The Rock Ethics Institute’s Food Ethics Lecture Series began on August 29th, 2011 with a presentation by Paul Thompson, W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, entitled “What Makes Food Good? The Terrain of Food Ethics and the Agrarian Tradition.” In this lecture, Thompson first introduced his audience to the broader terrain of food ethics and then presented them with three ethical challenges within this terrain: (1) the complex relationship between economic growth and global food security; (2) health problems related to food consumption, such as obesity, for which we lack an appropriate moral vocabulary; and (3) the disconnect between narratives of our agrarian past and current practices of material food production. The lecture is available for viewing via mediasite.

Prof. Thompson’s talk was followed by an evening seminar entitled “Food, Community and Focal Practice” where faculty and students had a chance to discuss further his book The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics in relation to Albert Borgmann’s work on “the culture of the table.” Borgmann’s expression, “the culture of the table,” articulates certain practices associated with the local food movement and sustainable agriculture within the context of moral philosophy. Such a culture is one where agriculture and food, in both its preparation and consumption, can be understood as focal practices; they are accordingly regarded as “the most promising places of an environmental and moral renewal.” Thompson’s work supplements Borgmann’s analysis of focal practice with a discussion of how food habits and practices might be understood to underwrite an actual moral community, even when members of the community are relatively unaware of it. Thompson thus asks, “Are Focal Practices Elitist?” acknowledging that some versions of a practice-based moral community can tend toward exclusion and repression. Seminar participants thus discussed the domains of moral ontology which determine acts of choice or decision making, and as such fail to be adequately acknowledged or valued in moral theories that focus narrowly on human action as a function of choice or will.

The last event in Prof. Thompson’s visit to Penn State was an undergraduate Paterno Fellows Forum on the afternoon of August 30th. In this session, The forum featured Prof. Thompson and a panel of experts from the Penn State Community, Professors Donald Thompson, Leland Glenna, Bryan McDonald, and Susan Squier, talking about what they perceive to be some of the most pressing food-related questions we face today.

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