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Nobel Conference: Paul B. Thompson

“What Is Good Food? An Argument with My Wife”

Paul B. Thompson, Ph.D., W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics, Michigan State University, East Lansing

Paul Thompson is a philosopher who spoke on on the topic of food ethics. His talk was an examination of how the framework through which we view agriculture shapes the ethical questions we ask. Much of this lecture was highly visible (with some fairly unorthodox use of slide) or told through stories that are not captured well in tweets. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • Title now “Conversation with My Wife.” Said wife is a local food activist (and attending the lecture), practical experience rather than philosophy.
  • Breaking down what it means for food to be safe: pure, fresh, wholesome. These may conflict (e.g., wrt additives).
  • “Good” food may be safe, healthful, tasty, legal, respectful, just, fair, hospitable, sustainable. Interactions complicated.
  • Industrial philosophy of agriculture: approach ethical questions as in any other segment of industrial economy.
  • Values of industrial philosophy: efficiency and shouldering own costs. Utilitarian perspective.
  • Efficiency provides a benefit to poor, who spend more of income on food. Has social costs to be weighed against efficiency.
  • Lower costs due to pesticides are not more efficient until the (highly valued) rights of workers and consumers are met.
  • Consumers must demand justice (safety, fair wages) in order for it to be part of the efficiency equation.
  • Industrial philosophy useful, but agriculture has historically had its own philosophy and values.
  • Discussion of how Egyptian vs. Greek geography influenced forms of governance and agricultural philosophies.
  • Jefferson felt family farmers were the best citizens (as opposed to the owners of capital) because the land tied them in place.
  • Agrarian philosophy is one of creating an environment that elicits the behavior and moral identity desired.
  • Tradition and reciprocity, community identity highly valued in agrarian philosophy.
  • Agrarian philosophy may still be relevant in rural areas. Smaller farms produce more community investment.