Food Preparation and the Right to Have Unethical Views

Ethicist Chris McDonald, who holds forth on his  Business Ethics Blog, has a provocative post on the right to know what you’re eating on another of his blogs, the Food Ethics Blog. I have no quarrel with the main point of his post, which I recommend that you read it here.

A related point in the article, however, not involving ingredients but food preparation, caused me to stop and ponder. Dr. McDonald writes…

“… imagine again that you’re a waiter or waitress. As you set a plate of food down in front of a customer, the customer asks: “Were any ‘minorities’ involved in the production of this food? Do you have any foreigners working in the kitchen?” Appalled, you stammer: “Excuse me?!” The customer continues, “I don’t like immigrants, and I don’t like the idea of them touching my food. I have the right to know what I’m eating!” Does this customer have the right to that information? Most of us, I think, would say no, of course not. She might see that information as really important — important to letting her live her life the way she wants to — but few of us would agree that anyone else is obligated to help her live out her racist values.”

I think the customer’s request for information regarding who is preparing one’s food is a valid one. Does a diner have a right to the information? Why not? What if a citizen objects to the illegal employment of undocumented immigrants, and doesn’t want to support businesses that undermine U.S. immigration policy while exploiting underpaid workers? Or suppose the customer has read about health issues among local food workers, and wants to know if they have been vaccinated…or is a supporter of organized labor, and wants to know if the restaurant is using union members…or wants to support establishments that hire immigrants, because she was one herself  If the customer who is concerned about any of these matters asks, he has a right to an honest answer unless there is a legitimate interest in keeping that information proprietary. One such legitimate interest would be the privacy of the workers.

McDonald’s justification for withholding the information requested in his hypothetical—that telling her would be helping her live out her racist values— is not valid. In the United States, we have a right to racist values, socialist values, anti-feminist values and any other kinds of values whether anyone else approves of them or not. The post was about rights, and no one has a right to foil my chosen lifestyle or the values I choose to live by until they threaten to do tangible harm. It is presumptuous for anyone else to actively withhold information that permits a customer to make an informed choice about what eating establishment she patronizes, a breach of autonomy. Telling her something substantive about how her food is prepared isn’t endorsing her racist values; it is forcing her to do something—eat the restaurant’s food—that she wouldn’t choose to do if she had all the facts. What her motivations may be, and whether the waiter, owner, or Dr. Mc Donald approves of them is irrelevant. She has a right to ask, she has a right to know the information, and she has a right to act on that information—based on beliefs and motivations she has a right to have—within certain legal strictures, however she pleases.

McDonald’s hypothetical goes beyond the topic of his article, which is about our right to know the contents of what we eat, but I am presuming that he would argue for the ethical withholding of information in an “unethical values” case involving ingredients too. What it a customer asks if her tuna was caught using porpoise-safe fishing methods, not because she’s an environmentalist, but because she hates porpoises due to a bad experience with Flipper in her childhood, and wanst to only eat tuna that have been caught the old-fashioned, porpoise drowning way?

I think she has a right to know this information, as much as she has a right to know the contents of her meal for motives Dr. McDonald approves of. My rights don’t diminish because you may disagree with the motives for exercising them, regarding food, speech, voting, or anything else.

15 thoughts on “Food Preparation and the Right to Have Unethical Views

  1. Patronizing, paternalistic, and authoritarian stands, about what views an individual holds, have no place in a free republic.

  2. You’re confusing positive and negative rights. In the United States (like in Canada, where I live) our negative rights are many and our positive rights are few. You have a right for me not to *interfere* with you holding your views, but you don’t have a right (legally or morally) for me to *help* you express them. Compare: your free speech rights don’t give you the right to borrow my megaphone.

    Chris. *Mac*Donald

    • But Chris…information about one’s purchased services is not like a borrowed megaphone…which, like space in a newspaper, the owner has a right to give or not give. Allowing someone to know legitimately requested information doesn’t become “helping”—a lawyer is bound to assist a citizen in pursuing lawful aims, whether or not the lawyer finds them “unethical”—a pharmacist must give birth control pills to any customer, even if he knows the customer will use them to have “immoral” sex. There just is n0 right—and it also isn’t right—to impose one’s will on another by withholding information legitimately requested.

  3. Hypothetical: How does this differ from my friend, when he worked at a convenience store, refusing to sell rolling papers if the person mentioned they were for weed? (I think this happened once)

    • That’s easy. You just told me that you are about to purchase something from me that you plan on using for a crime. If I go to Lowe’s and ask them how much acetone I need to make 1 kg of meth, they will not sell it to me. If I ask them how much fertilizer I need to blow up the elementary school, they won’t sell it to me (boy, Lowe’s is a dangerous place). I’m not sure if you are legally justified refusing to sell merchandise for this reason, but I doubt you will get in any trouble for it.

      The person in question wasn’t going to commit a crime. The influence of the thought police is strong, however, and most people seem to think they are deputized members.

  4. At one (low) point in my life, I was a waitperson = memorizing the menu and main ingredients of ALL items on the menu, daily specials, sides and prices, keeping track of the orders, delivering beverages and food to the table(s), setting and bussing tables, cleaning messes, dealing with the check, the money, the change, and so forth and so on . . . . Entitled or not, adding the the kind of information you think proper, along with dealing with “how long will it take to ___?” “can I substitute ____?” “we’re not ready yet, could you come back in ___ minutes,” “which exit should we take off Ixx to get to ___” “which is better, the ___ or the ___?” and “why?” “what’s the calorie count if I add the gravy?” and a hundred other questions and variations … will slow service to a crawl (not to mention lose customers for the restaurant and, just incidentally, tips for the waitperson).

    Of course, you can hire an extra employee to staff an Information Desk at the front of the place — better yet — have a blackboard in the window updated daily (a la a fast-food chains’ nutritional-value chart) listing the race, immigrant status, criminal record, health history, voting record, height/weight (oh m’gawd, there’s a FAT person in the kitchen; how disgusting!!!), and everything anyone could possibly want to know about anyone else. Then you could add a tour of the kitchen and introduce all the staff personally.


    That object you mentioned but so quickly swerved to avoid on your way over the edge is a Pandora’s Box of Privacy to be invaded at the whim of any customer anywhere — not only in food service, but theaters, department stores, transit drivers, lawyers, ethics professors, . . . .

    What’s more, it would have the opposite effect of enhancing quality of life when people could narrow their choices to meet their prejudices or phobias (hypotheticals that happen re racists: good-ol’-boys forced by circumstance to have their injured kids well cared for by physicians-of-color have admitted to finding an unexpected measure of tolerance that would not have been there had they vetted the docs first. More directly, a Black man I knew in the 80s, a Panther, found out after-the-fact that the surgeon who replaced and restored the function in his near-severed hand was not only Caucasian and a native of South Africa, but also a rabid supporter of the Apartheid regime. He always said that had he known before, he would have let the hand go, but as it happened, he had to acknowledge his own racism — if only to let go of it enough to quit the Panthers).

    p.s. I know you always have the last word; it’s your toy and you get to take it home, so please tell: where does the right-to-know end and right-to-privacy begin?

    • Penn…your position is unassailable, and I generally agree with everything you have said. Privacy is a legitimate and important right, and I would say that the immigration status of my employees could be considered private (unless there was enough tension over the issue that the employees agreed top allow general disclosure.) There is no Busy Body’s Right To Know Everything. But Chris endorses a “one person’s legitimate question is another person’s evil plot” distinction based on value judgments about what is a legitimate reason to request information. I don’t think one must answer a customer’s question about the immigration status of a customer’s food preparer, but I think the customer has a right to ask, and the owner should accommodate him unless there are genuine privacy issues. The customer’s belief system should not enter into the decision at all.

      The right to know what one eats, if it is going to be exercised aggressively, is far more of a burden to the eating establishment than the right to have reasonable inquiries about the food preparers answered. If it became customary for every diner to play 20 questions, it would be reasonable for the restaurant to start a “do your own research…we serve food, not info” policy. One question does not imply thousands.

      Quiz: Which question is legitimate enough to answer:
      1. What is the chef’s training?
      2. Has he ever been convicted of poisoning anybody?
      3. I’d like the recipe, please.
      4. Do any of your workers have typhoid?
      5. Has the kitchen been cited by the Health Department any time within the last 12 months?
      6. For what?

  5. First, in response to your quiz, all the questions are legitimate enough to answer and the answers to #1, #2, and #4 are “I’m sorry I have no information on that. Would you like to speak to the owner? Her office is upstairs; I’m sorry we won’t be able to hold your table for you.”, to #3: “Oh, ma’am, you are the funny one!”, to #5 (which also covers #6, as well as #4 by default: “Our Health Department inspection records are posted, by law, as I’m sure you know, sir, over there by the restrooms.” … on a third-carbon-faded copy and displayed where there is no direct light, yeah, well. The real answer to #4 is “how the hell should I know? I’m not a doctor..” But they are all answerable.

    For the rest, I bow to your unswerving loyalty to the letter of the 1st Amendment. Anyone has the right to ASK anything (the acid test being “when did you stop … etc.”), but I notice you eventually settle on asking the owner. Ah, the elusive owner! The ever-smiling, ever-courteous, ever-disingenuous owner, ready at the snap of a finger to say whatever it takes to portray the establishment in a positive light.

    Unless, of course, there is a camera and microphone present, in which case, some sad truth may out (why IS this? shouldn’t it work the other way?).

    The problem is, Jack, what you refer to as “legitimate privacy issues.” There are laws concerning the Invasion Of, but those became courtroom wrangles in which privacy is totally destroyed. Its not as if there were an overarching code of privacy in our multiethnic, multi-religious, ever morally envelope-pushing society, nor are privacy issues taught in school (unless they’re part of your class work or you’ve posted them somewhere in your blog I haven’t read yet). The guy who holds the mike certainly doesn’t know where to draw the line … or more likely, certainly does, and has a good idea of sensitive areas and the best way of probing them. Other than the stupid euphemism “private parts,” the main way Private is seen today is as Keep Off My Privately Owned Property, legitimized by a bill of sale. No Ethics Allowed.

    I have no argument with your argument as it stands — I just can’t see it walking anywhere.

  6. And, of course, Jack still got in the last word — but this time sneakily, as a compliment.

    The waiter scenario seems simple to me. If the customer has any concerns about any of these things, the time to ask is before, or at least when, you walk into the restaurant, not when a steaming plate of food fresh from the kitchen is set before you. The only possible reason for that timing is to provoke a confrontation in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in an obnoxious way.

    By all means, let’s have the batter stop the game to tell the ump he thinks the ball has been defaced, just as the fastball is leaving the pitcher’s hand. There is a difference between the right to know and the way to find it out.

    And, incidentally, I dare you not to answer this post. Let’s see if Penn is right.

    • Of course he’s right. I wear ’em down…it’s rope-a-dope.

      I wasn’t paying attention to the timing of the request—that’s really another issue, and Chris wasn’t raising. Naturally asking these questions after the order has arrived is irresponsible, like asking the ingredients of the food for allergy purposes after you’ve eaten the food.

  7. You got it, Tom. I didn’t even have to look this one up — Shaw said it: What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.

    What’s mine (in words) is yours, Jack.

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