cluster of birth defects seen among pregnant women who were in the fields picking tomatoes for the Ag-Mart company Immokalee, FL in 2005. The back-story here is not all that complicated, but even a short summary would bust the word limit of Thornapple blog. So I’ll punch out a couple of links, and note that commercial tomato production in Florida utilizes many pesticides and fungicides that have been shown to cause birth defects in studies on lab animals. I’ll also mention Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland, which I finally hauled off the shelf and got around to reading on the advice of my friend Barry DeCoster, who teaches philosophy of science at MSU.

One way that philosophy of science can be “socially relevant” is to dive into the way that we infer risk to humans from these studies that have been done on animals. My colleague Dan Steele (also at MSU) does this kind of work. Another piece is making the link between risk and responsibility—something that I’ve done quite a bit of in my day job. You can also work on legal responsibility, and Carl Cranor, a philosopher of science at the University of California has spent his career doing that work. But here’s the twist. (If you are a regular reader of the Thornapple blog, you knew there was going to be a twist.)  While all of the above counts well on the “cutting through the bullshit” bullet, there’s the potential for some tension when it comes to aligning with social movements, and that’s what is on my mind a week after our workshop on socially relevant philosophy of science.

Ensuring due process and protecting people from hazards (economists call them “market externalities”) are bedrock components of the conservative economic philosophies that have a grip on many people these days. Neoliberal ideology is influential because it actually paints pretty sophisticated picture of the balance between freedom and governmental power—but the whole thing falls apart if people don’t have to follow the rules that make markets function. And I’m talking basic rules, here, like not being allowed to threaten people, much less to make them pliable through actual violence. Mario Puzo famously called this form of market logic “making him an offer he can’t refuse.”  And limiting the resort to violence includes not being able to force or fool people into being exposed to dangerous chemicals without their knowledge and consent.

A confirmed conservative might quibble about whether farm workers know and accept the risks of agricultural labor, but this is an empirical question. And in the case of Florida tomato pickers, the empirical evidence is pretty overwhelming. What was (and likely still is) happening in Florida is flatly inconsistent with the moral and political conditions that conservatives endorse as pre-requisites to efficient operation of free markets. There is thus a very firm basis to move from “socially relevant philosophy of science” (as conceived under the first bullet) to political action based on the most conservative principles being advocated in America today. In fact, the most direct route from the above mentioned philosophical work on risk to legal or political action is often to insist that we simply live up to those conservative principles.

But it seems that the relevant social movements advocating on behalf of farm workers are pretty vocally committed to a left-leaning view. They’re labor activists, at a minimum but they’re often tied into much stronger forms of activism with respect to health care, housing, immigration and a more interventionist effort to speak truth to power. So being philosophically true to the social movement may require rhetoric that strays far from the risk and responsibility framework. Of course, when you do that you undercut any credibility you might have had as an analyst of logic and method with the folks on the right, which in turn undercuts your ability to do the victims of pesticide poisoning much good in a political or legal sense. You’re just another opponent of capitalism, in their eyes.

There is a savvy and often ironic middle ground—or maybe it’s a nether ground. Standing on that ground, you may be a pariah from the standpoint of people opposed to the ills of capitalism, but fortunately it does not require you to actually eat any of those cardboard tomatoes.

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