One of the defining features of ethical thinking about food is the reference to values.

Talk of ‘values’ may sound other-worldly – the kind of thing that bishops preach about and philosophers speculate about, but it has in fact a lot to do with food and with our choices about what to eat, what food to produce and how to produce it.

Values are built into our everyday lives, even if we are not always aware of it.

When we talk about ‘values’ we are talking about the things that matter to us, the concerns that guide our actions.

We often take them for granted, without needing to think about them. But when we are faced with difficult decisions, we may need to stand back and identify explicitly what our values are, what they mean and why they are important. Decisions about food ethics are likely to be of this kind, requiring reflection on the nature of our values.

So what might these be, in general, and in the area of food ethics in particular? An important distinction to make is between what we can call instrumental values and intrinsic values.

Instrumental values

Think first of examples from our everyday lives as individuals. Our immediate goals, in our working lives, may be such things as earning more money, or career promotion. At times they can come to seem all-important, but if we step back and reflect on them, we are likely to recognise that they are only instrumental values – means to an end.

If someone came to value money for its own sake, this would be seen as an irrational obsession. Money has value only for what you can do with it, as a means to other things. And if we think about what those ‘other things’ might be, we will sooner or later need to identify things which are valuable for their own sake, not as means to something else. These are what we refer to as ‘intrinsic values’.

Instrinsic values

Intrinsic values are things which are valued as ends in themselves.

For example, for commercial institutions, such as a food company, an essential goal in a competitive economy will typically be making a profit. That, it may be said, is the bottom line – but it is not the ethical bottom line.

The rise of ‘benefit corporations’ shows us a trend where that ethical bottom line is increasingly being differentiated and acknowledged.

What might these intrinsic values be, then? The question has been the subject of interminable philosophical debate. Is there one fundamental value which underpins all our other values?

For our purposes we do not have to settle these questions. We can identify what we shall call certain core values, things which are not just instrumentally valuable, without worrying about whether one of them might be more fundamental than the others.

At the Food Ethics Council, we focus on three of these core values: wellbeing, autonomy, and justice.