Chapter Three: The Practice of Care
Care for Self:
As discussed in chapter one, the Standard American Diet is having a highly detrimental impact on our own personal well being. Yet there seems to be very little movement towards making any changes for the better. So why do Americans continue to eat in the manner that they do, even though the consequences to their own health are dire? There are a variety of reasons, and it’s best to make the distinction between matters of individual choice and those that are a result of externalities. Certain factors come into play that are beyond our control, such as issues of accessibility and affordability. Groups of lower socioeconomic status, particularly those residing in rural and urban areas, have limited grocery store options and limited incomes. Because of this, they are limited in the choices that they can make regarding food. You can only purchase what’s made available to you, and budget constraints can limit those choices even further. Time is also a crucial factor. For families that have both parents working multiple low-paying jobs, the time it takes to prepare a healthy meal at home is simply a luxury they cannot afford. It becomes not only easier, but cheaper as well, to pick up either fast food or microwave dinners to get everyone filled up in a timely and affordable fashion. It is a travesty that in a nation that is quite literally overflowing with material goods, we fall terribly short when it comes to making sure all American citizens are adequately nourished, with access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. When it comes to the topic of care, it isn’t necessarily fair to make the argument that these individuals don’t care about their diets, and are choosing to make decisions that are detrimental to their overall health. The external constraints being placed upon them are quite limiting. While they might in fact care quite deeply about their own health and well being, they might lack the means to prioritize purchasing healthier foods. They might choose, often out of necessity, to put their money towards daycare, medical care, or living expenses rather than sustainably produced food. In life we are always presented with choices, and those coming from a lower socioeconomic background are no exception; however it is important to acknowledge that these financial factors can make certain choices more difficult than others.
There are however, plenty of Americans who make a decent salary, and do have the luxury of time on their hands; those who have access to a great variety of foods at their local grocer, and can afford to purchase what they please. These homes might have a stay-at-home parent, or two parents who work a fairly regular weekly schedule. Or perhaps the household is not even a family at all, but a single adult living on their own. This is the group of Americans that I am particularly concerned with: those that have the power to make better food choices, but simply do not. I would argue that these individuals are not limited by the same social and economic factors as the aforementioned group is, and thus can make better choices in purchasing products that are better for their overall health, among other things.
Perhaps you are wondering why I have placed such an emphasis on the food itself when it comes to demonstrating caring behavior. Certainly there are a variety of other ways that a person can demonstrate care for oneself. From a physiological perspective, exercise is great for one’s overall health. Taking vitamins can supply your body with any nutrients it might be lacking. Getting a massage or acupuncture can help your body overcome a variety of ailments. There are many things that one can do to preserve their own health, and have their body function at an optimal level. And yet there is something very different about the nature of food. On the one hand, it is critical for human existence. You could probably get away without exercising or taking vitamins, and you can certainly get away without things like massages and acupuncture, and you will most likely be just fine. Food on the other hand is required by all of us, no matter our age or where we come from. Without food, you die, it’s a simple as that. On the other hand, the complex nature of the consumption process demands a caring outlook. We have seen throughout this piece the interdependent nature of food; how we eat is part of a complex web of beings and processes, it’s not an isolated occurrence. For this reason, it’s something we should care about, and we should take the time to put these caring behaviors into practice.
Caring for oneself via eating calls certain virtues into practice. First we must have a basis of knowledge to work with. We need to understand how, why, and what we should be eating. Once you possess this information, you can make more informed decisions. We can then be more attentive to the needs of our bodies, and the needs of others. Caring is not simply about acquiring knowledge, although knowledge is a critical component of care. What you choose to do with that knowledge is what makes a difference; sharing it with others can empower them to make changes within their own lives. A willingness to share information with others is a way of demonstrating care and concern for their welfare, and is also a sign of virtue. Understanding the interdependent nature of food can lead us to have a more compassionate and responsive position when it comes to eating. Caring for oneself is the first step we can take towards the betterment of the entire food system. This is not to say that we should err on the side of narcissism; our care for self shouldn’t come from a place of self absorption. We should care about ourselves because doing has an impact on others.
What would it mean for individuals to actually care for themselves, to put this knowledge into practice? One particular way to demonstrate taking care of your self would be to make food choices that are beneficial to your overall health and well being. At first glance, this seems strikingly obvious. Yet it seems over time, many Americans have lost all common sense when it comes to choosing a good diet. Indeed the Standard American Diet has become so commonplace that the “good” choices often seem foreign to us. Pollan has written several books detailing how to adopt healthier, and subsequently, more caring, dietary habits. His most basic rule of thumb? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” (Pollan p.1) When Pollan says to “eat food”, he means real, whole foods, not the industrialized, over processed imitations of food currently lining the shelves at the grocery store. “Ordinary food is still out there however, still being grown and even occasionally sold in the supermarket, and this ordinary food is what we should eat,” asserts Pollan (p.147). Simple things, such as shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, or better yet, purchasing food directly from its source (such as at a farmers market), are a step in the right direction. If you do buy packaged food rather than whole foods, read the labels. Pollan urges us to avoid consuming foods that contain greater than five ingredients, as well as those that contain ingredients you cannot pronounce. If your grandparents would not have recognized the item as being edible, then don’t eat it.
Controlling our portion size and consuming less calorically can have a huge impact on our health. The consumption habits of the French are often juxtaposed against our own. The French as a whole are a much healthier group than the Americans are, yet they do not deprive themselves when it comes to food. They consume things like full-fat butter, cheese, and wine on a regular basis, yet they have much lower rates of coronary heart disease (CHD), a condition you might expect based on their diet. According to the American Heart Association, the mortality rate in France from CHD is half of what it is in the United States. There are several explanations as to why this is the case; “A number of dietary factors, such as consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish and reduced intake of milk products, differ between European populations and can be readily associated with reduced CHD risk” (AHA). In general, the French eat much smaller portions, and have a tendency to linger over meals. Eating a meal is a not a rushed experience, but rather an enjoyable one, shared with family and friends. This serves as a demonstration of care in and of itself, as they are being attentive to their feelings of satiety and responding accordingly, and allowing those dining with them to do the same, rather than hurrying through the meal. The French also tend to spend more money on higher quality food. Pollan hypothesizes that if Americans were to adopt a similar habit of spending, there would be a reduction in the amount of food consumed. “For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week- and eat a little less of it,” Pollan asserts (Pollan p.187). Eating seems to be a wholly different experience in countries like France; one that is partaken in both mindfully and carefully.
The “mostly plants” part of Pollan’s message is critical as well, particularly because Americans in general consume shockingly high amounts of animal products. One hundred years ago, meat at a meal was an infrequent treat. Now it is the standard. In fact, the majority of Americans have come to expect meat not only at dinner, but with breakfast and lunch as well. It’s not abnormal to have sausage and eggs for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and then chow down on a meatloaf or roasted chicken for dinner. The consequences that this dietary shift has had upon the environment and the animals themselves are catastrophic, and we will touch upon those later. When it comes to our own personal health, the over consumption of these products has had serious consequences, including increasing rates of heart disease and cancer among us. By increasing our intake of plant-based foods, and lowering our intake of animal products, we can influence our health in a positive manner. The 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives explores this topic at length, imploring Americans to think along the lines of Hippocrates and “let food be thy medicine.” The doctors in the film claim that the current statistics surrounding disease mirror our diets, and that most of these diseases could be completely eradicated by adopting a whole foods, plant- based diet. This sentiment is echoed by Pollan:
… our biological dependence on plants goes back and runs deep, which makes it not at all surprising that eating them should be so good for us. There are literally scores of studies demonstrating that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of dying from all the Western diseases. In countries where people eat a pound or more of fruits and vegetables a day, the rate of cancer is half what it is in the United States. We also know that vegetarians are less susceptible to most of the Western diseases, and as a consequence live longer than the rest of us. (Though near vegetarians- so-called flexitarians- are just as healthy as vegetarians). (Pollan p.164)
A Mayo Clinic article also states that vegetarians not only weigh less, but have significantly lower rates of heart disease than their non-vegetarian counterparts; “A National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people found that those who ate 4 ounces (113 grams) of red meat or more daily were 30 percent more likely to have died of any cause during a 10-year period than were those who consumed less” (Mayo Clinic). For the past several decades in the United States, there has been a strong emphasis on the treatment of chronic disease. What Pollan and the doctors in the film are suggesting is that we focus instead on prevention. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, and can actually help detoxify our bodies. Other plant-based foods such as seeds, legumes, and whole grains are packed with nutrients. In choosing to consume these types of food, we are, in essence, taking care of ourselves. In making a conscious effort to eat healthfully, an individual is nurturing his body and giving it the essential nutrients that it needs to function at an optimal level.
Certainly not everyone will decide to make the switch to veganism or vegetarianism, despite the health benefits of doing so. In fact Safran Foer cautions that many literary pieces written on the subject of food turn into diatribes, pushing the reader to abandon the consumption of animal products, a leap that very few individuals will actually end up taking. The literature can often be a turn-off rather than inciting change. When it comes to eating animals, the argument can certainly be made that if the goal is to provide the utmost care and compassion for all creatures, the avoidance of consumption of these products is the most caring behavior to adopt. This is an argument that I find difficult to respond to, because it certainly makes sense. The problem I see lies in the fact that for the average American, I don’t think it’s a realistic expectation. Safran Foer references the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner in his book, and while he strives for something different within his own family, I believe the roots of the tradition itself run deep. Certain eating habits are deeply embedded in American history, and the consumption of certain animal products has become commonplace.
Concerns for animal welfare might be at odds with other values held by an individual, such as the preservation of family traditions. For reasons such as this, I don’t believe it’s necessary to stop eating these products altogether and still be caring individual. Raising awareness and consciousness about the food system, and working towards establishing more mindful, healthful eating habits are ways of doing this. Adopting a diet of whole foods over those that wouldn’t have even been recognized as being edible one hundred years ago is a change that many people are capable of making, should they simply put a little bit of effort into doing so.
While one way of demonstrating care is by making good choices regarding what we put into our bodies (taking care of ourselves), another way to look at care for self is in terms of virtue. I would argue that there is great virtue in caring for and about oneself. Again, I do not mean that we should deem ourselves the center of the universe, and adopt a narcissistic attitude towards life; this would clearly push a love of self towards being a vice rather than a virtue. Caring about yourself, your mind and body, is important; your body is the vessel that carries you through life on Earth, and your mind is what steers it in the right direction. A failure to care about oneself can have severe consequences for both the body and mind; we see evidence of this in instances where people have neglected to take care of themselves. Indeed, caring about oneself and caring for oneself are intrinsically interconnected. When a person cares about himself, in the virtuous sense of the phrase, his well being and personal welfare become of paramount importance. The act of taking care of himself becomes the tool used to bring this balanced state of well being to fruition. When it comes to eating, choosing to consume foods that will condition the body towards optimal health, thus bringing it into a state harmony, can been deemed a thoughtful demonstration of the care for self.
Care for Children:
Safran Foer succinctly states, “feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more” (p.11). On this point I agree with him wholeheartedly; it does matter more. When a vulnerable being is entrusted to your care, you have a responsibility to care for it to the best of your ability. Children are wholly dependent upon their parents to fulfill their needs, and at the most basic end of the spectrum, this includes food. Unable to provide it for themselves, children epitomize the notion of dependency. It is the responsibility of the parent to embrace the virtues of attentiveness and responsiveness when it comes to nourishing their children.
The decisions surrounding how to feed our children start from the moment they are born. Mothers are presented with the option to breastfeed or formula feed their newborn babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. After six months of age, solid food can slowly be introduced; it should be served in tandem with continued breastfeeding until 12 months of age. :
This recommendation is supported by the health outcomes of exclusively breastfed infants and infants who never or only partially breastfed. Breastfeeding provides a protective effect against respiratory illnesses, ear infections, gastrointestinal diseases, and allergies including asthma, eczema and atopic dermatitis. The rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is reduced by over a third in breastfed babies, and there is a 15 percent to 30 percent reduction in adolescent and adult obesity in breastfed vs. non-breastfed infants. (AAP)
Yet the vast majority of American infants are not breastfed, at least not to the extent suggested by the AAP. According to the CDC in 2013, 76.5% of American infants are ever breastfed. By 3 months of age, only 37.7% of infants are exclusively breastfed, and by 6 months of age, the number of exclusively breastfed infants falls to just 16.4%. This means that only about one sixth of American babies are being fed in the manner suggested by the AAP for optimal health.
How we feed our infants lays the foundation for their dietary habits; starting off on the right foot can make a world of difference when it comes to their health in childhood and adulthood. Toddlers and children are often prime targets for the marketing of certain foods, yet it’s up to the parent to determine how to feed his or her own child. Taking the knowledge we have about food and what goes into it can help us determine how to feel our children in the most caring manner possible. A common sense approach to feeding your children, much like feeding yourself, is often the best approach that can be taken. Avoiding overly processed foods, and sticking to a diet of healthy whole foods will yield the best benefits for overall health. Instilling healthy eating habits at a young age will not only ensure good health in the early years, but it will teach children how to eat later on in life. This can foster caring behaviors in your children that will carry them through life.
Perhaps the most caring approach a parent can take it to lead by example. Children often aspire to be like their parents, and will mirror their behaviors. This is why it is critically important that parents model good eating habits; it would be quite hypocritical to force a five year old to eat carrots and broccoli while his father sat beside him at the dinner table eating French fries and fried chicken. I should not expect my child to drink water as I sit nearby sipping Diet Coke. Children are like sponges; they soak up an abundance of knowledge on a daily basis. Teaching them how to eat properly, healthfully, and carefully is teaching them a life skill that will enable them to care for themselves in the future.
The return to family centered meal times is something we should strive for. This provides the perfect opportunity for family members to reconnect, to open up to one another, and to share in a communal experience. Fast food has made it all too convenient to eat on the run. For families who have parents working multiple jobs, and those that fall on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, that convenience might be a necessity. However there are many American families that do have the time to sit down together for at least one meal per day. It simply becomes a matter of making that time a priority. Financially stable parents tend to be doubly blessed, in the sense that they have both time and the means to provide a healthy, home cooked meal for their children. Allowing your children to help prepare the meal, whether by shopping with you for the ingredients or helping you assemble it in the kitchen can serve not only as a learning experience, but it can also open up the channels of communication between parent and child. Eating should be a shared experience, one that we partake in with those whose company we value the most. When we take the time to teach our children that eating is something that should be done with care, we are instilling in them a set of values that can aid them in leading a healthier, more mindful life. I don’t think that demonstrating appropriate care in regards to food is out of reach for the majority of us, in at least some shape or form. There are problems within the food system and the American lifestyle that place constraints upon certain groups of people, but I think most of us do have the capacity to expand our consciousness and make changes within our own homes, for the betterment of our children’s futures.
It becomes clear that caring, specifically caring for and about our children, is an integral part of ensuring their well being. As much as we might revere the principles of autonomy and independence in our society, the dependency of children (among others) is unavoidable. Their dependency and vulnerability should serve as motivation for us to fully embody care, to manifest the virtues of care in our selves and actions. According to Robert E. Goodin, this type of care is forged out of dependency: “what most fundamentally underlies the reciprocal duties of family life- of spouses to one another, of parents to their children, of children to their aged parents- is the vulnerability of those parties to one another” (Goodin p.778). We shall see in a moment how this aspect of care can be extended beyond our own families to embrace all members of the global community.
Care for Other Vulnerable Persons:
Our responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable should not be limited to our own children. Indeed there are many individuals, as discussed in the first chapter who are affected by the manner in which we eat. It is important to acknowledge our interdependence amongst one another, within our own nation and at a global level. It also important to acknowledge that this interrelationship and dependency calls for a certain level of responsibility. Goodin argues that we have a responsibility not only to our own families, but to any and all vulnerable members of society, no matter how far removed from us they may seem. He proposes an argument for “broader responsibilities” on a societal level:
We all acknowledge strong responsibilities toward our own families, friends, and certain others. Once we start examining the sources of those responsibilities, we discover there is nothing “special” about them. It is the vulnerability of the others, rather than any voluntary act of will on our part, that generates those responsibilities. There are many more people vulnerable to us, individually or especially collectively, than stand in any of the standard “special relationships” to us. If my analysis of the true basis of those standard responsibilities is correct, then we have strictly analogous (and potentially, equally strong) responsibilities toward all those others as well. Aid to vulnerable strangers is thereby justified on the same basis as aid rendered to our own parents or children. (Goodin p.782)
Vulnerability is not limited to our own children; we can see that there are many vulnerable members of the global community whose existence is fragile. A caring way of conducting ourselves would take into consideration the interests of others, particularly those whom are vulnerable to us due to the very nature of our relationships. I don’t believe a care perspective requires us to care more than our current circumstances allow, rather, I would argue that it pushes us to care in the best way that we can given the circumstances we are in. We should care about others in the sense that we can understand that they are beings that possess significant welfare concerns, much the same as those who we are intimately connected to do. We need to have compassion for distant others, just as we would for those whom we are close to. In choosing to act in a certain manner, we are responsible for the effect that that has on others. This can seem overwhelming when it comes to food choice: can the way you eat truly have a significant impact on the welfare of others? Can changing your behaviors really even help, when the problems are so numerous and all-encompassing at a global level? Goodin makes a point to address these concerns, as they are quite valid in nature. He argues for both individual and collective responsibility. We have a responsibility to personally do the most that we can do to help, and our society as a whole has a collective responsibility to the vulnerable. For Goodin, it is this duty of responsibility that should serve as our guide in responding to the vulnerable.
I agree with Goodin in the sense that we do have a moral obligation to help those who we have an ability to help, yet I would argue that a care ethic takes it one step further. We should not act solely out of duty, but rather out of compassion. This is critical to the virtue of care; not simply acting because you are supposed to, but acting because you care about the other players involved. Thus making choices regarding purchasing products that are fair trade or sustainable can serve as a means of demonstrating care for others, for the vulnerable whose welfare we care about. This empathetic approach not only acknowledges the dependency of the vulnerable, but reinforces the fact that we are all interconnected, and the choices that we make do indeed matter. I have mentioned that intent is a crucial component of possessing a virtuous disposition. While intent is measured based on one’s attitudes and feelings, thus embracing how one cares about, I believe one’s intent ought to embody an intent to act, thus demonstrating the labor of care. You can have all of the good intentions in the world, but if you don’t act on them, change will not be brought about. When it comes to the welfare of others, it is critical that we act on these intentions.
Caring for those who are further removed from us can present certain challenges, however it is possible to demonstrate care for these distant others. The key to this is collective action; that is, working together as a group. When we work collectively, we can draw from a much greater pool of knowledge. Every person is an individual, who possesses a certain set of skills and strengths; when brought together, the cumulative effect of these skills can be quite powerful. This can start at the local level, calling on people such as nutritionists and farmers to come in and speak with children in the school system. Allowing field trips to traditional farms can also teach children about the effort that goes into raising our food, and can foster a greater respect for the process.
College campuses often provide the perfect setting for conferences on all sorts of topics, and the subject of food need not be exempt. Creating a dialogue amongst our nation’s young adults, who are often a quite motivated group, can stimulate change at the local level. Collegiate environments can also provide a platform for change at the global level, as discussion can increase awareness about the consequences of our current way of eating. It is my belief that individuals are not intending to eat in a manner that is damaging the health and livelihood of others or the environment, but simply that there is a lack of consciousness about the matter. When people know better, they presumably will do better. Capitalizing on the audience provided by the educational system is a great strategy, however it is not the only one. Making farmers markets more accessible within communities, as well as promoting knowledge and change in our neighborhoods can make a world of difference.
I have argued that those individuals with greater financial resources have a greater responsibility to make better choices. But do these consumers have a responsibility to help their poorer counterparts? I would argue yes, to a certain extent; I believe there are ways that they can demonstrate care for those in less fortunate circumstances. In choosing to regularly purchase sustainable, organic products for their own families, they can begin to drive down the prices to make them more affordable for others. By frequenting farmers markets or buying directly from local farmers, they can financially help out these individuals, thus giving them greater purchasing power for their own families. Donating fresh, healthy food to local homeless shelters or charities can be a way to give the poorest members of society a chance to enjoy the foods that every human is entitled to, yet sadly does not always have the opportunity to consume. At the global level, the wealthy can help by making monetary donations to charities that directly support the growth of sustainable agriculture and help feed those who are starving abroad.
The food system encourages detachment, and viewing ourselves solely as consumers certainly reinforces this. If we see our ability to demonstrate care as being limited only to what we choose to buy in the grocery store, we are seriously underestimating ourselves. As previously mentioned, there are a variety of ways that we can demonstrate thoughtfulness and attentiveness, both for our selves and others, and for the actual food itself. Making meals a communal experience, taking the time to savor the flavors of the food we are enjoying, and understanding that we have the ability to help change the lives of others by being more conscious of what we consume are all wonderful things; things that consider food to be something so much more than just a commodity. If we look at food simply as something that can be bought and sold, and nothing more, we lose sight of so many of the valuable qualities of food that I emphasize in this piece.
Being attentive to the needs of others, whether it be an American farmer or a starving child in Africa, and subsequently choosing to act in a manner that will best serve them, is a virtuous response. The individuals I am targeting in this piece are in a position of power, and they have the ability to use that power to make a change for the better. Ignoring this fact will only exacerbate the existing difficulties that the vulnerable others are dealing with. Once you possess the knowledge that your actions impact the welfare of others, you have a moral obligation to act with a heightened level of consideration and care.
Care for Animals:
Food products derived from animals lie at the core of the Standard American Diet. The vast majority of Americans consume animal products on a daily basis, and I would question whether they give much thought to what it is they are eating. When a person consumes animal products, they are essentially eating the flesh of another creature that was once very much alive. The majority of these beings were also quite capable of feeling pain. Our current farming practices show little, if any, concern for the welfare of the creatures that we willingly consume. If we are going to make the decision to consume animal products, we should not go into it blindly. A caring individual will acknowledge that much like their human counterparts, animals have welfare concerns and are worthy of moral consideration. For Singer, this moral consideration stems for the animals’ sentient nature; they can experience pain, and therefore should fall into our realm of moral consideration. Ethicist Cora Diamond takes a different approach, noting that although they are both sentient, animals and humans have different types of relationships that ought to be taken into consideration. Singer believes we should refrain from consuming animals purely on the basis of their sentience, but Diamond argues that this stance doesn’t give enough credit to the significance of human life.
As humans we are capable of developing a variety of relationships with others, including animals. It is possible to maintain a compassionate relationship with an animal, and yet still make the decision to consume it; for Diamond, it is the fact that the relationship is meaningful that is relevant. This vein of thought is not too far removed from that of Pollan, who believes that it is not morally wrong to consume animals so long as those animals are given the utmost care and dignity throughout the process. This view holds consistent with care ethics, because it is the nature of the interdependent relationship that matters. While it might not be possible for a consumer to have an intimate relationship with an animal, to the degree that a farmer might, the consumer can still empathize with what the animal goes through. In choosing humanely raised products, a consumer can demonstrate virtues such as care and compassion, as well as respect for the life of the creature.
In the book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer traces the evolution of American farming practices. Throughout history, humans adopted animal husbandry techniques that revolved around what Safran Foer refers to as an eat with care ethic:
The care for domesticated animals demanded by the eat with care ethic did not necessarily correspond to any official morality: it didn’t need to as, as that ethic was based on the economic necessities of raising domestic animals. The very nature of the human-domestic animal relationship required some degree of caring, in the sense of providing provisions and a safe environment for one’s flock. (Safran Foer p.102)
Farmers had to nurture the animals in order for them to grow and flourish, and in turn be used as a source of food. Because of this, farmers took good care of their animals, and ensured that they were healthy and thriving. The relationship was mutually beneficial to a certain extent: the animal was provided for and led a relatively good life, and the farmer was rewarded for his nurturing by the fact that he was able to feed his family. Looking at our farming practices today, the eat with care ethic seems largely to have vanished. A return to this type of farming is critical should we want to become ethical eaters. Eating with care embodies the very virtues of care that can allow us to prosper as a society. It takes into account the interests not only of our selves, but those of the animals being consumed as well. This extension of compassion and empathy to the animals is critical in demonstrating caring behavior.
Perhaps some people truly are ignorant in regards to what goes on in a factory farm, but once made aware, a person of virtue would surely not ignore it. As Safran Foer puts it:
However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word. And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless- it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another. (Safran Foer p.266)
Ignoring the problem will not fix the problem, in fact it will only further exacerbate it. Once you become aware of the situation, you are presented with a variety of choices in how to respond to it. Safran Foer and Singer, among others, argue in favor of avoiding the consumption of animal products altogether. This is perhaps the easiest way to ensure that you are avoiding factory-farmed products; your odds of eating factory-farmed meat are virtually nonexistent if you’re a vegan. This can be considered a caring response because it eliminates harm to animals altogether; however there must be intent behind the action. Making a conscious decision to avoid animal products is different than simply not having access to them, or not enjoying the taste of them. A person of virtue in this case is one who is prioritizing the interests of others above their own palate pleasure, not simply one who is avoiding animal products for superfluous reasons. For many people though, veganism seems extreme. Though they might have a significant concern for animal welfare, as I touched on earlier these feelings can be at odds with a variety of other values they might embrace, such as maintaining familial traditions; and it’s important to acknowledge that that is okay.
While much of the literature surrounding the eating of animals serves as a plea for vegetarianism, or even veganism, I would argue (along the lines of Pollan) that abstaining from the consumption of animal products altogether is not a necessary condition for demonstrating caring behavior. I believe there can be great value in tending to the vulnerabilities of animals, of nourishing them and physically taking caring of them. A farmer can care about and care for his flock, and I don’t believe the end result of slaughter is morally wrong behavior on his part, so long as it is done with care and compassion. As Diamond asserts, it’s the nature of the relationship that is important: the fact that it was meaningful to both the farmer and the flock. The factory farm environment is completely devoid of these qualities, and not only ignores the welfare of the animals but exploits their vulnerabilities. It is this uncaring exploitation that I find particularly problematic, this overtly apathetic approach to using animals purely for one’s own benefit.
If you do decide to consume animal products, you have a moral responsibility to seek out food that was ethically produced. A caring individual should take the animal’s welfare into consideration, because its vulnerability demands it. The animal should not simply serve as a means to an end. Although the movement is relatively small at this point in time, several smaller farms are attempting to return to traditional ways of farming, where an eat with care ethic takes precedence. It is possible to seek out these farms and consume products that have been raised and slaughtered as humanely as possible. Granted, you will most likely pay a premium for these goods, but that is a small price to pay for a step towards ending the abuse of farmed animals. As noted by Safran Foer, “compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use, and the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us” (p.258).
Changing ourselves can inspire others to change as well, and taking a kinder approach in general can help foster a more tolerant and considerate society. Vegetarians and omnivores should simply extend the eat with care ethic to encompass all categories of what they consume. Choosing to consume only animal products that were humanely raised and slaughtered is a huge step in the right direction. It might be challenging at first, taking the time to research and truly understand where their food is coming from, but it is critical that we become conscious of where our animal products are coming from.
It might also be expensive, because it takes significantly more money to raise animals on traditional family farms than it does in a factory farm setting. The financial aspect is one that many Americans are concerned with, and while financial implications are quite real, it is best to distinguish them from being a part of the ethical equation. When something is wrong, it is wrong regardless of the price it costs. The financial factors are often used as a reason for not purchasing certain products, but in many cases there are compelling moral reasons why it makes sense to spend the extra money. We are talking about small changes, not spending hundreds of additional dollars per month. Singer and Mason argue that the corporations behind factory farming could make the changes themselves for just cents on the dollar, however it seems at this point in time those cents are not something they are willing to spare. If we can’t rely on the individuals spearheading corporate agriculture to do the right thing, then we need to take that responsibility upon ourselves. The slightly higher prices at the grocery store for sustainably and humanely raised animal products are a small price to pay if we are making our own palate pleasure a priority.
I do believe that a truly virtuous individual would possess the capability to find value in the life of all creatures, not just those of our own species. As mentioned previously, a caring individual is one who has compassion, and acts in a manner that is reflective of that. I don’t believe this compassion needs to be limited only to humans; we can quite easily extend this empathy towards animals. A great respect for all life, whether it be human, animal, or even environmental is a true sign of virtue.
Care for the Environment:
Certainly the way we eat has an impact on the environment, and we should take it into consideration when deciding what to consume. Although the earth is unable to express its own interests, it is intrinsically connected to the beings residing upon on it. We are reliant upon the land for food and water, and without it we would have no sustenance. I believe a person of virtue would possess an unwavering respect for the planet and the bounty that it provides. A caring individual would act in a manner that was beneficial not only to the sentient beings of the world, but the land as well. A kind approach to life need not be limited solely to living creatures.
Much like we should seek out farms that humanely raise their livestock, we should look for farms that practice sustainable agriculture. Sustainability is the key to ensuring that the world is around long enough for our future generations to enjoy it. One way to do this is by purchasing organic products. By definition:
Organic agriculture is an agricultural system that promotes environmentally, socially, and economically sound production of food, fiber, timber, etc. In this system, soil fertility is seen as the key to successful production. Working with the natural properties of plants, animals, and the landscape, organic farmers aim to optimize quality to all aspects of agriculture and the environment. (Singer & Mason p.199)
According to Singer and Mason, among others, organic farming has huge environmental benefits. Limiting pesticides not only maintains soil quality, but also encourages biodiversity; because no non-organic herbicides are used, many species of plants and animals are able to interact as nature intended. It also reduces pollution by limiting nitrogen run-off into freshwater supplies. The avoidance of harsh chemicals is good for both the environment and human health alike. If we want to create the most natural state of balance in our world, we need to work with the land rather than fighting its natural tendencies; seeing the environment as something we should care for rather than conquer can help to guide our practices. Organic farming is a major way that we can demonstrate care and respect for the land; a caring consumer can choose to purchase organic, and take a step towards to restoring a harmonious environment. We can only create change, and begin to return to a state of homeostasis, when we are acting in a manner that is conducive to doing so.
In this paper I have argued why I believe it is critical that we embrace an ethic of care in regards to how we eat. The group I am specifically targeting in this piece, Americans who live financially comfortable lives, are in a position of power when it comes to shaping the food system. With that power comes a great responsibility, not only to our fellow humans, but other creatures and the environment as well. An adherence to the Standard American Diet is not only unsustainable, but it is careless. Embracing the virtues of care, including compassion, attentiveness, and responsiveness, can help us when it comes to the choices we make regarding food on a daily basis. Our world is undeniably interconnected, and rather than ignoring or exploiting various dependencies and vulnerabilities, we should be attending to them with our care and consideration. It is my hope that in adopting care ethics as our prevailing ethical principle when it comes to how we choose to eat, we can foster a happier and healthier life for all.