When we are thinking about food ethics, it seems pretty clear that we have to think about the impact of our practices on the wellbeing of other people, and of other animals too. But focusing simply on how best to promote people’s wellbeing risks neglecting another important concern – a respect for people’s right to make their own choices for themselves.
Deciding what is best for people, what we think will promote their wellbeing, regardless of their own choices and preferences, runs the danger of what is called ‘paternalism’. Think of the common complaints about ‘health and safety gone mad’!
To guard against paternalism, we need to emphasise another core value, the value of autonomy.
In other words, we need to value people’s ability to live their own lives, to exercise control over their own lives and make their own choices, to have their right to autonomy respected.
Autonomy can be limited by restrictions and regulations which prevent people from making decisions for themselves. However, we need to think carefully about the relations between autonomy, regulation and choice. Autonomy is not necessarily best promoted by the availability of innumerable competing brands between which to choose. ‘Consumer choice’ in that sense may be bewildering and debilitating, leaving people with less real control over their own lives, their health and life-style.
For example, advertising to promote ‘consumer choices’ may have the effect of undermining people’s autonomy, by manipulating their feelings and triggering unconscious responses instead of appealing to people’s better judgement and values. It could be argued that treating people as consumers limits their freedom to express their more compassionate values, as our work on food citizenship shows.
Regulations are not necessarily adverse to autonomy though. They can also be empowering, enabling people to exercise more control rather than less. The fairness of a decision is as much a matter of the process by which a decision is made, which can be regulated, as it is about what happens as a result of the decision.