Ethics and potentially harmful foodstuffs

Emmanuel asked:

Invoking ideas from consequentialism non-consequentialism and/or virtue ethnics, what ethical issues are raised by the heart and stroke foundation endorsement of certain foods? Does it matter, ethically, that there is anything left to the buyer beware sentiment when it comes to advertising and endorsement? What are the responsibilities of the consumer to remain informed and vigilant when it comes to consumer issues and advertising marketing rubric?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s endorsement of certain foods would seem to be an educational act to enable people to make sensible life-choices. Now these sorts of choices would be applicable whatever personal philosophy one chose to follow in life; as such, I would consider this to be an act of meta-ethics, being influential upon the vast majority of philosophical schools.

Within any liberal society, all but the most incapacitated or children would expect to keep abreast of the latest information when purchasing the majority of foodstuffs. However, the most damaging foodstuffs would be expected to be prohibited or controlled: for instance, in the United Kingdom, alcoholic beverages are highly taxed and this is one measure by which their consumption is controlled; other measures include restricting advertising and restricting sales to adults.

With regard to the consumers’ interaction with the world of marketing, in this litigious age, the most erroneous claims may expect to be heard in court; or dismissed by increasingly knowledgeable consumers who may even refrain from buying the product. In the past, a notable confectioner claimed that eating one of its chocolate bars on a daily basis would help one to ‘work, rest and play’. However, for the aforementioned reasons, this type of claim would be unlikely to be made today.

Looking at how differing schools of philosophy may consider potentially harmful foodstuffs, three are briefly noted here; being utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics.  The utilitarian, when attempting to maximise utility, by attempting to attain the maximum good for the maximum number of people, may discourage the consumption of the more harmful foods but possibly offer incentives to eat healthy foods. The deontologist may expect to live by a code of conduct, whereby the more harmful foods would not be sold or promoted to persons without their full knowledge of the product; hence, consumers would not be subjected to deceit or become a means to an end for unscrupulous manufacturers. The virtue ethicist would be educated and habituated to consume potentially harmful food on a moderate basis and perhaps a chocolate bar would comprise an occasional treat; in this manner, a virtuous society would collectively regulate their consumption.

It should be noted that the examples here would be expected to minimise potential harm but not ban a foodstuff outright; and this state of affairs may occur when it is realised that most foodstuffs may be beneficial in certain circumstances. For instance, using the example of a chocolate bar, if one considered chocolate bars to be harmful, because they may contribute to obesity; one should still appreciate that giving a chocolate bar to a starving person may assist that person immeasurably.

To conclude, philosophical schools may provide an ethos to control potentially harmful foods. And it is arguable that in certain western societies, an ethos is needed to control the rise of obesity. For that purpose, an example of controlling foodstuffs is already provided by the restraints placed upon the sale of alcoholic beverages.

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