The Complex Politics of Food Ethics

Here’s a useful short piece by James McWilliams, writing for The Atlantic: Meat: What Big Agriculture and the Ethical Butcher Have in Common

I’ve repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals….

One of the most interesting points McWilliams makes here has to do with the complexity of interests in this area. The ethical pros and cons of eating meat — or of different levels or styles of meat consumption — is far from a simple matter of “us vs. them.” The key players here include:

  • regular consumers
  • self-professed foodies
  • big ag
  • The Humane Society (and other similar groups)
  • industry front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom

And of course, there’s plenty of diversity of intentions and values within each of those groups. Each of these groups has interests that overlap with those of other groups, but that overlap is always very incomplete. And as McWilliams points out, it’s entirely possible for one group (e.g., big ag) to point to the sliver of overlap that it has with some other group as a way of promoting its own interests.

(For those who don’t know, McWilliams is author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.)

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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