On September 26th, the Rock Fellows Seminar discussed the essay “What Food is “Good” for You?  Toward a Pragmatic Consideration of Multiple Values Domains” by Donald Thompson and Bryan McDonald. The goal of this paper, as articulated by its authors, is to lay out our food values without taking a normative stance, to map out the various ways (in three value domains) that we think about food and goodness to encourage self reflection and open areas for research and policy needs. The role of self-reflection, as a key means of spurring decisions about food, was a main point of discussion during the seminar.

For one thing, to explain poor food choices as a lack of self-reflection underplays the systemic role the industry has in identifying values, exploiting them and playing us into them in our consumer decisions. Marketing practices most vividly bring to light the identity politics of food, for instance, the widely marketed appeal by Pepsi that what one consumes says something about one’s personality. Other significant factors in the discussion of food choice are the value tradeoffs of individual consumers. Food is often regarded as something ephemeral, where as other goods are durable; one can have cable all year long, or pay for shoes that last a long time, while the food one budgets for is only temporary.

A key argument of the essay that appealed to seminar participants is that our discussions pertaining to food and food values have strong undercurrents that go beyond food itself. As Bryan McDonald suggested, often the conversation people are having through food is about the kind of society they want to live in. Ethics is the domain where these varying undercurrents and underlying premises get sorted out. Furthermore, participants discussed the relationship between concepts of health and wellbeing. To consider one’s health related to food choices affects more than mere nutritional value. According to the Constitution of World Health Organization, health is a state of complete physical, social, and mental wellbeing. Wellbeing is as such more of a catch-all phrase that includes the relationship between individual health & societal health, and also incorporates a broader set of goals that try to balance physical health with broader concepts of social and economic health.
Some other questions raised during the seminar were the following:

• How could the argument of this essay be placed within the context of current guidelines for nutrition and health?

• How do the aesthetic aspects of food, ranging from the appearance of food itself to the desired body image of the consumer, impact our food values?
• While the essay is grounded in a pragmatist utilitarian ethic, what other alternative ethical approaches can be applied to a discussion of food values? Could we have a rights based discussion of food values? Or a virtue ethics approach to animal rights?
• Are decisions made about consumption of drugs based on similar value domains?

(This summary of the discussion was provided by Rock Fellow Atia Sattar.)

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