Peter Singer

January 31, 2016

We’ve arrived at the fifth Sunday in January. Both of my regular readers know that I am now contractually obligated to come up with one more “food ethics icon,” and that given the parameters laid out on January 3, it has to be a full-bore, no-questions-asked philosopher. (For stray web browsers who just happened to land here, I’ll point out that like many things in The Blog, this is not strictly true, but then I’ll just move right on along without skipping a beat. Take it at face value.) My dilemma is that so far I’ve come up with four dead white guys. I would never put together a course syllabus with all white guys, much less dead ones. I really believe that racial, ethnic and gender diversity of standpoints is philosophically crucial. So how can I write a blog where all the food ethics icons are dead white guys?

Now there are some possible responses to my dilemma. Lisa Heldke, for example. I’ve mentioned Lisa in the blog several times before. At a recent lecture on another campus I was honorifically introduced as “the father of food ethics,” but the host went on to say that Lisa is probably the mother. There are in fact a number of women philosophers doing very cool work in food ethics today—Mary Rawlinson, Erinn Cunniff Gilson, Kate Millar, Lieske Voget-Kleschin. People who focus on animal issues might list Lori Gruen. The trouble with this list—and I would put Lisa right at the head of it—is putting them on another list that already has John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Aristotle and Karl Marx on it. Lifting any living person to iconic status in that company might be a bit of a stretch. I’m sure Lisa would agree.

The one exception that I would make among living philosophers (and remember, the standard is that everyone would recognize our candidate as a philosopher) is Peter Singer—another white guy, though admittedly not yet dead. Singer is by all counts in good health and alternately teaching at Princeton and the University of Melbourne. There are reasons why you might not want to put Singer up there in the same category with Locke, Mill, Aristotle and Marx, but if we look back over the last half century, there are very few philosophers (if any) who have been more widely read. I think there is a good chance that people looking back on our era may indeed think of it as philosophically barren, but there is a fair chance that Singer will be singled out as someone who influenced us significantly and for the better.

What is more, unlike some of the other living philosophers who might be candidates for getting up there on an icons list with bigshots like Aristotle—people like Daniel Dennett or Martha Nussbaum—Singer has indeed made significant contributions on food. His two earliest papers were on world hunger and on animal liberation (with significant implications for ethical vegetarianism and intensive livestock production). He has revisited these themes often and productively throughout his career. And he even wrote a book on food ethics (with Jim Mason) called The Ethics of What We Eat.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to go combing back through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex or Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to see if I couldn’t scrounge up some passage where they happened to mention food. Either would have satisfied my diversity craving: neither are white males and both have the advantage of being dead. Yet the fact is, we don’t remember these works for anything they said about food, and I’m not inclined to say that as with Locke or Aristotle we might read them more perceptively if we were to pay attention to the role that food plays, however indirectly, in their thought.

Singer it is then. That closes off the food ethics icons for 2016. Next Sunday, it’s back to the usual nonsense.

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


Karl Marx

January 24, 2016

Yikes! Although he died peacefully sitting in a London armchair in 1881, Karl Marx’s name still provokes kneejerk responses from Americans of every political persuasion. Totally aside from the fact that listing him means that I have four dead white guys for my 2015 food ethics icons, you would think I might be a little more circumspect at raising someone like this to iconic status. There are still plenty of Trump voters out there who think that taking interest in what Marx said or thought disqualifies you for any position of leadership or responsibility.

The misunderstanding of Marx runs deep. I recall an episode where a parent complained that students were reading Marx in a German literature class. Anxious to set aside the impression that they were ideologues, they assured the department head to whom the complaint was addressed that they would not object to students reading Marx in a Russian class. They just felt students should be reading material written in the original language.

Of course that was back in the day when the Russians were scary Communists, whereas today they are just scary. So for the record, Marx was born at Trier in 1818. Trier—which has often been called “Treve” in English—is now a part of Germany (though it was in Prussia during Marx’s time). Marx lived in London for his most productive years and he wrote in both German and English. To my knowledge, he was not fluent in Russian. The Communist Manifesto (which he wrote with his friend Friedrich Engels) is a marvelous bit of prose that really should be read by everyone. Now I know I’m in trouble. My brother Dave tells me that the leading candidate to lead his university in the Atlanta suburbs was disinvited after a local columnist discovered that the candidate had cited Marx in one of his academic papers. “We don’t want no Marxists running our schools!” And here I am saying that you should actually read Marx. It’s probably like one of those satanic curses you get from the subliminal effect of playing the Beatles Revolution # 9 backwards. John Lennon was probably referring to Marx when he said “Turn me on, dead man!”

However, Marx did include a wise and fascinating chapter on agriculture in his magnum opus Das Kapital. Marx was working from an economic paradigm (I know, I know—another big word. Look it up on Wikipedia) where production was thought to be a function of three factors: land, labor and capital. Land actually referred to all of the material stuff that things were made from. We would call it “resources.” You know what labor is. The leading idea of the early 19th century was that “resources” are worthless in their natural state. It’s only after labor transforms them (maybe by just digging them up) that they have value. So how come the men and women who are doing that labor are among the poorest people in society? That was (if you’ll pardon my excessive reductionism) Marx’s question.

Well, we need to look at that third factor for the answer, and Marx wrote several large volumes on it. I still think the very idea of capital is pretty vague. No one in Marx’s time would have thought that money was capital, yet financial capital seems to be the most important mojo around today. For the economists of Marx’s time, capital is the stuff that doesn’t get “used up” in the production process. If you build a house, the mud for the bricks and the trees for the wood are consumed in the production process. They become part of the house, and aren’t available for the next house you want to build. There’s the labor you expended building the house, but what else is there? Part of the answer is “the tools”. And indeed the technology you use in a production process is capital. But you have to have the tools before you can start building the house, and noticing that small fact was a key to Marx’s economic thought. All the power resides with the guy who already has the tools (or the wherewithal to buy them). He can hire labor on the day he needs it. So the big money goes to the capitalist. You can add “pig” to the end of that sentence if you are a Sanders voter.

But in his agriculture chapter, Marx noticed that soils are in basically the same shape as the worker. There’s really nothing beyond the long-term interest of the landowner to ensure that they are not exploited beyond their capacity to renew themselves, just like members of the proletariat who were driven down to wages that were not even sufficient to buy food and a warm place to sleep. And as the power shifts to the owners of technology (you can substitute “Monsanto” if you are a GMO hater) that kind of exploitation will become more and more common, he thought.

Well maybe it’s another blog that won’t make sense to a lot of readers, but still and all, I’m calling Karl Marx a food ethics icon.

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


January 17, 2016

A couple of weeks back when I decided to dedicate this year’s series of blogs on “food ethics icons” to full-bore, no-one-would-raise-an-eyebrow-about-me-calling-them-philosophers philosophers, Aristotle was one of the guys I had in mind. He certainly meets the no-eyebrows-raised criterion. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, but these days it’s Aristotle who is thought to be the pinnacle of thought in Ancient Greece. He was a Macedonian born in 384 BCE, but like Socrates and Plato, his philosophical legacy is tied closely to the city of Athens. I’m not going to do biography. I kind of like the way that Plutarch makes Aristotle out to be something of a gangster in his time, implicating him in a plot to assassinate his onetime pupil and conqueror-of-the-known-world Alexander. It’s probably not true, but hey, that hasn’t stopped us here in the Thornapple Blog before. Aristotle died on the island of Euboea (can I resist a surrealistic tangent on Ebola?) in 322 BCE.

I’m also going to break form from the last two food ethics icons by saying absolutely nothing about Aristole’s general philosophy. There’s way too much of it, for one thing. In ethics, he is cited as the paradigm expositor of virtue ethics, which is just a bizarre conceit among philosophy professors that is intended to mark out three general approaches to ethics. Consequentialists think that ethics is only about getting the best outcome from what you do, while deontologists think that ethics is only about knowing and discharging your moral duty. Virtue ethics is in truth kind of a trash-can “not either one of those” approaches, but it does pivot on the idea that ethics is predominantly about developing a strong moral character.

So you protest, dear reader, “I thought you weren’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s general philosophy, yet here you are prattling on about virtue ethics!” But I have two responses. One is to remind you (for the second time in this blog) that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true (though of course, some of it is). More substantively, a) I haven’t really told you much of anything about Aristotle because b) in fact all the Greeks were really doing virtue ethics, especially when you compare them to the way that consequentialists and deontologists do ethics today. One key point would be go back to the last paragraph and ponder the fact that the word ‘only’ is italicized. Twice.

So I do in fact think that food ethics really demands a ‘virtue ethics’ approach, but that wouldn’t be why I picked Aristotle as a food ethics icon. In point of fact, I’m not so sure that he was a good choice, after all. There’s not a hell of a lot about food or farming in Aristotle (not that I would represent myself as having read every word of Aristotle, mind you). You could go off on a few passages where he talks about the appropriateness of eating animals. But I won’t.

What made me think of Aristotle as a food ethics icon are a few passages in the Politics where he says that the family household is the model for a good society. Some of my feminist and gay friends tee off on this, but that’s not reading Aristotle in the appropriate historical context. He’s not defending the model of a family household that we learned from watching Leave It to Beaver back in the 1950s. He’s actually thinking about the kind of farming household that Xenophon discusses at length in his Oeconomicus. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, we’ve already done Xenophon, so here’s a link. You can tell that Aristotle has the farm household in mind because he talks about the hoi mesoi which we would probably translate as “the middle class”. This ties in nicely with themes Aristotle stresses in his virtue ethics, where he writes that a virtue is usually a “mean” or middle-point between two vices of excess. “Courage,” for example, is the mid-point between cowardice and foolhardiness. But I said I wasn’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s larger philosophical views, so I’d better just drop this right now.

It’s easy to read that “middle class” thing to mean people just like you, me and Bob, but neither you, me nor Bob very likely represents the hoi mesoi unless Bob happens to be a farmer who is also a member of the National Guard. The farm households had a special relationship to the heart of the polis, which is, in turn, the heart or core of political solidarity. Unlike the hoi polloi they were not plutocrats, but had to work for their living, and the work they did depended on the sustainability of society and its ability to protect their fields from invading hoards. Invading hoards like Cyrus and the Persians, who were not a Peloponnesian punk band, but actual and for instance in fact invading hoards.

Well, I’m being a bit sarcastic and stretching the truth a little and I might as well admit it. But it’s also just a fact that lots of philosophy professors who know a lot more about Aristotle than I do seem to miss this singular fact about the way that he describes the basis of political association. So to push this line just a little bit harder, I’m calling Aristotle a food ethics icon.

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

John Stuart Mill

January 10, 2016

My second “food ethics icon” for 2016 is John Stuart Mill. Mill is a pretty interesting figure in his own right and certainly one of the most important individuals of the 19th century. Mill inhabited a rarified intellectual and political environment from his London birth in 1806 to his death from a severe skin infection at Avignon in 1873. He associated with everybody who was anybody in English society and was an influential government advisor, especially in connection with the administration of Britain’s most important colony, India. When I started studying philosophy in the 1970s, Mill was known primarily for two short works: Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Today he is also known as an early advocate of feminism, largely for another short work The Subjection of Women. Mill probably considered all of these to be works of popularization. The first was serialized in Fraser’s Magazine—a publication that near as I can tell would have been something like The Atlantic. Mill thought of the work as a concise exposition of some views advocated by his father, James Mill and other close Mill family friends including Jeremy and Samuel Bentham and Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. It continues to be cited as perhaps the most authoritative (and certainly the most readable) of all works on utilitarian philosophy.

On Liberty was probably more important. It was in fact a collaboration with Mill’s wife, Harriett Taylor Mill (1807-1858). On Liberty is a historically important articulation of liberalism in ethics and political philosophy. In this context, ‘liberalism’ doesn’t mean big government. It’s the idea that individuals should be pretty much free to conduct their private lives according to their own lights. The only justification for interference in one person’s freedom occurs when the exercise of that freedom imposes or threatens harm to someone else. It was a doctrine that cut against the idea of state-sanctioned religions and was in fact intended to limit both the power of government and the influence of busybodies. The Subjection of Women is entirely consistent with this theme, arguing that women have a right to be free architects of their own lives as much as men. I’ve argued that this core liberal idea is so ingrained in the way that we think about inter-personal relationships that it has to be the starting point for any contemporary discussion of food ethics.

When did you make that argument, the attentive blog reader asks? “Well,” the solicitous blog writer answers, “maybe I haven’t actually made it in my blog. But it does show up in my book on food ethics, From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.” But is that enough to make Mill a food ethics icon, the inquisitive blog reader inquires? “Perhaps not,” the chastened blog writer replies. So here are a couple of other points to consider.

Mill spent much of his professional life as an official of the British East India Company. He gave much thought and extended writing to the question of whether Hindoo (that’s his word) farmers were competent administrators of their own lands. Contrary to what you might think the author of On Liberty might say, he concluded that they were not and relied on a utilitarian argument to establish the right of the British Crown to make key land use decisions.

There’s another thing, too. Mill was an active participant in the debate over the Corn Laws, which placed heavy tariffs on imported grain. The Corn Laws were enormously beneficial to English farmers, and Thomas Malthus was probably the leading advocate for the view that they were needed to insure a fair price for farmers. The farmers themselves were needed for more complex reasons. Mill was among those economists who argued that free trade in grain would bring the price of food down and that this would be beneficial to the poor. Needless to say, Mill and his friends won this argument.

I write this without feeling like I’ve done enough reading on either subject to say much more than these bland generalities. I recommend them as important topics in food ethics that need the attention of future scholars. Still, doesn’t Mill’s role in these two crucial questions qualify him as an underappreciated food ethics icon?

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

John Locke


January 3, 2016

Newcomers to the Thornapple Blog may not know that January has been “food ethics icons month” ever since 2011. We started out with some very well-known names and by 2013 we were doing rock-star farmers. Last year the theme was population growth. This year I’ve decided to focus on some bona fide philosopher types, people that everyone would recognize as such. I’m not sure we’ve ever done one that meets these criteria, though I personally do think of Xenophon, Emerson and Malthus as philosophers. I would also include Amartya Sen, even if he is mainly thought of as an economist. Vandana Shiva has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but I have never seen her identify herself as a philosopher.

I’m starting out with John Locke. No, I’m not talking about the guy from Lost. Thankfully, you have to get at least to the second page of a Google search before you start hitting this fictional character from the series that ran for what seemed like an eternity back in the last decade. I never paid any attention to it, but the writers’ penchant for naming characters after philosophers provided many opportunities for sophomoric humor. Of course, we never indulge in sophomoric humor here in the blog, so I’ll just reiterate that I am, in fact, talking about the John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704.

Locke would not strike many contemporary readers as an obvious choice for a food ethics icon. He’s known on the one hand as the founder of British Empiricism, a theory of knowledge which held that at birth the mind is a blank slate latter to be filled with impressions and ideas. Knowledge accrues first through the temporal and spatial association of impressions, giving rise to ideas formed by generalization. This is a pretty skimpy (and probably) misleading account of Locke’s epistemology, but hey, you didn’t open up the blog to read about epistemology anyway. On the other hand, Locke is known as offering what is probably the most influential version of the social contract. This is the idea that our social ethic is based on our mutual need to manage the risks of life in a commonwealth. Sure, we might all get along most of the time, but there are a few bad apples out there, and things can turn nasty even when well-meaning people get into a dispute. So we set up a mutually agreed upon system of rights and duties, and we create governments to inforce that system and mange disputes.

This is also a pretty skimpy account of Locke’s social contract theory, because one of his chief aims in writing social philosophy was to provide a philosophical basis for challenging the authority of absolute monarchs. You’d hardly pick that up from my summary, and you’re still wondering what all this could have to do with food ethics. I’m not going to be able to ‘splain it all without busting my word limit, so just take a couple of items on faith. First, the disputes that Locke was thinking about mostly had to do with property rights, and in the 17th century when we’re talking property, we’re mainly talking agriculture. Locke’s pronouncements on property need to be interpreted in light of views being advocated by the diggers and levelers.

No, the diggers are not a reality-based TV show about guys with power shovels, and sadly you do have to get pretty deep into a Google search before you will turn up the political movement led by Gerrard Winstanley. They advocated for a “commons” on which anyone (by which of course, they meant, any Englishman) could farm. They were against “enclosure”, which was literally a practice of building fences and walls around fields. There was a rousing egalitarianism behind the diggers’ point of view, and it makes me think that I should probably be celebrating Winstanley as the food ethics icon, rather than Locke. The levelers were also egalitarians who were pushing against the power of the aristocrats, but that’s a tangent that we’d best not explore for now.

At any rate, Locke defended enclosure in his Second Treatise of Government, despite admitting that God gave the earth to mankind in common. I’m calling him a food ethics icon because the argument he used is still used to argue for all manner policies, practices and technologies today. Here’s the quote:

[T]he provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.

We use a similar argument to defend chemical fertilizer and pesticides, African land grabs and GMOs to this day: If you can produce more food by doing something, that’s a justification for doing it. I’m not saying that Locke was the very first to come up with this, nor am I saying that I necessarily agree with it. But he’s the first I know of, and for that I’m calling him a food ethics icon.

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