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