In the debate over the labelling (or non-labelling) of genetically-modified foods, one of the most common refrains is that consumers “have a right to know” what they’re eating. I’ve commented briefly on that here before. (See “Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods?”) But it’s an important and complicated topic, so I’m going to say a little more here.
We first need to distinguish legal from moral rights. Legal rights are established through legislation or through precedents set by courts. But when people say they have a “right to know” what they’re eating, they’re not usually referring to a legal right (especially given that, as far as genetic modification goes, there just is no such legal right in the U.S. or Canada). No, when people say they have a right to know what they’re eating, they’re talking about a moral right to that information — they mean that it is ethically obligatory for someone to provide it to them. But simply claiming a right doesn’t cause that right to spring into being. It needs to be justified some way, grounded in some strong ethical argument.
So, when does someone have a moral “right” to some piece of information? The philosophical literature on rights is enormous. I’ll just offer here what I think is a fairly straightforward explanation of the ethical grounding of rights, without going into too much philosophical detail.
Rights are mechanisms for protecting important human interests. In free societies, for example, we have a right to security of person and a right to own property and a right to free speech, because we see these things as crucially important to living a good human life. We may have other interests or needs, but not all of them are protected by rights. Why? Well, it’s worth remembering that when someone has a right to something, this imposes obligations on other people. In some cases (as in the right to free speech) it means an obligation not to interfere. In other cases it means an obligation actually to provide something (for example, if I’ve performed my job as promised, I have a right to be paid and my employer has a positive obligation to provide me with my wages). It’s also important to note that, given that rights impose obligations on other people, we need at least to consider just how burdensome those obligations are, before we assert the correlative right with any certainty. (For example: even if you desperately need a kidney, you don’t have a right to mine while I’m still using it.)
Now, let’s consider information. Given what we’ve said above, we can say (at least roughly) that an individual has a right to a piece of information when having that information is necessary for promoting or protecting his or her most important interests. Some of my favourite examples:
- In a democracy, we have a very strong moral right to know who the candidates for political office are. If we don’t have that information, it’s impossible to exercise our rights (and duties) as citizens. The intellectual tradition supporting this right goes back through over 2,000 years of democratic theory.
- We also have a strong right to know our medical diagnoses. Gone is the day when “doctor knows best” was the rule. Today, we consider it essential to let patients play a leading role in decision-making about their own care, and information about diagnosis is crucial for that. In only the rarest of exceptional cases is it considered ethically permissible to withhold that information from a patient.
- When arrested by the police, you have a very strong right — legally, but also morally — to know what you’ve been charged with. The police are agents of the state, and it is pretty clearly impossible to defend oneself against the awesome power of the state without knowing the charges laid against you. The right to that piece of information, then, is rooted in important limits on the power of the state, going back at least to the Magna Carta.
What about the right to know what we are eating?
To illustrate, let’s consider a trio of imaginary (but not implausible) cases where an individual might want to know something about what they’re eating, and consider whether in addition to wanting the information, that person has a right to it.
First, imagine you’re eating chicken gumbo in a New Orleans restaurant. Suddenly, you feel a tightening in your throat. You start to panic — you’re allergic to shrimp, and though no shrimp was listed among the ingredients when you read the menu, you worry that there might well be some in there. You summon the waiter and ask if there’s any shrimp in the gumbo. The waiter hesitates: “The gumbo recipe is the Chef’s most closely-guarded secret. I’m not allowed to tell you that!” Do you have a right to this information? Of course you do. Having this information is utterly central to your wellbeing: this is literally a matter of life and death. You don’t just want it. You don’t just have an interest in it. You have a right to it.
Next, imagine you’re a waiter or waitress at a restaurant. As you set a plate of cheese tortellini in front of a customer who says to you: “I’m a vegetarian. So I need to know, was the cheese in this tortellini made with rennet from a calf’s stomach, or is it from a vegetable source?” You reply, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea. I don’t have that information, and I don’t know how to get it.” Stunned, the customer replies, “But I have a right to know what I’m eating!” Does she? Probably not. Vegetarianism is pretty respectable these days, and is often rooted in very deeply-held concerns about health or animal welfare. But it may be nearly impossible, and certainly burdensome, for the restaurant to provide the information.
Finally, imagine again that you’re a waiter or waitress. As you set a plate of food down in front of a customer, the customer asks: “Were any ‘minorities’ involved in the production of this food? Do you have any foreigners working in the kitchen?” Appalled, you stammer: “Excuse me?!” The customer continues, “I don’t like immigrants, and I don’t like the idea of them touching my food. I have the right to know what I’m eating!” Does this customer have the right to that information? Most of us, I think, would say no, of course not. She might see that information as really important — important to letting her live her life the way she wants to — but few of us would agree that anyone else is obligated to help her live out her racist values.
I think examples like these help make clear that no one really thinks that we have a right to know everything we might want to know about the food we eat. When it comes to debates over the right to a specific piece of information about what we’re eating, we need to think seriously about whether a) that bit of information is central to protecting an individual’s interests, b) whether those interests are ones that we can agree, socially, are in need of protecting, and c) whether recognizing such a right would impose undue burdens on others.
Note: coincidentally, today happens to be “International Right to Know Day,” though its goal is to raise awareness of the right of citizens to information held by governments, not by food producers.
This has been such a popular (and controversial) blog entry that I wanted to add 3 notes:
1) A few people found the racism example above inflammatory. Sorry about that. The intention was merely to illustrate that there are some bits of information about our food that almost no one thinks we have a right to.
2) Over on my Business Ethics Blog, I did a related piece on the Consumers’ Right to Information.
3) I will soon be posting something here on the Food Ethics Blog about voluntary labelling and the producer’s right to tell.
I wrote a scholarly article on this topic, which you can find here: Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods