No doubt most people voting in the referendum will vote – as they do in other referenda and elections – for what is in their economic interests and what’s in it for them. 

However, a body like the Food Ethics Council wants to stress that what needs to guide us lies beyond self-interest. There are important ethical considerations to do with the greater good or justice. But what is the scope of that greater good or justice? That of one’s country? That of Europe as a whole? That of the human world as a whole? That of the planet itself and all life in it?

As an environmentally conscious cosmopolitan, I think the last frame is the right frame for asking many questions of public policy, including this one: would the planet be better off or worse for all those affected by the decision?

Let me put my own cards (or rather at least one of them) on the table. For me, an overwhelming consideration (not closely linked to food issues as such) is whether Britain leaving will weaken the European Union. Could it even lead to the fragmentation of this remarkable collective experiment in peacebuilding which emerged from the ashes of the second world war? 

This argument would not be decisive if one thought that a Europe torn by conflict – let alone war – would, from a global or planetary point of view, be better all round. That’s clearly not the case. 

Nor would it be decisive if one thought the preservation of (or at least helping to make more likely) peace in Europe was at an unacceptable cost of sacrificing a whole range of other considerations to do with welfare, justice, environmental protection and so on. That’s clearly not the case either. Although perhaps I should say ‘very arguably not’ as I suspect some may not be quite so clear about this!

What then about food issues from a global or planetary point of view? I’ll mention three out of many to illustrate my general point. 

  • What about the progressive development of fair trade practices enabling more farmers to have a sustainable source of reasonable income? 
  • What about curbing intensive farming practices that are cruel to animals and degrade soils? 
  • What about strengthening the protection of the rights of farmers and gardeners anywhere in the world to keep control over a wide variety of seeds, not unduly limited by the power of seed companies or government relegation? 

If we ask whether Britain’s leaving the EU would benefit such things or otherwise, it is less clear to say. No doubt much reform is needed within the EU as elsewhere in these matters. The question is not simply whether we leave the EU as it is or not, but what sort of European Union do we want which we can either hope for by leaving or work for by staying?

So for me the guiding question here, with regard to a wide range of dimensions, is whether leaving is for the better or greater justice for the world. In practice, the vital consideration is also whether it is for the greater good of the EU – the whole that we are intimately part of – or not, so long as it is not trumped by a wider global consideration to the contrary.

Some may say this is still appealing to people’s interests – their interests in moral rightness or justice. So be it! The moral interest – and with it an interest in one’s own integrity or well-being in a richer sense – is a far cry from the narrow interest of economic advantage.


Nigel Dower is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Aberdeen University and a member of the Food Ethics Council.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food Ethics Council.